The Economic, Legal and Ethical Philosophy of Frederic Bastiat

By McGee, Robert W. | Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues, July 2013 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Economic, Legal and Ethical Philosophy of Frederic Bastiat


McGee, Robert W., Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues


INTRODUCTION

Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French political economist and journalist. He was a member of the French Liberal School, also referred to as the Optimist School (Cossa, 1893, 376-382; Gide & Rist, 1948, 329-354). Skousen (2001, 59) compares him to Franklin and Voltaire for his integrity and purity and the elegance of his writing style. Hebert (1987, 205) considers him to be unrivaled in the way he exposes fallacies (Skousen, 2001, 59). Haney (1949) devoted a chapter to Bastiat in his History of Economic Thought. Blaug (1986) ranks him as one of the 100 greatest economists before Keynes. Schumpeter (1954, 500) considered him to be a brilliant economic journalist, although not a first-rate theoretician. He used the reductio ad absurdum technique to demolish his opponents.

Much of his work, in the original French, is now available on the internet (Bastiat, 1848, 1850, 1861, 1862a&b, 1864, 1870, 1873a, b & c). About one-third of his works have been translated into English (Audouin, 1991; Bastiat, 1964a, b & c; 1968; 2007; Garreau, 1926).

A few books (Bidet, 1906; DeFoville, 1889; Imbert, 1913; de Nouvion, 1905; Roche, 1971, 1993; Ronce, 1905; Russell, 1969; 1985) and dissertations have also been partially (Buccino, 1990) or fully (Hendrick, 1987; Russell, 1959) devoted to Bastiat, as well as several articles. Hazlitt (1946; 1979) and Russell (1985) have written books applying Bastiat's methodology to a range of twentieth century issues.

He was very much opposed to socialism, which he equated with a government that goes beyond its role of protecting life, liberty and property and ventures into the realm of redistribution. He debated the socialists of his time, most notably Proudhon, with whom he exchanged a series of letters (Bastiat, 1862a, Vol. V). Unfortunately, that debate has not been discussed in the English literature to any great extent, although Imbert (1913, 57-66) and de Nouvion (1905, 256-269) discussed it in French and Mulberger (1896) wrote about it extensively in German.

Historians of economic thought cite Bastiat as being a leading proponent of the view that there is a harmony of interests between social classes (Screpanti & Zamagni, 1993, 94-95), a view that was diametrically opposed to the Marxist view of class conflict. However, the view that there was a universal harmony of class interests did not originate with Bastiat. Quesnay discussed the concept before Bastiat and several other political economists, including Say, Carey and Cantillon (1755), also discussed it (Schumpeter, 1954, 234).

Although best known for his views on protectionism (1850, 1862b, 1864, 1870, 1873a, b & c, 1964a&b, 2007) and the philosophy of law (1862a, 1968), Bastiat wrote on a number of other topics as well. Bastiat's ethical views have been mentioned in the literature, but only one article has focused specifically on his ethics, and that article examined only two of Bastiat's essays and was less than five full pages in length, which could not do full justice to his ethical views (O'Donnell, 1993). The purpose of the present paper is to expand on O'Donnell's article and discuss Bastiat's ethical positions in more depth.

Bastiat was both a utilitarian and a rights theorist. His utilitarianism was more complete and fully developed than that of many other utilitarian scholars, even by today's standards. His rights theory was based in religion but could just as easily be applied as a tool of ethical analysis by an atheist.

BASTIAT'S RIGHTS THEORY

Bastiat was a strong believer in the night watchman state (Bastiat, 1862a, IV, 342-393; 1968). Like Locke (1689) and Nozick (1974), he believed that the legitimate functions of government are limited to the protection of life, liberty and property (Chappell, 1994; Feser, 2004; Lacey, 2001; Paul, 1991; Schmidtz, 2002; Thomas, 1995; Wolfe, 1991). All three believed that individuals are unconditionally entitled to keep the fruits of their labor, unlike Rawls (1971, 2001), who believed individuals had a moral right to keep the fruits of their labor only if doing so benefited those at the bottom of the economic ladder (Freeman, 2003, 2007; Kukathas and Pettit, 1990).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Economic, Legal and Ethical Philosophy of Frederic Bastiat
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?