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
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The Economic, Legal and Ethical Philosophy of Frederic Bastiat

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


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 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).

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