Frédéric Bastiat: Libertarian Challenger or Political Bargainer?

By Baugus, Brian | Independent Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Frédéric Bastiat: Libertarian Challenger or Political Bargainer?


Baugus, Brian, Independent Review


Social thinkers and scholars tend to moderate their beliefs, especially their most radical beliefs, as they age. Many who begin their careers as radical libertarians, challenging the status quo and extensive state power, tire over time or realize that holding such views obstructs their careers. Hence, they moderate their views or compromise their most radical ideas, at least publicly, and express greater support for incrementalism and working within the established system. Examples of this tendency include such major figures as Edmund Burke and Herbert Spencer. Of course, any thinker may change his positions over time or make greater distinctions in applying his basic beliefs to different issues. This tendency is especially pronounced, however, if a thinker seeks wide public approval. Political aspirants in particular frequently compromise or bargain away their more radical positions. Only a few major thinkers, such as Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard, have maintained radical libertarian positions consistently throughout their lives-and BöhmBawerk did so despite holding a high position in the government on several occasions. Perhaps the rarest case of all is that of the thinker who seeks political office and public approval yet expresses increasingly radical libertarian views.

Claude Frédéric Bastiat was such a thinker. He is best known for the radical libertarian positions he expressed in his most famous writings, most of which were penned during the final two years of his life. Especially noteworthy are his uncompromising stands on free trade, limited government, and the classical-liberal philosophy in general. Arguments set forth in his famous tract The Law demonstrate that Bastiat stood well apart from most members of the French political class in the mid-nineteenth century.

Bastiat's clear, concise, engagingly framed statements of libertarian philosophy in The Law, What Is seen and What Is Not seen, and other works are still widely disseminated by libertarian organizations. Because he was a prolific writer, however, researchers may examine his entire body of work to investigate his intellectual development. In this article, I consider not only the famous works he produced at the end of his career, but also his political letters and works as a legislator to show how his thinking about political economy developed.

Bastiat's Life

Bastiat was born in 1801 and died on Christmas Eve in 1850.l From his vantage point as a member of a merchant family, he observed at first hand the damage tariffs did to trade, producing empty warehouses and a lower standard of living. He advocated free trade throughout his life. Unfortunately, he never saw a single day of free trade in France because import prohibitions and high tariffs preceded his birth, and French trade was not liberalized until ten years after his death. As Frank William Taussig observed in 1911,

[T]he great [Napoleonic] wars led to the complete prohibition of the importation of manufactures, reaching its climax in Napoleon's Continental system. The system of prohibition thus instituted, while aimed at Great Britain, was made general in its terms. Hence the importation into France of virtually all manufactured articles from foreign countries was completely interdicted; and such was the legislation in force when peace came in 1815. This system doubtless was not expected to last after the wars had ceased, but, as it happened, it did last until 1860. Successive governments in France made endeavours to break with the prohibitive system, but naturally met with strong opposition from the manufacturing interests, not prepared to meet the competition of Great Britain, whose industries had made, and were continually making, rapid strides. The political position of the governments of the Restoration and of Louis Philippe was such that they were unwilling to forfeit support by pushing measures in which, after all, they were not themselves deeply interested.

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Frédéric Bastiat: Libertarian Challenger or Political Bargainer?
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