France's Champion of Liberty: Nineteenth-Century Economist Frederic Bastiat's Writings Demonstrate Why Socialism Won't Work Any Better for 21st-Century Americans Than It Did for the 19th-Century French

Article excerpt

A writer sits at his desk, staring absently at the city street below. He nibbles the end of his writing instrument thoughtfully. What should he write about today? The out-of-control welfare system? Pork barreling politicians? The onerous tax burden? Meddling farm subsidies? Perhaps an expose on the social engineers who had set their sights on controlling the education system? Ah--the problems were so plentiful--it was hard to choose!

The issues and concerns confronting 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat had a curiously contemporary flavor. And then, as now, a man committed to limited government, personal freedom, and faith in God was considered an anomaly in academe.

Historical Re-run

It has been said that if we are not willing to learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. Certainly, as one reads the life story and writings of Bastiat, it seems that the United States is in many ways repeating the slippery slide into socialism, and eventually into despotism, that France experienced from 1789 to 1848. To fully appreciate Bastiat's contribution to the formulation of laissez-faire capitalism, and to see the parallels between his concerns and the issues facing Americans today, a brief sortie into French history is in order.

Most people are familiar with the French Revolution of 1789, with its powerful images of the guillotine and the Bastille. Perhaps not so well known are the behind the-scenes machinations that perverted a quest for reform into a violent assault on the fabric of society itself.

There existed in France (also in Germany and other areas of Europe) a network of secret societies that fomented revolution all over Europe with the aim of destroying the existing social order and replacing it with a communistic order. And, like all artificially organized "revolts" in which the emotions of gullible citizens are played upon by professional agitators, the main lasting effect of the French Revolution was to install the agitators in power and deepen the misery of the citizens themselves.

In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte rose to dictatorship. The Restoration of 1815 saw King Louis XVIII mount the throne, followed by Charles X. The repressive reign of Charles X gave the communists and socialists of the day another chance to ran the flames of rebellion. In July 1830, Charles X was deposed, and political power was ostensibly transferred from the nobility to the bourgeoisie (middle class), although the revolutionaries kept the semblance of a king, putting the "Citizen King" Louis Philippe on the throne as a representative of the middle class.

The reign of Louis Philippe was marked by a government increasingly devoted to regulating and manipulating society. French businessmen soon found out that any truly independent enterprise ran afoul of this government and its complex and contradictory rules and regulations. Success was more likely to be found running a business supported by a government monopoly or government capital. Sound familiar?

Even worse off than businessmen were the French proletariat (working class) whose real wages had been declining steadily since 1820. Their legitimate complaints included bad harvests, an industrial depression, and a cholera epidemic, as well as rampant governmental corruption. Socialist leaders were eager as always to take advantage of a dissatisfied populace, and the populace was eager as always to naively believe and do what the demagogues told them. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, the working class' very real complaints served to "magnify doctrines which tend to nothing less than the overthrow of all the foundations on which society rests."

The dissolution of the National Work shops, which in theory were to embody every man's "right to work," but in reality had merely provided fertile ground for sowing the seeds of violent revolution, provided the fatal spark. The coals of discontent burst into flames, quite literally. …