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May 14, 2007 1:23 PM   Subscribe

Frederic Bastiat, described by Joseph Schumpeter nearly a century after Bastiat's death as, "the most brilliant economic journalist who ever lived." A great proponent of free markets, his works show a fastidious devotion to the Vienna School of economic thought. His Petition to Candlemakers demonstrates both his satirical wit and an understanding of the failings of isolationist economic policies (cf Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act). Lorenza Garreau writes, "Every day he crushed a fallacy -- killed it by ridicule and by turning on it the bright light of logic."
posted by geoff. (17 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

From the last link:
For most readers today Bastiat's work might not read like that of an economist. The issues he deals with are broad and the arguments he uses are tempered by a variety of disciplines. Bastiat's is not the narrow, insular economics we have perhaps become accustomed to. readders will also find Bastiat refreshingly devoid of "technical economics". Bastiat came before attempts to turn economics into a "science" and consequently he is more apt to apply logic rather than mathematical wizardy to his problems. Bastiat might also not find favour with many economists today due to his liberal bent (in the old sense of the term). Claude Frederic Bastiat believed in the freedom of markets with a fervour, this belief would not permit him to entertain thoughts of fine-tuning economies (if he were to admit the existence of such a thing as an "economy" that is).
posted by geoff. at 1:30 PM on May 14, 2007

This is great, but unfortunately three links ( and are doubles of this.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 1:32 PM on May 14, 2007

Sometimes it seems like economics is as much theology as it is science. The cult of free markets leaves a bit to be desired.
posted by delmoi at 1:33 PM on May 14, 2007

Just to be clear, the Vienna School is devoted to Bastiat, not the other way around. He died two decades before Menger's Principles of Economics: he's the grandfather of marginalism.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:36 PM on May 14, 2007

This is great, but unfortunately three links ( and are doubles of this.

For shame! If anything the EconLib links are a good resource (as is the site itself).
posted by geoff. at 1:37 PM on May 14, 2007

Oh yes, I should have worded that clearer -- I was trying to be fancy with my big words and all. I think the Wikipedia page says it best:
the Austrian method derives from a long line of deductive economic thought stretching from the 15th century to the modern era and including such major economists as Richard Cantillon, David Hume, A.R.J. Turgot, Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, David Ricardo, Nassau Senior, John Elliott Cairnes, and Claude Frédéric Bastiat.
posted by geoff. at 1:38 PM on May 14, 2007

Well I hadn't heard the Petition to Candlemakers before, and now my appreciation of the originality of Who Shot Mr Burns? is diminished, so yeah, delete away, *sob*.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 1:49 PM on May 14, 2007

The one problem with these sorts of claims are that grandfathers have many children, and may not love them all equally. But boy do I love that essay about restricting imports on the sun!
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:49 PM on May 14, 2007

I had never heard of Bastiat before, but clearly most of the US and European neocon economists have. His free-trade and small government proposals are reflected in a lot of modern policies. However, I find it quite interesting that twice in the small samples of writing that I read he makes appeals on the moral obligations of society and/or the rich to ameliorate the effects of the free market (emphases mine):

"So let us leave education free. It will perfect itself through trial and error, example, rivalry, imitation and emulation... That does not mean to say that the powers that be should withdraw in complete indifference. [they] should lay down conditions concerning qualifications and character-references; that it should repress immoral teaching; that it should watch over the health of the pupils. I accept all that, while yet remaining convinced that its solicitude, however scrupulous, can offer only the very slightest guarantee compared to that instilled by Nature in the hearts of fathers and in the interest of teachers."

"Without a doubt, morality and religion make it a duty for men, especially the rich, to deprive themselves voluntarily of that which they possess, in favor off their less fortunate brethren." But this is an entirely moral obligation. If it were to be asserted on principle, admitted in practice, or sanctioned by law, that every man has a right to the property of another, the gift would have no merit, charity and gratitude would be no longer virtues.

These comments make it plain that Bastiat sees some requirement for societal provisions beyond those encapsulated by the free market, but it seems that he's skirting around the issue rather than addressing it directly. This is depressingly like modern neocon policy. Perhaps he addresses this elsewhere (as Smith did in Wealth of Nations), but I'm sure that the free-market gurus stopped reading after they finished the bit that they liked.

Interesting post, though.
posted by Jakey at 2:52 PM on May 14, 2007

To the theorists, holders of doctrine, jesting yet principled one of of all economic and journaled.

May you stick your body out a sealed window to judge suitable clothing venturing outside will enjoin? Peer upon a grand visage, reveling in the beauty of God's creation while attending to your hously duties? A man would be unawares with the approach of a safely concealed outdoors, be it thief, wench or foe. Yielding windows, what of foul gas? Alas - mankind, unique builder of structure and shelter! Must these resort to gapping the passage way for a fresh gasp - granting unfettered passage to all manner of the crawling and creep?

None of these gains can be afforded through alternative means of industry. A wall does not reveal the temperament of the atmosphere beyond it's divide. As the newborn, does the shrub not wither upon being perpetually removed from it's mothers teet? The commission of nature cannot be judged as monetary gratuity - much less as the love for a child, or knowledge of thine creator. Would these things be also removed, industrialized or credited?

Do not impede the aglow of heaven, for it is a gift envisioned for all men, a thing which of foreign good cannot be uttered. A domestic good is an equal, superior and direct replacement suiting it's foreign rival. This cannot be said of the sun to the candle.
posted by parallax7d at 3:06 PM on May 14, 2007

Jakey, I think Bastiat and his followers are saying that although there may be a moral obligation for the fortunate to help the less fortunate, that obligation does not transcend the sanctity of property to the degree that it should be enforced by law. You say that charity "ameliorates the effects of the free market" as if the free market is the cause of poverty, but Bastiat would certainly not share that sentiment. Rather, the classical liberal conception of charity is as a means of filling in the gaps, and must be a private endeavour.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 3:08 PM on May 14, 2007

hoverboards, I agree that Bastiat would not accept that the free market is the cause of poverty, and I'm not entirely sure that I would either. I would be more likely to call it a contributing factor. My point, though, is that Bastiat is requiring something of society - in point of fact, that it be a society - without acknowledging that some of the things that make a society are not conducive to short-term profit making. He is relying on charity and public spirit to fill that gap. That seems to me to be a lack intellectual rigour. For example in To the Electors he envisions a government consisting of Justice, Police, Defense and 'certain tasks in the public interest which are beyond the power of the individual' without elucidating on those tasks.
posted by Jakey at 3:31 PM on May 14, 2007

Nothing is the cause of poverty, it's the state you have with the absence of economy, any form of economy. Free market economies, or state run economies don't create poverty, just remove varying levels of it.
posted by parallax7d at 3:39 PM on May 14, 2007

He is relying on charity and public spirit to fill that gap. That seems to me to be a lack intellectual rigour.

I don't think that lacks rigor so much as it denies a prior assumption on your part (which Bastiat doesn't share). Unless we want a world where everything not forbidden is compulsory, we have to accept that there is some role to be played by individual public spirit in the management of society. How large of a role is the $64,000 question.
posted by nasreddin at 4:21 PM on May 14, 2007

parallax7d, I'm somewhat nonplussed by your comment. Poverty can definitely have a cause. The example that springs to mind is the Treaty of Versaille, which imposed conditions on Germany that inevitably lead to the impoverishment of the entire nation.

Also, poverty is more commonly understood as a lack of the medium of exchange in a given economy, rather than the total absence of said economy.

Thirdly, a failure to remove the current causes of poverty in a developed country (eg lack of access to education or healthcare) can most definitely be construed as a cause of future poverty.

On preview, nasreddin, I would argue that the prior assumption is Bastiat's. He was writing in a time when a certain level of public-spiritedness was a prerequisite for acceptance in polite society. He makes the assumption that this condition would persist, and continue to provide those requirements not addressed by his minimalist State. I'm not arguing that everything not forbidden is compulsory - I'm arguing that neither the free market nor Bastiat's minimalist State suffices to provide the infrastructure or the social cohesion necessary to their existence. Therefore, there has to be some extension of the government (or some other mechanism) to provide this.
posted by Jakey at 4:37 PM on May 14, 2007

Jakey, I wasn't saying Bastiat was right (though I do, on some level, think so). I was saying that his opinions are consistent with intellectual rigor.

the infrastructure or the social cohesion necessary to their existence.

What is the antecedent of "their"? If it's "requirements," then you ought to provide some warrant for this argument--otherwise, you're the one who lacks rigor. If it's "free market" and "minimalist state," I think that that's pretty obviously false. The free market doesn't need infrastructure to sustain its own existence, and the state doesn't need...itself? to maintain itself?
posted by nasreddin at 4:46 PM on May 14, 2007

nasreddin, your second interpretation was correct, but I disagree with your conclusion. The free market and the state do indeed require infrastructure and social cohesion. Bastiat himself implicitly acknowledges that at the very least the free market requires the rule of law, otherwise this would be absent from his State. It also requires some kind of production base, otherwise it's just a pyramid scheme, and some means of trading these products. All of these do not exist in a vacuum, and require an infrastructure to support. Also, the State requires some method of constitution, be it in a democracy, monarchy or whatever. Everyone needs to agree that these are our leaders and we will follow their laws. This requires some kind of social cohesion in the first place. But we're getting away from my original example.

I was pointing out that Bastiat lacks rigour by wanting 'certain other things' but making no provision for their creation. The example I used was education, as he acknowledges that the State should be responsible for oversight to guarantee quality (thereby admitting its importance), but explicitly forbids the State from providing the education. Then he does a raindance and waits for some rich philanthropist to shower down the schools. I mean, your not seriously suggesting that some free market for-profit entity is going to build a school in a poor district where no-one can afford to attend it, right?
posted by Jakey at 2:39 AM on May 15, 2007

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