“It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me,
what do they teach them at these schools!”
– Digory Kirke in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle
The way Professor Kirk feels about Plato is how I feel about Frederick Bastiat. Whenever I hear someone repeating an economic fallacy online I have a tendency to cry out, “It’s all in Bastiat, all in Bastiat: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”
Unfortunately, Bastiat, whose 215th birthday is today, is not often taught in schools, whether in high school or college. That’s a shame for he was one of the greatest political and economic thinkers of the 19th century. Bastiat, a farmer turned politician and pamphleteer, had a inimitable gift for explaining economic and political concepts in way that make them not only understandable but seem downright commonsensical.
Bastiat, as Charles Kaupke notes, drew on his Catholic faith and the writings of Adam Smith and John Locke to articulate a vision of limited, efficient government that respects each citizen’s God-given dignity. And as Religion and Liberty adds,
He typified that rare breed of liberal who holds a deep and powerful belief in a personal and transcendent God, and who incorporates this belief in a wide ranging social philosophy centering on the proposition that when left alone society will most clearly display the wisdom and intent of the Creator.
A particular concept of Bastiat’s that has profoundly influenced my thinking is the idea that God arranged the social world. “I believe that He Who arranged the material world,” wrote Bastiat, “was not to remain foreign to the arrangements of the social world.” I wholeheartedly agree. That is why I never tire of arguing about how God created such economic phenomena as the price system and comparative advantage in order to coordinate human flourishing.
There are dozens of ideas in his writings like this one that are worthy of close attention, but here are four particularly important concepts of Bastiat’s that you should know:
The Concept: The seen and the unseen
For my money, the most important concept in economic and political policy is presented in the brief essay, “That Which is Seen, and that Which is Not Seen.” Bastiat states:
In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause—it is seen. The others unfold in succession–they are not seen: it is well for us, if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference—the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee.
Henry Hazlitt’s classic Economics in One Lesson is based on this essay. Hazlitt’s “one lesson” is summarized as,
The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.
The Concept: For the good of mankind, side with the consumer
Should we always take the side of the individual consumer? Bastiat argues why we should:
consumption is the great end and purpose of political economy; that good and evil, morality and immorality, harmony and discord, everything finds its meaning in the consumer, for he represents mankind.
He summarizes his argument as follows:
There is a fundamental antagonism between the seller and the buyer.
The former wants the goods on the market to be scarce, in short supply, and expensive.
The latter wants them abundant, in plentiful supply, and cheap.
Our laws, which should at least be neutral, take the side of the seller against the buyer, of the producer against the consumer, of high prices against low prices, of scarcity against abundance.
They operate, if not intentionally, at least logically, on the assumption that a nation is rich when it is lacking in everything.
Bastiat uses this as the basis of his argument that the interests of the consumer, rather than the producer, align more closely with the interests of mankind. For more on this point, see this post.
The Concept: The broken window fallacy
In his essay, That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen, Bastiat introduced the parable of the broken window to illustrate why destruction, and the money spent to recover from destruction, is not actually a net benefit to society. Economist Art Carden explains Bastiat’s reasoning in this video:
The Concept: The problem of law that itself violates law
Bastiat’s most famous work is The Law, the key theme of which is an examination of what happens to a society when the law becomes a weapon of those in power, rather than a tool to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals. This video provides a summary of the essay.
A PDF of The Law can be found here, an online version here, and a Kindle version here.