Read with caution: Why 'The Law' lacks context for today’s readers

Frédéric Bastiat

Frédéric Bastiat

I read The Law by Frédéric Bastiat in 1977, when I was 19 years old and attending a small college in North Texas. The Law, along with other writings on liberty, had a profound effect on my intellectual development.

Sutherland Institute has distributed dozens of copies of The Law over the years to introduce responsible citizens to ideas on liberty. In fact, for several years The Law has been one of three books we provide inner-circle donors to get their minds focused on freedom (the other two books are The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek and Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt).

But last year I took The Law out of the Sutherland collection and replaced it with Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate by George Carey. Frankly, I came to feel we had been doing more harm than good by sharing The Law in this manner.

I’ll explain.

Demographically speaking, Millennials tends to be increasingly progressive in their politics. Many gravitate to the progressive left (i.e., liberals) but many also lean toward the progressive right (i.e., libertarians). Surveys tell us that Millennials in Utah, including those among the predominant Mormon population, tend to focus more on individual liberties and less on the common good. That focus is more on “choice” among consenting adults and less on the full constellation of rights and responsibilities that are part of authentic freedom.

I feel The Law, appropriate for 1850 when it was written and even 100 years later, now simply fuels the modern appetite for selfish individualism and justifies selfishness as doctrine. As conservative icon Russell Kirk once quipped, “We flawed human creatures are sufficiently selfish already without being exhorted to pursue selfishness on principle.”

This isn’t to say that The Law isn’t valuable as political philosophy. But 2014 is not 1850 or even 1950 in terms of understanding and rationally applying ideas of individual liberty. Ideas stated rudimentarily, but refreshingly, even radically, in 1850, seem incomplete and immature today.

What I read in 1977 helped me to form the basis of a deeper, fuller and richer conservatism. It served as a cornerstone to a rich mansion of ideas. Today, experienced in isolation, The Law is a user-friendly, easy-to-read primer that alone satisfies every political question facing a distracted reader in an age of information overload. No need to read further. It contains the universal philosophy of individual liberty: Do anything you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone else! In other words, for many Millennials, The Law could be the everything-I-need-to-know-about-freedom-I-learned-in-kindergarten political philosophy.

That said, politician Ron Paul is no Millennial and stays very close to The Law’s political philosophy – as do some Latter-day Saints who equate the gospel principle of “agency” with The Law’s seemingly utilitarian ethic and find themselves sideways with their own church on a number of social issues.

After every provocative thing I’ve already written and spoken regarding the problems with progressivism, both right and left, I’m less reluctant to step on sacred ground by briefly deconstructing key elements in The Law. Using Bastiat’s actual text should shed some light on the weaknesses that accompanied his brilliance.

Interestingly, but unsurprisingly given his era, Bastiat begins The Law by recognizing God and the Creator of all things – a very conservative gesture. Indeed, if the progressive right were honest with their interpretation of The Law, they would acknowledge that “law” is about order (in other words, the title of the popular television show “Law and Order” is redundant), that claiming individual rights as a person requires a fundamental knowledge about what it means to be a person, and that Bastiat is attempting to describe an “operating model” for a free society, not attempting to justify some de minimis state of human existence – he is trying to create order in a free society. The question is how good a job did he do?

On its first page, The Law associates human purpose with political philosophy. Bastiat writes that God’s gift of life “cannot maintain itself alone” and that the “Creator of life has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it.” This opening paragraph, setting the context for everything to come, puts progressives, especially the progressive right, in an awkward position as they use The Law to justify their modern politics. Bastiat is saying that life has a purpose and not one of every individual’s own choosing, even if choice and externalities make the lives of most individuals unique. He states that there is a God and that God has a purpose for us called life and that life is to be preserved, developed and perfected – hardly utilitarian, libertarian or Randian assumptions.

In a very astute comment to transition to the next section of The Law titled “What is Law?” Bastiat writes, “Life, liberty and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” Therefore, as he asks, “What, then, is law?” his answer is anchored in the known called life, not wrapped in the isolation of selfish individualism.

His French history also contextualizes his thinking. Bastiat was born in 1801 and came of age in the era of Napoleonic wars. He experienced the ideals of the French Revolution only under the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. So as Bastiat writes of life, liberty, property and equality he does so removed from the practical failures of the revolutionary ideologues some 20 years prior but witnessing, fully aware or not, the fruits of a failed revolution (i.e., bourgeois society). The Law was written with much of the same zeal as found in the French Revolution but naturally buffered by life after the Revolution’s failure. Had he lived through the Reign of Terror, for instance, who knows the kind of vocabulary he would use to describe and help others understand big ideas such as life, liberty and property, let alone equality.

In this setting, contextually ignorant or not, Bastiat asks, “What, then, is law?” and answers, “It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.” He adds, “If every person has the right to defend – even by force – his person, his liberty, and his right to property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly.”

Modern libertarians focus on his summation,

The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.

Modern libertarians argue, in purity, that if an individual doesn’t have the natural right to take land from others and, let’s say, establish the Bureau of Land Management, neither does a group of individuals called government; if an individual doesn’t have the natural right to take money that is not his, neither does a group of individuals called government in the form of taxes; if an individual doesn’t have the natural right to mandate how his neighbor should live, neither does a group of individuals called government, and so on – and they largely justify this political philosophy on the merits of Bastiat’s arguments.

Here in Utah, many LDS libertarians lean on this idea as echoed by LDS Church leader Ezra Taft Benson who, in an article titled “The Proper Role of Government,” quoted authoritatively from The Law. Again, whether their arguments are based on Bastiat or Ezra Taft Benson, modern libertarians, especially those of the LDS stripe, miss the whole context of their remarks. The context of both Bastiat and Ezra Taft Benson is God’s law. I’ve already quoted from Bastiat. Here is Ezra Taft Benson from “The Proper Role of Government,”

Starting at the foundation of the pyramid, let us first consider the origin of those freedoms we have come to know are human rights. There are only two possible sources. Rights are either God-given as part of the Divine Plan, or they are granted by government as part of the political plan. Reason, necessity, tradition and religious convictions all lead me to accept the divine origin of these rights. If we accept the premise that human rights are granted by government, then we must be willing to accept the corollary that they can be denied by government. I, for one, shall never accept that premise. As the French political economist, Frederick Bastiat, phrased it so succinctly, “Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.”

I hope you can see the problem for today’s progressive right: The basic assumption of both Bastiat and Benson is God’s law. As I have stated elsewhere, Ezra Taft Benson, as every true conservative, is part (small-l) libertarian but not anywhere close to being a Libertarian. Ezra Taft Benson never believed in legalizing drugs, prostitution, gambling or same-sex marriage and other “gay rights” in the name of individual liberty. And, though speculative on my part, my guess is Bastiat wouldn’t either. Both men believed in order, not just individual liberty. Moreover, they believed in God’s law that was insinuated in real lives.

While Bastiat wisely and even prophetically highlights the propensity of mankind to plunder neighbors – the very real value of his book – he hardly was a champion for progressive secularism as are so many of his modern-day followers. The Law is an intelligent warning against legal plunder in the name of government. It is not a justification for modern progressivism. And that has been my concern and why I pulled the book from the Sutherland collection for wide distribution in our inner circles. I still highly recommend the book. As I said, it shaped my political philosophy from an early age. And yet, The Law is as misused today by the progressive right as government itself is misused by the progressive left.

Today’s progressive right, especially inside the LDS community, lacks the rich moral context provided by Bastiat and Benson. During a debate (of sorts) at a FreedomFest conference a couple of years ago I explained some of these nuances and differences between progressives (both left and right) and conservatives. In my closing remarks, I displayed three puzzles. Two of the 1,000-piece puzzles were of Earth as seen from outer space. To describe the progressive left, or liberalism, I jumbled some of the pieces. Clearly that view was imperfect – pieces of the puzzle forced into spaces they did not belong. I then displayed a second version of that same photo with all of the pieces exactly where they belong. This view, I said, is conservatism. Lastly, I displayed a puzzle representing the progressive right, or libertarianism. It was a simple six-piece toddler’s puzzle of farm animals – each piece in its place but far from the 1,000-piece complete and complex puzzle of the Earth. Bastiat and Benson explain these differences better than I can. The Law explains it better. But absent the appropriate moral and legal context inherent in The Law, and in the works of Ezra Taft Benson, today’s progressive right might as well be playing with a child’s puzzle.