Claude Frédéric Bastiat
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.
Claude Frédéric Bastiat was a French economist, legislator, and writer who championed private property, free markets, and limited government. Perhaps the main underlying theme of Bastiat's writings was that the free market was inherently a source of "economic harmony" among individuals, as long as government was restricted to the function of protecting the lives, liberties, and property of citizens from theft or aggression. To Bastiat, governmental coercion was only legitimate if it served "to guarantee security of person, liberty, and property rights, to cause justice to reign over all."1
Bastiat emphasized the plan-coordination function of the free market, a major theme of the Austrian School, because his thinking was influenced by some of Adam Smith's writings and by the great French free-market economists Jean-Baptiste Say, Francois Quesnay, Destutt de Tracy, Charles Comte, Richard Cantillon (who was born in Ireland and emigrated to France), and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. These French economists were among the precursors to the modern Austrian School, having first developed such concepts as the market as a dynamic, rivalrous process, the free-market evolution of money, subjective value theory, the laws of diminishing marginal utility and marginal returns, the marginal productivity theory of resource pricing, and the futility of price controls in particular and of the government's economic interventionism in general.
Bastiat's writing constitutes an intellectual bridge between the ideas of the pre-Austrian economists, such as Say, Cantillon, de Tracy, Comte, Turgot, and Quesnay, and the Austrian tradition of Carl Menger and his students. He was also a model of scholarship for those Austrians who believed that general economic education especially the kind of economic education that shatters the myriad myths and superstitions created by the state and its intellectual apologists is an essential function (if not duty) of the economist. Mises was a superb role model in this regard, as were Henry Hazlitt and Murray Rothbard, among other Austrian economists. As Mises said, the early economists "devoted themselves to the study of the problems of economics," and in "lecturing and writing books they were eager to communicate to their fellow citizens the results of their thinking. They tried to influence public opinion in order to make sound policies prevail."2
To this day, Bastiat's work is not appreciated as much as it should be because, as Murray Rothbard explained, today's intemperate critics of economic freedom "find it difficult to believe that anyone who is ardently and consistently in favor of laissez-faire could possibly be an important scholar and economic theorist."3 It is bizarre that even some contemporary Austrian economists seem to believe that the act of communicating economic ideas especially economic policy ideas to the general public is somehow unworthy of a practitioner of "economic science." For that is exactly the model of scholarship that Mises himself adopted, which was carried forward most aggressively and brilliantly by Murray Rothbard, all in the tradition of the great French Austrian economist, Frédéric Bastiat.
- 1. Frédéric Bastiat, "The Law" in Essays on Political Economy, George B. de Huszar, ed. (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1995), p. 52.
- 2. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, 3rd rev. ed (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1963), p. 869.
- 3. Rothbard, Classical Economics, p. 449.