Often considered a rite of passage by those in the liberty movement, reading “The Law” by Frédéric Bastiat infuses hope to lovers of freedom. This book is actually a long essay and can be read in a very short time. Its pages are as dense in prose as it is in meaning; Bastiat condenses the collective wisdom of thousands of years into a short masterpiece that reads almost like poetry.
Bastiat makes the claim that people are granted life from God. This gift of life consists of three basic elements—personality, liberty, and property. It follows that God gives men the right to preserve these gifts. And it is because these three elements exist that we create laws to protect them. The only correct use of government is to create laws which preserve, rather than destroy the gifts that God has granted. However, governments often pervert this order, and act as though their laws are the foundational reason that man has either life, liberty, or property.
Law needs to exist. But as we have seen, it becomes corrupted by men. “The law has been perverted through the influence of two very different causes—naked greed and misconceived philanthropy.” By these two corrupting forces, the government tends to set itself above men. They decide to extract goods from people and distribute them; in other words, the government takes property and uses it as plunder to give to others. The government creates laws in order to do so legally, and the legislation is therefore backed by force.
As this trend continues, the legislators create two class of men: the rulers and the ruled. The rulers believe their purposes are virtuous and the the ruled class must be controlled to fit the purposes of the rulers. The relationship becomes one where “…the relations between mankind and the legislator appear to be the same as those that exist between the clay and the potter.”
To remedy this malicious end of government, Bastiat states that the only aim of government should be to preserve liberty. “And, in fact, what is the political work that we are endeavoring to promote? It is no other than the instinctive effort of every people towards liberty.” The use of government for any other means leads to despotism and a reduction of liberty. History is full of examples of the tyranny brought upon men by zealous governments who believed they could control and lead people as the few thought best. The law is not meant for men to engineer the ends of society. Instead, “Law is common force organized to prevent injustice;–in short, Law is Justice.”
When properly instituted, law increases liberty and allows men to flourish. The nations which allow for the most liberty are also the ones which enjoy the most peace and happiness. Bastiat contends that “God has implanted in mankind also all that is necessary to enable it to accomplish its destinies.” When given the opportunity to exercise liberty, men are the most free. Additionally, nations led by the conscious of the public are the ones who are most likely to correct their trespasses when they do get things wrong. Bastiat concludes with the plea for men to reject any system engineered by men. Instead, men should “… try liberty—liberty, which is an act of faith in God and in His work.”
I highly recommend this book. I can give no better summary than to use many of Bastiat’s own words. I plan on re-reading this book regularly, and wish I had found this book earlier in life when I could have given to friends at turning points in their lives. I hope our nation finds this book in time to turn back from the soft tyranny we see growing on our own soil.