Limited Laws Make Stable Societies
Once again, I have returned to my classroom (and, perhaps, my semi-legitimate excuse for a delayed post), now into my third year of teaching. As always, my freshman economics course has begun with a reading of Frederic Bastiat's The Law, his seminal work on the nature of law and its appropriate jurisdiction. While I have done a brief summary of this book before, it is that very jurisdiction I would like to touch on today.
To reiterate the main points of my summary, Bastiat, who wrote The Law in late 1840s France, outlined a very limited role of government. He, like our Founding Fathers, deduced that we have natural rights to life, liberty, property, and the consequential right to defend these rights. This, however, was the full extent of what he considered solid, inalienable rights. He considered, like the Founders did, these rights as negative. That is, rights to have something not have something happen. A right to life, liberty, and property means that we have a right not to be killed unjustly, imprisoned unjustly, or have our property taken unjustly. It does not mean that we are given these things by someone, especially property. We are entitled to nothing except to maintain these rights.
Like so many before him, Bastiat states that in our individual weakness, man often comes together to join forces for the purpose of more properly defending these rights. The people in the society create laws to protect their rights, but from where is the source of the law and its power? But of course, from the individuals themselves. That is to say, the law is only a collective force of individual power. Namely, the law is the collective force of self-defense. It's only goal is to protect rights. It may not morally compel people to do anything, but only to prevent people from doing bad things.
The First Consequence of Perverted Law
The law becomes perverted when it is used for the purposes of stupid greed (here he coins the term "legal plunder/theft") and false philanthropy (coerced and false fraternity). There are two major consequences of such perversion. The first is that people lose their distinction between justice and injustice. Specifically, between what is lawful and what is moral. (Note: By moral, I mean the protection and respect for natural rights, not any one religious creed or cultural ethos.) The essence of the law is to protect justice, to ensure it is found everywhere. It is only natural, then, that citizens would closely associate the law with justice, with what is moral. In fact, this is such a strong disposition that when the law is perverted, people make the mistake that what is lawful is just. If something is legal, it must be acceptable. We can obviously refute this when it comes to such horrors as murder and slavery, but what happens when it has been ingrained in our societal memory that we accept legal theft as moral?
When an individual comes to realize that the law may not actually be just, he or she is left with what Bastiat calls the cruel alternative: be moral but unlawful, or be lawful and immoral. To him, these are evils of equal magnitude, for a society cannot function without a citizen who respects its laws, but a society is not long to continue without a basic protection of its citizens rights. Bastiat's solution is simple: if we are to have citizens who respect the law, we must make laws that are respectable.
The Second Consequence of Perverted Law
What happens if we don't? Society would see an immense increase in the politicization of everything the government does. This is the second major consequence. If the government (via the law) does only what it is intended to do, that is, protect rights, and it achieves that goal, then there is nothing for the citizenry to protest. For Bastiat in early 19th century France, this is especially true with revolution after revolution. But it can be applied to us today. Our elections are so bloody contentious, so vehement, and so vulgar, that it can only be described as childlike and savage. Even with the election of a man like Donald Trump, people (sometimes for the first time) became aware of how dangerous a powerful government can be in the wrong hands.
But imagine a world where the government doesn't handle so much of our lives. Where we are free and responsible for ourselves, and the state handles only policing, defense, and arbitration. In such a world, who cares if Trump, or Clinton, or the random guy on the bus, is president? If their power is limited to only the proper role of the law, then there is little harm they can do beyond incompetency. And the incompetency is a straightforward matter to resolve. Instead, we have the 2016 election.
Bastiat's Prophecy and Today
It is interesting to note that Bastiat identified a nation he believed was most true to implementing a just law: the United States. He observed that our country in that time period was so prosperous and relatively stable because of our commitment to the protection of basic rights and limitation of government. He cautioned, however, that there would be two issues that would destroy such a peace: the issue of tariffs and the scar of slavery. Indeed, protectionist policies were something Bastiat loathed, what he would call legal plunder in disguise. Slavery, of course, is a far more obvious plunder, one with direct ramifications. If there was anything that would rupture the Union, he declared it would be one of those issues. To an extent, it was both. Bastiat made his prophesy nearly 15 years before the Civil War, and 15 years before his death. It would be a fascinating discussion to converse with Frederic Bastiat to see what he would think of America today.
I reckon he'd point us back to his book. Our people confuse legal with moral, render privileges as rights, and our politics more passionate than necessary. I imagine, in this hypothetical conversation, he would shake his head and say, "Vous n'avez rien appris?"
Have you learned nothing?