The day before yesterday was Frederic Bastiat’s 213th birthday. He was a classically liberal French economist and statesman from the first half of the 19th century, well loved by modern American libertarians and even some conservatives, but very much neglected in his own country, especially today. His most well-known work, The Law (or La Loi) is a foundational introduction to the philosophy of liberty for any reader with almost any attention span. It is very short, very clear, and at times quite witty. After Ron Paul’s The Revolution and End the Fed, I believe it was the very first libertarian book I read. My dad had a few dusty copies put out by FEE, from the 1990’s, if I recall correctly. This was probably in 2009 or 2010. It was right around that time I had also purchased Tom Woods’ book Nullification, just because I thought it looked interesting, although I had no idea at that time that Dr. Woods was in the same camp as Ron Paul. I was still a pretty standard small-government conservative. Maybe a tad more skeptical of war and corporatism than the average Tea Partier (which is what made me open to Ron Paul’s arguments in the first place). But I was already well on my way to a more consistent outlook on the economy, politics, and the state.

The thesis of the book is that government’s purpose is to protect life, liberty, and property, but that the law generally becomes perverted to sanction plunder. From the title page:

The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted along with it! The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose! The law become the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself is guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!

But how do we know when any of this is going on? From his subsection entitled “How to Identify Legal Plunder”:

But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.

Then abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil itself, but also it is a fertile source for further evils because it invites reprisals. If such a law — which may be an isolated case — is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.

The person who profits from this law will complain bitterly, defending his acquired rights. He will claim that the state is obligated to protect and encourage his particular industry; that this procedure enriches the state because the protected industry is thus able to spend more and to pay higher wages to the poor workingmen.

Do not listen to this sophistry by vested interests. The acceptance of these arguments will build legal plunder into a whole system. In fact, this has already occurred. The present-day delusion is an attempt to enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal under the pretense of organizing it.

Men have three basic choices as Bastiat saw it, in regards to the problem of legal plunder. From the subsection entitled “The Choice Before Us“:

This question of legal plunder must be settled once and for all, and there are only three ways to settle it:

  1. The few plunder the many.
  2. Everybody plunders everybody.
  3. Nobody plunders anybody.

We must make our choice among limited plunder, universal plunder, and no plunder. The law can follow only one of these three.

Limited legal plunder: This system prevailed when the right to vote was restricted. One would turn back to this system to prevent the invasion of socialism.

Universal legal plunder: We have been threatened with this system since the franchise was made universal. The newly enfranchised majority has decided to formulate law on the same principle of legal plunder that was used by their predecessors when the vote was limited.

No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony, and logic. Until the day of my death, I shall proclaim this principle with all the force of my lungs (which alas! is all too inadequate).

Of course, “no legal plunder” sounds more appealing than the other two to the average person, but does he actually practice this himself? Likely not. In fact, it could be argued that no one does. It is impossible to in a society so overrun with so many statist delusions and economic fallacies. But is that a reason to throw up your hands and say “nothing I can do about it”? To my mind, no. It is all the more reason to oppose legal plunder. In addition to it being in violation of the rights to life, liberty, and property, it violates my own conscience. I am legally plundering, perhaps daily, freely and willingly, because it is inconvenient — dangerous even — not to do so, but I’m not happy about it. Are you?

[image credits: Idiot’s Collective]

[Originally published at The Libertarian Liquidationist]