Harmony or Antagonism?
NOVEMBER 01, 1970 by FREDERIC BACON
Mr. Bacon owns and operates the Business Service Company of New Bedford, Massachusetts, specializing in bookkeeping, tax service, records, and business consultation.
In this age of the "welfare state" there has been an accelerating drift toward more and greater concentration of social power in the hands of the state, resulting in increasing interference in our daily lives, our personal liberties, and our economic freedoms—all maintained and enforced by the coercive police power of the state. Before we reach that point of no return—beyond which it will be impossible to recapture our God-given rights to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness, we should pause to consider the question: Are men’s interests, when left to themselves, harmonious or antagonistic?
About 120 years ago, Frederic Bastiat, a French political economist, answered this question in an essay entitled "To the Youth of France."¹ Bastiat’s analysis is particularly applicable to the turmoil in America today. He argued that all men’s impulses, when motivated by legitimate self-interest, fall into a harmonious social pattern, and it is the intervention by the state in attempting to redirect these interests that causes turmoil and dissension.
Bastiat pointed out that if we assume that men’s interests are harmonious the obvious solution to our social problems is simply not to try to redirect these interests. If we accept the opposite, that men’s interests are inevitably bound to clash—the concept of the "welfare state"—and that the conflict can be averted only through the creation of an artificial social order to be enforced by the police power of the state, then mankind is surely in serious trouble, and we must get some solid answers to these questions:
1. Shall we be able to find a workable plan for society and a man to implement it?
2. Will this man be able to win over to the selected plan others who have conceived different programs for society?
3. How will the final form for society be selected, adopted, and implemented?
4. Will men submit to the selected planned society, which, according to our hypothesis, must run counter to every man’s interests?
5. Assuming that mankind will consent to being regulated under the selected plan, what will happen if another, obviously better plan, is developed? Should we preserve a bad social order, knowing it to be bad; or are we to change the social order according to the persuasiveness of the inventors of new plans?
6. Will not all others whose plans have been rejected unite against the accepted plan with the better chance of destroying it because, by its very nature, it runs counter to every man’s self-interest?
7. Is there any human force capable of overcoming the fundamental antagonism which is assumed to be characteristic of the self-interests of all men?
8. If individual self-interest is antagonistic to the general interest, where would the principle of force be established? It would necessarily be outside of humanity in order to escape the consequences of our premise.
9. If a man or men are entrusted with the arbitrary power necessary to enforce a contrived social order, they must be different from the rest of us; they, unlike us, must not be moved by self-interest; and, when placed in a position where there can be no possible restraint on them or any resistance to them, they must be exempt from error, from greed, and from covetousness.
The Case for Nonintervention
It stands without proof that it is not necessary to force into harmony things that are inherently harmonious. It is also without question that there is a natural harmony among men’s interests, and so to solve the social problems confronting us it is simply necessary not to try to redirect them.
The idea of liberty is based on the premise that men’s interests, when left to themselves, tend to form harmonious combinations and to work together toward "the good life." If one has faith in the wisdom of the Laws of Providence, Nature, and God, one must have faith in freedom. Those who would direct and control the actions of men have accepted the Theory of Discord—that men’s actions, when left to themselves, are antagonistic. They propose to substitute coercion for freedom, a planned social order for the natural, and a work of their own contrivance for the handiwork of God. The idea of liberty is to let men labor, exchange, learn, band together, act and react on one another; according to the Law of Nature there can result from their free and intelligent activity only order, harmony, progress, and all things that make for "the good life" because there never was, never is, and never will be any disorder in nature.
For the Laws of Nature to be harmonious, it is not necessary that they exclude evil. Evil has its purpose. It is self-limiting. Every pain is a means of preventing greater pain by the elimination of its cause. Every individual is a free agent, and, when man is free, he can choose; since he can choose, he can err; since he can err, he can suffer. He must suffer; for he starts in ignorance, and in his ignorance he sees before him an infinite number of choices. All but one leads to error. All error breeds suffering. This suffering either falls upon the one who has erred, setting in operation the Law of Responsibility; or else it strikes innocent parties, in which case it sets in motion the Law of Solidarity.
The Essential Freedom to Choose
The action of these laws, combined with the ability of men’s minds to see the connection between cause and effect, brings man back, due to his suffering pain, to the path of righteousness and truth. However, if evil is to fulfill its purpose, the Law of Solidarity must not be made to artificially encroach upon the Law of Responsibility; the freedom of the individual to choose must not be restricted. Governments, under the pretext of fostering among men an artificial kind of solidarity, have dulled and made ineffective the individual’s sense of responsibility. This lessens the correcting effect of error by spreading the consequent suffering among the innocent.
Through improper use of the coercive police power of government, the relation between labor and wages has been impaired, the operation of the laws of production and exchange has been disturbed, the natural development of education is distorted, capital and manpower are misdirected, minds and actions warped, absurd demands inflamed, wild hopes dangled before men’s eyes, unheard of quantities of human energy wasted, centers of population relocated, and even experience itself made ineffective.
In this age of intervention—under the "welfare state"—men’s interests have been given artificial foundations. They cannot help but clash. And the thought leaders in the news media, in government, and in the intellectual establishment say: "You see, all men’s interests are antagonistic. Personal liberty and economic freedom cause all the trouble. Both must be stifled."
Nature cares nothing whatever about motive or intention; she cares only for order, and sees only that disorder shall be corrected, and that the regular orderly sequences of actions be upheld. God made men’s interests harmonious. Let us follow the Laws of Nature. Let us do away with coercive redirection of men’s actions. Let us return to the concept, as expressed by Thomas Jefferson in a part of one sentence in the Declaration of Independence, "… men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…." Men must be allowed to be responsible for their own actions and should not look to government for anything beyond the protection of life and property and the establishment of justice.
For men to have true liberty and economic freedom the government must be limited. Government should do only those things, in defense of life and property, which private citizens cannot properly do each man for himself.
Let all men have personal liberty and economic freedom. That is the Law of Nature. Then and only then will there be peace among men and will mankind achieve "the good life"; for there never was, never is, and never will be any disorder in nature.
1 Frederic Bastiat, Economic Harmonies, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc. $3.50 paperback.
The social world is rich in harmonies that we do not fully perceive until our minds have gone back to their causes, in order to find their explanation, and have then gone forward to their effects, in order to know the ultimate purpose of the phenomena they exhibit
FREDERIC BASTIAT (1850)