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Monsieur Bastiat, Call Your Office

SEPTEMBER 18, 2009 by SHELDON RICHMAN

Tomorrow I’ll lecture at the Liberty Weekend Dedicated to Frédéric Bastiat, sponsored by the Polish-American Foundation for Economic Research and Education (PAFERE) in Warsaw. Preparing for my visit, I reread  Bastiat’s great book The Law (online in PDF format here and for sale here). Oh do we need Bastiat today! The Law is the kind of book you can read a couple of times a year to great advantage. It’s amazing how much Bastiat packed into that little book. Each time I read it, I come across some point that is particularly relevant to our time and find myself thinking, “I didn’t remember that!”

It happened again. On page 31 I came across this:

Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social combinations. This is so true that, if by chance, the socialists have any doubts about the success of these combinations, they will demand that a small portion of mankind be set aside to experiment upon. . . . And one socialist leader has been known seriously to demand that the Constituent Assembly give him a small district with all its inhabitants, to try his experiments upon.

Two things occurred to me as I read this. First, you don’t have to be socialist to believe that people are raw material to be experimented upon. And second, in modern America, doubts or no doubts about success, experiments can be run on the entire country at once. No need to first try things out on a small district. When Americans appreciated the virtue of decentralizing power — “federalism” — grand experiments at worst could be done only in individual states because according to the consensus, the national government was supposed to be limited by the Constitution. (As I’ve written before, such a reading of the Constitution, a political document full of compromises and deliberate ambiguities, is at best a loose construction. However, I’m glad it was the dominant interpretation for some years after Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800, and I would love to see it become dominant again.) That consensus essentially died in the War Between the States, and Alexander Hamilton’s revived vision of a consolidated nation has endured fairly continuously ever since.

As for point one, I have in mind the current administration. The word “socialist” (as well as “fascist”) is thrown around too glibly today, and everyone ought to be more careful. Lots of bad things are being proposed that would interfere with the market process, but no one in power is calling for replacement of the market with central planning. Ludwig von Mises called the philosophy behind the mixed economy “interventionism, and we ought to be working to make that word the pejorative we know it deserves to be.

Point two, of course, refers to the Obama administration’s experiments for the health-insurance, financial, and energy industries. Without getting into details here, I want to emphasize the sheer presumptuousness of those experiments. Those are our lives they are fooling with.

Bastiat brimmed with controlled outrage at the French politicians and writers who so blithely presumed that other people’s lives were theirs to dispose of in grand experiment. He dissected the classical notion, popular among the pundits of his day and ours, that individuals are inert until a wise leader comes along invests them with a principle of motion.

[T]hese writers on public affairs begin by supposing that people have within themselves no means of discernment; no motivation to action. The writers assume that people are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms, at best a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being shaped — by the will and hand of another person — into an infinite variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected….

These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner that the gardener views his trees. Just as the gardener capriciously shapes the trees into pyramids, parasols, cubes, vases, fans, and other forms, just so does the socialist writer whimsically shape human beings into groups, series, centers, sub-centers, honeycombs, labor-corps, and other variations. And just as the gardener needs axes, pruning hooks, saws, and shears to shape his trees, just so does the socialist writer need the force that he can find only in law to shape human beings. For this purpose, he devises tariff laws, tax laws, relief laws, and school laws.

This superior attitude is palpable throughout the Obama administration. One sees it in the words and tone of the president, Geithner, Summers, Emanuel, Sebelius, Clinton, and their allies in Congress. In a profound way, they are the anti-egalitarians. They know better than we. They exercise powers that we mere individuals out of government can never possess. They dictate to us, but we can’t dictate to them. They get to determine our lives in important ways — which means that in those respects we don’t.

Yes, they claim they are our representatives. It’s a baseless claim! They are not our representatives. They don’t know us, and they can’t really care about us. They are our rulers, gratifying their ambitions to “make a difference” — whether we want it made on our lives or not. If we don’t comply, they can take our liberty, our property, even our lives.

Depriving them of that power is a long and arduous intellectual process, requiring a philosophical sea change. In the meantime, those of us who know that we, and not they, own our lives, need a battle cry. In dedication to Bastiat, I propose this:

We shall not be experimented upon!

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

December 2009

ABOUT

SHELDON RICHMAN

Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and TheFreemanOnline.org, and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families.

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