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April 2017 Policy Study, Number 17-8


A Commentary on American Public Policy


Part 6



What individual has the right to make himself at home at his neighbor’s dinner table, there to partake of the fruit of his neighbor’s labor over and above his neighbor’s objection?  Yet this is exactly what happens.  We fail to perceive this because the force of government exacts the fruit of your neighbor’s labor before he can get it into the form of food for his own table.  The fruit of your neighbor’s labor is passed to another individual in the form of food stamps or any number of other perquisites.  Though the physical properties of the unearned benefit are changed, make no mistake:  it remains the fruit of your neighbor’s labor.  The whole process is unlawful, not to mention unholy.


We do indeed have an obligation to our brother; but using the force of government to enforce that obligation is not the lawful way to fulfill it.  This unlawful system of government-coerced philanthropy produces several dilatory side effects:  1) It grants unwarranted power to the “lawmaker,” who may well exercise that power to the detriment of our liberty.  2) It removes the incentive of the donee to be self-sufficient and independent.  You can’t leave a man any poorer than when you deprive him of these two qualities.  It extinguishes his self-esteem, and he no longer considers himself a man.  3) It removes an incentive from the donor to produce all that he can because he knows he will only be left with so much fruit for all his effort in any case.  4) The combined effect of two and three is to remove the “invisible hand.”  It becomes nonexistent and we are all the poorer for it.


Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources.  This process is the origin of property.  But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others.  This process is the origin of plunder.  Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain — and since labor is pain in itself — it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work.  History shows this quite clearly.  And under these conditions, neither religion nor morality can stop it.  When, then, does plunder stop?  It stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labor.


It is evident, then, that the proper purpose of law is to use the power of its collective force [government] to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of to work.  All the measures of the law should protect property and

punish plunder.  (Emphasis added).  (The Law).


You may think that this is exactly what our government does.  But you must remember that when Bastiat speaks of “plunder,” he is using it in a compound sense.  He not only considers the illegal plunder by the individual, which we do spend a great deal of effort to punish; he is also taking into consideration the legal plunder of the democratic majority as exercised through their collective force.  Today in this nation, this legal plunder is almost unchecked.  The majority may believe this is lawful, but it is not.  The majority may even believe they are extracting this unlawful economic penalty from the minority, but in reality everyone attempts to enrich himself at the expense of everyone else.  Any reasonable use of logic will inform us that this is not possible.  Thus, everyone falls victim to the scheme.  Yes, they may gain a little here, but they also lose a little more someplace else.  It is a scheme where, eventually, everyone loses.  And even if there is an instance where someone gains in the end, it is an unlawful gain.  All in all, we justify our actions by allowing that legalized plunder is acceptable if we but use the proceeds for this or that exceptionally deserving cause.  But in the end, rather than doing the good we intend, this condoned practice of legal plunder instead has the fatal tendency of obliterating from our conscience the distinction between justice and injustice.  And we must suffer the consequences thereof.


Is there any need to offer proof that this odious perversion of the law is a perpetual source of hatred and discord; that it tends to destroy society itself?  If such proof is needed, look at the United States [in 1850 about the time Bastiat published his essay, not today].  There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain:  the protection of every person’s liberty and property.  As a consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on firmer foundation.  (The Law).


We, at one time, did indeed have the kind of government proffered by Bastiat, and it was founded on the Natural Law.  It was bequeathed to us by our Founders and was still faithfully practiced in 1850, but it started to deteriorate shortly after that.  We can only look around us today and weep for what might have been.  Again, from The Law:


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.  (Emphasis added).


If you carry nothing else away from Bastiat’s writing, please at least impress this prior distinction upon your mind.  And if we will meld this thought together with two of his previous thoughts, we will have formed a true notion of the difference between a legitimate and illegitimate government:  1) It is truly lawful (a God-given right) for the individual to defend himself.  2) It is also lawful (a God-given right) for individuals to organize themselves into a collective force, that being government, in order to defend himself.  Government derives its legitimacy from these prior two facts.  The mere act of combining individuals together into a collective force does not confer upon that collective force the lawful authority to perform acts that are unlawful for the individual to perform.  Therefore, a government is legitimate (lawful) only so long as the actions of the collective force of individuals limits itself to actions that are lawful for the distinct individual to perform.  (This follows directly from the Natural Law.)  Government that does is a legitimate government; government that does not is illegitimate.


Now, legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number of ways.  Thus we have an infinite number of plans for organizing it: tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on, and so on.  All these plans as a whole — with their common aim of legal plunder — constitute socialism.  (The Law).


There is no doubt that several of the topics listed in the preceding paragraph will produce quite an uncomfortable sensation on the part of some readers.  After all, this list, as nearly as I can tell, introduces no new subjects of plunder which we do not already impose.  In fact, many of these listings are sacred cows indeed.


Not to worry, for we, as a collective force, have the power (as opposed to lawful authority) to continue to implement each and every one of these methods of legal plunder.  We can add still more as-yet-unthought-of methods.  But at least if we do, let us do so with our eyes open wide.  Let us rationalize and justify our actions as best we can.  But let us not delude ourselves that our actions are lawful, for they are not.


Either the collective force (government) is organized for the purpose of justice, or it is organized for other purposes, in the immediate case, philanthropy.  It is not possible to satisfy both objectives, for the pursuit of government philanthropy destroys justice by forcibly taking from one and giving to another.  Please don’t hold the impression that the author speaks ill of philanthropy.  The author holds that philanthropy is a grand and necessary thing.  The objection is entirely in the method of obtaining the desired “good.”  As Bastiat argues in The Law, in order to be truly lawful and to obtain the beneficial goals of philanthropy for both donor and donee, it must be voluntary on the part of the donor:


How did politicians ever come to believe this weird idea that the law could be made to produce what it does not contain — the wealth, science, and religion that, in a positive sense, constitute prosperity?  Is it due to the influence of our modern writers on public affairs?  [Bastiat was speaking of his time, but things have not changed.] Present-day writers — especially those of the socialist school of thought — base their various theories upon one common hypothesis: They divide mankind into two parts.  People in general — with the exception of the writer himself — form the first group.  [Marx, for instance.]  The writer, all alone, forms the second and most important group.  Surely this is the weirdest and most conceited notion that ever entered a human brain!  In fact, these 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. 


Moreover, not one of these writers on governmental affairs hesitates to imagine that he himself — under the title of organizer, discoverer, legislator, or founder — is this will and hand, this universal motivating force, this creative power whose sublime mission is to mold these scattered materials — persons — into a society.  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 [government] to shape human beings.  For this purpose, he devises tariff laws, tax laws, relief laws, and school laws.




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