“The Law”: Revisting One of Bastiat’s Greatest Works

Frederic Bastiat

In one of the many essays written by the 19th Century Economist Frédéric Bastiat, he writes the following under the header “The Results of Legal Plunder” in his essay “The Law“:

“It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.

What are the consequences of such a perversion? It would require volumes to describe them all. Thus we must content ourselves with pointing out the most striking.

In the first place, it erases from everyone’s conscience the distinction between justice and injustice.

No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.

The nature of law is to maintain justice. This is so much the case that, in the minds of the people, law and justice are one and the same thing. There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons have erroneously held that things are “just” because law makes them so. Thus, in order to make plunder appear just and sacred to many consciences, it is only necessary for the law to decree and sanction it. Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them.”

Can we not see this playing out in the 21st Century United States? As we observe the political state that we live in today, there are examples upon examples of how government (under both Democratic and Republican regimes) have used the forced hand of the law to “plunder” the people that they “serve”. As Bastiat discusses in the excerpt above, when unjust laws are put into practice, they are perceived to be just, either immediately or over time, from the mere fact that they are part of the law.

Economically speaking, laws that seek to redistribute wealth from one citizen to another would be a form of what Bastiat would consider “laws as instruments of plunder”. We see this practice in the over taxation of individuals in general. This practice seems justified by most citizens because the taxation of individual’s income above what is necessary to run the basic functions of government has been going on for a long time. By the passing of laws, these tax practices are generally accepted as moral (or just) simply because they are part of the law. The morality of something can often times be determined by whether or not it is legal to do.

Socially speaking, there are laws that by their mere existence have changed what is generally accepted as moral (just) or not. In the past 100 years, the prohibition and subsequent legalization of alcohol has proven to be a major reason for the change the view of the morality of consuming alcoholic beverages. At one time in our country’s history, alcohol consumption was viewed as an immoral act. Fast forward 100 years, alcohol consumption is generally accepted as moral by even those whose own religion would otherwise not accept.

In both cases, we see how powerful laws can be in determining the acceptance of practices (economically and socially) that are generally harmful to individuals in certain ways. Laws of over-taxation are harmful to individuals in the sense that they take what is rightly a citizen’s property to support activities that the citizen is not morally responsible to support. Alcohol is widely accepted to be harmful (even while generally accepted as moral) to a person’s health over time.

But, the fact that these things are legal in our society makes them appear to be either just or moral. That is what Bastiat argued over 200 years ago, and we see the same thing happening in our society today. There are not many new things under the sun.