One of my legislative colleagues was gracious enough to give me a copy of Frederic Bastiat's work The Law. In the book, Bastiat launches a full frontal rhetorical assault against the French way of governance as conducted in his day in 1850.
So what exactly was the "French way" of governance back then? Lets listen to Mr. Robespierre, one of Bastiat's contemporaries:
"The principle of the republican government is virtue, and the means required to establish virtue is terror. In our country we desire to substitute morality for selfishness, honesty for honor, principles for customs, duties for manners, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion, contempt of vice for contempt of poverty, pride for insolence, greatness of soul for vanity, love of glory for love of money, good people for good companions, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for glitter, the charm of happiness for the boredom of pleasure, the greatness of man for the littleness of the great, a generous, strong, happy people for a good-natured, frivolous, degraded people; in short, we desire to substitute all the virtues and miracles of a republic for all the vices and absurdities of a monarchy."
So, in other words, Mr. Robespierre's desire was to legislate the people into morality through the use of the force of law. The objectives seem well-meaning enough. However, the means of accomplishing them via lawful decree is counterproductive. Mr. Bastiat retorts:
"But when the law, by means of its necessary agent, force, imposes upon men a regulation of labor, a method or a subject of education, a religious faith or creed - then the law is no longer negative; it acts positively upon people. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own wills; the initiative of the legislator for their own initiatives. When this happens the people no longer need to discuss, to compare, to plan ahead; the law does all this for them. Intelligence becomes a useless prop for the people, they cease to be men, they lose their personality; their liberty, their property."France in 1850 was a nation of many government programs. The economy was being micromanaged by government which made private profits a spoil of political dominance. The list of interferences in the economy included: tariffs, protection of industry, 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 more. This all according to Mr. Bastiat's record.
In speaking of using the public treasury to pay for citizen benefits he says:
...the law is not a breast that fills itself with milk. Nor are the lacteal veins of the law supplied from a source outside the society.
In a very French way, he hits the nail on the head by declaring that public money doesn't just magically appear, but comes from private people...the taxpayers.
So how do we stack up today? Clearly France has had a more volatile history than the United States. Nevertheless, there are clear comparisons between his nation in 1850 and our nation today. Where would Mr. Bastiat have us go from here?
"And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works."
Frederic Bastiat died December 24, 1850 of tuberculosis shortly after The Law was published.