While flying yesterday, I began a set of readings for a Liberty Fund conference on Bastiat (thanks Matt!). I haven’t read Bastiat in a serious way since grad school. My reaction to the first set of readings recalls the (perhaps apocryphal) story of when Eric Clapton first heard Jimi Hendrix play. Supposedly Clapton said “that’s it, I have to go home and burn all my guitars.” Or in a more recent cultural reference: “I am not worthy!” I mean that literally, in that I was recently mentioned in a conversation about modern-day Bastiats. I thought that was excessive flattery at the time, but after this morning, I really am not worthy.
Even after more than 150 years, I’m not sure any economist has ever combined really good economic content with the style, panache, and passion of Bastiat. There are so many examples even in the limited reading I did, but one stood out from the first chapter of Economic Harmonies from 1850. The long extracts below could have been written today about Occupy Wall Street and related issues, but no one has done it with quite the style and clarity of analysis that Bastiat brings. I’ll insert some commentary along the way.
But now the great masses of the people, downtrodden, oppressed, exhausted, stage their revolution too…They become a pressure group; they [like those they oppose] insist on becoming privileged. They, the masses of the people, imitating the upper classes, cry in their turn for privileges. They demand their right to employment, their right to credit, their right to education, their right to pensions. But at whose expense? That is a question they never stop to ask. They know only that being assured of employment, credit, education, security for their old age, would be very pleasant indeed, and no one would deny it. But is it possible? Alas, no, and at this point, I say, it is no longer detestable, but illogical to the highest degree.
All fair enough, then Bastiat appeals directly to them.
Privileges for the masses! People of the lower classes, think of the vicious circle you are placing yourself in. Privilege implies someone to profit from it and someone to pay for it. We can conceive of a privileged man or privileged class; but we can we conceive of a whole nation of privileged people? Is there another social stratum under you that you can make carry the load?
Note the argument that it’s the richer classes who use privileges from the state to exploit those below them, rather than the other way around. There’s something of a libertarian class theory there.
Will you never understand the weird hocus pocus of which you are the dupes? Will you never understand that the state cannot give you something with one hand without taking that something, and a little more, away from you with the other? Do you not see that, far from there being any possible increase of well-being in this process for you, its end result is bound to be an arbitrary government, more galling, more meddling, more extravagant, more precarious, with heavier taxes, more frequent injustices, more shocking cases of favoritism, less liberty, more lost effort, with interests, labor, and capital all misdirected, greed stimulated, discontent fomented, and individual interest stifled?
This is a classic imminent sort of criticism, suggesting that the means of the poor’s desire for privilege (the state) will frustrate their ends and give them more of exactly what they oppose. Bastiat’s argument is a fine one against OWS today. As good as this is, Bastiat recognizes that he might be letting other parties off the hook.
The upper classes become alarmed, and not without reason, at this disturbing attitude on the part of the masses. They sense in it the germ of constant revolution, for what government can endure when it has had the misfortune to say: “I have the force, and I shall use it to make everybody live at the expense of everybody else. I take upon myself the responsibility for the happiness of all?”
Now he goes in for the kill:
But is not the consternation these classes feel a just punishment? Have they themselves not set the baneful example of the attitude of mind of which they now complain? Have they not always had their eyes fixed on favors from the state? Have they ever failed to bestow any privilege, great or small, on industry, banking, mining, landed property, the arts, and even their means of relaxation and amusement, like dancing and music – everything, indeed, except on the toil of the people and the work of their hands? Have they not endlessly multiplied public services in order to increase, at the people’s expense, their means of livelihood: and is there today the father of a family among them who is not taking steps to assure his son a government job? Have they ever voluntarily taken a single step to correct the admitted inequities of taxation? Have they not for a long time exploited their electoral privileges? And now they are amazed and distressed that the people follow in the same direction! But when the spirit of mendicancy has prevailed for so long among the rich, how can we expect it not to have penetrated to the less privileged classes?
KA-BLAM! Bastiat was a rhetorical ninja right there.
It’s is a terrific substantive and rhetorical point that I think has largely been overlooked in the contemporary libertarian commentary on Occupy Wall Street, yet Bastiat had it 160 years ago, and with style and panache. Bastiat may not have made any real contributions to economic theory, but no one in the history of economics has been a better economic rhetorician than he was. He knew how to take ideas and put them in a form that was persuasive and memorable. It is a skill more economists could use as we continue to try to push back during a time when bad ideas we thought were dead are reappearing, zombie-like, across the landscape.
Oh for some contemporary Bastiats, for I am not worthy.