Bastiat – The State

This post originally appeared at The Cobden Centre.

In the course of things, I had cause to quote Bastiat, a French classical liberal theorist, political economist, and member of the French assembly: “The state is the great fiction by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.” This prompted me to dig out the original essay.

As the UK’s national debt doubles and after a period within which QE was used, creating space in the market for that debt, one wonders how much longer we can go on like this before we are forced to rediscover the truths in this classic work.

I wish that someone would offer a prize, not of five hundred francs, but of a million, with crosses, crowns, and ribbons, to whoever would give a good, simple, and intelligible definition of this term: the state.

What an immense service he would render to society!

The state! What is it? Where is it? What does it do? What should it do?

All that we know about it is that it is a mysterious personage, and certainly the most solicited, the most tormented, the busiest, the most advised, the most blamed, the most invoked, and the most provoked in the world.

For, sir, I do not have the honor of knowing you, but I wager ten to one that for six months you have been making utopias; and if you have been making them, I wager ten to one that you place upon the state the responsibility of realizing them.

And you, madame, I am sure that you desire from the bottom of your heart to cure all the ills of mankind, and that you would be in no wise embarrassed if the state would only lend a hand.

But alas! The unfortunate state, like Figaro, knows neither to whom to listen nor where to turn. The hundred thousand tongues of press and rostrum all cry out to it at once:

“Organize labor and the workers.”

“Root out selfishness.”

“Repress the insolence and tyranny of capital.”

“Make experiments with manure and with eggs.”

“Furrow the countryside with railroads.”

“Irrigate the plains.”

“Plant forests on the mountains.”

“Establish model farms.”

“Establish harmonious workshops.”

“Colonize Algeria.”

“Feed the babies.”

“Instruct the young.”

“Relieve the aged.”

“Send the city folk into the country.”

“Equalize the profits of all industries.”

“Lend money, without interest, to those who desire it.”

“Liberate Italy, Poland, and Hungary.”

“Improve the breed of saddle horses.”

“Encourage art; train musicians and dancers.”

“Restrict trade, and at the same time create a merchant marine.”

“Discover truth and knock a bit of sense into our heads.”

“The function of the state is to enlighten, to develop, to increase, to fortify, to spiritualize, and to sanctify the soul of a nation.”2

“Oh, sirs, a little patience,” replies the state with a piteous air. “I shall try to satisfy you, but for that I shall need some resources. I have prepared proposals for five or six taxes, brand new and the mildest in the world. You will see how glad people will be to pay them.”

But then a great cry is raised: “Shame! Shame! Anybody can do a thing if he has the resources! Then you would not be worthy of being called the state. Far from hitting us with new taxes, we demand that you eliminate the old ones. Abolish:

“The tax on salt;

“The tax on beverages;

“The tax on letters;

“The octroi;*



In the midst of this tumult, and after the country had changed its state two or three times for not having satisfied all these demands, I tried to point out that they were contradictory. Good Lord! What was I thinking of? Could I not keep this unfortunate remark to myself?

So here I am, discredited forever; and it is now an accepted fact that I am a heartless, pitiless man, a dry philosopher, an individualist, a bourgeois—in a word, an economist of the English or American school.

Oh, pardon me, sublime writers, whom nothing stops, not even contradictions. I am wrong, no doubt, and I retract my error with all my heart. I demand nothing better, you may be sure, than that you should really have discovered outside of us a benevolent and inexhaustible being, calling itself the state, which has bread for all mouths, work for all hands, capital for all enterprises, credit for all projects, ointment for all wounds, balm for all suffering, advice for all perplexities, solutions for all problems, truths for all minds, distractions for all varieties of boredom, milk for children and wine for old age, which provides for all our needs, foresees all our desires, satisfies all our curiosity, corrects all our errors, amends all our faults, and exempts us all henceforth from the need for foresight, prudence, judgment, sagacity, experience, order, economy, temperance, and industry.

And why should I not desire it? Heaven forgive me! The more I reflect on it, the more I find how easy the whole thing is; and I, too, long to have at hand that inexhaustible source of riches and enlightenment, that universal physician, that limitless treasure, that infallible counselor, that you call the state.

Hence, I insist that it be shown to me, that it be defined, and that is why I propose that a prize be offered to the first to discover this rare bird. For, after all, it will have to be admitted that this precious discovery has not yet been made, since the people have up to now overthrown immediately everything that has presented itself under the name of the state, precisely because it has failed to fulfill the somewhat contradictory conditions of the program.

Need it be said that we may have been, in this respect, duped by one of the most bizarre illusions that has ever taken possession of the human mind?

Man is averse to pain and suffering. And yet he is condemned by nature to the suffering of privation if he does not take the pains to work for a living. He has, then, only the choice between these two evils. How arrange matters so that both may be avoided? He has found up to now and will ever find only one means: that is, to enjoy the fruits of other men’s labor; that is, to arrange matters in such a way that the pains and the satisfactions, instead of falling to each according to their natural proportion, are divided between the exploited and their exploiters, with all the pain going to the former, and all the satisfactions to the latter. This is the principle on which slavery is based, as well as plunder of any and every form: wars, acts of violence, restraints of trade, frauds, misrepresentations, etc.—monstrous abuses, but consistent with the idea that gave rise to them. One should hate and combat oppressors, but one cannot say that they are absurd.

Slavery is on its way out, thank Heaven, and our natural inclination to defend our property makes direct and outright plunder difficult. One thing, however, has remained. It is the unfortunate primitive tendency which all men have to divide their complex lot in life into two parts, shifting the pains to others and keeping the satisfactions for themselves. It remains to be seen under what new form this deplorable tendency is manifested.

The oppressor no longer acts directly by his own force on the oppressed. No, our conscience has become too fastidious for that. There are still, to be sure, the oppressor and his victim, but between them is placed an intermediary, the state, that is, the law itself. What is better fitted to silence our scruples and—what is perhaps considered even more important—to overcome all resistance? Hence, all of us, with whatever claim, under one pretext or another, address the state. We say to it: “I do not find that there is a satisfactory proportion between my enjoyments and my labor. I should like very much to take a little from the property of others to establish the desired equilibrium. But that is dangerous. Could you not make it a little easier? Could you not find me a good job in the civil service or hinder the industry of my competitors or, still better, give me an interest-free loan of the capital you have taken from its rightful owners or educate my children at the public expense or grant me incentive subsidies or assure my well-being when I shall be fifty years old? By this means I shall reach my goal in all good conscience, for the law itself will have acted for me, and I shall have all the advantages of plunder without enduring either the risks or the odium.”

As, on the one hand, it is certain that we all address some such request to the state, and, on the other hand, it is a well-established fact that the state cannot procure satisfaction for some without adding to the labor of others, while awaiting another definition of the state, I believe myself entitled to give my own here. Who knows if it will not carry off the prize? Here it is:

The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.

For, today as in the past, each of us, more or less, would like to profit from the labor of others. One does not dare to proclaim this feeling publicly, one conceals it from oneself, and then what does one do? One imagines an intermediary; one addresses the state, and each class proceeds in turn to say to it: “You, who can take fairly and honorably, take from the public and share with us.” Alas! The state is only too ready to follow such diabolical advice; for it is composed of cabinet ministers, of bureaucrats, of men, in short, who, like all men, carry in their hearts the desire, and always enthusiastically seize the opportunity, to see their wealth and influence grow. The state understands, then, very quickly the use it can make of the role the public entrusts to it. It will be the arbiter, the master, of all destinies. It will take a great deal; hence, a great deal will remain for itself. It will multiply the number of its agents; it will enlarge the scope of its prerogatives; it will end by acquiring overwhelming proportions.

But what is most noteworthy is the astonishing blindness of the public to all this. When victorious soldiers reduced the vanquished to slavery, they were barbarous, but they were not absurd. Their object was, as ours is, to live at the expense of others; but, unlike us, they attained it. What are we to think of a people who apparently do not suspect that reciprocal pillage is no less pillage because it is reciprocal; that it is no less criminal because it is carried out legally and in an orderly manner; that it adds nothing to the public welfare; that, on the contrary, it diminishes it by all that this spendthrift intermediary that we call the state costs?

And we have placed this great myth, for the edification of the people, in the Preamble of the Constitution. Here are the first words of the Preamble:

France has been constituted as a republic in order to …. raise all its citizens to an ever higher standard of morality, enlightenment, and well-being.

Thus, it is France, or the abstraction, which is to raise Frenchmen, or the realities, to a higher standard of morality, well-being, etc. Is this not to be possessed by the bizarre illusion that leads us to expect everything from another power than our own? Is this not to imply that there is, above and beyond the French people, a virtuous, enlightened, rich being who can and ought to bestow his benefits on them? Is this not to assume, and certainly most gratuitously, that there exists between France and the people of France, that is, between the synoptic, abstract term used to designate all these individuals and the individuals themselves, a father-son, guardian-ward, teacher-pupil relationship? I am well aware of the fact that we sometimes speak metaphorically of “the fatherland” or of France as a “tender mother.” But in order to expose in its full flagrance the inanity of the proposition inserted into our Constitution, it suffices to show that it can be reversed, I will not say without disadvantage, but even to advantage. Would exactness suffer if the Preamble had said:

“The French have been constituted as a republic in order to raise France to an ever higher standard of morality, enlightenment, and well-being”?

Now, what is the value of an axiom of which the subject and the object can be interchanged without disadvantage? Everyone understands the statement: “The mother will nurse the baby.” But it would be ridiculous to say: “The baby will nurse the mother.”

The Americans formed another idea of the relations of citizens to the state when they placed at the head of their Constitution these simple words:

We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain, etc.

There is no mythical creation here, no abstraction from which the citizens demand everything. They expect nothing save from themselves and their own efforts.

If I have permitted myself to criticize the first words of our Constitution, it is not, as one might think, in order to deal with a mere metaphysical subtlety. I contend that this personification of the state has been in the past, and will be in the future, a fertile source of calamities and of revolutions.

Here the public, on the one side, the state on the other, are considered as two distinct entities, the latter intent on pouring down upon the former, the former having the right to claim from the latter, a veritable shower of human felicities. What must be the inevitable result?

The fact is, the state does not and cannot have one hand only. It has two hands, one to take and the other to give—in other words, the rough hand and the gentle hand. The activity of the second is necessarily subordinated to the activity of the first. Strictly speaking, the state can take and not give. We have seen this happen, and it is to be explained by the porous and absorbent nature of its hands, which always retain a part, and sometimes the whole, of what they touch. But what has never been seen, what will never be seen and cannot even be conceived, is the state giving the public more than it has taken from it. It is therefore foolish for us to take the humble attitude of beggars when we ask anything of the state. It is fundamentally impossible for it to confer a particular advantage on some of the individuals who constitute the community without inflicting a greater damage on the entire community.

It finds itself, then, placed by our demands in an obviously vicious circle.

If it withholds the boon that is demanded of it, it is accused of impotence, of ill will, of incapacity. If it tries to meet the demand, it is reduced to levying increased taxes on the people, to doing more harm than good, and to incurring, on another account, general disaffection.

Thus, we find two expectations on the part of the public, two promises on the part of the government: many benefits and no taxes. Such expectations and promises, being contradictory, are never fulfilled.

Is this not the cause of all our revolutions? For between the state, which is lavish with impossible promises, and the public, which has conceived unrealizable expectations, two classes of men intervene: the ambitious and the utopian. Their role is completely prescribed for them by the situation. It suffices for these demagogues to cry into the ears of the people: “Those in power are deceiving you; if we were in their place, we would overwhelm you with benefits and free you from taxes.”

And the people believe, and the people hope, and the people make a revolution.

Its friends are no sooner in charge of things than they are called on to make good their promises: “Give me a job, then, bread, relief, credit, education, and colonies,” say the people, “and at the same time, in keeping with your promises, deliver me from the burden of taxation.”

The new state is no less embarrassed than the old, for, when it comes to the impossible, one can, indeed, make promises, but one cannot keep them. It tries to gain time, which it needs to bring its vast projects to fruition. At first it makes a few timid attempts; on the one hand, it extends primary education a little; on the other, it reduces somewhat the tax on beverages (1830). But it is always confronted with the same contradiction: if it wishes to be philanthropic, it must continue to levy taxes; and if it renounces taxation, it must also renounce philanthropy.

These two promises always and necessarily conflict with each other. To have recourse to borrowing, that is, to eat into the future, is indeed a means of reconciling them in the present; one tries to do a little good in the present at the expense of a great deal of harm in the future. But this procedure raises the specter of bankruptcy, which destroys credit. What is to be done, then? The new state then takes a firm stand against its critics: it regroups its forces to maintain itself, it stifles opinion, it has recourse to arbitrary decrees, it ridicules its former maxims, it declares that one can govern only on condition of being unpopular; in short, it proclaims itself the government.

And this is precisely what other demagogues are waiting for. They exploit the same illusion, take the same road, obtain the same success, and soon come to be engulfed in the same abyss.

This is the way we came to the February Revolution. At that time the illusion that is the subject of this article had made its way further than ever into popular thought, along with socialist doctrines. More than ever before, people expected that the state, in a republican form, would open wide the floodgates of its bounty and close off the stream of taxes. “I have often been deceived,” said the people, “but this time I myself will stand guard to see that I am not again deceived.”

What could the provisional government do? Alas! What is always done in such a circumstance: promise and gain time. It did not fail to do this, and, to add solemnity to its promises, it gave them definitive form in its decrees. “Increased welfare, shorter working hours, relief, credit, gratuitous education, agricultural settlements, land clearance, and, at the same time, reductions in the taxes on salt, beverages, letters, meat, all will be granted …. when the National Assembly meets.”

The National Assembly met, and, as two contradictory ideas cannot both be realized, its task, its sad task, was confined to retracting, as gently as possible, one after another, all the decrees of the provisional government.

Still, in order not to make the disappointment too cruel, it had to compromise a little. Certain commitments were kept; others were fulfilled in token form. Hence, the present administration is trying to devise new taxes.

Now, looking ahead a few months, I ask myself sadly what will happen when the newly created civil servants go out into the country to collect the new taxes on inheritances, incomes, and the profits of agriculture. May Heaven give the lie to my presentiments, but here again I see a role for the demagogues to play.

Read the last Manifesto of the Montagnards* which they issued in connection with the presidential election. It is rather long, but can be summed up in a few words: The state should give a great deal to the citizens and take little from them. It is always the same tactic, or, if you will, the same error.

The state owes instruction and education free of charge to all citizens.

It owes:

A general and professional education, appropriate as nearly as possible to the needs, vocations, and capacities of each citizen.

It should:

Teach each citizen his duties toward God, toward men, and toward himself; develop his feelings, his aptitudes, and his faculties; give him, in short, proficiency in his work, understanding of his best interests, and knowledge of his rights.

It should:

Put within everyone’s reach literature and the arts, the heritage of human thought, the treasures of the mind, all the intellectual enjoyments which elevate and strengthen the soul.

It should:

Insure against every disaster, fire, flood, etc. [how great are the implications of this little et cetera!], suffered by a citizen.

It should:

Intervene in the relations between capital and labor and make itself the regulator of credit.

It owes:

Practical encouragement and efficacious protection to agriculture.

It should:

Buy up the railroads, the canals, the mines, and undoubtedly also administer them with that industrial expertise which is so characteristic of it.

It should:

Stimulate laudable enterprises, and encourage and aid them with all the resources capable of making them succeed. As regulator of credit, it will largely control the industrial and agricultural associations, in order to assure their success.

The state is to do all this without prejudice to the services that it performs today; and, for example, it must always adopt a threatening attitude toward foreign nations; for, say the signers of the program, linked by that holy solidarity and by the precedents of republican France, we extend our commitments and our hopes, beyond the barriers that despotism has raised between nations, on behalf of all those whom the yoke of tyranny oppresses; we desire that our glorious army be again, if it must, the army of liberty.

You see that the gentle hand of the state, that good hand which gives and which bestows, will be very busy under the government of the Montagnards. Perhaps you believe that the same will be true of the rough hand, of the hand that reaches into our pockets and empties them?

Undeceive yourselves. The demagogues would not know their business if they had not acquired the art of hiding the rough hand while showing the gentle hand.

Their reign will surely mean a jubilee for the taxpayer.

“It is on luxuries,” they say, “not necessities, that taxes should be imposed.”

Will it not be a happy day when, in order to load us with benefits, the public treasury is content to take from us just our superfluous funds?

Nor is this all. The Montagnards intend that “taxation should lose its oppressive character and should henceforth be no more than an act of fraternity.”

Heavenly days! I am well aware of the fact that it is the vogue to get fraternity in everywhere, but I did not suspect that it could be put into the receipt of the tax collector.

Getting down to details, the signers of the manifesto say:

We demand the immediate abolition of taxes that fall on objects of primary necessity, such as salt, drinks, et cetera.

Reform of the real estate tax, the octroi [a local tax], and license fees.

Justice free of charge, that is, the simplification of forms and the reduction of expenses. [This no doubt has to do with official stamps.]

Thus, real estate taxes, the octroi, license fees, taxes on stamps, salt, beverages, mail—all are to be done away with. These gentlemen have found the secret of keeping the gentle hand of the state energetic and active, while paralyzing its rough hand.

Indeed! I ask the impartial reader, is this not childish and, what is more, dangerously childish? Why would people not make one revolution after another, once they had made up their minds not to stop until this contradiction had been made a reality: “Give nothing to the state, and receive a great deal from it”?

Does anyone believe that if the Montagnards came to power, they would not themselves become the victims of the very means that they employed to seize it?

Citizens, throughout history two political systems have confronted each other, and both of them can be supported by good arguments. According to one, the state should do a great deal, but also it should take a great deal. According to the other, its double action should be barely perceptible. Between these two systems, one must choose. But as for the third system, which is a mixture of the two others, and which consists in requiring everything from the state without giving anything to it, it is chimerical, absurd, childish, contradictory, and dangerous. Those who advance it in order to give themselves the pleasure of accusing all governments of impotence and exposing them thus to your violent attacks, flatter and deceive you, or at least they deceive themselves.

As for us, we think that the state is not and should not be anything else than the common police force instituted, not to be an instrument of oppression and reciprocal plunder, but, on the contrary, to guarantee to each his own and to make justice and security prevail.

Find the essay, with footnotes, via The Online Library of Liberty.

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