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Meeting Frédéric Bastiat

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The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Volume 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics, Jacques de Guenin, general editor, and Jane Willems and Michael Willems, translators (Liberty Fund 2011); 600 pages.

Of all the great classical liberal thinkers, Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) remains one of the least well-known. His works, of course, continue to be read. Last December, the Washington Post asked the major Republican political candidates to list the two books that were the strongest influences on their lives. One of the two books on Ron Paul’s list was Bastiat’s book The Law.

But while Bastiat’s ideas remain important, most of us don’t know very much about his life. Why was Bastiat so devoted to free trade? What was he like as a person — and as a politician? What did his friends think of him?

Until now, the answers have been locked inside Bastiat’s collected works, most of which have never been translated and many of which have been out of print since the end of the 19th century. The Liberty Fund has chosen to remedy the situation with a new translation of Bastiat’s collected works in seven volumes. This first volume includes his letters and miscellaneous articles about politics, very few of which have ever been translated into English until now.

Like most Liberty Fund books, The Man and the Statesman is well made, is nicely designed, and is a good value for the price. This book gives us a much fuller portrait of Bastiat than previously existed in English.

The Man and the Statesman divides into two parts. The first 300 pages are translations of Bastiat’s letters, while the remainder of the book consists of his journalism.

It should be noted that the originals of Bastiat’s letters do not survive, and we have to rely on Prosper Paillottet, who edited a volume of the letters that was first published in 1855. “It is clear that Paillottet took liberties with the letters,” notes David M. Hart, one of the many editors of this book, “cutting out sections that were ‘too personal’ or including incomplete drafts of letters found among Bastiat’s effects. This was done both to enhance the reputation of a much-honored man and to protect the privacy of the recipients of his letters that were still alive.”

But the result of Paillottet’s heavy editing is that nearly all of the letters that survive are from the last five years of Bastiat’s life. They offer new insights into his role both as a thinker and as a politician.

The Anti Corn-Law League

Frédéric Bastiat was born in 1801 in the county of Mugron in southwestern France. His family owned several farms in the county, and he had to drop out of high school to work in the family business. He spent much of the 1820s and 1830s assuming increased responsibility in his family enterprise while reading a great deal. One of the authors who had a strong influence on him was Jean-Baptiste Say, an important free-market economist.

Bastiat also enjoyed arguing with his friends about the topics of the day. One day in 1844 a friend gave him an article that quoted British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel as saying that a particular law should be repealed because if it were not, “we should fall, like France, to the lowest rank of all the nations.”

Bastiat was outraged. What bill could cause Britain’s leading politician to gratuitously malign the French? Bastiat’s knowledge of English was strong, so he wrote to the British newspaper The Globe and Traveller asking to subscribe and asking for the previous month’s issues, including the English text of Peel’s speech. When the bundle of newspapers came, Bastiat later recalled, “I hurriedly searched for the unfortunate statement by Mr. Peel and I saw … the words like France were missing.”

Bastiat also discovered that the bill Peel opposed was the Corn Laws, which kept the price of wheat artificially high through protectionist measures. (The British in those days called wheat “corn.”) The Corn Laws were opposed by the Anti Corn-Law League, whose support of free trade wasn’t based only on theory: poor people starved because they couldn’t afford food because of the high prices protectionism produced.

After reading a great deal on the Anti Corn-Law League and its head, Richard Cobden, Bastiat wrote an article saying that Britain would become prosperous because of free trade, while France was doomed to decline if it stayed protectionist. He sent it to France’s leading free-trade journal, Le journal des économistes, which accepted it. He decided to move to Paris and work for free trade.

He did so first by translating Cobden’s articles into French for his first book, then by visiting England and networking with Cobden, John Bright, and other leaders of the British free-trade movement.

Bastiat discovered two problems with building a national movement for free trade. The first was convincing people that there could be no compromise in their desire to support freedom.

He described the problems he had trying to create a free-trade league in a letter to Richard Cobden in January 1846: “The proposal [for the league] was put forward during a dinner with twenty people at which two ex-ministers were present,” he wrote.

You can imagine how much success that was likely to have! Among the guests, one wanted ½ freedom, another ¼ freedom, yet another ⅛ freedom, and perhaps three or four were ready to request freedom in principle. Just try to make a united and fervent association out of that!… A vital League cannot spring up from a group of men gathered together randomly.… Let us be ten, five, or even two if necessary, but let us raise the flag of absolute freedom and absolute principle, and let us wait for those with the same faith to join us.

Another problem Bastiat faced in arguing for free trade was that he was advancing an English idea in France. In one of the longest articles in the volume, he explained to French readers that while British society had many problems, it could when it desired act swiftly to promote freedom. For example, he reminded French readers of the British decision in 1838 to abolish slavery in territories under British rule. That decision, he noted, wasn’t made out of a process of cold calculation, but was the result of patient effort by Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, and other foes of slavery.

The swift decision to abolish slavery, Bastiat explained, showed that “reforms in England carry a quotient of radicalism, and therefore of grandeur, which astonishes and enthralls the mind.”

Freedom and imperialism

However, Bastiat reminded Richard Cobden in an 1847 letter that his love for England had its limits. Bastiat saw free trade and anti-imperialism as two halves of a pro-freedom whole. He wrote that “there is an inveterate distrust of England here, which I would go so far as to call a feeling of hostility, which is as old as the very names French and English.” But while some of that was due to prejudice, Bastiat reminded Cobden that the French were justifiably suspicious of an expansionist British foreign policy:

“In adopting free trade, England has not adopted the policies which logically result from it.” Bastiat continued:

Whenever the French read history, therefore, and when they note the succession of invasions by England, when they study the diplomatic means which led to these invasions, when they see a centuries-old system followed assiduously whether the Whigs or the Tories are at the helm of state, and when they read in your newspapers that England currently has thirty-four thousand sailors on warships, how do you expect them to trust in the strength of a principle, which incidentally they do not understand, to bring about a change in your policy? Something else is needed, namely deeds. Restore free trade to your colonies, repeal your Navigation Act, and above all disband your naval forces and retain only those which are essential to your security, and in doing so reduce your overheads and debts, relieve your population, cease to threaten other people and the freedom of the seas, and then, you may be sure, France will pay attention.

In 1849 Britain did indeed repeal the Navigation Act, a protectionist measure that required goods sold in Britain to be imported on British-owned ships. But the British did nothing to reduce the size and reach of its navy, and Bastiat continued his strong criticism of all forms of imperialism for the rest of his life.

In 1846 Bastiat was elected to the Chamber of Deputies as an independent. In a campaign speech, he told his constituents that both the ruling conservative party and the opposition were severely flawed. The conservatives, he said, were in power year after year but would do nothing about endlessly increasing budgets and a constantly rising national debt. The leftist opposition, he said, “breathes out nothing but war, domination, and Napoleonic ideas … and, in its conquering zeal with regard to Africa and the South Seas, there has never been any instance of the word justice passing its lips.” (France had just established colonies in Algeria and Tahiti.)

When asking his constituents to reelect him in 1849, Bastiat said that as a politician, “I did not let a single opportunity slip to combat error, whether arising from socialism or communism” or from less-ideological politicians. “On some occasions I had to vote with the left and on others with the right,” Bastiat added, “with the left when it defended liberty and the Republic, with the right when it defended order and security.” He was successfully reelected and remained in office until his death in 1850.

From 1848 onwards, Bastiat began to be afflicted with a chest ailment that would eventually cause his premature death at 49. It’s not clear what, exactly, this ailment was, but it could have been a form of tuberculosis. It robbed him of his ability to speak and eat. His letters showed that he faced his illness with nobility and courage. While he was dying, Bastiat managed to produce two of his greatest works, The Law and What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.

The Man and the Statesman adds considerably to our knowledge of one of the world’s greatest champions of liberty. If the other volumes are of a quality as high as this one, The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat could be one of the most important publishing projects Liberty Fund has ever produced.

This article was originally published in the November 2012 edition of Future of Freedom

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    Martin Morse Wooster, a former editor of the American Enterprise and the Wilson Quarterly, is the author, most recently, of Great Philanthropic Mistakes (Hudson Institute, 2010).