Claude-Frédéric Bastiat was born on June 29, 1801 in Bayonne, a small port city in Southern France. At age 10, Bastiat was orphaned by his parents and based on the recognition he gets as a historical figure and economist, one might think his life ended at that point. Fortunately, it did not and Bastiat’s grandparents cared for him for the remainder of his childhood.
When Bastiat was just 25, his grandfather passed away and left behind the family estate. Upon inheriting the estate, young Frédéric could have easily chosen to live an unproductive lifestyle and squander his inheritance, but for his remaining 24 years, Bastiat accomplished more than the common man does in a lifetime. Bastiat made remarkable contributions in the field of economics, he became a brilliant writer and storyteller, and he defended liberty against its persistent and inevitable threats.
An Underrated Economist
Although Bastiat’s name is not mentioned in your standard college text book—not even as a footnote—Bastiat made countless contributions in his study of economics, many of which are now taken for granted. Bastiat is rarely cited in academic research papers, seldom recognized by historians, and his work is far too often forgotten or ignored by mainstream economists today.
In his famous essay “That Which Is Seen and that Which Is Not Seen,” Bastiat explains how the immediate and short-term economic consequences of an action or policy are often easy to see while the distant and long-term effects are much less obvious and often ignored. Essentially, Bastiat’s essay illustrates what economists now call “The Law of Opportunity Cost”—the idea that resources employed to satisfy one purpose cannot also be employed to satisfy another.
Even if his economic contributions ended with his illustrations of opportunity cost, Bastiat’s contributions would have been admirable. But as Tom DiLorenzo wrote, Bastiat also made important contributions to economics in his explanation of capital theory, illustration of subjective cost, emphasis on treating the study of economics as an intellectual endeavor, study of how government policy effects the economy, defense of market competition, support for private property as a means of economic organization, and his unwavering belief in unlimited free exchange.
A Brilliant Storyteller
In addition to making numerous contributions to the advancement of economic theory, Bastiat became an outstanding writer and storyteller. Bastiat had a wonderful ability to take complex ideas and illustrate them in simple stories. We live in a time when economists manipulate numbers and use phony moral arguments to support their claims. If anything is to be appreciated about Bastiat, it is the undeniable elegance of his storytelling.
In “The Candlemakers’ Petition,” Bastiat—an unapologetic proponent of free trade—brilliantly points out the logical inconsistencies of protectionism. The basic storyline goes as follows:
Everyone involved in the candle making process is outraged because their new competitor is providing lighting for everyone in town at no cost. All groups connected to the industry organize and petition the government to pass legislation requiring citizens to shut all windows, shutters, blinds, curtains, etc. to keep out the light from their new competitor and keep their enterprise in business. As it turns out, the candlemakers’ competitor is the sun. (Yes, you’re allowed to laugh.)
In many ways, Bastiat’s satire highlights the fundamental logical and economic fallacies associated with protectionism—mainly that it makes consumers worse off by limiting their options and their ability to purchase cheaper alternatives while it props up a singe firm or industry. “The Candlemakers’ Petitition” is a perfect example of Bastiat’s ability to take an issue which is often considered overwhelmingly complex—international trade and protectionism—and present its economic and logical conclusions in a simple story.
A Principled Defender of Liberty
Not only was Bastiat an outstanding economist and storyteller, he was an accomplished political philosopher and principled defender of liberty. In his book, The Law, Bastiat defended the concept of natural rights when he wrote:
It is not because men have made laws, that personality, liberty, and property exist. On the contrary, it is because personality, liberty, and property exist beforehand, that men make laws. What, then, is law? As I have said elsewhere, it is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.
After defending natural rights and explaining the origins of the law, Bastiat continued by explaining how law enforcement works in a free society:
Collective right, then, has its principle, its reason for existing, its lawfulness, in individual right; and the common force cannot rationally have any other end, or any other mission, than that of the isolated forces for which it is substituted. Thus, as the force of an individual cannot lawfully touch the person, the liberty, or the property of another individual—for the same reason, the common force cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, the liberty, or the property of individuals or of classes.
Essentially, Bastiat’s point is that a free society is one governed by laws and not by men, which means that those who enforce the law must also follow the law. Bastiat then pointed out that it is not morally justifiable for the ruling class to use its legal authority to cease private property and oppress the citizenry—a concept he called “legal plunder.” Finally, Bastiat suggested that politicians who do so are thieves in the same way as a common thief in the street.
Even during his tenure as a public servant, Bastiat remained highly critical of government and upon his election to the French General Assembly, he fought to advance liberty at every opportunity by attempting to repeal the laws which cultivated legal plunder and replace them with justice. Unfortunately, Bastiat was unable to pursue his goals in government to their ends because of his untimely death at the hands of tuberculosis.
Though Bastiat did not live to see his 50th birthday, his ideas are still living nearly two centuries later. Frédéric Bastiat—one of liberty’s greatest economists, philosophers, legislators, and perhaps its greatest story teller—may be ignored by most of academia, but his writings have been translated into several languages and read by millions around the world. It is probably safe to conclude that Bastiat’s ideas will be remembered far longer and by far greater numbers, than the ideas of those who choose to ignore his contributions.