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Frédéric Bastiat

From 1801
 to 1850

"The state is the great fiction by which everybody tries to live at the expense of everybody else."

These words by Frédéric Bastiat constitute one of history's most damning definitions of government.

Born the son of a merchant in 1801 at Bayonne, France, Bastiat was orphaned before his tenth birthday. Bastiat was a farmer by trade who became a politician. Hence, his observations about man and society are derived from personal experience and observation, rather than the theories of a scholar.

Bastiat entered the public arena as a result of his support for Richard Cobden and the efforts of his English Anti-Corn Law League. His eloquent and persuasive case against protectionism secured him public prominence and made an immediate impression on the French people. He followed up his initial pamphlet's success with several important books and essays including Economic Harmonies, Economic Sophisms, Essays on Political Economy and the universally popular essay The Law. He was beginning work on an extended essay entitled Harmony of Social Laws, which would have been his magnum opus, when he died an untimely death at age 49 in 1850.

Bastiat was himself no progressive iconoclast. He typified that rare breed of liberal who holds a deep and powerful belief in a personal and transcendent God, and who incorporates this belief in a wide ranging social philosophy centering on the proposition that when left alone society will most clearly display the wisdom and intent of the Creator. As Bastiat put it: “I believe that He Who arranged the material world was not to remain foreign to the arrangements of the social world.”

According to Bastiat, when society's social arrangements are not properly ordered, when they are controlled by an omnipotent few, the natural and spontaneous order that needs to function freely in order for social harmony to be achieved is impeded and will result in social chaos. Indeed, as he observed, “The doctrine that places the moving force of Society in the legislators and Government results in imposing crushing responsibilities on them in matters where they ought to have none. If there is suffering, the fault is the Government's; if there is poverty, the fault is the Government's - Is it not the general and sole motor of society? If the motor is not good, it must be discarded and replaced by another.”