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Providence and Liberty

The Foundation for Economic Education has sold, since 1950, approximately half a million copies of its edition of Bastiat’s The Law, in the Russell translation. This makes the book a “best seller,” despite that the Bastiat name is familiar to a mere handful. Few textbook surveys of political philosophies or economic theories mention him; few academics recognize the name.

The situation was even worse fifty years ago. It was a chance encounter between Thomas Nixon Carver and Leonard Read around 1941 that began the resurrection of this brilliant but obscure French politician and journalist.

Carver had joined the Harvard faculty as Professor of Political Economy in 1902. He was a champion of the free market economy during the next several decades, an opponent of socialism, and the author of some 19 published books. Harvard made him emeritus around 1940 and Carver moved to Los Angeles, where he continued lecturing at U.C.L.A and Occidental.

Read had become General Manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce in 1939. After one of Read’s speeches an elderly gentleman walked up to the podium, introduced himself as Tom Carver and said, “Mr. Read, you sound like Frédéric Bastiat.” “Bastiat,” said Read,“Who’s he? How do you spell the name?” Carver loaned Read a copy of Bastiat’s “Protection and Communism.” Read liked it, the Chamber reprinted it, and the rest is history.

Readers of The Law know that Bastiat was a devoutly religious man. Nowhere is this more evident than in Providence and Liberty, a new collection of Bastiat’s letters translated by Raoul Audouin and published by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. This volume is an exciting and long overdue contribution to the limited amount of Bastiat’s writings that are available in English.

In his book The Law, Bastiat was concerned that the law should be limited to securing justice in the relations of persons to one another. He echoes this theme and further develops it in the letters contained in Providence and Liberty. At one point he observes, “To say that the aim of Law is to let Justice reign, is to use a phrase that is not strictly appropriate. One ought to say that the aim of law is to prevent injustice from prevailing. For indeed, that which has a definite existence is not Justice, but injustice. The former results from the absence of the latter.”

Bastiat’s considerable political experience was coupled with a profound prescience regarding the serious threat to individual liberty that was being posed by the burgeoning socialist movement. His prophetic utterances seem uncanny today in light of the turn of history since his time. Listen to a warning delivered in an early political speech:

“The first impulse of the State will be to seize all the mutual-benefit insurance associations under the pretence of centralizing them; to make that move palatable, the Government will allow those funds to receive resources drawn from the taxpayers. Later on, the State will begin to fuse all of them into a single association, subject to some uniform regulation. Then the workers will cease to look at the common fund as their own savings to be administered by themselves. After a while, they will no longer consider the allowances in case of illness or unemployment as withdrawals from a limited provision gathered by their foresight, but as debt of society owed to them. They will not admit that the latter might be insolvent, and they will never be satisfied with the compensations…The State will find itself ever again compelled to ask more subsidies from the budget…mismanagement will spread, and reforms will be postponed from year to year as usual, until the day of an upheaval comes.”

While we have not yet experienced “the day of an upheaval,” all else warned against in the preceding passage has come to pass. This fragment contains a near perfect assessment of America, 1930-1991; and if present trends continue, as they are likely to do, a day of upheaval is not inconceivable.

As this valuable new book makes abundantly clear, Bastiat erects his political philosophy upon a particular religion–Christianity. But then, every political philosopher premises his work on some religion or other. Every political philosopher regards the cosmos as thus and so, and not otherwise; he embraces a theory of man and man’s place in the cosmos; he has a theory of right and wrong; a theory of mind; and a theory of the meaning and purpose of life. These five elements are present in every “religion,” whether it be sacred or secular. Those whose basic religion is dialectic materialism regard the cosmos as made up, in the final analysis, of matter; they regard the human species as a chance product of chemical interactions evolving over eons of time by accidental variations in the organism encountering accidental variations in the physical environment.

Marxism has been the most prominent, until recently, of the several modern religions premised on a denial of a transcendent dimension in human affairs. It’s the only one that has been tested by an experiment lasting for three generations; and the results have been catastrophic.

In a piercing fragment from one of his letters, Bastiat notes the inherent folly of this secular, socialist religion. He argues, “Whoever–ignoring the fact that the social body of man–dreams of creating an artificial society and arbitrarily manipulating family, propriety, justice and human nature, such a person is a socialist. A socialist is not busy with physiology, but with sculpture; he does not observe, he invents; he does not serve men, he uses them. He does not study their nature, he changes it, following the advice of Rousseau.”

Bastiat’s religious premises form the basis from which he draws his conclusions about the limited role of government in human society. Indeed, as Bastiat notes in one of his letters, “I trust entirely the wisdom of the laws established by Providence and, for that very reason, I put my faith in Liberty.“ Perhaps he put it best when he stated, ”I believe that He Who arranged the material world was not to remain foreign to the arrangements of the social world.“ For Bastiat, these arrangements function best and clearly display the wisdom of the Creator when left alone by the State.

Contemplating the rise of totalitarian despotisms, Wilhelm Roepke, one of the great economists of our time, observed that the modern world has provided us with another proof of the reality of Go–the universal disaster which ensues when we premise our policies and actions on a denial of that reality!

Bastiat’s religion was the historic Faith of Christendom; it was Christian and Catholic. This was the religion which gave form and purpose to Western Civilization, which therefore became the only one of the world’s great cultures which includes individual liberty in society as one of its major aims. Men and women over the centuries have lost sight of that aim from time to time, but until the recent past we have not witnessed its almost wholesale abandonment.

The miraculous collapse of the communist empire astonishes everyone; many will begin a search for an alternative, and some, we hope, will discover Bastiat, where they will find a superb exposition and defense of the appropriate political and economic structures for a society of free and virtuous people. No one has presented the case with more skill, style, charm and wit than Bastiat; no one makes better use of the reductio ad absurdam argument. His books are delightful company, and solid instruction as well. But Bastiat’s thoughts on religion are nowhere in his writings set forth in treatise form; his theology is well thought out, but lies hidden like golden nuggets in the sandy bed of a mountain stream. Now a French scholar has performed a labor of love, gleaning from the seven volume French