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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review of Bastiat's "The Law": If Only This Were Written Today

Some problems hang, like a dim light suspended in time, dangling over the sea of history to cast dreary reflection on every epoch. Frederic Bastiat's "The Law" addresses one such timeless problem.

The question of good government and the paradoxes of its involvement in the private sector have boggled politicians and philosophers for ages. In an era much like ours--an era of technologically-empowered government surveillance, complex social struggle, decreased personal privacy, and rising cries for government economic intervention--Bastiat attributes all policy problems to a common root. The timeless problem, he says, is a misinterpretation of the place of the Law in the lives of the citizens.

Unlike his more famous contemporaries, Bastiat insists that the only place of law is to uphold justice, protecting people, their liberty, and their property. Injustice and tyranny keep the people down: as long as the Law prevents injustice, people can manage social engineering, religion, welfare, education, or labor on their own.

Heartless? Not really. Despite his stunning sarcasm, Bastiat displays remarkable charity towards his opponents, even arguing that all his opponents have philanthropic aims at heart. Long passages, in context, from his opponents comprise nearly half of his book. Granted, he uses those quotes to expose the arrogant view of man that ultimately leads to tyranny and government micromanagement--nevertheless, his open-hearted attitude towards disagreement shines.

Bastiat's argument against "the white man's burden" and his critique of classical elitism alone makes him a must read. He quips that if the legislators spent nearly as much time trying to improve themselves as they spent reorganizing other cultures, they would find the task difficult enough to keep them busy. No legislator has the right to force improvement on someone else. Despite his insipid argument against universal suffrage--that in a perfect society, no rights would be infringed upon so no disadvantaged would need to vote--Bastiat ranks foremost among the progressives.

I did not want to jump on the bandwagon of hype surrounding Bastiat's nearly libertarian dissertation. I actually avoided reading the book because I didn't want to join his intellectual groupies; reading through it caught me on a river of livid prose that washed into an ocean of happiness and confidence in thought and soul. I, too, want liberty, and in an era filled with clamor for government to get out of our lives, you could not find a more timely or beautiful work than Bastiat's to translate the reasoning behind those cries.

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