What’s Law Got to do with It?

01 Dec

This essay is about a great book called “The Law”.  I only scratched the surface of the ideas contained in the book and I hope I have not detracted from the brilliance of Bastiat’s writing.  Enjoy.

In present times, it seems almost impossible to keep up with what laws the Federal government is passing, what laws the State governments are passing, and what laws our local governments are passing, so it seems a natural enough question to ask, “What is law?” and “What do I expect the law to do for me?”

Frederic Bastiat, a nineteenth century French economist, philosopher, and author, wrote a book first published in June 1850 titled “The Law”, addressed these very same questions. He did his writing before, during, and after the French Revolution of 1848 which makes this all the more relevant since there are major concerns about the path the governments of the world seem to be on and how it relates to socialistic ideas.  Bastiat wrote:

What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.

So what does he mean by this?  Basically, he means that every person has the God-given right to defend one’s life, liberty, and property and that people can organize in order to protect and recognize each individual’s rights.  Given that each person has a right to protect and defend, through the use of force, one’s own life, liberty, and property then the law is simply a group recognition and enforcement of the individual’s rights.  So what does this mean, according to Bastiat, for collective rights?

Thus the principle of collective right — its reason for existing, its lawfulness — is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force — for the same reason — cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.

To sum it up succinctly, the law cannot do what the individual cannot do.  We cannot bestow upon an agent (government) of the individual the authority to destroy the rights of others through the passing of some legislation simply because it benefits one group at the expense of the rights of another.  Bastiat wrote of the perversion of law:

How has this perversion of the law been accomplished? And what have been the results? The law has been perverted by the influence of two entirely different causes: stupid greed and false philanthropy.  Let us speak of the first.

When they [people] can, they wish to live and prosper at the expense of others.

The annals of history bear witness to the truth of it: the incessant wars, mass migrations, religious persecutions, universal slavery, dishonesty in commerce, and monopolies. This fatal desire has its origin in the very nature of man — in that primitive, universal, and insuppressible instinct that impels him to satisfy his desires with the least possible pain.

Mankind can toil through life, working hard and applying his thought and efforts to shape and mold his environment to improve his well-being.  “This is the origin of property”, Bastiat wrote.  However, man may also live off of the toil of others by taking that which others have created in order to satisfy their own needs and wants.  This is the origin of theft or plunder, as Bastiat called it. 

Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain — and since labor is pain in itself — it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work.

But, generally, the law is made by one man or one class of men. And since law cannot operate without the sanction and support of a dominating force, this force must be entrusted to those who make the laws.

This fact, combined with the fatal tendency that exists in the heart of man to satisfy his wants with the least possible effort, explains the almost universal perversion of the law.

Today, it is easy to see how the law has been twisted and used to benefit the lawmaker and those who empower the lawmaker to violate individual rights in order to enrich themselves and their constituents.  Wealth transfer programs, such as welfare, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, and even our tax code are all used to take money from one group of people in order to give it to another group of people all facilitated by the law. People will sometimes call this kind of perversion of the law “social justice” however justice is only achieved in the absence of injustice.  That is, as long as people are not having their right to life, liberty, and property violated by any person or group of persons, then justice prevails.  But, “social justice” requires the violation of the individual’s rights.  If any person has their property seized against their will for the sole purpose of giving it to someone else then you have plunder.  And if the law is the perpetrator, then you have what Bastiat called “legal plunder.” And how can the plundered group of people seek resolve?

According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.

Woe to the nation when this latter purpose prevails among the mass victims of lawful plunder when they, in turn, seize the power to make laws!

It may be possible for the few to plunder the many, for everyone to plunder everyone, or for there to be no legalized plunder.  In the United States today, I would argue that we have what Bastiat called “universal plunder” where laws have been written to allow everyone to participate in legal plunder.  Large corporations receive taxpayer money in the form of subsidies, “loans”, grants, clean energy incentives (Solyndra), massive bailouts, and monetary policy (QE1, QE2).  Low-income and middle-income families receive taxpayer money in the form of wealth transfers such as welfare, food stamps, earned income tax credits, Medicare, Medicaid, education grants, and subsidized housing.  If you accept Bastiat’s argument that the collective force, having its origin and basis on the individual’s rights, cannot do what the individual cannot do, then all of the programs listed above are legalized theft and institutionalized injustice.  So what affect does legalized plunder have on society?

The nature of law is to maintain justice. This is so much the case that, in the minds of the people, law and justice are one and the same thing. There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons have erroneously held that things are “just” because law makes them so. Thus, in order to make plunder appear just and sacred to many consciences, it is only necessary for the law to decree and sanction it. Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them.

It is easy to recognize this truth.  How many times, in history and in recent times, have people endured something they believed was wrong but always ended with, “But it’s the law”?  If you argue against the law, you might be branded an extremist, a traitor, an agitator, or even unpatriotic.  Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that “Everything Hitler did was legal.”  His point was that just because something is sanctioned by the law does not make it just.  However, because people do tend to respect the law and associate law with justice, it will always be an uphill battle to change unjust laws.  As law increases in depth and scope, people will clamor to participate in law making:

As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose — that it may violate property instead of protecting it — then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder.    

For this reason there are 12,220 lobbyists working to influence the federal law.  The “Occupy Wall Street” movement complains that there is too much money involved in Washington politics and that taxpayers are footing the bill for giant corporations.  The “Tea Party” movement complains that their taxes are too high, the government is too intrusive, and that they are being forced to pay for things that they do not agree with.  At the core of each of their complaints is the perversion of law that Bastiat warned against over 150 years ago.  It is the participation in legal plunder that prompts corporations, unions, and organized citizen groups to lobby Congress.  Over the past (roughly) 100 years, the federal government has continued to assume responsibilities that it was never intended to assume.  With this responsibility, laid at the feet of Washington by generations of Americans, comes new power to create laws – laws which can be used to destroy individual rights through legal plunder.  So how can citizens of the United States recognize the unjust laws?

See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.

The answer is quite simple:  If I cannot do something without committing a crime than neither can the law.  If we want a society where the rule of law exists, then the law must be applied equally across all people and all groups of people, and most importantly equally applied to law makers.  If this is not the case, people lose faith in the law and justify their own lawlessness by pointing out the hypocrisy in the system.  The results of such laws

…erases from everyone’s conscience the distinction between justice and injustice.

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Posted by on December 1, 2011 in Uncategorized


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