Introduction by James Craig Green
This is part 3 of 15, presenting Frederic Bastiat's 1850 masterpiece The Law. Part 1 may be seen HERE and the entire book HERE.
The followers of Rousseau’s school of thought—who consider themselves far advanced, but whom I consider twenty centuries behind the times—will not agree with me on this. But universal suffrage—using the word in its strictest sense—is not one of those sacred dogmas which it is a crime to examine or doubt. In fact, serious objections may be made to universal suffrage.
In the first place, the word universal conceals a gross fallacy. For example, there are 36 million people in France. Thus, to make the right of suffrage universal, there should be 36 million voters. But the most extended system permits only 9 million people to vote. Three persons out of four are excluded. And more than this, they are excluded by the fourth. This fourth person advances the principle of incapacity as his reason for excluding the others. Universal suffrage means, then, universal suffrage for those who are capable. But there remains this question of fact: Who is capable? Are minors, females, insane persons, and persons who have committed certain major crimes the only ones to be determined incapable?
The Reason Why Voting Is Restricted
A closer examination of the subject shows us the motive which causes the right of suffrage to be based upon the supposition of incapacity. The motive is that the elector or voter does not exercise this right for himself alone, but for everybody.
The most extended elective system and the most restricted elective system are alike in this respect. They differ only in respect to what constitutes incapacity. It is not a difference of principle, but merely a difference of degree.
If, as the republicans of our present-day Greek and Roman schools of thought pretend, the right of suffrage arrives with one’s birth, it would be an injustice for adults to prevent women and children from voting. Why are they prevented? Because they are presumed to be incapable. And why is incapacity a motive for exclusion? Because it is not the voter alone who suffers the consequences of his vote; because each vote touches and affects everyone in the entire community; because the people in the community have a right to demand some safeguards concerning the acts upon which their welfare and existence depend.
The Answer Is to Restrict the Law
I know what might be said in answer to this; what the objections might be. But this is not the place to exhaust a controversy of this nature. I wish merely to observe here that this controversy over universal suffrage (as well as most other political questions) which agitates, excites, and overthrows nations, would lose nearly all of its importance if the law had always been what it ought to be.
In fact, if law were restricted to protecting all persons, all liberties, and all properties; if law were nothing more than the organized combination of the individual’s right to self defense; if law were the obstacle, the check, the punisher of all oppression and plunder—is it likely that we citizens would then argue much about the extent of the franchise?
Under these circumstances, is it likely that the extent of the right to vote would endanger that supreme good, the public peace? Is it likely that the excluded classes would refuse to peaceably await the coming of their right to vote? Is it likely that those who had the right to vote would jealously defend their privilege?
If the law were confined to its proper functions, everyone’s interest in the law would be the same. Is it not clear that, under these circumstances, those who voted could not inconvenience those who did not vote?
The Fatal Idea of Legal Plunder
But on the other hand, imagine that this fatal principle has been introduced: Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few—whether farmers, manufacturers, shipowners, artists, or comedians. Under these circumstances, then certainly every class will aspire to grasp the law, and logically so.
The excluded classes will furiously demand their right to vote—and will overthrow society rather than not to obtain it. Even beggars and vagabonds will then prove to you that they also have an incontestable title to vote. They will say to you:
“We cannot buy wine, tobacco, or salt without paying the tax. And a part of the tax that we pay is given by law—in privileges and subsidies—to men who are richer than we are. Others use the law to raise the prices of bread, meat, iron, or cloth. Thus, since everyone else uses the law for his own profit, we also would like to use the law for our own profit. We demand from the law the right to relief, which is the poor man’s plunder. To obtain this right, we also should be voters and legislators in order that we may organize Beggary on a grand scale for our own class, as you have organized Protection on a grand scale for your class.
Now don’t tell us beggars that you will act for us, and then toss us, as Mr. Mimerel proposes, 600,000 francs to keep us quiet, like throwing us a bone to gnaw. We have other claims. And anyway, we wish to bargain for ourselves as other classes have bargained for themselves!”
And what can you say to answer that argument!
Perverted Law Causes Conflict
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. Political questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be fighting at the door of the Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no less furious. To know this, it is hardly necessary to examine what transpires in the French and English legislatures; merely to understand the issue is to know the answer.
Is there any need to offer proof that this odious perversion of the law is a perpetual source of hatred and discord; that it tends to destroy society itself? If such proof is needed, look at the United States [in 1850]. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the protection of every person’s liberty and property. As a consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation. But even in the United States, there are two issues—and only two—that have always endangered the public peace.
Slavery and Tariffs Are Plunder
What are these two issues? They are slavery and tariffs. These are the only two issues where, contrary to the general spirit of the republic of the United States, law has assumed the character of a plunderer.
Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective tariff is a violation, by law, of property.
It is a most remarkable fact that this double legal crime—a sorrowful inheritance from the Old World—should be the only issue which can, and perhaps will, lead to the ruin of the Union. It is indeed impossible to imagine, at the very heart of a society, a more astounding fact than this: The law has come to be an instrument of injustice. And if this fact brings terrible consequences to the United States—where the proper purpose of the law has been perverted only in the instances of slavery and tariffs—what must be the consequences in Europe, where the perversion of the law is a principle; a system?
NEXT: THE LAW - 4