This is part 4 of 15, presenting Frederic Bastiat's 1850 masterpiece The Law. Part 1 may be seen HERE and the entire book HERE.
Mr. de Montalembert [politician and writer] adopting the thought contained in a famous proclamation by Mr. Carlier, has said: “We must make war against socialism.” According to the definition of socialism advanced by Mr. Charles Dupin, he meant: “We must make war against plunder.”
But of what plunder was he speaking? For there are two kinds of plunder: legal and illegal.
I do not think that illegal plunder, such as theft or swindling— which the penal code defines, anticipates, and punishes—can be called socialism. It is not this kind of plunder that systematically threatens the foundations of society. Anyway, the war against this kind of plunder has not waited for the command of these gentlemen. The war against illegal plunder has been fought since the beginning of the world. Long before the Revolution of February 1848—long before the appearance even of socialism itself—France had provided police, judges, gendarmes, prisons, dungeons, and scaffolds for the purpose of fighting illegal plunder. The law itself conducts this war, and it is my wish and opinion that the law should always maintain this attitude toward plunder.
The Law Defends Plunder
But it does not always do this. Sometimes the law defends plunder and participates in it. Thus the beneficiaries are spared the shame, danger, and scruple which their acts would otherwise involve. Sometimes the law places the whole apparatus of judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes at the service of the plunderers, and treats the victim—when he defends himself—as a criminal. In short, there is a legal plunder, and it is of this, no doubt, that Mr. de Montalembert speaks.
This legal plunder may be only an isolated stain among the legislative measures of the people. If so, it is best to wipe it out with a minimum of speeches and denunciations—and in spite of the uproar of the vested interests.
How to Identify Legal Plunder
But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. 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.
Then abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil itself, but also it is a fertile source for further evils because it invites reprisals. If such a law—which may be an isolated case—is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.
The person who profits from this law will complain bitterly, defending his acquired rights. He will claim that the state is obligated to protect and encourage his particular industry; that this procedure enriches the state because the protected industry is thus able to spend more and to pay higher wages to the poor workingmen.
Do not listen to this sophistry by vested interests. The acceptance of these arguments will build legal plunder into a whole system. In fact, this has already occurred. The present day delusion is an attempt to enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal under the pretense of organizing it.
Legal Plunder Has Many Names
Now, legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number of ways. Thus we have an infinite number of plans for organizing it: tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on, and so on. All these plans as a whole—with their common aim of legal plunder—constitute socialism.
Now, since under this definition socialism is a body of doctrine, what attack can be made against it other than a war of doctrine? If you find this socialistic doctrine to be false, absurd, and evil, then refute it. And the more false, the more absurd, and the more evil it is, the easier it will be to refute. Above all, if you wish to be strong, begin by rooting out every particle of socialism that may have crept into your legislation. This will be no light task.
Socialism Is Legal Plunder
Mr. de Montalembert has been accused of desiring to fight socialism by the use of brute force. He ought to be exonerated from this accusation, for he has plainly said: “The war that we must fight against socialism must be in harmony with law, honor, and justice.”
But why does not Mr. de Montalembert see that he has placed himself in a vicious circle? You would use the law to oppose socialism? But it is upon the law that socialism itself relies. Socialists desire to practice legal plunder, not illegal plunder. Socialists, like all other monopolists, desire to make the law their own weapon. And when once the law is on the side of socialism, how can it be used against socialism? For when plunder is abetted by the law, it does not fear your courts, your gendarmes, and your prisons. Rather, it may call upon them for help.
To prevent this, you would exclude socialism from entering into the making of laws? You would prevent socialists from entering the Legislative Palace? You shall not succeed, I predict, so long as legal plunder continues to be the main business of the legislature. It is illogical—in fact, absurd—to assume otherwise.
The Choice Before Us
This question of legal plunder must be settled once and for all, and there are only three ways to settle it:
1. The few plunder the many.
2. Everybody plunders everybody.
We must make our choice among limited plunder, universal plunder, and no plunder. The law can follow only one of these three.
Limited legal plunder: This system prevailed when the right to vote was restricted. One would turn back to this system to prevent the invasion of socialism.
Universal legal plunder: We have been threatened with this system since the franchise was made universal. The newly enfranchised majority has decided to formulate law on the same principle of legal plunder that was used by their predecessors when the vote was limited.
No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony, and logic. Until the day of my death, I shall proclaim this principle with all the force of my lungs (which alas! is all too inadequate).*
*Translator’s note: At the time this was written, Mr. Bastiat knew that he was dying of tuberculosis. Within a year, he was dead.
The Proper Function of the Law
And, in all sincerity, can anything more than the absence of plunder be required of the law? Can the law—which necessarily requires the use of force—rationally be used for anything except protecting the rights of everyone? I defy anyone to extend it beyond this purpose without perverting it and, consequently, turning might against right. This is the most fatal and most illogical social perversion that can possibly be imagined. It must be admitted that the true solution—so long searched for in the area of social relationships—is contained in these simple words: Law is organized justice.
Now this must be said: When justice is organized by law—that is, by force—this excludes the idea of using law (force) to organize any human activity whatever, whether it be labor, charity, agriculture, commerce, industry, education, art, or religion. The organizing by law of any one of these would inevitably destroy the essential organization—justice. For truly, how can we imagine force being used against the liberty of citizens without it also being used against justice, and thus acting against its proper purpose?