Who Is Frederic Bastiat?

Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) is a 19th-century philosopher and economist famous for his ideas about the role of the state in economic development. Bastiat was known for identifying flaws in protectionism, which is the theory or practice of taxing imported goods, to shield a country's domestic industries from foreign competition. He was equally known for his use of satire, to shed light on political and economic principles.

Bastiat was a prolific author. While living in England during the Industrial Revolution, he wrote Economic Sophisms, initially published in 1845. The book is a short work of essays which brings humor, taut logic, and compelling prose to the otherwise dry study of economics and targeted the laymen reader.

In his 1850 essay entitled Ce qu'on voit et ce qu'on ne voit pas, which translates as "What is Seen and What is Unseen," Bastiat introduced a concept which would eventually be coined as "opportunity cost," by Austrian economist Friedrich von Wieser, 60 years after Bastiat's death.

In his book entitled The Law, also published in 1850, Bastiat outlined how a free society can develop through a just legal system. In essence, he argued that a government consists only of the people. Therefore it has no legitimate powers beyond those that people would individually have. The following passage exemplifies this belief:

“Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.” 

Economists consider Bastiat a forerunner of the Austrian School—a model of economic thought based on methodological individualism.

Example of Bastiat's Economic Humor

One of Bastiat's witty contributions within Economic Sophisms was known as the "Candlemaker's Petition." It is a satire of the role of protectionism in economics. In the story, candlemakers across France join forces and protest against the unfair competition they face from the sun, which in this satire is a foreign competitor. The candlemakers petition the government that there are many advantages to blocking the sun.

Bastiat’s public career as an economist began only in 1844. It ended with his untimely death in 1850, after he contracted tuberculosis, likely during his tours throughout France to promote his ideas.

Key Takeaways

  • Philosopher and economist Frederic Bastiat was known for identifying flaws in protectionism—the practice of taxing imported goods.
  • Bastiat used satire in his writing to shed light on political and economic principles.
  • He championed free trade and believed governments possessed no legitimate power beyond those people have individually.
  • Bastiat was elected to the national legislative assembly soon after the French Revolution of 1848.

Real World Example

Bastiat was a champion of free trade, and his works continue to resonate with proponents of the policy. He grew in reputation as an economist and writer with an 1844 article he wrote in defense of free trade, entitled: The English Movement for Free Trade. Capitalizing on these ideas, British manufacturer and free trade campaigner Richard Cobden, worked with the British Anti-Corn Law League, to remove the barriers of British corn to export. Free trade is an economic policy of allowing import and exports with the application of tariffs, subsidies and quotas. U.S. president, Donald Trump, called for an end to trade barriers during the June 2018 G7 summit and with this statement received the title of being a free trade advocate. However, this was after he had imposed new tariffs on steel and aluminum in March 2018.