Who Was Frederic Bastiat?

Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was 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, 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.

Due to his strong advocacy for free trade and limited government, Bastiat is often cited as an influence on the Austrian school of economics, although he was not alive when the Austrian school emerged.

Key Takeaways

  • Philosopher and economist Frederic Bastiat was known for his criticism of 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 protecting individual rights.
  • Bastiat was elected to the national legislative assembly soon after the French Revolution of 1848.
  • Although his economic career was short, Bastiat is often cited as an influence on the Austrian school of economics.

Early Life and Education

Frederic Bastiat was born in 1801, the son of a businessman in Bayonne, France. The Bastiat family was well-off, having acquired an aristocratic estate in Mugron during the French Revolution.

Bastiat's parents died when Frederic was still young, leaving the orphan to be raised by a paternal grandfather. At age 17, he began working for his uncle in the family's export business. This experience may have influenced Bastiat's opposition to tariffs and other restraints on international trade.

At age 24, he inherited the family estate, leaving Bastiat with enough income to study his intellectual interests. He also became interested in politics: Bastiat was elected Justice of the Peace in 1831 and to the local legislature the following year. He was ultimately elected to the National Assembly in 1848 and 1849.

Notable Accomplishments

Although Bastiat did not develop any original theory or discovery, he became famous for his witty and lucid explanations of the theories developed by more opaque economic thinkers. In one famous essay, Bastiat parodied the argument for protectionism with a satirical petition to block out the sun, thereby protecting the livelihood of French candlemakers. Another is the parable of the broken window, where Bastiat explored the fallacy that destruction would result in more work, and therefore more prosperity.

However, Bastiat's career as an economist was brief. He published his first article on economics in 1844 and continued to write until his death from tuberculosis in 1850.

"Government is a great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else." -Frederic Bastiat.

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.

Published Works

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 that 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 that 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.

Legacy

Bastiat's arguments in favor of a limited government, free markets, and unrestricted international trade provided a strong influence on the development of the Austrian school of economics, whose first writers began to emerge several decades after Bastiat's death.

Much of Bastiat's writing was contemporaneous with socialist economists like Karl Marx, who argued that capital accumulation came at the expense of the working class. Bastiat argued the opposite: by improving the productivity of labor and providing cheaper goods, business owners were actually making life better for the working classes. In other words, according to Bastiat, the interests of workers and their employers were harmonious.

Bastiat is also known for his writings on political economy. Although he considered government an essential part of a market economy, a government could not be used to seize wealth from its citizens—even if a democratic majority voted to do so. "Since no individual has the right to enslave another individual," Bastiat explained, "then no group of individuals can possibly have such a right." This rejection of government expropriation forms a fundamental tenet of Austrian philosophy.

Bastiat was a champion of free trade, and his works continue to resonate with proponents of the policy. His reputation as an economist and writer grew with an 1844 article he wrote in defense of free trade, entitled: The English Movement for Free Trade.

Free trade is the belief that trade barriers and tariffs are economically harmful, both to the country that imposes them and to the country whose goods are kept out. Bastiat is credited with coining the phrase, "if goods don't cross borders, armies will," indicating that war is more likely between countries that do not trade freely. Although the phrase appears to be apocryphal, it accurately reflects Bastiat's economic philosophy.

Capitalizing on these ideas, British manufacturer and free trade campaigner Richard Cobden worked with the British Anti-Corn Law League to remove the barriers to British corn exports.

What Was Frederic Bastiat Known for?

Bastiat is most famous for his writings in favor of free trade. He is especially known for his wit, which he used in satirical critiques of socialism and protectionist trade policies. In one famous essay, he argued that the government should block out the sun in order to protect the livelihood of French candlemakers.

What Is Frederic Bastiat’s "The Law"?

The Law (French: La Loi) is an 1850 book on political economy by Frederic Bastiat. Bastiat argues against socialism, saying that each person has a "natural right' to protect their life, liberty, and property. The state exists to defend this right, Bastiat argues, and cannot be legitimately used to violate individual rights or to plunder their property.

What Does Frederic Bastiat Say About Trade Protectionism?

Bastiat was an opponent of protectionism and advocated freedom of trade. His first economics article, published in the Journal des Economiques, became a persuasive argument in favor of free trade and against protective tariffs. In contrast, free trade would make goods cheaper and more widely available, ultimately improving the lives of both producers and consumers.

Article Sources

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  1. New World Encyclopedia. "Claude Frederic Bastiat."

  2. Kidadl. "Frederic Bastiat Quotes."

  3. GoodReads. "Quote by Frederic Bastiat."

  4. Mises.org. "Biography of Frederic Bastiat."

  5. Liberty Fund. "Did Bastiat Say 'If Goods Don't Cross Borders, Soldiers Will'?"

  6. Encyclopedia Britannica. "Corn Law."

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