Free Life 16, April 1992, Review of Book by Frederic Bastiat, by Sean Gabb

From Free Life, Issue 16, April 1992
ISSN: 0260 5112

Providence and Liberty
Frederic Bastiat
Philosophical Selections translated by Raoul Audouin
The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty 1991

There are numerous reasons for why this book is to be welcomed. First, Bastiat has long since been more popular and influential in the English-speaking world than in the French, where his works when read at all are usually seen as strange abberations from the statist consensus. Second, the majority of those most likely to be influenced by him tend – and perhaps rightly – to place the learning of French rather low on their list of priorities. Third, as the translator drily notes, "Bastiat practised the oratory of our revolutionary period, and some slight abridgement has been deemed necessary!" This is an understatement. Despite the brilliance of his thought, Bastiat in French is almost unreadable: he raves on, page after page, like one of the worst romantic poets. Anyone who pays tribute to him must also give thanks to his translators into English.

A fourth reason is that we are now able to examine the thoughts of a man who was at once an undoubted classical liberal and a devout Roman Catholic. This is of more than academic interest. For there are many libertarians who reject Christianity, seeing it as a religion fit only to divide humanity between a minority of persecuting tyrants and a majority of grovelling slaves. Equally, there are many Christians who see liberalism as a secular blasphemy, neither better nor worse than the socialism to which it stands implacably opposed. Between these two extremes, Bastiat stands as an interesting and perhaps a useful fusion.

The first principle of Bastiat's social and economic philosophy was his belief in a "natural harmony of interests" among people. His opponents in the French Assembly, the conservatives and socialists, for all their other differences, were at one in denying this harmony. For the socialists, all existing economic relationships were based ultimately on expropriation and force; and the State's interference was needed at least to equalise an imbalance of power inherent to the system. The conservatives tended to dislike too much interference within the country, especially when it affected the value of their own property. Even so, they spoke passionately about the threat posed to the whole of France by foreign competition. Open but one chink in the tariff wall, they said – or even fail to raise it just a little higher – and all capital, all employment, all civilisation, would be at an end, destroyed by British industry.

Against these absurd claims, Bastiat was resolute: "Providence" he says,

has set the means, both plain and unerring, to create among nations a dispersal of resources, a diffusion of knowledge, a [ITALIC]solidarity, resulting in a simultaneous progress. All these advantages are hampered by the restrictive system that tends to isolate peoples. the result is to intensify the difference of conditions among them, to prevent the leveling upwards of their standard of living, to stop the fusions, to block the counterweights, and to lock up the nations in their respective superiority or inferiority.[p. 46]

This harmony he clearly sees, in a Tomistic fashion, as establishing the existence of God. There is nothing unusual in this. It is an argument that goes back far beyond Aquinas, to Aristotle and the Stoics, and has never long been absent from Western philosophy. Bastiat's next step, however, is highly unusual for the field of economics, often – and often falsely – as it has been taken in that of personal morality. Because God has established this system of harmonious relationships, he says, it has the Divine Approval, and as such its defence is the duty of every Christian. And, since the market is based on individual choice, this means the defence of individual freedom. He states this explicitly:

I trust entirely the wisdom of the laws established by Providence and, for that very reason, I put my faith in liberty.[p. 49]

Whether this fusion of liberalism with Christianity really works I will not here discuss. It has, nevertheless, had an enduring, if not always direct, influence on much Catholic economic thinking. It was known to Pope Leo XIII. In a letter of 1878, written while still a Cardinal, he paid tribute to Bastiat:

A celebrated French economist has clearly explained the many benefits that society brings to man; and that marvel is worthy of our attention.

Probably it was Bastiat whose influence was decisive in the endorsement subsequently given to the free market in that Pope's Encyclical of 1891, Rerum Novarum. Arguably, so far as the earlier work is allowed to stand unaltered, his influence can be felt in the present Pope's Encyclical of 1991, Centesimus Annus – a work that, in spite of its many flaws of economic reasoning, repays the closest study of any Roman Catholic who really does believe that liberalism is no better than socialism.

I should like to end this review by drawing attention to the work of the Acton Institute. Founded in 1990, and named after the great Victorian liberal, its mission is "to promote a society that combines civil liberties and a free market within a tradition that places a high value on scholarship, religion, and religious institution."

This is no idle boast, as I discovered a few weeks ago. I had written to its President, Father Robert A. Sirico, asking for books to help me in my work of converting the Slovak Christian Democratic Movement to free market principles. Instead of posting them, he brought them over in person, and passed an exhausting day in Bratislava, meeting senior Party officials and lecturing in the seminaries. He puzzled the Slovaks, I must confess. But he also gave them a lot to think about.

And that, perhaps still more than publishing the above book, is a very worthwhile thing to do.

Sean Gabb

© 1992 – 2015, seangabb.

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