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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
POLITICAL ECONOMY has been called the “dismal science”; and probably the majority think of it as either merely a matter of words and phrases, or as something too abstruse for the common mind to comprehend. It was the distinction of Bastiat that he was able to write economic tracts in such a language that he that ran might read, and to clothe the apparently dry bones with such integuments as manifested vitality. Under his pen, questions of finance, of tax, of exchange, became questions which concern the lives of individual men and women, with sentiments, hopes, and aspirations.  1
  He was born at Bayonne in France, June 19th, 1801. At nine years of age he was left an orphan, but he was cared for by his grandfather and aunt. He received his schooling at the college of St. Sever and at Sorèze, where he was noted as a diligent student. When about twenty years of age he was taken into the commercial house of his uncle at Bayonne. His leisure was employed in cultivating art and literature, and he became accomplished in languages and in instrumental and vocal music. He was early interested in political and social economy through the writings of Adam Smith, J. B. Say, Comte, and others; and having inherited considerable landed property at Mugron on the death of his grandfather in 1827, he undertook the personal charge of it, at the same time continuing his economic studies. His experiment in farming did not prove successful; but he rapidly developed clear ideas upon economical problems, being much assisted in their consideration by frequent conferences with his neighbor, M. Felix Coudroy. These two worked much together, and cherished a close sympathy in thought and heart.  2
  The bourgeois revolution of 1830 was welcomed enthusiastically by Bastiat. It was a revolution of prosperous and well-instructed men, willing to make sacrifices to attain an orderly and systematic method of government. To him the form of the administration did not greatly matter: the right to vote taxes was the right which governed the governors. “There is always a tendency on the part of governments to extend their powers,” he said; “the administration therefore must be under constant surveillance.” His motto was “Foi systematique à la libre activité de l’individu; defiance systematique vis-à-vis de l’État conçu abstraitement,—c’est-à-dire, defiance parfaitement pure de toute hostilité de parti.” [Systematic faith in the free activity of the individual; systematic distrust of the State conceived abstractly,—that is, a distrust entirely free from prejudice.]  3
  His work with his pen seems to have been begun about 1830, and from the first was concerned with matters of economy and government. A year later he was chosen to local office, and every opportunity which offered was seized upon to bring before the common people the true milk of the economic word, as he conceived it. The germ of his theory of values appeared in a pamphlet of 1834, and the line of his development was a steady one; his leading principles being the importance of restricting the functions of government to the maintenance of order, and of removing all shackles from the freedom of production and exchange. Through subscription to an English periodical he became familiar with Cobden and the Anti-Corn-Law League, and his subsequent intimacy with Cobden contributed much to broaden his horizon. In 1844–5 appeared his brilliant ‘Sophismes économiques,’ which in their kind have never been equaled; and his reputation rapidly expanded. He enthusiastically espoused the cause of Free Trade, and issued a work entitled ‘Cobden et la Ligue, ou l’Agitation anglaise pour la liberté des échanges’ (Cobden and the League, or the English Agitation for Liberty of Exchange), which attracted great attention, and won for its author the title of corresponding member of the Institute. A movement for organization in favor of tariff reform was begun, of which he naturally became a leader; and feeling that Paris was the center from which influence should flow, to Paris he removed. M. de Molinari gives an account of his début:—“We still seem to see him making his first round among the journals which had shown themselves favorable to cause of the freedom of commerce. He had not yet had time to call upon a Parisian tailor or hatter, and in truth it had not occurred to him to do so. With his long hair and his small hat, his large surtout and his family umbrella, he would naturally be taken for a reputable countryman looking at the sights of the metropolis. But his countryman’s-face was at the same time roguish and spirituelle, his large black eyes were bright and luminous, and his forehead, of medium breadth but squarely formed, bore the imprint of thought. At a glance one could see that he was a peasant of the country of Montaigne, and in listening to him one realized that here was a disciple of Franklin.”  4
  He plunged at once into work, and his activity was prodigious. He contributed to numerous journals, maintained an active correspondence with Cobden, kept up communications with organizations throughout the country, and was always ready to meet his opponents in debate.  5
  The Republic of 1848 was accepted in good faith; but he was strongly impressed by the extravagant schemes which accompanied the Republican movement, as well as by the thirst for peace which animated multitudes. The Provisional government had made solemn promises: it must pile on taxes to enable it to keep its promises. “Poor people! How they have deceived themselves! It would have been so easy and so just to have eased matters by reducing the taxes; instead, this is to be done by profusion of expenditure, and people do not see that all this machinery amounts to taking away ten in order to return eight, without counting the fact that liberty will succumb under the operation.” He tried to stem the tide of extravagance; he published a journal, the République Française, for the express purpose of promulgating his views; he entered the Constituent and then the Legislative Assembly, as a member for the department of Landes, and spoke eloquently from the tribune. He was a constitutional “Mugwump”: he cared for neither parties nor men, but for ideas. He was equally opposed to the domination of arbitrary power and to the tyranny of Socialism. He voted with the right against the left on extravagant Utopian schemes, and with the left against the right when he felt that the legitimate complaints of the poor and suffering were unheeded.  6
  In the midst of his activity he was overcome by a trouble in the throat, which induced his physicians to send him to Italy. The effort for relief was a vain one, however, and he died in Rome December 24th, 1850. His complete works, mostly composed of occasional essays, were printed in 1855. Besides those mentioned, the most important are ‘Propriété et Loi’ (Property and Law), ‘Justice et Fraternité,’ ‘Protectionisme et Communisme,’ and ‘Harmonies économiques.’ The ‘Harmonies économiques’ and ‘Sophismes économiques’ have been translated and published in English.  7
 
 
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