Selected Essays on Political Economy
To the Democrats
No, I am not mistaken; I feel, beating within my breast, a democratic heart. How, then, does it happen that I find myself so often in opposition to those who proclaim themselves the exclusive representatives of democracy?
Yet we must understand one another. Has this word two opposite meanings?
For my part, it seems to me that there is a connection between the aspiration that impels all men towards the improvement of their material, intellectual, and moral condition, and the faculties with which they are endowed to realize this aspiration.
Hence, I should like each man to have, on his own responsibility, the free disposition, administration, and control of his own person, his acts, his family, his transactions, his associations, his intelligence, his faculties, his labor, his capital, and his property.
This is how they understand freedom and democracy in the United States. There each citizen is vigilant with a jealous care to remain his own master. It is by virtue of such freedom that the poor hope to emerge from poverty, and that the rich hope to preserve their wealth.
And, in fact, as we see, in a very short time this system has brought the Americans to a degree of enterprise, security, wealth, and equality of which the annals of the human race offer no other example.
However, there as everywhere, there are men who do not scruple to violate for their personal advantage the freedom and property rights of their fellow citizens.
That is why the law intervenes, through the instrumentality of the public police force, to prevent and repress such aggressive inclinations.
Everyone co-operates, in proportion to his means, in the maintenance of this force. This is not a case, as has been said, of sacrificing a part of one's liberty to preserve the rest; it is, on the contrary, the most simple, just, efficacious, and economical means of guaranteeing the freedom of all.
And one of the most difficult problems of politics is to keep the trustees of this public police force from doing themselves what they are charged with preventing.
The French democrats, so it seems, see things in an entirely different light.
Undoubtedly, like the American democrats, they condemn, reject, and hold in contempt the acts of plunder that citizens might be tempted to commit on their own authority against one another—every act of aggression committed against the property, labor, and freedom of one individual by another individual.
But plunder, which they reject between individuals, they regard as a means of equalizing property, and, consequently, they entrust plunder to the law, to the public police force, which I thought was instituted to prevent it.
Thus, while the American democrats, having empowered the public police force to punish individual plunder, are very much concerned that this force should not itself become spoliative; the French democrats, on the contrary, make of this force an instrument of plunder, and this seems to be the very foundation and essence of their system.
To this system they give the grand names of organization, association, fraternity, and solidarity. They thereby remove all scruples from the most brutal appetites.
"Peter is poor; Mondor is rich. Are they not brothers? Are they not answerable for one another? Must they not be associated, organized? Then, let them share, and all will be for the best. It is true that Peter should not take from Mondor. That would be wrong. But we will make laws and create forces that will be charged with carrying out that operation. Thus, the resistance of Mondor will be treated as rebellion, and Peter's conscience can be at ease."
In the history of this legislature there have been occasions when plunder appeared under an especially hideous aspect. This has been so whenever the law has worked to the advantage of the rich and the detriment of the poor.
But even in such cases the Montagnards have been known to applaud. Is it not because they want above all to see the principle of legal plunder securely established as a precedent? Once the legal plunder of the poor for the profit of the rich is made legitimate by the support of the majority, how reject the legal plunder of the rich for the benefit of the poor?
Unhappy country, where the sacred forces that were meant to support each man's rights are perverted to accomplish themselves the violation of these rights!
Yesterday at the Legislative Assembly, we witnessed a scene from that abominable and distressing spectacle which may well be called the comedy of dupes.
Here is what it was about.
Every year 300,000 children reach the age of twelve. Of these 300,000 children, perhaps 10,000 enter the state collèges and lycèes. Are their parents all rich? I know nothing about that. But it can most certainly be affirmed that they are the richest in the nation.
Naturally, they must pay the costs of feeding, instructing, and bringing up their children. But they find them too high. Consequently, they have demanded and obtained a law that, by taxes on drinks and salt, takes money from the poor parents of 290,000 children, to be distributed to them, the rich parents, by way of gratuity, encouragement, indemnity, subsidy, etc., etc.
M. Mortimer-Ternaux has demanded that this monstrous situation be brought to an end, but he has failed in his efforts. The extreme Right finds it very convenient to make the poor pay for the education of rich children, and the extreme Left finds it very politic to seize such an occasion to have the system of legal plunder established and sanctioned.
At which I ask myself: Where are we going? The Assembly must direct itself by some principle; it must commit itself to justice everywhere and for everybody, if it is not, in fact, to rush headlong into the system of legal and reciprocal plunder, to the point of completely equalizing all classes, that is, to the point of communism.
Yesterday it declared that the poor must pay taxes to relieve the rich. How can it have the cheek to reject taxes that will soon be proposed to it to "soak the rich" in order to relieve the poor?
For my part, I cannot forget that when I presented myself before the voters, I said to them:
"Would you approve a system of government which was based on the following arrangement: You would have the responsibility for your own existence. You would demand, in exchange for your labor, your effort, and your industry, the means of feeding, clothing, lodging, and enlightening yourselves, of attaining affluence, well-being, and perhaps prosperity. The government would concern itself with you only to guarantee you against all disturbance and unjust aggression. For its part, it would ask of you only the very modest tax indispensable for accomplishing this task."
And all cried out: "We ask nothing else of it."
And now, what would be my position if I had to present myself anew before those poor farmers, those honest artisans, those fine workers, to say to them:
"You are going to pay more in taxes than you were expecting to pay. You are going to have less freedom than you hoped for. It is to some extent my fault, for I have departed from the system of government you had in view when you elected me. On April 1, I voted for an increase in the tax on salt and drinks, in order to come to the aid of the small number of our countrymen who send their children to the state schools."
Whatever happens, I hope never to put myself in the sad and ridiculous position of having to make such a speech to those who have placed their trust in me.
Notes for this chapter
[Louis Mortimer-Ternaux (1808-1871), French politician and historian. A political reactionary, he served at various intervals from 1830 to 1871 in government posts and as a member of the Assembly and as Deputy. His views are best expressed in his Histoire de la Terreur.—Translator.]
[At the Legislative Assembly's session of April 1, 1850, during the discussion of the budget for public education, M. Mortimer-Ternaux, one of the Representatives, proposed an amendment to decrease by 300,000 francs the expenditures on lycées and collèges, institutions attended by the children of the middle class.
On this question the Representatives of the extreme Left voted with the extreme Right. The amendment, put to the vote, was rejected by a slight majority.
On the very next day Bastiat published in a daily newspaper the opinion on this vote which we reproduce here.—Editor.]
NOTES TO CHAPTER 13
End of Notes
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