Frederick Bastiat
Personal Development

The Proper Functions of the Law – Frederick Bastiat’s The Law

In 1850 a French liberal theorist by the name of Frederic Bastiat wrote a short book called The Law. It is an extraordinarily unique work – certainly not your typical revolutionary doctrine – and it provides a simple, concise sketch of some fundamental principles of government. (You can read The Law for free! online here)

Reading it inspired me to put together a very brief compilation of what I have come to believe are some of the most important ideas about government.

History has painstakingly taught us that government in general is a necessary evil. There is no perfect government. Men are corrupt. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t need laws. But in the fallen state of mankind, enforced laws are necessary. There are some forms of government that are better than others, and it is worthwhile to figure out what those are. Most people think that the American republic is the best example so far of a national government. That is probably true. But, apart from being universally misunderstood, this monster which used to be called a republic is far from flawless and is screeching towards collapse at roller-coaster speed. Not quite an ideal. I think it would have worked out better and lasted longer if America’s Founders had incorporated some of these principles into the fabric of the government.

First off, to get at the root of the problem, we need to define ‘government.’

The words law and government have been used interchangeably, which is alright, but keep in mind that law is the practical application of moral principles and government is a social force. By its very nature, government is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense. Each of us have a natural, God-given right to defend – even by force – our person, liberty, and property. Those rights do not exist because men have made laws, but on the contrary, they are what have caused men to make laws. Therefore it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force for the constant, collective protection of these individual rights. This government does not intervene in private affairs, and its only duty is to protect men from each other, for the common safety of all. Man must accept the privileges and the responsibilities of his existence, having no argument with the government, and having no reason to blame or thank the government for anything.

The nature of law is to maintain justice, and no society can exist without respected laws to a degree. Law must not contradict morality. It is founded on morality. The myth that ‘we cannot legislate morality’ is false. What else can we legislate? For example, the reason we have traffic laws is so that accidents will not occur, because vehicular manslaughter is murder and murder is wrong.

As seen throughout the entire history of the world, mankind has a fatal tendency towards satisfying his needs and desires with the least possible pain or labor. This is the origin of plundering the products of the labor of others. The only thing that will keep man from plunder is when it becomes more painful than labor. The purpose of the government is to use the collective force to punish plunder and protect property.

Unfortunately, in practice, the government does not confine itself to its proper function. In fact, it often acts in direct opposition to its own purpose, annihilating the justice it is supposed to maintain, destroying the rights it is meant to respect. It has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous, who aim to exploit others. The imaginary ‘rights’ of the government is one of the biggest lies in the history of the world. If an individual cannot lawfully encroach upon the person, liberty or property of another individual, than neither can the government. This point cannot be overstressed. What right to authority or dominance do men collectively wield that they do not wield individually?

The government cannot operate without a dominating force

This force must be entrusted to one man or one class of men, who will nearly always try to use it to benefit themselves. Thus it is easy to understand how law is exploited and corrupted and morphs into a weapon of injustice. The few practice ‘legal’ plunder upon the many, until the victims of this plunder recognize their state, and according to their degree of enlightenment, seek either to bring an end to it, or to join it. When the latter attitude prevails and the masses rise up and seize the power of government themselves, chaos generally ensues, followed by universal injustice and a battle of classes.

The proper function of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning. It is a purely defensive, negative concept. It must be. People say that, if the law regulates justice, why shouldn’t it regulate labor, education, and religion? Because then it would be committing an injustice, destroying its first function. The law is force, imposing negation. Applying force to labor, education, or religion, or anything except justice, is destroying liberty – and justice. They tell us our doctrine has stopped at liberty, and should have gone on to fraternity. But that is false philanthropy. Enforced ‘fraternity’ destroys liberty. Justice is the only thing the law can enforce.

The republics of the world have been arguing about ‘universal suffrage’ for as long as we can remember. But if the Law were confined to its proper functions, then everyone’s interest in the law would be the same, and no one would have any reason for trying to control it, and those who voted could not inconvenience those who did not. Unfortunately that is not the case – the law has been perverted, and has taken it into its head to take property from one party and give it to another, under the pretence of organization, regulation, protection, etc. So now every one wants to participate, and every class must fight to control the government and the franchise, either to protect themselves from plunder or to use the law to plunder others. Perverted law causes conflict.

Perverted law, or legal plunder, has an infinite number of names.

They call it tariffs, protections, encouragement, subsidies, public schools, minimum wages, guaranteed jobs, insurance, social security, etc. All of these are examples of the government violating its responsibility, acting outside its lawful functions.

People say that the law must take care of ‘charity,’ must protect and provide for people with no money. But the law is not a source of money. Nothing can enter the public treasury for the benefit of one citizen or class unless other citizens and classes have been compelled to put it there. There is no money outside society. The law cannot be an instrument of equalization unless it takes from some to give it to others, becoming an instrument of plunder.

People say that the law must be responsible for educating the poor. But the law is not a shining torch of learning. In society, some persons have knowledge while others do not. The law can do one of two things – permit a natural transaction of teaching and learning to operate freely, or force people to pay for government appointed teachers to instruct the ‘poor, uneducated.’ The latter is a violation of liberty and property.

Law is force, and it can only provide artificial unity and fraternity.

Socialism confuses the distinction between government and society. And just because some thing should not be done by the government, does not mean that they should not be done at all. Private organizations and individuals can do those things, without the use of force. That is the only difference between private and official. The government cannot be made to produce what it does not contain – wealth, science, religion, and the other things that constitute prosperity.

What is this concept of ‘liberty’ that all this political turmoil is focused on? It bears some definition. What else could it be, but the union of all liberties – liberty of conscience, education, association, travel, labor, trade, and the press? It is the freedom of everyone to make full use of his faculties, as long as he does not harm anyone else while doing so. It is the destruction of despotism. It is the restricting of the law to its rational sphere of organizing the right to lawful defense, of punishing injustice.

If law is confined to preventing injustice, what is the alternative? If we cannot apply law to conscience, education, labor, trade or association, then there are a hundred inherent risks in letting those things alone, with nothing to regulate them, and men will undoubtedly misuse and abuse their liberty in those areas. But that is still the best case scenario and the law still has no authority to regulate them until there is obvious injustice being committed. If we choose to surrender those rights to an absolute, arbitrary, invalid power, the situation is much worse.

Frequently Asked Questions

When was Bastiat’s The law written?

Frederic Bastiat first published The Law as a booklet in 1850. The majority of Bastiat’s work was written in the years before and after the French Revolution of 1848. The Law is regarded as a classic, and his concepts remain pertinent today. In 1850, the essay was published in French.

What is Frederic Bastiat known for?

Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a nineteenth-century philosopher and economist best known for his views on the role of the state in economic progress. In the mid-nineteenth century, he was a strong proponent of open markets and free trade. Bastiat was inspired by Richard Cobden’s actions and the formation of the Anti-Corn Law League in Britain in the 1840s and attempted to replicate their success in France.

Frederic Bastiat was also a prolific writer, an ingenious social scientist, and, most importantly, a great advocate for individual liberty. Indeed, Joseph Schumpeter, a leading economist of the twentieth century, referred to Bastiat as “the most brilliant economic journalist who ever lived.” Bastiat’s work has a plethora of such nuggets. For example, the state is the vast fake institution through which everyone strives to live at the cost of everyone else.

Bastiat eliminates protectionist arguments by reducing them to their ludicrous core in a superb and concise satire. He presents a petition from candlemakers requesting that the French government protect them from competition from…the sun. After all, what sector of national labour, he argues, wouldn’t benefit from a thriving candle trade?

The fundamental underlying concept of Bastiat’s works was that the free market was intrinsically a source of “economic peace” among people as long as government was limited to safeguarding citizens’ lives, liberty, and property from theft or violence. Bastiat is valuable not just for the reasons he presents for keeping the state out of the economy, but also for exposing (or so he says) the “sophistry” that underpins government interference. Statism, according to Bastiat, is the product of an epistemological, and perhaps phenomenological, error: the belief that the most essential effects of an action are obvious.

Bastiat was a master at popularising free-market economics. Bastiat promised to become the “French Cobden” after learning about Richard Cobden’s struggle against the British Corn Laws (restrictions on the import of wheat, barley, rye, and oats). He went on to write a series of pieces against protectionism, which earned him immediate renown. In 1846, he founded the Association of Free Trade in Paris, as well as his own weekly journal, in which he launched a scathing attack on socialists and protectionists.


I’m a writer, new mom and foodie. I love sharing what I know while making others feel beautiful. On this blog, I share my healthy lifestyle, simple meals, fitness tips and experiences.

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