Peace Requires Anarchy

Frederic Bastiat’s “What Is Seen And What Is Not Seen”

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Despite knowing that Frederic Bastiat was not an anarchist [UPDATE: Bastiat may actually have been an anarchist], there was a point in his 1850 essay What Is Seen And What Is Not Seen at which I was convinced for a moment that he was about to espouse the anarchist position.

Bastiat wrote:

It is not within the province of this essay to evaluate the intrinsic worth of the public expenditures devoted to Algeria.

But I cannot refrain from making one general observation. It is that a presumption of economic benefit is never appropriate for expenditures made by way of taxation. Why? Here is the reason.

In the first place, justice always suffers from it somewhat. Since James Goodfellow has sweated to earn his hundred-sou piece with some satisfaction in view, he is irritated, to say the least, that the tax intervenes to take this satisfaction away from him and give it to someone else. Now, certainly it is up to those who levy the tax to give some good reasons for it. We have seen that the state gives a detestable reason when it says: “With these hundred sous I am going to put some men to work,” for James Goodfellow (as soon as he has seen the light) will not fail to respond: “Good Lord! With a hundred sous I could have put them to work myself.”

Once this argument on the part of the state has been disposed of, the others present themselves in all their nakedness, and the debate between the public treasury and poor James is very much simplified. If the state says to him: “I shall take a hundred sous from you to pay the policemen who relieve you of the necessity for guarding your own security, to pave the street you traverse every day, to pay the magistrate who sees to it that your property and your liberty are respected, to feed the soldier who defends our frontiers,” James Goodfellow will pay without saying a word, or I am greatly mistaken.

I thought that Bastiat was going to say that James Goodfellow would be irritated yet again and would say that he should be allowed to retain his right to choose which police, security, road, property protection, and soldier services he wishes to purchase and which he wishes not to purchase.

I was thus expecting a parallelism like this:

If the state says to him: “I shall take a hundred sous from you to pay the policemen who relieve you of the necessity for guarding your own security, to pave the street you traverse every day, to pay the magistrate who sees to it that your property and your liberty are respected, to feed the soldier who defends our frontiers,” James Goodfellow would not fail to respond: “Good Lord! With a hundred sous I could hire them for their services myself.”

Bastiat also could have mentioned the possibility that James Goodfellow may think that an army of soldiers is not needed to defend his property and thus may not not want to hire any such soldiers. Bastiat breezed over this possibility when he wrote, “James Goodfellow will pay without saying a word, or I am greatly mistaken.”

Perhaps some James Goodfellows would pay without a word, but certainly not all, so Bastiat is indeed mistaken in some sense. Further, I do not think that this was an unimportant point to just not mention. Rather, it is an important point because it raises questions about the nature of the government that Bastiat supports.

How would the government respond to such a person’s refusal to pay for the soldiers or police? Would the government force James Goodfellow to pay? In other words, is the government coercively taxing James Goodfellow to pay for these police and soldiers? If this is the case, then Bastiat’s limited government is not justified in its actions. Or is the government simply asking James Goodfellow if he would like to voluntarily purchase its police protection services? Perhaps the government would reply, “Okay, James Goodfellow. If you do not wish to purchase our police protection services then you do not have to.” If this is the case, then, as I argued in my post on Bastiat’s essay “The Law,” such a “government” would actually not be a government at all.

Despite a few details like this one that I disagreed with, I thought What Is Seen And What Is Not Seen was a very good essay. I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject as it is both entertaining and educational.

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Author: PeaceRequiresAnarchy

“A consistent peace activist must be an anarchist.” – Roderick T. Long

One thought on “Frederic Bastiat’s “What Is Seen And What Is Not Seen”

  1. Pingback: Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson” « Peace Requires Anarchy

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