Peace Requires Anarchy


Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson”

I recently finished reading Henry Hazlitt’s popular 1946 book Economics in One Lesson.

The book is based on Frederic Bastiat’s famous 1850 essay What Is Seen And What Is Unseen, also translated as That Which Is Seen And That Which Is Not Seen. Bastiat’s essay (which I read a few months ago and commented on in a blog post) and Hazlitt’s book both examine the effects of various government interventions in the economy. Specifically, both authors show that for every intended, positive, seen effect that a government policy has, there is almost always an unintended, detrimental, unseen effect that inevitably comes along with it. Further, both authors come to the conclusion that when one takes all off these effects into account, one can see that the government economic policies considered almost always harm the economy as a whole.

To be brief with this blog post I’ll just say that Bastiat’s essay is shorter and, in my opinion, more educational and enjoyable than Hazlitt’s book. (I am sure that there are people who would disagree, but it is not my objective here to prove them wrong. I am just stating my view for anyone who might be interested.) Thus, if you are only going to read one of the two works I recommend that you do not read Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson” and do read Bastiat’s classic essay “That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen” instead.

While you are at it I also recommend Frederic Bastiat’s 1850 essay The Law, which I also thought was a very good read.

Now I will comment on Hazlitt’s political views that he expressed in “Economics in One Lesson” by comparing them to the political views Bastiat expressed in “The Law.” Most of Hazlitt’s book consisted of the economic critiques of government policies mentioned previously. He did not make any libertarian rights-based arguments against these policies that I recall, but instead argued against them purely by examining their economic effects on various groups of people. At multiple points throughout the book, however, Hazlitt paused from his critiques to make it clear to his audience that he was not opposed to all government action:

A certain amount of public spending is necessary to perform essential government functions. A certain amount of public works—of streets and roads and bridges and tunnels, of armories and navy yards, of buildings to house legislatures, police, and fire departments—is necessary to supply essential public services. With such public works, necessary for their own sake, and defended on that ground alone, I am not here concerned. I am here concerned with public works considered as a means of “providing employment” or of adding wealth to the community that it would not otherwise have had.

While both Bastiat and Hazlitt are regarded as classical liberals, Bastiat, unlike Hazlitt, did not explicitly express his support of a limited coercive government in the manner that Hazlitt did above, at least not in either of his two essays that I read. On the contrary, Bastiat’s political views seemed to be entirely anarchical except for the fact that he explicitly supported something which he called a “government.” Specifically, Bastiat expressed his support of a “government whose organized force was confined only to suppressing injustice.”

In my blog post on Bastiat’s “The Law” I replied to his statement about his notion of a “just government.” I argued that what Bastiat meant by a “government” is not something that we would consider a “government” by today’s definition. I argued that if Bastiat was indeed using the term “government” to refer to a voluntarily-funded organization, as opposed to an organization that coercively imposes taxes on people, then perhaps despite his explicit support of “government,” we could still consider him an anarchist. The term “philosophical anarchist” may be a more appropriate term to describe Bastiat to distinguish him from other theorists, such as Gustave de Molinari, who described how market mechanisms could provide “governmental” services in a free, anarchical, market society.

Hazlitt’s words quoted above make it clear that he was not an anarchist. His words make it clear that the government he supported was not the possibly “voluntary government” that Bastiat may have supported, but rather was a coercive monopolistic government that imposes involuntary taxes on people much like the many governments that rule people across the globe today.

To be fair to Henry Hazlitt and his book, though, he did not attempt to defend his views in support of government in “Economics in One Lesson,” but rather rightly said that such a discussion was beyond the scope of the book. I thus can’t criticize his book on the grounds that he did not defend his claim that a certain amount of public spending is “necessary.”

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

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.


Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law”

In his 1850 essay, The Law, classical liberal economist Frederic Bastiat wrote:

Law is justice. In this proposition a simple and enduring government can be conceived. And I defy anyone to say how even the thought of revolution, of insurrection, of the slightest uprising could arise against a government whose organized force was confined only to suppressing injustice.

Well, Mr. Bastiat, like you I would much prefer to live under such a limited government than to live under the government that I currently live under or the government that you lived under. The fact is, however, that such a government still amounts to tyranny as all governments necessarily do.

I will thus answer your challenge: “the thought of revolution, of insurrection, of the slightest uprising… against a government whose organized force was confined only to suppressing injustice” could arise from almost anywhere.

For example, imagine someone wants to purchase better quality or less expensive injustice-suppressing services from a different person or business wishing to sell such services. Your ideal government would violently prevent this competition from occurring by forcing its citizens to continue to pay taxes to fund its own injustice-suppressing services, would it not? If not, then is your ideal “government” really a government?

For a second example, imagine someone thinks that your government’s police force spends an unnecessary amount of money repressing injustice. Perhaps a bodyguard is hired for each family to make sure that no family gets attacked. I am sure that many people would deem this unnecessary and would not wish to purchase such expensive injustice-repressing services. Again, your government would tax these people against their will to take their money by force to fund its injustice-suppressing services, would it not? If it would not then I contend that what you advocate is not a government at all.

As a third example, imagine that your ideal government decides that the consumption of certain substances, such as marijuana or alcohol, is a crime. I could imagine it repressing these “injustices” despite how some of its citizens disagree that such acts are criminal. I could thus imagine someone wishing not to purchase your government’s injustice-repressing services for the simple reason that some of the acts that get suppressed are peaceful acts that people are free to make, not crimes. Once again, are people free to choose not to purchase the injustice-suppressing services of your ideal government? If they are, then what you propose is not a government at all. And if they are not, then this is the answer to your challenge.

Many years after your time philosopher Roderick T. Long wrote, “A consistent peace activist must be an anarchist.” He was right.

Your phrase “legal plunder” applies to taxation used to fund any goods and services, even the service of law itself.