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One More Quote from Bastiat’s ‘The State’

August 27, 2010

“Man is averse to pain and suffering. And yet he is condemned by nature to the suffering of privation if he does not take the pains to work for a living. He has, then, only the choice between these two evils. How arrange matters so that both may be avoided? He has found up to now and will ever find only one means: that is, to enjoy the fruits of other men’s labor; that is, to arrange matters in such a way that the pains and the satisfactions, instead of falling to each according to their natural proportion, are divided between the exploited and their exploiters, with all the pain going to the former, and all the satisfactions to the latter. This is the principle on which slavery is based, as well as plunder of any and every form: wars, acts of violence, restraints of trade, frauds, misrepresentations, etc. — monstrous abuses, but consistent with the idea that gave rise to them. One should hate and combat oppressors, but one cannot say that they are absurd.

Slavery is on its way out, thank Heaven, and our natural inclination to defend our property makes direct and outright plunder difficult. One thing, however, has remained. It is the unfortunate primitive tendency which all men have to divide their complex lot in life into two parts, shifting the pains to others and keeping the satisfactions for themselves. It remains to be seen under what new form this deplorable tendency is manifested.

The oppressor no longer acts directly by his own force on the oppressed. No, our conscience has become too fastidious for that. There are still, to be sure, the oppressor and his victim, but between them is placed an intermediary, the state, that is, the law itself. What is better fitted to silence our scruples and — what is perhaps considered even more important — to overcome all resistance? Hence, all of us, with whatever claim, under one pretext or another, address the state. We say to it: ‘I do not find that there is a satisfactory proportion between my enjoyments and my labor. I should like very much to take a little from the property of others to establish the desired equilibrium. But that is dangerous. Could you not make it a little easier? Could you not find me a good job in the civil service or hinder the industry of my competitors or, still better, give me an interest-free loan of the capital you have taken from its rightful owners or educate my children at the public expense or grant me incentive subsidies or assure my well-being when I shall be fifty years old? By this means I shall reach my goal in all good conscience, for the law itself will have acted for me, and I shall have all the advantages of plunder without enduring either the risks or the odium.’

As, on the one hand, it is certain that we all address some such request to the state, and, on the other hand, it is a well-established fact that the state cannot procure satisfaction for some without adding to the labor of others, while awaiting another definition of the state, I believe myself entitled to give my own here. Who knows if it will not carry off the prize?* Here it is:

The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”

— Frédéric Bastiat, The State

*Earlier, Bastiat proposes a prize for the best definition of the state.

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