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Frederic Bastiat (1801-50)

Bastiat lived his life in France during turbulent political times. Bastiat witnessed, in his lifetime, in France, one upheaval after another; the two most violent ones being those of 1830 and 1848. These violent struggles are traceable to the French Revolution (1789), which, of course, unfolded before Bastiat's birth. The revolutionaries insisted that there should be a social organization -- to be achieved by bloody force, if necessary -- such that the state, government, would take ownership and control of the means of production, viz. property rights. Then, by a rational process (rationalistic school), supported by the social contract theory as was developed by Rousseau, these political dreamers would administer and distribute the wealth of the country, and, at the same time, see to its preservation and creation.1 One regime after another came in on top of the ruins of the previous regimes and made the same silly promises to the gullible mobs. Bastiat was of the view that those who subscribe to socialism subscribe to putting in place mechanisms, a philanthropic tyranny, which would but force the human race (a futile effort) to behave as the social engineers think the human race ought to behave as opposed to how it behaves by nature.

While born at Bayonne, France, Bastiat, at the age of seven, moved with his father to Mugron where the family had a small estate; Mugron was home to the Bastiat family. He lost his parents at a young age; his mother at Bastiat's age seven and his father at age nine. Frederic's upbringing then fell into the hands of his paternal grandfather and a maiden aunt, Justine Bastiat, who, it is said2, was a rather forceful old lady. For his early education Frederic attended the religious schools (being then the only ones available) run by the various catholic orders. His Aunt Justine switched him one from another until she was satisfied with the Benedictine college of Soreze. Though Bastiat did not graduate, he did, it seems received a very good grounding for his future studies from the Benedictines; it was there, at Soreze that the young Bastiat was to learn English.

At the age of seventeen it was thought best to pull Frederic away from the Benedictines. He was sent to Bayonne to "the same firm where his father had previously been a partner."3 Our young hero spent the next five or six years at being a merchant. The hurly-burly of business, however, did not appeal to Frederic. At the age of 23, Bastiat came home to Mugron to be with his aging grandfather. Within the year his grandfather was dead, an event which caused Frederic to inherit the Bastiat estate. Frederic then settled into the life of a country gentleman4 and was to spend the next twenty years, 1825-45, in quiet study. The areas in which he was interested were philosophy, economics and law.

The works that Bastiat studied, no doubt, would have included the works of his fellow countrymen. France had a number of brilliant economic thinkers whose thoughts were ignored, or, more likely, never ever studied by the political demagogues which proliferated in France during the last of the 18th and the first half of the 19th century. There was Quesnay (1694-1774) who had founded a school which had struck upon the first complete system of Economics. Quesnay began his economic studies in 1756, when he wrote for the Encyclopedie. The physiocrats stressed that absolute freedom of trade was essential to guarantee the most beneficial operation of economic law, which they considered immutable. The physiocrats likely took their cue from their fellow Frenchmen, such as Voltaire (1694-1778), the very "embodiment of the 18th-century enlightenment." Then there was the political writings of French philosopher and jurist, Montesquieu (1689-1755), who, having studied the political writings of the Englishman, John Locke (1632-1704), was much impressed by the British Constitution. Montesquieu wrote the classic, The Spirit of Laws published in 1748, where, in it, Montesquieu compared the republican, despotic, and monarchical forms of government and in doing so was to reveal the influence that John Locke had on him.

Bastiat was as impressed with the English writers, doubtlessly, as much as were the French political writers that had proceeded him.5 But Bastiat did not have to spend too much time on the political writings of Englishmen, he had of course the marvelous writings of the Frenchmen who had proceeded him, as already mentioned; but, most of all, Bastiat had before him the recent history of France. France had long experienced an absolute monarchy and its attending aristocratic order. The abuses of the ancient regime, while bad enough, did not compare with the tyranny and despotism that came as aftermath to the French Revolution. Through metamorphic events -- States General, the National Assembly, the Jacobins, the Revolutionary tribunal, the guillotine, and the rise of Napoleon -- between the execution of Louis XVI in 1793 and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, blood, death and misery flowed over France. No matter what the French intellectuals had written and were writing, all of it was ignored by the tyrants as not serving their purpose in the pursuit of power. Through these years in France there was a war to be fought, and, war "means an ugly mob-madness, crucifying the truth-tellers, choking the artists, sidetracking reforms, revolutions, and working of social forces."6

It was not the concept of monarchial rule that brought France into revolutionary times; it was the abuses of the monarchial rule that had then existed in France for some period of time, or, more particularly, the spending habits of Louis XV and XVI, and the resulting tax load that the ordinary people of France were forced to bear. Mobs of people do not respond to fine arguments about human rights as may be developed by learned men; they respond to demagogues who are put in a position to point to obvious examples of a disrupted economy, to point to the few that have leisure and who conspicuously consume so much of the nation's wealth, to point to those who create the nation's wealth and who have, what little they have, taxed away to support but those who assist, countenance and back the corrupt regime. In the days under review, the revenue of government (whether it was of the monarchial variety or of those that followed) was raised by taxing goods as they were visibly moved through the ports and cities; it is not that income tax was not thought of in those days, it is just that a system of income taxes could not be implemented for lack of adequate reporting systems, as, unfortunately, is the case in these days. Those that ran France needed money to implement their totalitarian schemes and so they got their money by forcing the merchants to hand over money as a tax on goods, which, of course, the merchant passed on to the poor French consumers. Taxes on goods occurred within the country, from one region to another, and, at the borders upon foreign goods. The main reason for taxes is because the ruling regime needed it to keep itself and its programmes going; but, there were actually those -- and they and their views were invariably supported by others who were the beneficiaries of government largesse -- who argued that it was a good idea to tax "foreign goods" as an assist to the producers of "home goods." The main observation that Adam Smith had made when he travelled in France, just before he saw to the publication of his great work, in 1776, was that the country was suffering from stifling taxes resulting in "both the restraints upon the interior commerce of the country and the number of the revenue officers ..."7 This situation was brought on -- never mind that the French Economistes had raised the alarm -- simply because those in power wanted money to advance their own ends. Bagehot put it best, when he wrote:

"They [the French Economistes] delighted in proving that the whole structure of the French laws upon industry was utterly wrong; that the prohibitions ought not to be imposed on the import of foreign manufacturers; that bounties ought not to be given to native ones; that the exportation of corn ought to be free; that the whole country ought to be a fiscal unit; that there should be no duty between any province; and so on in other cases. No one could state the abstract doctrines on which they rested everything more clearly. "Acheter, c'est vendre,' said Quesnay, the founder of the school, 'vendre, c'est acheter.' You cannot better express the doctrine of modern political economy that 'trade is barter.' 'Do not attempt,' Quesnay continues, 'to fix the price of your products, goods, or services; they will escape your rules. Competition alone can regulate prices with equity; it alone restricts them to a moderation which varies little; it alone attracts with certainty provisions where they are wanted or labour where it is required.' 'That which we call dearness is the only remedy of dearness: dearness causes plenty.'"8
So it was, that the French Revolution came about because the ruling power failed to listen to the good economic advice that was readily available to it. The people revolted, not because they understood that the structure of the French laws upon industry, viz., control and taxation, was wrong; but rather because that the masses of people were to feel the bad effects of it. Sadly, however, the result of the revolution, as is the usual case, it seems, was but to get rid of one form of totalitarianism for another. The spending habits of each were just as bad: the one in pursuit of royal luxury and the other in pursuit of the impossible dream. Revenue officers still swarmed across the country side and the commerce of this naturally rich country suffered in the same old way due to the burden of taxation. These were conditions that caused the revolution in the first place; and, it might have been predicted, that the now familiar sequence would show itself, yet again.

The French Revolution of 1789 was such a monumental marker in history that it is easy for the casual historian to forget that there were two other noteworthy revolutions that were to unfold in France during the 19th century: that of 1830 and that of 1848. After Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, through foreign efforts and to the great relief of the old French aristocracy (at least those that had survived the reign of terror which succeeded the beheading of Louis XVI in 1793) the throne of France was dusted off and there was restored to it Louis' brother, Louis the XVIII. While constitutional provisions were put in place to check the power of the monarchy (a two house legislature with full authority to make laws) the feel of France was much like it had been before 1789, before twenty-six years of war and misery were unleashed. For the ordinary Frenchman it didn't seem that anything at all had changed: aristocratic privileges of property and class took its place once again, without, it seems, a beat being missed on the drumheads of state. Things carried on without too much trouble for a number of years; the people were wearied because of the revolution. Louis the XVIII died in 1824 and yet another brother took his place, Charles X and things carried on much in the old way. France, and in particular, Paris, all through this interval was seething with discontent. A wiser man might have spotted the conditions as precursors of revolution and might have taken steps to soothe the population by admitting the monarchial weaknesses and taking steps to wash out the abuses; but Charles X was not a wise man. In 1830, elections, for which provisions had been made in the constitution of 1815, were held in France. The results were generally considered as a repudiation of Charles X. Charles thought he knew how to deal with a troublesome house (the reading of history was not high on his list). On July 26th, 1830, by royal fiat, Charles dissolved the new legislature and declared that there should be no discussion about royal authority. This act was enough to cause the sleeping dogs of revolution, which in France had been so much exercised, to stir; Parisians came to the streets with their guns. Charles departed hastily for England. The revolution of 1830 "was largely the work of the Parisian middle class,"9 the bourgeoisie; it was over almost as quickly as it began. The bourgeoisie could put up with a monarchy, but one (as was then the case in England) that was thoroughly tied to the representatives of the bourgeoisie, viz. the members of the legislature. And so it was, though there was some discussion on the merits of a republic, that another king -- it was thought, a more controllable one -- was to be put on the French throne. Enter the "Citizen king," Louis Philippe and the era of the bourgeois monarchy.

I have no space here at this place to go into the details of the reign of Louis Philippe. What is clear, in short order, the same old monarchial abuses were again to be observed. The legislature was to become a preserve "limited to the aristocracy of wealth and their hangers-on."10 However, Louis Philippe, unlike his predecessors had a way about him which made him attractive to the people of Paris, and, this attraction, was to keep him in power for a number of years. During his reign, as Chambers simply states, the "country prospered." This French prosperity which made itself felt through the years 1830-45, was, however, felt only by the French middle class. The proletariat, the people of the working class, as always, it seems, were miserable. In the years leading up to the Revolution of 1848, a cry went up from the political agitators for electorial reform. Louis Philippe fearful that his reputation with the people would be lost started to muzzle the newspapers, an action which was to lead to the end of his reign.

On the eve of the Revolution of 1848, Paris was "radically inflammatory and totally corrupt."11 The English novelist, Thackeray paid a visit and described the Parisian mood this way: "Everything here seemed to me to be ranting, gaudy, and theatrical. Fictional liberty, fictional monarchy, fictional glory, fictional justice." Tocqueville was to put his finger on the main cause of the 1848 revolution in France: "The truth -- the deplorable truth -- is that a taste for holding office and a desire to live on the public money is not with us a disease restricted to either party, but the great, chronic ailment of the whole nation; the result of the democratic constitution of our society and the excessive centralization of our Government; the secret malady which undermined all former governments, and which will undermine all governments to come."

During February of 1848 things came to a head, and remembering all too well what can happen to a French monarch when he quarrels with a Parisian mob, Louis Philippe "slipped out of Paris, never to return." All of Paris was without a public authority; but soon the leaders of certain oligarchical cliques or factions came forward to discuss the future government of France. Most all of them thought that in order to settle the mobs down that they should be given the BIG LIE: lower taxes and at the same time deliver more government services. The difficulty is that some of these French leaders actually believed their own hype and there was an attempt to put in place programs, which, of course, within a matter of a few months came apart making things that much worse. By June of 1848, the barricades were up once again and the Parisian streets became bloodied. Many of the houses in Paris were left in smoking ruins and debris filled the streets.

In all of this, there was a large under class that had no say, those who in the community who have no claim to any property and who are dependent on daily labour for subsistence, the labouring class, the proletariat. Paris had its Proletarian rabble, but France being an agricultural nation had far greater numbers of working class people out in the countryside. The revolution was almost exclusively Parisian and almost, too, exclusively undertaken to advance the interests of the bourgeoisie. The people of France were upset to think things should be turned on their head for the sake of the Parisian middle class. The people of the provinces came, seemingly all at once, to an understanding that the revolt at Paris had to be put down. As Roche described it: "Thousands of men simultaneously rose up all over France and began the journey to Paris, entering the city from every conceivable direction. Men of every class, armed in every conceivable manner, these Frenchmen knew that their country could not stand another triumph of the Parisian mobs." Order was soon restored and the leaders of the various factions casted about for a new leader, one that would be recognizable by all and which might be controlled by the elected assembly. Enter Louis Napoleon, "Napoleon-the-Little."12 But at this point I am obliged to leave off, as I am outrunning the life of the subject of this piece, Frederic Bastiat.

We now go back and take into account the life of Bastiat in the years leading up to the French Revolution of 1848. Throughout these years, the trouble pretty much only impacted on those who lived or who had business to do in Paris. Frederic Bastiat, up to 1844, continued to pursue his studies at his country estate at Mugron. For years on end he had been going through his intellectual exercises preparing for, he knew not what? During these years Bastiat corresponded13 with Richard Cobden (1804-65) who was one of the English leaders in the Anti-Corn-Law agitation and the resultant league which arose in England in 1838. The Anti-Corn-Law League (sometimes known as the Manchester School) advocated a policy of free trade, peace, and international cooperation. Such correspondence prompted Bastiat to prepare an article which set forth the results of his study of the "influences of English and French tariffs on the future of the two countries." "He submitted the piece to the prestigious Journal des economists, painfully aware that several pieces he had written in the early 1840s had never found a publisher."14 The piece was accepted by the Journal and published in October of 1844. The doors of the publishing houses were now open to Bastiat and he polished up numerous pieces for publication. They were all brought together in a book, Economic Sophisms which appeared in 1845. The life which Bastiat had known for the past twenty years as a country gentleman with the leisure to spend days on end in his library were then to come to an end. Convinced as he was that the public had been duped into accepting the policy of protectionism, Bastiat determined to put all of his efforts into the cause of free trade, to become the Cobden of France. He ran for the legislature, won his seat and then moved to the centre of the action, to Paris. One of the first things that he did on his arrival at Paris was to set up a newspaper which would be under his own editorship, Le libre-echange; many of Bastiat's best pieces, satires, were to appear in this paper.

Though Bastiat's first appeared on the public stage clutching a brief for free trade he was to soon trot out his more general arguments about the harmful forces of government, no matter who ran it or in whose interests it was run. During June of 1850, but just months before his death, while taking a rest at his home in Mugron, away from the turmoil of Paris, Bastiat wrote his best known work, The Law, which, apparently, spilled out of his head and through the tip of his pen in a matter of days. Bastiat's larger work, Economic Harmonies, also made its appearance in 1850. Also during these last months of Bastiat's life, he turned his hand to writing the final draft of What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen. In the fall of 1850, his doctors were concerned about Bastiat's health, such that they suggested he should find a better climate in which to live, Italy. He was to find accommodations in Rome, and there, on Christmas eve, in 1850, Bastiat's life came to an end.


A featured sketch in a book


Biographical Sketches: The Thinkers


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A Bastiat Sampler:

"Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.
We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain." (The Law.)

"... the relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the relationship between the clay and the potter." (The Law.)

"Moreover, even where they have consented to recognize a principle of action in the heart of man - and a principle of discernment in man's intellect - they have considered these gifts from god to be fatal gifts. They have thought that persons, under the impulse of these two gifts, would fatally tend to ruin themselves. They assume that if the legislators left persons free to follow their own inclinations, they would arrive at atheism instead of religion, ignorance instead of knowledge, property instead of production and exchange." (The Law.)

"It seems to me that this is theoretically right, for whatever the question under discussion - whether religious, philosophical, political, or economic; whether it concerns prosperity, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, cooperation, property, labor, trade, capital, wages, taxes, population, finance, or government - at whatever point on the scientific horizon I begin my researches, I invariably reach this one conclusion: The solution to the problems of human relationships is to be found in liberty. ... all hope rests upon the free and voluntary actions of persons within the limits of right; ..." (The Law.)

"If every person has the right to defend - even by force - his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. This principle of collective right - its reason for existing, its lawfulness - is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force - for the same reason - cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups." (The Law.)

"Please understand that I do not dispute their right to invent social combinations, to advertise them, to advocate them, and to try them upon themselves, at their own expense and risk. But I do dispute their right to impose these plans upon us by law -- by force -- and to compel us to pay for them with our taxes." (The Law.)


1 This of course is an impossible task; but that didn't stop the revolutionaries from trying to put mechanisms in place that might achieve their goals. All that was ever achieved by the process was the destruction of wealth and the destruction of human life. Socialists desire to set themselves above mankind in order to arrange, organize, and regulate it according to their own social inventions. They desire to force mankind docilely to bear this yoke of the public welfare that they have dreamt up. They proceed, always, on this triple hypothesis: the total inertness of mankind, the omnipotence of the law, and the infallibility of the legislature. As for the legislature; Bastiat observes that the relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the relationship between the clay and the potter. For the writer's views on socialism, more fully expressed, see "The Siren's Song."

2 Frederic Bastiat, A Man Alone by Geo. Chas. Roche (New York: Arlington House, 1971) at p. 18.

3 Roche's work is the only work that I have discovered on the life of Frederic Bastiat. As it is, Roche's work deals more with an analysis of Bastiat's writing then with Bastiat's comings and goings in life. Roche observed that details on Bastiat's life were not readily available.

4 It would not appear that Basiat was ever to marry.

5 Bastiat not only turned to those to whom the earlier French political thinkers but also to those that had since come on to the English scene. There was of course Adam Smith, who, in 1776 had brought forth his classic work, Wealth of Nations. It is to be remembered that in the 1760s Smith traveled to France, there to meet some of the physiocrats, among them were Quesnay (1694-1774) and the French Ministers, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-81) and Jacques Necker (1732-1804). In Geneva, Adam Smith was to meet Voltaire (1694-1778). Overall, Smith was of the view that the French physiocrats had the best answer up to his time.

6 John Reed, Whose War? (1917) as attributed by Mencken in his Dictionary of Quotations (1942).

7 The Wealth of Nations.

8 Biographical Studies (London: Longmans, Green; 1889) at p. 254.

9 Roche, op. cit., at p. 29.

10 Chambers Biographical Dictionary (Edinburgh), to which in these pages I often cite simply as Chambers.

11 Roche, op. cit., at p. 68.

12 While outside of the context of this short sketch on Bastiat, I add this short note. Louis Napoleon's full name was Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-73). His father was Louis Bonaparte (1778-1846) who fought in the French wars with his famous brother, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). The father, Louis (1778-1846) was, for a period of time, 1806-10, the king of Holland. The son, Louis Napoleon (1808-73) had twice tried to claim the throne of France, in 1836 and then again in 1840; both attempts were abortive. The Revolution of 1848 was to present a third chance to Louis Napoleon; and, this time, he cashed in. An election was held on December 10th, 1849, which swept him into office. The magic name of Napoleon had done the trick; the people of France had once again visions of prestige, glory, and order. Within two years, with the help of the military, "Napoleon-the-Little," got rid of the French constitution and proceeded to imprison or deport any person who opposed him. Napoleon III then turned to the people and by 7,000,000 votes he received a ten year term. Louis Napoleon then led France for a period known as the "Second Empire." Louis Napoleon had a knack of reading the temper of the French people and France was to experience, but to a much lesser degree, the glory that Napoleon Bonaparte had brought to her. The price of bread was regulated and public works were undertaken, including a complete remodeling of Paris. International exhibitions and the promotion of commerce led to internal peace. Like his famous uncle, Louis Napoleon aspired to an international reputation by going to war; but unlike his uncle he was not too successful at it. Louis Napoleon's reign came to an end when he surrendered to the Germans in 1870. He lived out his last three years in exile.

13 Bastiat, at least on one occasion, travelled to England "to visit Cobden, Bright, and the other figures in the English free-trade movement." (Roche, op. cit., at p. 67.)

14 Roche, op. cit., at p. 42.


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2012 (2019)

Peter Landry