Spoliation And Law
[Footnote 16: On the 27th of April, 1850, after a very curious
discussion, which was reproduced in the Moniteur, the General Council
of Agriculture, Manufactures and Commerce issued the following order:
Political economy shall be taught by the government professors, not
merely from the theoretical point of view of free trade, but also with
special regard to the facts and legislation which control French<
It was in reply to this decree that Bastiat wrote the pamphlet
Spoliation and Law, which first appeared in the Journal des
Economistes, May 15, 1850.]
To the Protectionists of the General Council of Manufactures:
GENTLEMEN--Let us for a few moments interchange moderate and friendly
You are not willing that political economy should believe and teach free
This is as though you were to say, We are not willing that political
economy should occupy itself with society, exchange, value, law,
justice, property. We recognize only two principles--oppression and
Can you possibly conceive of political economy without society? Or of
society without exchange? Or of exchange without a relative value
between the two articles, or the two services, exchanged? Can you
possibly conceive the idea of value, except as the result of the
free consent of the exchangers? Can you conceive of one product being
worth another, if, in the barter, one of the parties is not free? Is
it possible for you to conceive of the free consent of two parties
without liberty? Can you possibly conceive that one of the contracting
parties is deprived of his liberty unless he is oppressed by the other?
Can you possibly conceive of an exchange between an oppressor and one
oppressed, unless the equivalence of the services is altered, or unless,
as a consequence, law, justice, and the rights of property have been
What do you really want? Answer frankly.
You are not willing that trade should be free!
You desire, then, that it shall not be free? You desire, then, that
trade shall be carried on under the influence of oppression? For if it
is not carried on under the influence of oppression, it will be carried
on under the influence of liberty, and that is what you do not desire.
Admit, then, that it is law and justice which embarrass you; that that
which troubles you is property--not your own, to be sure, but
another's. You are altogether unwilling to allow others to freely
dispose of their own property (the essential condition of ownership);
but you well understand how to dispose of your own--and of theirs.
And, accordingly, you ask the political economists to arrange this mass
of absurdities and monstrosities in a definite and well-ordered system;
to establish, in accordance with your practice, the theory of
But they will never do it; for, in their eyes, spoliation is a principle
of hatred and disorder, and the most particularly odious form which it
can assume is the legal form.
And here, Mr. Benoit d' Azy, I take you to task. You are moderate,
impartial, and generous. You are willing to sacrifice your interests and
your fortune. This you constantly declare. Recently, in the General
Council, you said: If the rich had only to abandon their wealth to make
the people rich we should all be ready to do it. [Hear, hear. It is
true.] And yesterday, in the National Assembly, you said: If I believed
that it was in my power to give to the workingmen all the work they
need, I would give all I possess to realize this blessing.
Unfortunately, it is impossible.
Although it pains you that the sacrifice is so useless that it should
not be made, and you exclaim, with Basile, Money! money! I detest
it--but I will keep it, assuredly no one will question a generosity so
retentive, however barren. It is a virtue which loves to envelop itself
in a veil of modesty, especially when it is purely latent and negative.
As for you, you will lose no opportunity to proclaim it in the ears of
all France from the tribune of the Luxembourg and the Palais
But no one desires you to abandon your fortune, and I admit that it
would not solve the social problem.
You wish to be generous, but cannot. I only venture to ask that you will
be just. Keep your fortune, but permit me also to keep mine. Respect my
property as I respect yours. Is this too bold a request on my part?
Suppose we lived in a country under a free trade regime, where every
one could dispose of his property and his labor at pleasure. Does this
make your hair stand? Reassure yourself, this is only an hypothesis.
One would then be as free as the other. There would, indeed, be a law in
the code, but this law, impartial and just, would not infringe our
liberty, but would guarantee it, and it would take effect only when we
sought to oppress each other. There would be officers of the law,
magistrates and police; but they would only execute the law. Under such
a state of affairs, suppose that you owned an iron foundry, and that I
was a hatter. I should need iron for my business. Naturally I should
seek to solve this problem: How shall I best procure the iron necessary
for my business with the least possible amount of labor? Considering my
situation, and my means of knowledge, I should discover that the best
thing for me to do would be to make hats, and sell them to a Belgian who
would give me iron in exchange.
But you, being the owner of an iron foundry, and considering my case,
would say to yourself: I shall be obliged to compel that fellow to
come to my shop.
You, accordingly, take your sword and pistols, and, arming your numerous
retinue, proceed to the frontier, and, at the moment I am engaged in
making my trade, you cry out to me: Stop that, or I will blow your
brains out! But, my lord, I am in need of iron. I have it to sell.
But, sir, you ask too much for it. I have my reasons for that. But,
my good sir, I also have my reasons for preferring cheaper iron. Well,
we shall see who shall decide between your reasons and mine! Soldiers,
In short, you forbid the entry of the Belgian iron, and prevent the
export of my hats.
Under the condition of things which we have supposed (that is, under a
regime of liberty), you cannot deny that that would be, on your part,
manifestly an act of oppression and spoliation.
Accordingly, I should resort to the law, the magistrate, and the power
of the government. They would intervene. You would be tried, condemned,
and justly punished.
But this circumstance would suggest to you a bright idea. You would say
to yourself: I have been very simple to give myself so much trouble.
What! place myself in a position where I must kill some one, or be
killed! degrade myself! put my domestics under arms! incur heavy
expenses! give myself the character of a robber, and render myself
liable to the laws of the country! And all this in order to compel a
miserable hatter to come to my foundry to buy iron at my price! What if
I should make the interest of the law, of the magistrate, of the public
authorities, my interests? What if I could get them to perform the
odious act on the frontier which I was about to do myself?
Enchanted by this pleasing prospect, you secure a nomination to the
Chambers, and obtain the passage of a law conceived in the following
SECTION 1. There shall be a tax levied upon everybody (but especially
upon that cursed hat-maker).
SEC. 2. The proceeds of this tax shall be applied to the payment of men
to guard the frontier in the interest of iron-founders.
SEC. 3. It shall be their duty to prevent the exchange of hats or other
articles of merchandise with the Belgians for iron.
SEC. 4. The ministers of the government, the prosecuting attorneys,
jailers, customs officers, and all officials, are entrusted with the
execution of this law.
I admit, sir, that in this form robbery would be far more lucrative,
more agreeable, and less perilous than under the arrangements which you
had at first determined upon. I admit that for you it would offer a very
pleasant prospect. You could most assuredly laugh in your sleeve, for
you would then have saddled all the expenses upon me.
But I affirm that you would have introduced into society a vicious
principle, a principle of immorality, of disorder, of hatred, and of
incessant revolutions; that you would have prepared the way for all the
various schemes of socialism and communism.
You, doubtless, find my hypothesis a very bold one. Well, then, let us
reverse the case. I consent for the sake of the demonstration.
Suppose that I am a laborer and you an iron-founder.
It would be a great advantage to me to buy hatchets cheap, and even to
get them for nothing. And I know that there are hatchets and saws in
your establishment. Accordingly, without any ceremony, I enter your
warehouse and seize everything that I can lay my hands upon.
But, in the exercise of your legitimate right of self-defense, you at
first resist force with force; afterwards, invoking the power of the
law, the magistrate, and the constables, you throw me into prison--and
you do well.
Oh! ho! the thought suggests itself to me that I have been very awkward
in this business. When a person wishes to enjoy the property of other
people, he will, unless he is a fool, act in accordance with the law,
and not in violation of it. Consequently, just as you have made
yourself a protectionist, I will make myself a socialist. Since you have
laid claim to the right to profit, I claim the right to labor, or to
the instruments of labor.
For the rest, I read my Louis Blanc in prison, and I know by heart this
doctrine: In order to disenthrall themselves, the common people have
need of tools to work with; it is the function of the government to
provide them. And again: If one admits that, in order to be really
free, a man requires the ability to exercise and to develop his
faculties, the result is that society owes each of its members
instruction, without which the human mind is incapable of development,
and the instruments of labor, without which human activities have no
field for their exercise. But by what means can society give to each one
of its members the necessary instruction and the necessary instruments
of labor, except by the intervention of the State? So that if it
becomes necessary to revolutionize the country, I also will force my
way into the halls of legislation. I also will pervert the law, and make
it perform in my behalf and at your expense the very act for which it
just now punished me.
My decree is modeled after yours:
SECTION 1. There shall be taxes levied upon every citizen, and
especially upon iron founders.
SEC. 2. The proceeds of this tax shall be applied to the creation of
armed corps, to which the title of the fraternal constabulary shall be
SEC. 3. It shall be the duty of the fraternal constabulary to make
their way into the warehouses of hatchets, saws, etc., to take
possession of these tools, and to distribute them to such workingmen as
may desire them.
Thanks to this ingenious device, you see, my lord, that I shall no
longer be obliged to bear the risks, the costs, the odium, or the
scruples of robbery. The State will rob for me as it has for you. We
shall both be playing the same game.
It remains to be seen what would be the condition of French society on
the realization of my second hypothesis, or what, at least, is the
condition of it after the almost complete realization of the first
hypothesis. I do not desire to discuss here the economy of the question.
It is generally believed that in advocating free trade we are
exclusively influenced by the desire to allow capital and labor to take
the direction most advantageous to them. This is an error. This
consideration is merely secondary. That which wounds, afflicts, and is
revolting to us in the protective system, is the denial of right, of
justice, of property; it is the fact that the system turns the law
against justice and against property, when it ought to protect them; it
is that it undermines and perverts the very conditions of society. And
to the question in this aspect I invite your most serious consideration.
What is law, or at least what ought it to be? What is its rational and
moral mission? Is it not to hold the balance even between all rights,
all liberties, and all property? Is it not to cause justice to rule
among all? Is it not to prevent and to repress oppression and robbery
wherever they are found?
And are you not shocked at the immense, radical, and deplorable
innovation introduced into the world by compelling the law itself to
commit the very crimes to punish which is its especial mission--by
turning the law in principle and in fact against liberty and property?
You deplore the condition of modern society. You groan over the disorder
which prevails in institutions and ideas. But is it not your system
which has perverted everything, both institutions and ideas?
What! the law is no longer the refuge of the oppressed, but the arm of
the oppressor! The law is no longer a shield, but a sword! The law no
longer holds in her august hands a scale, but false weights and
measures! And you wish to have society well regulated!
Your system has written over the entrance of the legislative halls these
words: Whoever acquires any influence here can obtain his share of the
And what has been the result? All classes of society have become
demoralized by shouting around the gates of the palace: Give me a share
of the spoils.
After the revolution of February, when universal suffrage was
proclaimed, I had for a moment hoped to have heard this sentiment: No
more pillage for any one, justice for all. And that would have been the
real solution of the social problem. Such was not the case. The doctrine
of protection had for generations too profoundly corrupted the age,
public sentiments and ideas. No. In making inroads upon the National
Assembly, each class, in accordance with your system, has endeavored to
make the law an instrument of rapine. There have been demanded heavier
imposts, gratuitous credit, the right to employment, the right to
assistance, the guaranty of incomes and of minimum wages, gratuitous
instruction, loans to industry, etc., etc.; in short, every one has
endeavored to live and thrive at the expense of others. And upon what
have these pretensions been based? Upon the authority of your
precedents. What sophisms have been invoked? Those that you have
propagated for two centuries. With you they have talked about
equalizing the conditions of labor. With you they have declaimed
against ruinous competition. With you they have ridiculed the let
alone principle, that is to say, liberty. With you they have said
that the law should not confine itself to being just, but should come to
the aid of suffering industries, protect the feeble against the strong,
secure profits to individuals at the expense of the community, etc.,
etc. In short, according to the expression of Mr. Charles Dupin,
socialism has come to establish the theory of robbery. It has done what
you have done, and that which you desire the professors of political
economy to do for you.
Your cleverness is in vain, Messieurs Protectionists, it is useless to
lower your tone, to boast of your latent generosity, or to deceive your
opponents by sentiment. You cannot prevent logic from being logic.
You cannot prevent Mr. Billault from telling the legislators, You have
granted favors to one, you must grant them to all.
You cannot prevent Mr. Cremieux from telling the legislators: You have
enriched the manufacturers, you must enrich the common people.
You cannot prevent Mr. Nadeau from saying to the legislators: You
cannot refuse to do for the suffering classes that which you have done
for the privileged classes.
You cannot even prevent the leader of your orchestra, Mr. Mimerel, from
saying to the legislators: I demand twenty-five thousand subsidies for
the workingmen's savings banks; and supporting his motion in this
Is this the first example of the kind that our legislation offers?
Would you establish the system that the State should encourage
everything, open at its expense courses of scientific lectures,
subsidize the fine arts, pension the theatre, give to the classes
already favored by fortune the benefits of superior education, the
most varied amusements, the enjoyment of the arts, and repose for old
age; give all this to those who know nothing of privations, and
compel those who have no share in these benefits to bear their part
of the burden, while refusing them everything, even the necessaries
Gentlemen, our French society, our customs, our laws, are so made
that the intervention of the State, however much it may be regretted,
is seen everywhere, and nothing seems to be stable or durable if the
hand of the State is not manifest in it. It is the State that makes
the Sevres porcelain, and the Gobelin tapestry. It is the State that
periodically gives expositions of the works of our artists, and of
the products of our manufacturers; it is the State which recompenses
those who raise its cattle and breed its fish. All this costs a great
deal. It is a tax to which every one is obliged to contribute.
Everybody, do you understand? And what direct benefit do the people
derive from it? Of what direct benefit to the people are your
porcelains and tapestries, and your expositions? This general
principle of resisting what you call a state of enthusiasm we can
understand, although you yesterday voted a bounty for linens; we can
understand it on the condition of consulting the present crisis, and
especially on the condition of your proving your impartiality. If it
is true that, by the means I have indicated, the State thus far seems
to have more directly benefited the well-to-do classes than those who
are poorer, it is necessary that this appearance should be removed.
Shall it be done by closing the manufactories of tapestry and
stopping the exhibitions? Assuredly not; but by giving the poor a
direct share in this distribution of benefits.
In this long catalogue of favors granted to some at the expense of all,
one will remark the extreme prudence with which Mr. Mimerel has left the
tariff favors out of sight, although they are the most explicit
manifestations of legal spoliation. All the orators who supported or
opposed him have taken upon themselves the same reserve. It is very
shrewd! Possibly they hope, by giving the poor a direct participation
in this distribution of benefits, to save this great iniquity by which
they profit, but of which they do not whisper.
They deceive themselves. Do they suppose that after having realized a
partial spoliation by the establishment of customs duties, other
classes, by the establishment of other institutions, will not attempt to
realize universal spoliation?
I know very well you always have a sophism ready. You say: The favors
which the law grants us are not given to the manufacturer, but to
manufactures. The profits which it enables us to receive at the
expense of the consumers are merely a trust placed in our hands. They
enrich us, it is true, but our wealth places us in a position to expend
more, to extend our establishments, and falls like refreshing dew upon
the laboring classes.
Such is your language, and what I most lament is the circumstance that
your miserable sophisms have so perverted public opinion that they are
appealed to in support of all forms of legalized spoliation. The
suffering classes also say. Let us by act of the Legislature help
ourselves to the goods of others. We shall be in easier circumstances as
the result of it; we shall buy more wheat, more meat, more cloth, and
more iron; and that which we receive from the public taxes will return
in a beneficent shower to the capitalists and landed proprietors.
But, as I have already said, I will not to-day discuss the economical
effects of legal spoliation. Whenever the protectionists desire, they
will find me ready to examine the sophisms of the ricochets, which,
indeed, may be invoked in support of all species of robbery and fraud.
We will confine ourselves to the political and moral effects of exchange
legally deprived of liberty.
I have said: The time has come to know what the law is, and what it
ought to be.
If you make the law for all citizens a palladium of liberty and of
property; if it is only the organization of the individual law of
self-defense, you will establish, upon the foundation of justice, a
government rational, simple, economical, comprehended by all, loved by
all, useful to all, supported by all, entrusted with a responsibility
perfectly defined and carefully restricted, and endowed with
imperishable strength. If, on the other hand, in the interests of
individuals or of classes, you make the law an instrument of robbery,
every one will wish to make laws, and to make them to his own advantage.
There will be a riotous crowd at the doors of the legislative halls,
there will be a bitter conflict within; minds will be in anarchy, morals
will be shipwrecked; there will be violence in party organs, heated
elections, accusations, recriminations, jealousies, inextinguishable
hates, the public forces placed at the service of rapacity instead of
repressing it, the ability to distinguish the true from the false
effaced from all minds, as the notion of justice and injustice will be
obliterated from all consciences, the government responsible for
everything and bending under the burden of its responsibilities,
political convulsions, revolutions without end, ruins over which all
forms of socialism and communism attempt to establish themselves; these
are the evils which must necessarily flow from the perversion of law.
Such, consequently, gentlemen, are the evils for which you have prepared
the way by making use of the law to destroy freedom of exchange; that is
to say, to abolish the right of property. Do not declaim against
socialism; you establish it. Do not cry out against communism; you
create it. And now you ask us Economists to make you a theory which will
justify you! Morbleu! make it yourselves.