Another Perspective

Bastiat to the NAACP: ‘Don’t Pull the Temple Down On Your Head’

What the great French economist would have said to the civil rights organization.

By 7.16.12

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Two cheers to Mitt Romney for his performance last week at the NAACP convention in Houston. "Any policy that lifts up and honors the family is going to be good for the country and that must be our goal," Romney said. "As president I will promote strong families -- and I will defend traditional marriage." That was the big-applause line. More tellingly, however, he also told this potentially hostile audience: "As you may have heard from my opponent, I am also a strong believer in the free enterprise system. I believe it can bring change where so many well-meaning government programs have failed. I've never heard anyone look around an impoverished neighborhood and say, 'You know, there's too much free enterprise around here. Too many shops, too many jobs, too many people putting money in the bank.'"

Even so, this was -- as NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said -- "a missed opportunity." It was a missed opportunity to deliver a crushing blow to the intellectual claptrap that passes for enlightened thinking in the NAACP -- and not just there, but in the larger nexus of elitist thinking to be found in our nation's college campuses, the mainstream media, Hollywood, and, not least, the Obama White House.

Who better to deliver that much-needed blow than Frederic Bastiat, the great free-market French economist who loved liberty and spoke out against "socialism" -- which he defined as "legalized plunder"? Bastiat died 162 years ago -- on December 24, 1850. But his words are as timely today as they were back then (two years after the publication of Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto"). Long before Hayek, Bastiat recognized government as the greatest single threat to liberty. He wrote:

Now, legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number of ways. Thus we have an infinite number of plans for organizing it: tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on, and so on. All these plans as a whole -- with their common aim of legal plunder -- constitute socialism.

Bastiat hated the arrogance of the progressive (i.e. progress as defined and controlled by government), let's-play-God mindset: "Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social combinations. To them… the relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the relationship between the clay and the potter." And again he said of the do-gooders' belief in exalted government: "Ah, you miserable creatures! You who think you are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don't you reform yourselves? That task would be sufficient enough."

Here then is how the acerbic Frenchman might have addressed the NAACP convention if he had awoken from a prolonged Rip van Winkle-like slumber.

*****

Good morning NAACP! I speak to you across a gulf of many years and yet I can't help noticing how much today's world resembles that of the one that I departed more than a century and a half ago. Did you know that Alexis de Tocqueville and I were both deputies in the Constituent Assembly that was formed in Paris following the revolution of 1848? This is how Tocqueville described in the scene on the streets:

On my return (to Paris), I found in the capital a hundred thousand armed workmen formed into regiments, out of work, dying of hunger, but with their minds crammed with vain theories and visionary hopes. I saw society cut into two: those who possessed nothing, united in common greed; those who possessed something, united in a common terror.

Yes, we had demonstrations and protests in Paris and other French cities that were not dissimilar to the ones that happened all over the United States and other countries through the "Occupy" movement. But I see that you, Monsieur Jealous (president of the NAACP), went out of your way to express your sympathy -- and indeed your solidarity -- with the bands of people who "occupied" public parks and spaces. You said:

We are encouraged by the broad national support and by the great diversity of Americans who have been participating in the Occupy Wall Street campaign. The movement and the peaceful (sic) protesters who are part of the campaign share many of the goals as the NAACP… and (we) share the protesters' concerns about the growing disparity of access to wealth in America, and the decline of economic opportunity for poor and middle-class Americans. For over 102 years we have supported the policies which create, preserve, and expand living wage jobs, increase economic opportunity, and protect the right of every American to build and retain wealth and equity.

With those words, my friends, I can tell you that you are embarked upon a self-destructive course. Like the "occupiers," you want to use the collective force of the state in order to take from some and give to others. Almost all of the policies that your organization supports -- in calling for bigger and more active government -- are profoundly counter-productive. They will not create, preserve, and expand jobs. To the contrary, they will destroy jobs and condemn this great country to the unhappy fate of never-ending economic stagnation and unending political and social turmoil. Like Sampson in the Bible, you will pull the temple down on your own head.

We are all struck by the spectacle of inequality in society. No one wants to see poverty in the midst of plenty. But what causes this inequality? Our attempt to remedy an evil may have the perverse effect of perpetuating the very thing that caused the evil in the first place: what I have called "legal plunder."

You and I expect the law to protect us against criminal plunder -- where others deprive us of what is rightfully ours through the use of force or deception. But there is the other kind of plunder -- legal plunder -- when the government itself is responsible for violating our property rights in the pursuit of wrong-headed social policies that undermine the ability of people to think and act on their own. In this case, the state has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder.

We must face up to the realities of the human condition. 

On the good side, self-preservation and self-development are common aspirations among all people. Man is well-equipped to satisfy his wants through the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources.

On the not-so-good side, there is another tendency that is common among people. When they can, they wish to live and prosper at the expense of others. This is no rash accusation. The annals of history bear witness to this ancient truth. It is to blame for incessant wars, mass migrations, religious persecutions, slavery, dishonesty in commerce, and monopolies.

Forgive me if I quote from my own book, The Law (which indeed I already have in several places). You will not find it on the tables outside this great hall, but it is easily accessible on the Internet. In that book, I wrote of The Choice Before Us, saying: 

The question of legal plunder must be settled once and for all, and there are only three ways to settle it:

1. The few plunder the many.

2. Everybody plunders everybody.

3. Nobody plunders anybody.

We must make our choice among limited plunder, universal plunder, and no plunder. The law can follow only one of these three.

Limited legal plunder: This system prevailed when the right to vote was restricted.

Universal legal plunder: We have been threatened with this system since the franchise was made universal. The newly franchised majority has decided to formulate law on the same principle of legal plunder that was used by their predecessors when the voted was limited.

No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony, and logic. Until the day of my death, I shall proclaim this principle with all the force of my lungs (which alas! is all too inadequate). [Note to the reader: Bastiat wrote these words knowing that he was dying of tuberculosis. Within a year, he was dead.]

You know which way I would choose. If everyone enjoyed the unrestricted use of his faculties and the free disposition of the fruits of his labor, social progress would be ceaseless, uninterrupted, and unfailing. That is what I believe.

Dare I hope that some of you might be persuaded to join me in this belief?

And so, my friends, I will just say in closing:

Let freedom ring!

*****

An afterthought: In the context of this article, it is worth noting that Bastiat, a close friend and correspondent of Richard Cobden, was a major figure in the anti-slavery movement as well as the free trade movement in the time period leading up the American Civil War. Ever the champion of freedom and liberty, he called slavery "the most shameful traffic in which human beings have ever engaged."

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About the Author
Andrew B. Wilson, a frequent contributor to The American Spectator and a former foreign correspondent, writes from St. Louis.