Most people accept the law as a given, a fundamental fact of life. As a member of society, you obey or face the consequences. It is safe not to question why. This is because the enforcement arm of the law is the state, that peculiar agency with a unique power in society to use legal force against life and property. The state says what the law is — however this decision was made — and that settles it.
Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850) – born this day 218 years ago – could not accept this. He wanted to know what the law is, apart from what the state says it is. The result was The Law, one of his last works and one that continues to amaze us with its prescience and power. Here is a fantastic new translation as part of his collected works published by LibertyFund.
He saw that the purpose of law is, most fundamentally, to protect private property and life against invasion, or, at least, to ensure that justice is done in cases in which such invasions do take place. This is hardly a unique idea; it is a summary of what philosophers, jurists, and theologians have thought in most times and places.
Then he takes that next step, the one that opens the reader’s eyes as nothing else. He subjects the state itself to the test of whether it complies with that idea of law. He takes notice, even from the first paragraph, that the state itself turns out to be a lawbreaker in the name of law keeping. It does the very thing that law is supposed to prevent. Instead of protecting private property, it invades it. Instead of protecting life, it destroys it. Instead of guarding liberty, it violates it. And as the state advances and grows, it does this ever more, to become a threat to the well-being of society itself.
Even more tellingly, he observes that when you subject the state to the same standards that the law uses to judge relations between individuals, the state fails. He concludes that when this is the case, the law has been perverted in the hands of the governing elites. It is employed to do the very thing that the law is designed to prevent. The enforcer turns out to be the main violator of its own standards.
Bastiat points us to a better understanding of this institution we call the state. How to identify it? The state is the one institution in society that is not legally bound to adhere to the rules that it can legally impose, via the threat of violence, on everyone else within its jurisdiction.
The passion, the fire, the relentless logic have the power to shake up most any reader. Nothing is the same. This is why this monograph is rightly notorious. It is capable of shaking up whole systems of government and whole societies. What a beautiful illustration of the power of the pen.
But take notice of Bastiat’s rhetorical approach here. His conclusion is at the beginning. Why? He did not have that much time (he died not long after writing The Law). He knew that the reader didn’t either. He wanted to raise consciousness and persuade in the most effective way. Even from a stylistic point of view, there is much to learn from his approach.