The Law
Author(s) Frédéric Bastiat
Original title La Loi
Language French
Publication date 1850

The Law, original French title La Loi, is a 1850 book by Frédéric Bastiat. It was written at Mugron two years after the third French Revolution and a few months before his death of tuberculosis at age 49. The essay was influenced by John Locke's Second Treatise on Government and in turn influenced Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson.[1] It is the work for which Bastiat is most famous along with The candlemaker's petition and the Parable of the broken window.

In The Law, Bastiat states that "each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property". The State is a "substitution of a common force for individual forces" to defend this right. The law becomes perverted when it punishes one's right to self-defense in favor of another's acquired right to plunder.

Bastiat defines two forms of plunder: "stupid greed and false philanthropy". Stupid greed is "protective tariffs, subsidies, guaranteed profits" and false philanthropy is "guaranteed jobs, relief and welfare schemes, public education, progressive taxation, free credit, and public works". Monopolism and Socialism are legalized plunder which Bastiat emphasizes is legal but not legitimate.

Justice has precise limits but philanthropy is limitless and government can grow endlessly when that becomes its function. The resulting statism is "based on this triple hypothesis: the total inertness of mankind, the omnipotence of the law, and the infallibility of the legislator". The relationship between the public and the legislator becomes "like the clay to the potter". Bastiat says, "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".[2]


God has freely given us the gift that includes all others. This gift is life—physical, intellectual, and spiritual life. But life cannot maintain itself alone. The Creator of life has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it. That we may do so, He has provided us with a collection of marvelous faculties, and He has put us in the midst of a variety of natural resources. By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products and use them. This process is necessary so that life may run its appointed course.

Life, faculties, production—in other words, individuality, liberty, property—these are man. And despite the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation and are superior to it.

What then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to defend oneself, one's liberty, and one's property. Each of us has a natural right from God to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. Since each of us has the right to use force to defend 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. Thus the principle of collective right—its reason for existing, its lawfulness—is based on individual right. The common force that wields 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 arbitrary force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then, for the same reason, the common force cannot arbitrarily destroy or confiscate the person, liberty, or property of an individual.

Such a perversion of force would be in both cases contrary to our premise. Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights. Who will dare to say that our Creator has endowed us with force to infringe upon the equal rights of our brothers? Since no individual can lawfully use force to infringe upon the rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?

It is not true that the legislature has absolute power over our persons and property. The existence of persons and property preceded the existence of the legislature, and its function is only to guarantee their safety. It is not true that the function of law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents, our pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free exercise of these rights, and to prevent any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by any other person. Since law necessarily requires the use of force, its proper domain is only in the areas where the use of force is proper—that is, the administration of justice. Every individual has the right to use force for self-defense, but for nothing else. For this reason, collective force—which is only the organized combination of the individual forces—can lawfully be used for the same purpose, and it should not be used for any other purpose. Law is solely the collection of the individual right of self-defense, which existed before law was formalized.

A government that confined itself accordingly would be most simple, economical, limited, non-oppressive, just, and enduring. If law did nothing more than punish all oppression and plunder, society would be so tranquil and prosperous that political questions would lose most of their importance, thus creating a more civil and unified society. The constant political upheaval would cease, as men would know that government is no more responsible for natural suffering and recession, which are inseparable from humanity, as it is for changes of temperature.

Alas, two entirely different influences—greed and false philanthropy—use law to destroy its own objective.

Greed: Human nature impels man to satisfy his desires with the least possible expenditure of effort, which often requires his satisfaction at the expense of others. Law makers often shape law to plunder the people and benefit themselves. The rebelling plundered classes then attempt either to stop legal plunder or to share in it. Legal plunder forces citizens to choose between their moral sense and their respect for the law and eliminates the correlation between justice and law.

False philanthropy: Under the pretexts of organization, regulation, protection, and encouragement, law takes property from one person and gives it to another. Socialists do not consider the law sufficient that it should guarantee to every citizen the free and inoffensive use of his faculties for physical, intellectual, and moral self-improvement. Instead, they demand the law directly to extend welfare, education, and morality throughout the nation.

Whenever wealth is taken from its owner without his consent, by force or by fraud, property is violated. This act is exactly what law is supposed to suppress, not facilitate. The perversion of law—that it may violate property rather than protect it—causes everyone to want to participate in the making of law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder, thereby creating a perpetual source of hatred and discord.

There are two kinds of plunder—legal and illegal, the first of which systematically threatens society, the second of which does not because the law punishes it. Sometimes, the law places judges, police, and prisons at the service of the plunderers and treats the victim—when he defends himself, his liberty, or his property—as the criminal. How is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply: see if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime. Even in the United States, law has become the instrument of criminal activity. This country limits the law to its proper domain more than any other nation; however, there are two issues that endanger the Peace: slavery and tariffs, the former being a violation of liberty, the latter a violation of property.

The effective implementation of law requires the use of force, therefore, the proper function of law cannot extend beyond the proper function of force—to stop men from harming others. Can law—which necessarily requires the use of force—rationally be used for anything except protecting the rights of everyone? To do so would pervert it and turn might against right. The law's organization of justice (by force) excludes the idea of passing legislation with the force of law to subsidize or regulate any human activity—be it labor, charity, agriculture, commerce, industry, education, or religion. Either law upholds justice or provides for the needs of some at the forced expense of others: by fulfilling the latter purpose, it abolishes the former.

Socialists seek to obliterate the distinction between government and society. Consequentially, every time we object to a given government activity, the socialists allege that we object to its being done at all, and we are therefore selfish and unpatriotic citizens. To the contrary: we, the liberals, reject the charity, education, and organization that we are forced to pay for. We do not reject natural charity, education, and organization.

To socialist intellectuals, the relationship between the people and the legislator is the same relationship between the clay and the potter. Socialists envision a utopian society of which they would be the wise leaders. They find ideological support among legislators whom, for the most part, assume themselves to be better than the people and the peoples' saviors from their own stupidity: "He who would dare to undertake the political creation of a people ought to believe that he can, in a manner of speaking, transform human nature, transform each individual . . . into a mere part of a greater whole from which the individual will henceforth receive his life and being" (Rousseau). "Impartiality in law consists of two things: the establishing of equality in wealth and equality in dignity among citizens" (Condillac). Oh, writers! Remember that this clay, which you so arbitrarily dispose of, are men! They are your equals! They are intelligent and free like yourselves! They, too, have received from God the faculty to observe, to plan, to think, and to judge for themselves!

What is liberty? Is it not the union of all liberties? Is not liberty the freedom of every person to make full use of his faculties, provided he does not harm others? Socialists think of liberty as the power to use and develop one's faculties. It follows that, in the socialist view, citizens have the right to education and work. Society, which owes everyone education and work, must honor the peoples' right by action of the state. From whom will the state take the resources necessary to generate education and work?

The tendency of mankind toward liberty is largely thwarted by men who desire to force mankind to docilely bear the yoke of public welfare: "The function of government is to direct the physical and moral powers of the nation toward the end for which the commonwealth has come into being" (Robespierre). "To govern is to increase and spread morality, education, and happiness" (Napoleon). According to Billaud-Varennes, the people should have no prejudices except those authorized by the legislature. 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? The task would be sufficient.

As long as the notion prevails that government is the nation's guide and driving force, every aspect of society depends upon government. Government, therefore, bears the gratitude or blame for the state of the nation's virtue, equality, and prosperity. Is it surprising, then, that every cause of malcontent increases the danger of yet another revolution in France?

And what liberties should the legislature permit us to keep? Liberty of association? (No, people would be intolerant toward each other). Liberty of conscience? (No, people would become atheists). Liberty of education? (No, parents would teach their children immoralities and falsehoods). Liberty of labor? (No, that would mean competitive markets, which mean oppression and chaos). Liberty of trade? (No, then we would buy from other nations thereby ruining our own economy). Clearly, the socialists cannot permit persons any liberty because they believe that mankind naturally tends toward degradation and disaster. Surely, without drive and guidance from government, we will cease to associate with each other, to help each other, to protect each other, our children, and ourselves, to love and honor our unfortunate brothers, and to strive to improve ourselves to the best of our abilities. Thus, the legislature must make plans to save us from ourselves.

When the candidate campaigns, he speaks of the people as wise, moral, mature, and informed. But when he is elected—ah! then indeed does his tone change—the people are returned to passiveness and unconsciousness. Now it is for him to direct, to propel, and to organize. Mankind has only to submit. But, since the legislature defends the peoples' right to vote so passionately, how can the people possibly be as self-destructive as the same legislature indicates?

The claims of these organizers raise another question: if the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe themselves to be made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?

The proposition that law should extend wealth and happiness to everyone is the road to serfdom that will inevitably result in legislation being the battlefield of the utopias and greed of everyone. Socialism and communism are the same plant in different stages of growth. Once the law has exceeded its proper limits, where will you stop it? Where will it stop itself?

Only under a law of justice will mankind achieve God's design for the peaceful and prosperous progress of humanity. The solution to the temporal problems of humanity is to be found in liberty. And are not the more peaceful and prosperous nations those in which people may act more freely within the limits of right, and law, that is, force, is used for little (or, ideally, nothing) more than the administration of justice?

Once, a traveler arrived among a tribe of savages, where a child had just been born. A crowd of soothsayers, magicians, and quacks, armed with rings, hooks, and cords, surrounded the child. One said: "This child will never smell the perfume of the peace pipe unless I stretch his nostrils." Another said: "He will never be able to hear unless I draw his earlobes down to his shoulders." A third said: "He will never see the sunshine unless I slant his eyes." Another said: "He will never stand upright unless I bend his legs." A fifth said: "He will never learn to think unless I flatten his skull." "Stop," cried the traveler. "What God does is well done. Do not claim to know more than he. God has given organs to this frail creature; let them develop and grow strong by exercise, use, and experience."

God has provided us with social as well as physical faculties. These social organs are so constituted that they will develop themselves harmoniously in the clean air of liberty. Away, then, with quacks and organizers! Away with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! And now that the legislators and socialists have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: may they reject all systems and try liberty, for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and his works.

Contemporaries mentioned in The LawEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. Even though Hazlitt was more influenced by Ce qu'on voit et ce qu'on ne voit pas, as he mentions in the foreword to his book
  2. All quotations are from the Dean Russell translation of The Law

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fr:La Loi (pamphlet) it:La legge (Frédéric Bastiat) pt:A Lei