A boy from Bayonne

Frederic Bastiat is known for a set of essays, the most recognized is entitled, What is Seen and What is Not Seen. At time of writing, the french nineteenth-century statesman and philosopher is in the latter part of his life and is inspired to record some economic thoughts in a wry and witty manner. The language is vivid and descriptive and the text takes on many forms including dialogue and LaFontaine-like fables. He playfully names his actors M. Prohibant, M. Jacques Bonhomme, and M Blockhead.

En pays basque

His objective is to open the eyes of his fellow statesmen to take into account of the entire cycle of economic impact in the system; to note what is seen but also what is unseen. Much of his inspiration comes from the waste he sees in a heavily bureaucratic tariff industry which seems to have sprung up at crossovers between countries or every city gate. This gross abuse of skimming a bit off the top of every transaction, and the bloated civil service that supports such things, is easily exposed as inefficient.

The Collected Works of Bastiat is over 500 pages, so, for as much as there is to say about the restraints of free trade, it is only a segment of the entirety. It might be the portion that free traders have used to identify the author as their own. But the boy from the Paye Basque offers so much more. In fact, it is against his professed philosophy to pluck out but one section of the analysis and not look under the cushions for the rest of the loose change.

Bastiat does not deny the core services of government “the army, the navy, law and order, public works, the university, the national debt, etc..”(pg43) He decries all abuses of taking private profits whether through commercial fraud or abuse in the public sphere (pg123) or through the church (pg123). He denounces the fraudulent taking in any sector as “Plunder!” It is not simply across the custom’s desk that he sees waste in the system.

Through the volume and variety of writing he devotes to flushing out various aspects of exchanges, he seems to want to expose much more to the systems he sees than simply the revulsion of protectionism. For instance, he talks about the different natures of work. There is work where the value is determined in the end product, not the hours spent. For that reason ‘make work’ by the government is unproductive and should be replaced by unemployment insurance (pg160). He opposes postal rates which vary by distance, which suggests that he feels postal service is a public good to be provided at a reasonable cost no matter where you are, as told in the story of the Salt, the Mail and the Customs Service.

We could talk more about how he describes the various levels of markets (not ‘your’ market, ‘our’ market he tells the paysanne!) There are markets off the rail stops, there is the vaste city market of Paris, there are the other European markets, and just bursting on the scene is the market in Algiers which is a net loss, as it is pulling taxes out of the system (184).

Bastiat has a lot to say. His text deserves a more thorough read. He is trying to locate the whole elephant and would like everyone to stop advocting for the one angle he or she is clinging to.