The study of political economy is not new. The most renowned work on political economy is Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Since its publication in 1776, several other great men have followed—Jacques Turgot, Jeremy Bentham, Jean Baptiste Say, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Engels, and Carl Menger. However, one man, who contributed much to political economy and was greatly recognized in his beloved France in the nineteenth century but who mostly had gone un-noticed from the rest of the world until the mid-twentieth century, is Frédéric Bastiat. This is due in part because after his death in 1850 Bastiat was thought more of as an “economic journalist” than an economic theorist. It was not until the publication of his Selected Essays on Political Economy by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 1964 that Bastiat came burning onto the world stage as never seen before. Perhaps one reason for this is that his writing is simple and to the point; thus, he was able to touch a nerve with the twentieth century American public. As the 1974 Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, F.A. Hayek, declared about Bastiat’s work, “No one has ever stated more clearly…the central difficulty of a rational economic policy.”
Claude Frederic Bastiat was born during the Napoleonic Wars in the port city of Bayonne, France in 1801. His father, Pierre, was a prominent partner in the family merchant business with Bastiat’s uncle. When Bastiat’s mother died in 1808, his father moved to Mugron to live on the Bastiat family estate with Bastiat’s paternal grandfather and aunt, an estate which was received by them after the revolution of 1789. Unfortunately, Bastiat’s father died in 1810 and little Frederic was raised by his grandfather and aunt. The story goes that his aunt took a liking to little Frederic and was responsible for his education and upbringing. Then, at the age of 17, Bastiat returned to Bayonne to work for his uncle. It is reported that Bastiat was not a good bookkeeper and was more interested in reading and quiet study. Furthermore, his experience in business taught him the real lessons of trade restrictions. Everyday Bastiat would walk up-and-down the streets seeing shops closed or put out of business because of the trade controls. It was due to this experience that he first developed his dislike of trade controls and his philosophy that economic prosperity demanded economic liberty.
After several years of working for his uncle in Bayonne, Bastiat was forced to return to Mugron to oversee the estate due to his grandfather’s poor health. While in Mugron, he spent the next twenty years in quiet study and reflection. It was his publication on English and French tariffs on the future of the two countries which was published in the prestigious Journal des economists that made him an overnight sensation. He was soon elected into the French Academy of Science. He moved to Paris in 1845 to work on publishing a book on the English free trade advocate, Richard Cobden, as well as Economic Sophisms (which was a collection of his previous writings) and Economic Harmonies. In addition, he started the Bordeaux Association of Free Trade and the French Free Trade Association, established a newspaper publication entitled, "Le Libre-Exchange", and was finally elected to the French General Assembly. It was in the Assembly where Bastiat put his principles into practice, for as we read in What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen, the legislator is supposed to write laws which protect life, liberty, and property. Bastiat’s mission in the Assembly was to do just that—repeal laws which were unjust and replace them with those that were “just.”
So significant have the works and life of Bastiat become to the world that his writings have been translated into numerous languages; and societies, websites, blogs, radio shows, and online discussion groups have been established in his honor. It is no wonder that Bastiat biographer, George Charles Roche III, writes of the man, “The battles he fought as a mid-nineteenth century public figure were the battles which still mold the events and thinking of the Western world.” Bastiat departed this earth in Rome on Christmas Eve of 1850.
By: Michael F. Reber* for the Bastiat Society
* MICHAEL F. REBER is coordinator of the Bastiat Revival Blog, and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Value and Decision Science of the Graduate School of Decision Science and Technology at Tokyo Institute of Technology where he is actively developing systems design and systems thinking courses.
** (Pictured) Statue of Frederic Bastiat in Mugron, France
Bastiat's boyhood home near Mugron. France
Plaque of Bastiat in Mugron, France
The Complete Collection of Frédéric Bastiat
Volumes 1 and 2 available now!
By Frédéric Bastiat
Liberty Fund's new six-volume The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat series may be considered the most complete edition of Bastiat's works published to date, in any country, and in any language. The main source for this translation is the seven-volume Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, published in the 1850s and 1860s.
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