The French economist’s timeless principles on social harmony and government rigidity.
Gary M. Galles
Amid the hyperbole devoted to the partial government shutdown, Americans have heard the soap opera details of behind-the-scenes jockeying and Twitter smack-downs while being told how dire things are as a result. In fact, with all the blaming of opponents for extremism and unprincipled intransigence in preventing a resolution, you might think that the government status quo they are trying to get back to is the means to national harmony. That would be seriously mistaken.
The government we suffer from is the primary cause of our disharmony, which is why liberty requires a partial government shutdown.
Continually leveraging government power into ever-more areas where people’s views dramatically differ expands how frequently some people’s preferences are forced on others. That guarantees acrimony, not harmony. And our public servants in Washington could use some wisdom on that score. For that, they could turn to one of the most insightful observers of government’s influence on social comity—Frédéric Bastiat, among history’s ablest defenders of freedom, in his Economic Harmonies.
“All men’s impulses, when motivated by legitimate self-interest, fall into a harmonious social pattern…the practical solution…is simply not to thwart those interests or to try to redirect them.”
“Coercion…[has] never yet done anything…except to eliminate liberty.”
“Where do you…establish the acting principle of coercion?…if you entrust men with arbitrary power, you must first prove that…their minds will be exempt from error, their hands from greed, and their hearts from covetousness.”
“But it is not necessary to force into harmony things that are inherently harmonious.”
“Let men labor, exchange, learn, band together, act, and react upon one another…there can result from their free and intelligent activity only order, harmony and progress.”
“The question is whether or not we have liberty…not profoundly disrupted by the contrary act of institutions of human origin.”
“Social order, freed from its abuses and the obstacles that have been put in its way…[is] the most admirable, the most complete, the most lasting, the most universal, and the most equitable of all associations.”
“The laws of Providence are harmonious…only when they operate under conditions of freedom…Therefore when we perceive something inharmonious in the world, it cannot fail to correspond to some lack of freedom or justice.”
“The state always acts through the instrumentality of force…What are the things that men have the right to impose on one another by force?…I have no right to force anyone to be religious, charitable, well educated, or industrious; but I have the right to force him to be just: this is a case of legitimate self-defense.”
“If, therefore, the use of force by the individual is justified solely on grounds of legitimate self-defense, we need only recognize that government action always takes the form of force to conclude that by its very nature it can be exerted solely for the maintenance of order, security, and justice. All government action beyond this limit is an encroachment upon the individual’s conscience, intelligence, and industry—in a word, upon human liberty.”
“Accordingly, we must [turn]…to the task of freeing the whole domain of private activity from the encroachments of government.”
“Restrict the public police force to its one and only rightful function…from what source could come all our present ills…which teach the people to look to the government for everything…to the ever increasing and unnatural meddling of politics into all things.”
“[Many] causes of disturbances, friction, disaffection, envy, and disorder would no longer exist…it reduces evil to the smaller and smaller area left open to it by the ignorance and perversity of our human frailty, which it is the function of harmony to prevent or chastise.”
Economic Harmonies identified the principled defense of individual rights and freedom as central to social harmony and progress. But such freedom required government “exerted solely for the maintenance of order, security, and justice.” Every expansion beyond that narrow bound expands disharmony.
Politicians promise harmony and blame opponents for destroying it. But government acting as the ubiquitous dispenser of goodies and garnishments destroys harmony. So the fight in Washington is not the cause of division, and no temporary DC détente can eliminate it. The core fight is over how invasive, and thus how destructive of harmony, government will be.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. His recent books include Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014) and Apostle of Peace (2013). He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.