… is from pages 171-172 of Liberty Fund’s forthcoming new and expanded English-language edition, expertly edited by David Hart, of Frédéric Bastiat’s brilliant Economic Sophisms and “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen”; specifically, this passage is from the new translation of Bastiat’s January 1846 essay “Theft by Subsidy” (“Le vol à la prime”) (original emphasis):
“Whosoever has fraudulently taken something that does not belong to him is guilty of theft” (Penal Code, Article 379).
To steal: To take something furtively or by force (The Dictionary of the Academy).
Thief: A person who exacts more than is due to him (Ditto).
Well, is not a monopolist who, through a law he has drafted, obliges me to pay him 20 fr. for something I can buy elsewhere for 15, fraudulently taking away 5 fr. that belongs to me?
Is he not taking it furtively or by force?
Is he not exacting more than is due to him?
He withdraws, takes, or exacts, people will say, but not furtively or by force, which is what characterizes theft.
When our tax forms show a charge of 5 fr. for the subsidy that is withdrawn, taken, or exacted by the monopolist, what can be more furtive, since so few of us suspect it? And for those who are not taken in by it, what can be more forced, since at the first refusal we have the bailiffs at our heels?
DBx: Nearly all scholars, pundits, and people generally regard using words such as “theft,” “steal,” and “robbery” as out-of-bounds when describing the activities of the state. This attitude is common even among classical-liberal and libertarian scholars and pundits. The same person who wouldn’t hesitate to describe a merchant who personally robs a lone customer at gunpoint a “thief” wouldn’t stoop to using such ideologically biased language when describing a group of merchants who persuade a group of politicians to use the physical force at these politicians’ disposal to compel many customers to pay excessively high prices for these merchants’ wares.
In polite, refined, and reasonable circles the latter variety of compulsion is not theft or robbery. No. It’s “public policy.” It might be unwise public policy, but it’s nevertheless public policy. Only free-market ideologues who are incapable of making fine distinctions equate tariffs and state-granted subsidies with theft. And only the most feral and blinkered of these ideologues actually commit the ridiculous act of calling tariffs and subsidies “theft” or “robbery.”
Sensible people with sound judgment – adults whose responses are unfailingly measured and reasonable – understand that the likes of tariffs and subsidies are not theft. Such policies cannot possibly be theft, at least not in our great country where the People rule, because these policies are carried out lawfully. That is, these policies are chosen and enforced by representatives of the People in accordance with proper, constitutional procedures which guarantee that all that is done by the state is the People’s will. Just as an individual cannot steal from himself, the People cannot steal from themselves.
Yep. That’s the attitude. Those with this attitude – be it genuinely held or worn as a mask – unquestionably have a louder voice in public affairs. Being thought reasonable, these people are much more likely to have more widespread public voices than are those of us who cannot see any substantive difference between, for example, U.S. steel producers who join together to hire the local mafia to forcibly transfer money from the pockets of the public into the coffers of these companies, and U.S. steel producers who join together to entice Uncle Sam to forcibly transfer money from the pockets of the public into the coffers of these companies.
But words matter. As long as even most market-oriented scholars and pundits refrain, out of fear of being regarded as too extreme, from calling tariffs and subsidies “theft” and “robbery,” the public discussion will be biased in favor of the
rent-seekers thieves and their politician-agents thugs who tax rob the larger public for public-policy purposes their own narrow benefit.