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Bastiat Deserves More Respect

In my latest column for AIER, I argue that Frédéric Bastiat was more than a brilliant polemicist. A slice:

A final example of Bastiat’s brilliance is his illustration, in his 1850 paper “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” of the nature of protectionism — protectionism as personified by a fictional French iron monger, Mr. Prohibant. Mr. Prohibant feels abused by his fellow citizens who purchase iron from his Belgian competitors.

“I will take my rifle,” he [Mr. Prohibant] said to himself, “I will put four pistols in my belt, I will fill my cartridge pouch, I will buckle on my sword and, thus equipped, I will go to the border. There, I will kill the first blacksmith, nail-maker, farrier, mechanic or locksmith who comes to do business with them and not with me. That will teach him how to conduct himself properly.”

When he was about to leave, Mr. Prohibant had second thoughts, which mellowed his bellicose ardor somewhat. He said to himself: “First of all, it is not totally out of the question that my fellow-citizens and enemies, the purchasers of iron, will take this action badly, and instead of letting themselves be killed they will kill me first. Next, even if I marshal all my servants, we cannot guard all the border posts. Finally, this action will cost me a great deal, more than the result is worth.”

Mr. Prohibant was about to resign himself sadly to being merely as free as anyone else when a flash of inspiration shone in his brain.

He remembered that in Paris there was a great law factory. “What is a law?” he asked himself. “It is a measure to which everyone is required to comply once it has been decreed, whether it is good or bad.”

Bastiat explains that Mr. Prohibant then went to Paris to lobby the state to inflict violence upon all French blacksmiths, nail makers, farriers, mechanics, and locksmiths who insist on buying iron from Belgium. In this brilliant example, Bastiat — with his signature sense of humor — revealed the true essence of protectionism.

Some people will object to my calling Bastiat an economic theorist. They’ll point out that he did not devise any theories that are new — that the truths that Bastiat so clearly revealed were already known to professional economists.

Let’s grant here that Bastiat invented no original theories. (This concession is likely contrary to fact. David Hart of Liberty Fund and, separately, GMU econ student Jon Murphy are each working on projects that will show that Bastiat did indeed have original theoretical insights.) Even if Bastiat has to his credit no original theories, we economists have long, and rightly, celebrated the work of those whom we call applied theorists.

Applied theorists apply existing abstract theories to real-world situations. In doing so, these theorists enhance our understanding of reality. The stories they tell cause us to go, “Aha!”