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Bastiat in Canada

By Alberto Mingardi
web posted July 9, 2001

I've been amused reading in "Enter Stage Right" about Canadian farmers seeking economic freedom. Wow. You know, being libertarian in Canada (the sixteenth member of the European Union) is a difficult task. And farmers are usually very protectionist, too. So, the probability of meeting a free-marketer farmer in Canada is more or less the same as meeting an atheist based in the Vatican.

But Craig Docksteader has succeeded in showing us that liberty really has little to do with probabilities. This episode also reminds us that at least one great champion of liberty was a farmer. I'm speaking about Frédéric Bastiat. I'm just back from a conference whose purpose was the celebration of Bastiat's 150th birthday. It was organized by the "International Society for Individual Liberty" and by the French "Cércle Frédéric Bastiat", in Dax - a town very close to Bastiat's birthplace (Bayonne) and to another village where he spent most of his life (Mugron).

Among the very distinguished speakers were Bob McTeer of the Dallas Fed and important libertarian authors like Anthony DeJasay (author of "The State", which in Murray Rothbard's words is the most important libertarian book of the century), Gérard Bramoulle (who has delivered an impressive speech on Bastiat and Mises), Pascal Salin (former President of Mont Pèlerin Society) and the French presidential candidate Alan Madelin.

Claude Frédéric BastiatClaude Frédéric Bastiat was born in Bayonne, a small provincial town on the French side of the Pyrenees, sometime in June, 1801 (some biographers give the exact date as June 19, others as the 30th). Frédéric Bastiat's father Pierre was a prominent merchant in the town. Frédéric's mother died in 1808, and immediately after her death his father moved to an even smaller town, Mugron. This is the place that was to be Frédéric's home for most of his life.

Pierre Bastiat died in 1810, and Frédéric was left under the guardianship of his Aunt Justine. He never did finish his degree but had the chance to meet M. V. Calmètes, who was to be a close friend for many years. The lack of a complete formal education appears to have irked Bastiat, because one of his earliest essays was a critique of the French education system. Bastiat tried his hand at business, working for his uncle in Bayonne. It was here that he gained firsthand knowledge of the manner in which duties, tariffs and regulations affect trade, knowledge that was to serve him in good stead later in life. An interest in questions of Political Economy was sparked and Bastiat began to study the works of Jean-Baptiste Say and Adam Smith with rigor. Bastiat was not drawn to business, and by 1824 he was entertaining thoughts of travelling to Paris to further his formal education; it was at this time that his grandfather summoned him to the estate in Mugron and Bastiat had to shelve his plans.

By 1825 Bastiat's grandfather was dead, and Frédéric found himself the owner of an estate and farm. Enthused with the fervor of technology and progress, he attempted to institute reforms in the farming practices of the region. None of his initiates met with much success or interest and he eventually gave up on trying to enlighten his tenants and neighbours, at least as far as farming was concerned.

It was only in 1844 that he began his brief writing career, stimulated by the free-trade efforts of Richard Cobden (who would become his close friend) and the Anti-Corn Law League in England. Bastiat first garnered attention with "The Influence of French and English Tariffs on the Future of the Two Peoples" published in the Journal des Économistes. Thus began his brief torrent of essays and pamphlets deftly exploding the economic fallacies of his day. Two series of those essays were compiled under the title "Economic Sophisms" (1845), a bestseller that went through many editions and was translated into several languages. In 1850, as his life was nearing an end, Bastiat published "The Law", his eloquent foray into political and legal philosophy.

Bastiat was an activist as well as an author. In 1846 he organized the French Free Trade Association in Bordeaux, before moving to Paris where he organized the free-trade effort on a national scale. He served as secretary-general and editor of the weekly newspaper, "Le Libre Échange" (Free Trade).

In the revolutionary year of 1848, the French people, disgusted with monarchical corruption on behalf of special interests, forced their king from power. In the turmoil that followed, socialist and other utopian schemes gained adherents. To combat these ideas, Bastiat, sick from tuberculosis, won a seat in the National Assembly from Landes. His earlier amicable contact with the poet Lamartine had made the future leader of the Second Republic something of a free trader. But when Lamartine endorsed interventionist programs, Bastiat publicly opposed him. In the assembly Bastiat fought the socialists and communists on one hand, and the monarchists, protectionists, and militarists on the other. His health failing, he valiantly tried to stave off the barrage of assaults on economic and civil liberties. As France veered toward another revolution in the summer of 1848 (this one aborted), Bastiat, in speech and essay, continued his battle for freedom and against statism. Bastiat did not live to see the end of the republic and the crowning of Napoleon III. He died in Rome on Christmas Eve of 1850. He had not succeeded in achieving his political goals, but his libertarian farming heritage is somehow honoured by the people in Canada fighting against the burden of State regulation.

They must be proud: they're people of the same kind Frédéric Bastiat was.

Alberto Mingardi is a visiting fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, VA.

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