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Follow The Law
by Gary M. Galles
[author, academic] 6/30/06

America’s governance problems are continually discussed. But because they trace back to a mistaken approach to government, they are far from new. Fortunately, this problem was dissected long ago by Frederic Bastiat, among history’s most ardent and eloquent defenders of liberty, whose 1801 birthday we mark June 30.

In his 1850 classic, The Law, Bastiat laid out the very limited appropriate role of law--that is, of government. He clearly and powerfully laid out central principles of law which we now almost exclusively honor in the breach.

Gary M. Galles

Mr. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. [go to Galles index]

“ Instead of checking crime, the law itself [has become] guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!”

“…law…is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.”

“ Each of us has a natural right--from God--to defend his person, his liberty, and his property...the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose…Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force…cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.”

“… no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others…the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces.”

“The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense…to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties…to cause justice to reign over us all.”

“ But, unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its proper functions...it has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose. The law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect...to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others.”

“When [people] can, they wish to live and prosper at the expense of others...men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work…the proper purpose of law is to use the power of its collective force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of to work. All the measures of the law should protect property and punish plunder.”

“ It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder...”
” ...if law were restricted to protecting all persons, all liberties, and all properties…if law were the obstacle, the check, the punisher of all oppression and plunder…If the law were confined to its proper functions…those who voted could not inconvenience those who did not vote.”

“Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another...”

“[When] law may be diverted from its true purpose--that it may violate property instead of protecting it…The law has come to be an instrument of injustice.”

“Sometimes the law defends plunder and participates in it…Sometimes the law places the whole apparatus of judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes at the service of the plunderers...”

“ But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime. “

“No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony, and logic.”

“...can anything more than the absence of plunder be required of the law? Can the law--which necessarily requires the use of force--rationally be used for anything except protecting the rights of everyone? I defy anyone to extend it beyond this purpose without perverting it and, consequently, turning might against right. This is the most fatal and most illogical social perversion…”

“When justice is organized by law--that is, by force--this excludes the idea of using law (force) to organize any human activity whatever... For truly, how can we imagine force being used against the liberty of citizens without it also being used against justice, and thus acting against its proper purpose?”

“When a portion of wealth is transferred from the person who owns it--without his consent and without compensation, and whether by force or by fraud--to anyone who does not own it…an act of plunder is committed…this act is exactly what the law is supposed to suppress, always and everywhere. When the law itself commits this act that it is supposed to suppress…plunder is still committed.”

“ We must remember that law is force, and that, consequently, the proper functions of the law cannot lawfully extend beyond the proper functions of force.”

“ When law and force keep a person within the bounds of justice, they impose nothing but a mere negation. They oblige him only to abstain from harming others. They violate neither his personality, his liberty, nor his property. They safeguard all of these. They are defensive; they defend equally the rights of all.”

“… the purpose of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning…Justice is achieved only when injustice is absent.”

“ But when the law, by means of its necessary agent, force, imposes upon men…the law is no longer negative…It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own wills...they lose their personality, their liberty, their property.”

“ Try to imagine a regulation of labor imposed by force that is not a violation of liberty; a transfer of wealth imposed by force that is not a violation of property...you must conclude that the law cannot organize labor and industry without organizing injustice.”

“… as it takes from some persons and gives to other persons…the law…is an instrument of plunder.”

“How did politicians ever come to believe this weird idea that the law could be made to produce what it does not contain…?”

“…is not liberty the freedom of every person to make full use of his faculties, so long as he does not harm other persons while doing so? Is not liberty the destruction of all despotism…is not liberty the restricting of the law only to its rational sphere of organizing the right of the individual to lawful self-defense; of punishing injustice?”

… I do dispute [legislators] right to impose these plans upon us by law--by force--and to compel us to pay for them…They need only to give up the idea of forcing us to acquiesce...that we be permitted to decide upon these plans for ourselves; that we not be forced to accept them, directly or indirectly, if we find them to be contrary to our best interests or repugnant to our consciences.”

“ It is not true that the legislator has absolute power over our persons and property. The existence of persons and property preceded the existence of the legislator, and his function is only to guarantee their safety.”

“ It is not true that the function of law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents, or our pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free exercise of these rights, and to prevent any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by any other person.”

“Since law necessarily requires the support of force, its lawful domain is only in the areas where the use of force is necessary.”

“ Every individual has the right to use force for lawful self-defense...collective force…cannot be used legitimately for any other purpose.”

“ Law is solely the organization of the individual right of self-defense which existed before law was formalized.”

“ The mission of the law is not to oppress persons and plunder them of their property...Its mission is to protect persons and property…if the law acts in any manner except to protect them, its actions then necessarily violate the liberty of persons and their right to own property.”

“ In this proposition a simple and enduring government can be conceived…a government whose organized force was confined only to suppressing injustice.”

“ Under such a regime, there would be the most prosperity--and it would be the most equally distributed. As for the sufferings that are inseparable from humanity, no one would even think of accusing the government for them…And if government were limited to its proper functions, everyone would soon learn that these matters are not within the jurisdiction of the law...”

“Law is justice. And it is under the law of justice--under the reign of right; under the influence of liberty, safety, stability, and responsibility--that every person will attain his real worth and the true dignity of his being. It is only under this law of justice that mankind will achieve…God’s design for the orderly and peaceful progress of humanity.”

“... whatever the question…whether it concerns prosperity, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, cooperation, property, labor, trade, capital, wages, taxes, population, finance, or government...The solution to the problems of human relationships is to be found in liberty.”

“ Which countries contain the most peaceful, the most moral, and the happiest people?...where the law least interferes with private affairs; where government is least felt; where the individual has the greatest scope, and free opinion the greatest influence…where individuals and groups most actively assume their responsibilities, and, consequently, where the morals of admittedly imperfect human beings are constantly improving…the happiest, most moral, and most peaceful people are those who most nearly follow this principle: Although mankind is not perfect, still, all hope rests upon the free and voluntary actions of persons within the limits of right; law or force is to be used for nothing except the administration of universal justice.”“...leave people alone. God has given organs to this frail creature; let them develop and grow strong by exercise, use, experience, and liberty.”

“Away with the whims of governmental administrators...now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works.”

No one has ever laid out more clearly than Frederic Bastiat that the only just use of law is to defend liberty and the voluntary arrangements people make when given that liberty. As The Law makes clear, no other approach is consistent with “liberty and justice for all.” CRO

copyright 2006 Gary M. Galles



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