Nothing exposes the absurdity of government regulation better than Frederic Bastiat’s satiric article – The Candlemaker’s Petition. This classic describes a petition taken out by candle makers against what they term as an unfair competitor – the Sun itself!
According to the candle makers, the Sun (naturally a foreign player) has rendered the domestic artificial lighting industry stagnant. Makers of candles, suppliers of tallow and oil, makers of lighting fixtures (candlesticks, lamps, candelabra, chandeliers, crystals, bronzes, and so on) appeal to the government to pass a law banning windows, blinds, shutters, and all holes, cracks and openings through which the light of the Sun is available; thereby blocking access to natural light more or less completely.
Frederic Bastiat: A Victim of Government Regulation
Frederic Bastiat was a classical liberal theorist, political economist and a member of the French assembly. His ideas laid the foundation of what came to be known as the Austrian School of Libertarian Thought. Born in the south of France in 1801, he witnessed the bloody French Revolution firsthand. During this, his family estate in the town of Mugron was acquired. Leaving school to work in the family export business at the age of 17, he was exposed to government regulation, which shaped his thoughts in the future to come.
Frederic Bastiat: Life Begins at 25
His wide range of interest in religion, travel, poetry, philosophy, history, politics and economics were fulfilled when, at the age of 25, his grandfather died, leaving him with the family estate and the means to quench his thirst for knowledge. Interestingly, his public career began in 1844 and ended with his untimely death in 1850 due to tuberculosis contracted during his extensive touring schedule giving speeches and making public appearances. However, the mark he left on modern economic thought was indelible.
Free Market Champion
A tireless writer, Bastiat wrote extensively on economics and political theory. He combined wit and intelligence, with a deeply probing mind, to brilliantly demolish the statist concepts of government regulation. He vehemently espoused the free market cause. His seminal work – Economic Sophisms (which incidentally contains the aforementioned ‘candle makers petition’) – clearly draws the line as well, “If socialists mean that under extraordinary circumstances, for urgent cases, the State should set aside some resources to assist certain unfortunate people, to help them adjust to changing conditions, we will, of course, agree. This is done now; we desire that it be done better. There is however, a point on this road that must not be passed; it is the point where governmental foresight would step in to replace individual foresight and thus destroy it.”
His most famous work – The Law – was published in 1850, where he states that if the law takes from one individual and gives to another, it cannot benefit one at the expense of another and is ‘doing what the citizen cannot do himself without committing a crime.’ His subsequent work- What is Seen and What is Not Seen – introduced the concept of ‘opportunity cost’. Incidentally, this was 65 years before the term was actually coined by another Austrian school economist Friedrich Von Wieser. Bastiat stresses the need for economists to take into account the bigger picture of all people and all industries in society, along with observing the long-term second and third consequences of all economic decisions. He was among the first to point out how people were likely to clamor for tariffs to protect local markets against increased trade – his point being that tariffs make the gains from increased trade pointless. Historically, all modern-day advocates of free markets owe him a debt without realizing that most of their arguments have been elegantly stated decades ago by one of the finest minds.
Bastiat’s defense of liberty has been enshrined in the form of the Bastiat Prize for Journalism. Awarded by the International Policy Netowrk (till 2010) and the Reason Foundation, the prize felicitates journalists who “explain, promote and defend the principles of the free society.” Gladdening to see is that the entries are judged on the basis of intellectual strength, persuasiveness of language and the importance of the medium in which it is published, all hallmarks of the works of this great economist who was a century ahead of his time.