Staring plunder squarely in the face

In his essay The Physiology of Plunder and treatise The Law, French economist Frédéric Bastiat observed that ‘man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labour; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process is the origin of property. The true and just rule for mankind’, he said, ‘is the voluntary exchange of service for service’.

‘But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of others. This process is the origin of plunder. Why’, he asked, ‘this ugly word plunder? Besides being crude, it is offensive and irritating; it only turns calm and temperate men against you and embitters the whole controversy’. The word plunder connotes systematic robbery, taking booty by force, pillaging and looting for spoils. It is specifically forbidden by the Commandment: 'Thou shalt not steal'. Perhaps it evokes mental images of horned Viking berserkers or swarthy Caribbean pirates. More euphemistically, nowadays we call it redistribution. But it's still the same old plunder, that ‘not only redistributes wealth; it always, at the same time, destroys a part of it’.

‘Man is naturally inclined to avoid pain,’ said Bastiat. And ‘since labour is pain in itself, it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work. The plundering only stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labour. Evidently, then, 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. So all the measures of the law should protect property and punish plunder.’

Bastiat had no thought of 21st-century Africa and he can't be tarred with a racist, colonialist or eurocentric brush. He wrote over 150 years ago in a very different culture, yet his generalising mirror may reflect some current realities.

As he says, ‘generally the law is made by one man or one class of men. And since law cannot operate without the sanction and support of a dominating force, this force must be entrusted to those who make the laws. This fact, combined with the fatal tendency that exists in the heart of man to satisfy his wants with the least possible effort, explains the almost universal perversion of the law.’

Perversion for whose benefit, then, Monsieur Bastiat? Surely, as our excellent constitutional preamble puts it, 'so as to to improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person'? Instead he says ‘the law is used by the legislator to destroy in varying degrees among the rest of the people, their personal independence by slavery, their liberty by oppression, and their property by plunder. This is done for the benefit of the person who makes the law, and in proportion to the power that he holds.’

No one likes being a victim, so ‘when plunder is organised by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter – by peaceful or revolutionary means – into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.’

‘Woe to the nation when this latter purpose prevails among the mass victims of lawful plunder when they, in turn, seize the power to make laws! Until that happens, the few practise lawful plunder upon the many. But then, participation in the making of law becomes universal. And then, men seek to balance their conflicting interests by universal plunder.’

How is universal plunder possible? What does it look like? ‘Instead of rooting out the injustices found in society, they make these injustices general. As soon as the plundered classes gain political power, they establish a system of reprisals against other classes. They do not abolish legal plunder. (This objective would demand more enlightenment than they possess.) Instead, they emulate their evil predecessors by participating in this legal plunder, even though it is against their own interests.’

Throughout the Cold War, national socialism denied South Africans prosperity, and apartheid's last decades brought general economic decline. The first democratic decade brought rising unemployment and stagnating per capita incomes where we needed the swift Chinese-style globalising growth-tide that 'raises all boats'. ‘It is as if it were necessary, before a reign of justice appears, for everyone to suffer a cruel retribution - some for their evilness, and some for their lack of understanding.’

What are the most striking consequences of ‘the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder?’ Bastiat summarises: ‘It erases from everyone's conscience the distinction between justice and injustice. No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.’

Many think law and justice are the same, whatever is lawful is also legitimate, and things are "just" because law makes them so. Thus ‘to make plunder appear just and sacred to many consciences, it is only necessary for the law to decree and sanction it. Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them.’

Perhaps none of this is relevant to South Africa's predicament? Bastiat, however, would not be blaming apartheid for current problems. He was clear that ‘what keeps the social order from improving (at least to the extent to which is is capable of improving) is the constant endeavour of its members to live and prosper at one another's expense.’

And observing South Africa, he would perhaps have repeated that ‘it is rarely that the many plunder the few; for, in such a case, the latter would promptly be so reduced in number as no longer to be capable of satisfying the greed of the former, so that plunder would come to an end from want of sustenance.’

Bastiat saw law as ‘the collective organisation of the individual right to lawful defence – the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.’ We have yet some distance to travel on our long walk to freedom.

Author: This article consists of extracts from the writings of the great French economist and politician, Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1852), prepared by Dr Jim Harris, a freelance researcher and writer, who also wrote the connecting sentences. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article\2 December 2003

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