Bastiat: God, 'The Law', and the Rights of Man


Sometimes secularism sounds legitimate.

One of the more thoughtful arguments used by proponents of a secular state, or of a state that mandates the removal of all religious and moral speech and symbols from public life, is Frenchmen Frederic Bastiat’s 1840 classic treatise, “The Law.”

Periodically, letters come to this writer encouraging him to read “The Law” so that his “eyes may be opened … for certainly religion and morality have no place in American law,” they claim, “and Bastiat explains why.”

The scolders are right; Bastiat’s “The Law” is a must read. But the scolders are wrong; Bastiat did not oust religion and morality from public life; he simply defended their proper use and denounced their misuse.

Bastiat’s opening paragraphs supplied the foundation upon which “The Law” rests. Under the heading “Life Is a Gift from God,” he proclaimed:

“We hold from God the gift which includes all others. This gift is life – physical, intellectual, and moral life.” A rather odd way to begin a “secular” treatise: Our right to life comes from God; all other rights proceed from or are a part of that God-given right.

Bastiat continues: “But life cannot maintain itself alone. The Creator of life has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it.”

That is, the preservation, the development and perfection of our God-given right to life is a religious and/or moral duty.

And how might God’s gift of life be best perpetuated? Bastiat answers:

In order that we may accomplish this, He [God] has provided us with a collection of marvelous faculties. And He has put us in the midst of a variety of natural resources. By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products, and use them. This process is necessary in order that life may run its appointed course.

Life, faculties, production – in other words, individuality, liberty, property – this is man.”

It is possible that the non-Bible reader fails to recognize Bastiat’s blatant biblical undertones about the purpose of life, but nonetheless, this is what we have. The French philosopher is restating the scriptural message that God put man on Earth, endowed him with superior faculties (such as reason, individual will and a superior intellect), set him above the beasts (by way of endowment and commandment) and granted man dominion over the whole earth (the origin of private property).

And what was man’s charge? Among others: “By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” (Genesis 3:19)

Man must work. Man must provide for himself and his family. He does this by applying his ingenuity, his labor, his passion and his ambition to natural resources. By so doing, each man puts his unique stamp upon a natural resource, and providing the resource was acquired honestly, it becomes his property; indeed, it becomes part of the definition of who he is.

A man’s life, then, is not simply what resides in his heart, as important as this is, but how his heart manifests itself in his speech, his moral choices and his labor.

This is not mere theory; this is life as it is. Making the purpose of life, in part, a test between man and his environment, between man and the use of his God-given property – with this vital prerequisite: that each man have the freedom to choose whether to enlarge, sit on, share with others or squander his inheritance according to his talents, opportunities, inclinations and moral convictions.

Without freedom, without property, the test of manhood is exercised on a playing field that is less than ideal for human development.

Bastiat moves on to the next issue:

[I]n spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts (life, liberty, property) from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.

Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.

What could be clearer? Life, liberty and property are tightly linked with manhood. These rights pre-existed in Heaven. They are vital to God’s plan for man on Earth. The fact that they did not originate with man and man’s governments, but in that higher sphere, makes them inalienable, and as such, they are superior to all human legislation. This is the origin of what the American Founders called “the Higher Law.”

Therefore, the foundation of all human law rests on this one solid purpose — the defense of the eternal rights God gave to man – making government, in essence, a defender of the faith, or, more specifically, limited to defending this vital aspect of the faith.

None of this is secular thinking but rather a political philosophy riveted in theology, which is no doubt why Bastiat flat-out called his purpose in writing “The Law” his “moral duty.”

Bastiat’s concern, then, was not that it ought to be prohibited for anyone to teach in public that the law had come from God, for his entire thesis rested upon the belief that indeed it had; but his concern lay in the misapplication of God’s law in human law by naïve, corrupt and designing men.

He wrote:

The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted along with it! The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose! The law become the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!

… moral duty requires me to call the attention of my fellow-citizens to it.

He is concerned about a counter-morality, one which uses a new sort of moral argument, accompanied by the power of the sword, to persecute and prosecute those who live by the old moral code and uphold the old laws (those properly built upon that Higher Law), and promote and protect those who live by the new moral code and uphold the new laws, or in other words, they who engage in and uphold that which was previously known to be immoral and criminal.

He is objecting to socialism, communism, utilitarianism and secularism (and all their relatives and lookalikes by any other name) – those weapons of the violent and bloody overthrow of the law called the French Revolution. Their perversion or overthrow of the law gave birth to what Bastiat calls “positive law,” a set of laws which, rather than simply punishing a man for evil deeds (what he describes as negative law or justice), decrees how a man must act in every possible situation (what he calls positive law).

In other words, it is a law which compels men and women to do good (as the state perversely defines good) – regulating, over time, all of his or her affairs; stifling every man and woman’s decisions, speech, religion, career choices (you name it); opening the door for unlimited government and absolute tyranny, which is indeed its real purpose.

Bastiat’s solution is to return to the original purpose of the law and government – the defense of man’s God-given rights to life, liberty and property. This is negative law (or mere justice), a set of laws which punish men for acts that violate or threaten the rights of others, nothing more.

Such a law does not tell a man how to act; it only checks extremes in his vice and leaves him otherwise free to make a wide range of choices. The result is limited government and maximum liberty.

A defense of secularism? Think again. Bastiat’s “The Law” was a firm testimony against secularism and all of the political isms which embrace it.

Author’s Note:

In Bastiat’s last hours, he cried out, “I see, I know, I believe; I am a Christian!” Sometime before his death, he declared that if God would give him a new lease on life he would devote his energy to the development of Christian harmony and political economy, but he did not live to fulfill his vow. (See “Catholic Encyclopedia,” Claude-Frederic Bastiat.)

Steve FarrellSteve Farrell is the Founder and Editor In Chief of Self-Educated American, one of the original pundits at (1999-2008), and the author of the inspirational novel, Dark Rose.