Bastiat: The Gentle and Rough Hand of the State

Frederic Bastiat


Many today look to the state for for a hand up, hand out, or for some other sort of privilege or advantage over other individuals, classes, races or businesses.

French philosopher Frederic Bastiat, who believed the states only legitimate role was to serve as a mere instrument of justice with every man and every business equal before that great bar, warned as to looking beyond that mark:

The fact is, the state does not and cannot have one hand only. It has two hands, one to take and the other to give—in other words, the rough hand and the gentle hand. The activity of the second is necessarily subordinated to the activity of the first. Strictly speaking, the state can take and not give. We have seen this happen, and it is to be explained by the porous and absorbent nature of its hands, which always retain a part, and sometimes the whole, of what they touch. But what has never been seen, what will never be seen and cannot even be conceived, is the state giving the public more than it has taken from it. It is therefore foolish for us to take the humble attitude of beggars when we ask anything of the state. It is fundamentally impossible for it to confer a particular advantage on some of the individuals who constitute the community without inflicting a greater damage on the entire community.

Source: Frederic Bastiat, 1848, Selected Essays on Political Economy, Chapter 5, The State.

Daily Dabble in the Classics is a project of Steve Farrell and Self-Educated American.

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