Bastiat: Defining Law, Its Source, Its Legitimate Role and Limits



French Philosopher Frédéric Bastiat loved to get to the root of things. 

In his 1852 classic “The Law” he teaches:

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. This is justice.

Every individual has the right to use force for lawful self-defense. It is for this reason that the collective force—which is only the organized combination of the individual forces—may lawfully be used for the same purpose; and it 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. Law is justice.

Bastiat does go right to the root now, doesn’t he? His reasoning out the root origin of law, its definition, its legitimate role and it limits, and where both the citizen and legislator fit in this scheme of things puts what was once the Almighty Legislator (the Legislator King he would call them) in his place.

Consider: if these sage truths were understood and believed in today (as they were during America’s Founding Era), what political reforms would be necessary? Where would we start? What would be the impact on our economic, political, and social prosperity and happiness?

Source: Frederic Bastiat, The Law, first published in 1850, p. 67-68.

Steve Farrell is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of the Self-Educated American.