The Law

by Frédéric Bastiat

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The Leader of the Democrats

Now let us examine Rousseau on this subject. This writer on public affairs is the supreme authority of the democrats. And although he bases the social structure upon the will of the people, he has, to a greater extent than anyone else, completely accepted the theory of the total inertness of mankind in the presence of the legislators:

"If it is true that a great prince is rare, then is it not true that a great legislator is even more rare? The prince has only to follow the pattern that the legislator creates. The legislator is the mechanic who invents the machine; the prince is merely the workman who sets it in motion.

And what part do persons play in all this? They are merely the machine that is set in motion. In fact, are they not merely considered to be the raw material of which the machine is made?"

Thus the same relationship exists between the legislator and the prince as exists between the agricultural expert and the farmer; and the relationship between the prince and his subjects is the same as that between the farmer and his land. How high above mankind, then, has this writer on public affairs been placed? Rousseau rules over legislators themselves, and teaches them their trade in these imperious terms:

"Would you give stability to the state? Then bring the extremes as closely together as possible. Tolerate neither wealthy persons nor beggars.

If the soil is poor or barren, or the country too small for its inhabitants, then turn to industry and arts, and trade these products for the foods that you need.... On a fertile soil -- if you are short of inhabitants -- devote all your attention to agriculture, because this multiplies people; banish the arts, because they only serve to depopulate the nation....

If you have extensive and accessible coast lines, then cover the sea with merchant ships; you will have a brilliant but short existence. If your seas wash only inaccessible cliffs, let the people be barbarous and eat fish; they will live more quietly -- perhaps better -- and, most certainly, they will live more happily.

In short, and in addition to the maxims that are common to all, every people has its own particular circumstances. And this fact in itself will cause legislation appropriate to the circumstances."

This is the reason why the Hebrews formerly -- and, more recently, the Arabs -- had religion as their principle objective. The objective of the Athenians was literature; of Carthage and Tyre, commerce; of Rhodes, naval affairs; of Sparta, war; and of Rome, virtue. The author of The Spirit of Laws has shown by what art the legislator should direct his institutions toward each of these objectives.... But suppose that the legislator mistakes his proper objective, and acts on a principle different from that indicated by the nature of things? Suppose that the selected principle sometimes creates slavery, and sometimes liberty; sometimes wealth, and sometimes population; sometimes peace, and sometimes conquest? This confusion of objective will slowly enfeeble the law and impair the constitution. The state will be subjected to ceaseless agitations until it is destroyed or changed, and invincible nature regains her empire.

But if nature is sufficiently invincible to regain its empire, why does not Rousseau admit that it did not need the legislator to gain it in the first place? Why does he not see that men, by obeying their own instincts, would turn to farming on fertile soil, and to commerce on an extensive and easily accessible coast, without the interference of a Lycurgus or a Solon or a Rousseau who might easily be mistaken.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.