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The Law - What is law? What ought it to be?
Written by Frederic Bastiat   
Sunday, 22 November 2009 01:25
Article Index
The Law
The Law Perverted
How Has This Been Accomplished
The right to assistance, the poor mans plunder
Partial and universal plunder
Explaining plunder
Socialism confounds Government and society
What sort of liberty should be allowed to men
What is law What ought it to be
I cannot avoid coming to this conclusion
All Pages

 

I shall now resume the subject by remarking, that immediately after the economical part[4] of the question, and at the entrance of the political part, a leading question presents itself. It is the following:

What is law? What ought it to be? What is its domain? What are its limits? Where, in fact, does the prerogative of the legislator stop?

I have no hesitation in answering, Law is common force organized to prevent injustice; — in short, Law is Justice.

It is not true that the legislator has absolute power over our persons and property, since they pre-exist, and his work is only to secure them from injury.

It is not true that the mission of the law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our will, our education, our sentiments, our works, our exchanges, our gifts, our enjoyments. Its mission is to prevent the rights of one from interfering with those of another, in any one of these things.

Law, because it has force for its necessary sanction, can only have as its lawful domain the domain of force, which is justice.

And as every individual has a right to have recourse to force only in cases of lawful defense, so collective force, which is only the union of individual forces, cannot be rationally used for any other end.

The law, then, is solely the organization of individual rights, which existed before legitimate defense.

Law is justice.

So far from being able to oppress the persons of the people, or to plunder their property, even for a philanthropic end, its mission is to protect the former, and to secure to them the possession of the latter.

It must not be said, either, that it may be philanthropic, so long as it abstains from all oppression; for this is a contradiction. The law cannot avoid acting upon our persons and property; if it does not secure them, it violates them if it touches them.

The law is justice.

Nothing can be more clear and simple, more perfectly defined and bounded, or more visible to every eye; for justice is a given quantity, immutable and unchangeable, and which admits of neither increase or diminution.

Law is justice.
 

Depart from this point, make the law religious, fraternal, equalizing, industrial, literary, or artistic, and you will be lost in vagueness and uncertainty; you will be upon unknown ground, in a forced Utopia, or, which is worse, in the midst of a multitude of Utopias, striving to gain possession of the law, and to impose it upon you; for fraternity and philanthropy have no fixed limits, like justice. Where will you stop? Where is the law to stop? One person, as M. de Saint Cricq, will only extend his philanthropy to some of the industrial classes, and will require the law to dispose of the consumers in favor of the producers. Another, like M. Considerant, will take up the cause of the working classes, and claim for them by means of the law, at a fixed rate, clothing, lodging, food, and everything necessary for the support of life. A third, as M. Louis Blanc, will say, and with reason, that this would be an incomplete fraternity, and that the law ought to provide them with instruments of, labor and the means of instruction. A fourth will observe that such an arrangement still leaves room for inequality, and that the law ought to introduce into the most remote hamlets luxury, literature, and the arts. This is the high road to communism; in other words, legislation will be — what it now is — the battlefield for everybody's dreams and everybody's covetousness.

Law is justice.

In this proposition we represent to ourselves a simple, immovable Government. And I defy any one to tell me whence the thought of a revolution, an insurrection, or a simple disturbance could arise against a public force confined to the repression of injustice. Under such a system, there would be more well — being, and this well — being would be more equally distributed; and as to the sufferings inseparable from humanity, no one would think of accusing the Government of them, for it would be as innocent of them as it is of the variations of the temperature. Have the people ever been known to rise against the court of repeals, or assail the justices of the peace, for the sake of claiming the rate of wages, gratuitous credit, instruments of labor, the advantages of the tariff, or the social workshop? They know perfectly well that these combinations are beyond the jurisdiction of the justices of the peace, and they would soon learn that they are not within the jurisdiction of the law.

It is in the nature of men to rise against the injustice….

I defy any one to tell me whence the thought of a revolution could arise against a public force confined to the repression of injustice.
 
 

But if the law were to be made upon the principle of fraternity, if it were to be proclaimed that from it proceed all benefits and all evils — that it is responsible for every individual grievance and for every social inequality — then you open the door to an endless succession of complaints, irritations, troubles, and revolutions.

Law is justice.

And it would be very strange if it could properly be anything else! Is not justice right? Are not rights equal? With what show of right can the law interfere to subject me to the social plans of MM. Mimerel, de Melun, Thiers, or Louis Blanc, rather than to subject these gentlemen to my plans? Is it to be supposed that Nature has not bestowed upon me sufficient imagination to invent a Utopia too? Is it for the law to make choice of one amongst so many fancies, and to make use of the public force in its service?

Law is justice.

And let it not be said, as it continually is, that the law, in this sense, would be atheistic, individual, and heartless, and that it would make mankind wear its own image. This is an absurd conclusion, quite worthy of the governmental infatuation which sees mankind in the law.

What then? Does it follow that, if we are free, we shall cease to act? Does it follow, that if we do not receive an impulse from the law, we shall receive no impulse at all? Does it follow, that if the law confines itself to securing to us the free exercise of our faculties, our faculties will be paralyzed? Does it follow, that if the law does not impose upon us forms of religion, modes of association, methods of instruction, rules for labor, directions for exchange, and plans for charity, we shall plunge eagerly into atheism, isolation, ignorance, misery, and egotism? Does it follow, that we shall no longer recognize the power and goodness of God; that we shall cease to associate together, to help each other, to love and assist our unfortunate brethren, to study the secrets of nature, and to aspire after perfection in our existence?

Law is justice.

And it is under the law of justice, under the reign of right, under the influence of liberty, security, stability, and responsibility, that every man will attain to the measure of his worth, to all the dignity of his being, and that mankind will accomplish, with order and with calmness — slowly, it is true, but with certainty — the progress decreed to it.

I believe that my theory is correct; for whatever be the question upon which I am arguing, whether it be religious, philosophical, political, or economical; whether it affects well-being, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, property, labor, exchange, capital, wages, taxes, population, credit, or Government; at whatever point of the scientific horizon I start from, I invariably come to the same thing — the solution of the social problem is in liberty.

Which are the happiest, the most moral, and the most peaceable nations?

Those where the law interferes the least with private activity.
 

And have I not experience on my side? Cast your eye over the globe. Which are the happiest, the most moral, and the most peaceable nations? Those where the law interferes the least with private activity; where the Government is the least felt; where individuality has the most scope, and public opinion the most influence; where the machinery of the administration is the least important and the least complicated; where taxation is lightest and least unequal, popular discontent the least excited and the least justifiable; where the responsibility of individuals and classes is the most active, and where, consequently, if morals are not in a perfect state, at any rate they tend incessantly to correct themselves; where transactions, meetings, and associations are the least fettered; where labor, capital, and production suffer the least from artificial displacements; where mankind follows most completely its own natural course; where the thought of God prevails the most over the inventions of men; those, in short, who realize the most nearly this idea — That within the limits of right, all should flow from the free, perfectible, and voluntary action of man; nothing be attempted by the law or by force, except the administration of universal justice.



 
 

 

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