If a posthumous Nobel Prize were to be awarded to just one person for crystal-clear writing and masterful storytelling in economics, no one would be more deserving of it than Frédéric Bastiat (June 30, 1801–December 24, 1850). He set the standard over a century and a half ago.
This remarkable Frenchman was an economist in more than the traditional sense. He understood the way the economic world works, and he knew better than anybody how to explain it with an economy of words. He employed everyday language and a conversational tone, an innate clarity that flowed from his logical and orderly presentation. Nothing he wrote was stilted, artificial, or pompous. He was concise and devastatingly to the point. To this day, nobody can read Bastiat and wonder, “Now what was that all about?”
Economic writing these days can be dull and lifeless, larded with verbosity and presumptuous mathematics. Bastiat proved that economics doesn’t have to be that way: the core truths of the science can be made lively and unforgettable. In literature, we think of good storytelling as an art and stories as powerful tools for understanding. Bastiat could tell a story that stabbed you with its brilliance. If your misconceptions were his target, his stories could leave you utterly, embarrassingly disarmed.
If you aspire to be an economist or a policy maker or a teacher or just an influential communicator, take time to study at the feet of this 19th-century master.
At the end of his short life, Bastiat served two years in France’s Constituent and Legislative Assemblies, where he worked tirelessly to convince fellow members of the merits of freedom and free markets. They proved to be his toughest audience. Most were far more interested in selfish and ephemeral satisfactions (such as power, money, reelection, and the dispensing of favors to friends) than in enduring truths. Biographer Dean Russell writes,
It is true that every one of Bastiat’s major proposals in the Assembly was defeated! But if that is to be the sole or primary test of influence, we might be led to the absurd conclusion that the influence of Socrates’ ideas was settled by the poisoned cup.
Bastiat’s most famous work is The Law, a book that FEE is proud to have revived and kept alive for decades. Now we aim to introduce a new generation of readers to three of his lesser-known works: Economic Sophisms, Economic Harmonies, and Selected Essays on Political Economy. Each is a masterpiece of clear writing and powerful storytelling.
Protectionism comes under relentless assault by Bastiat in these three volumes. Why should two countries that dig a tunnel through their mountainous border to facilitate travel and trade then seek to undo its advantages by imposing burdensome taxes at both ends? If the sun offers free sunlight, why shouldn’t we accept it heartily instead of decrying it as unfair competition for candle makers? And if an exporter sells his goods abroad for more than they were worth at home, then buys valuable goods with the proceeds to bring back to his homeland, why would anyone in his right mind condemn the transactions as yielding a balance of trade “deficit”? If you’re a protectionist before reading Bastiat, you’ll either repent or forever remain in darkness with no excuse.
The world in the 21st century is beset with economic fallacies that are, for the most part, modern versions of those that Bastiat demolished 16 decades ago. The answers to the vexing problems those fallacies produce are not to be found in proposals that empower bureaucracy while imposing tortuous regulations on private behavior. It’s far more likely that the answers lie in the profound and permanent principles that Frédéric Bastiat did so much to illuminate.
Sound economics and radiant exposition converge in these works. His brilliance is the gift that never gives up.