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Week of: April 15, 2001

Hey, Do-gooders, Reform Yourselves!

by F.R. Duplantier

Our legal system can be just, or it can be philanthropic, but it cannot be both.

The rule of law, don't you see,
Is the essence of liberty --
And freedom will end
When rulers pretend
"The rules don't apply to me."*

"Self-preservation and self-development are common aspirations among all people. And if everyone enjoyed the unrestricted use of his faculties and the free disposition of the fruits of his labor, social progress would be . . . uninterrupted," observed the 19th Century French economist Frederic Bastiat in a small book titled The Law, published in 1850. "But there is also another tendency that is common among people. When they can, they wish to live and prosper at the expense of others."

In order to live, legally, at someone else's expense, it is necessary to turn the law into "an instrument of plunder." No matter how noble the justification, once the premise is accepted that a government can expropriate the wealth of some of its citizens and dispense it to others, theft has been legalized, and the signal has been sent -- to haves and havenots alike -- that nothing is secure. Bastiat considered this the greatest evil to which any society can be subjected, but recognized it as the ultimate goal of all greedy men and do-gooders. The ill effects of such a transformation are predictable. When the law ceases to be just, respect for it diminishes, and society suffers. "The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable," said Bastiat. "When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law."

Bastiat argued that "the most peaceful, the most moral, and the happiest people" in the world are to be found in "countries where the law least interferes with private affairs; where government is least felt; where the individual has the greatest scope, and free opinion the greatest influence; where administrative powers are fewest and simplest; where taxes are lightest. . . ." Their bliss shall continue only so long as each citizen remembers that "the existence of persons and property preceded the existence of the legislator, and his function is only to guarantee their safety."

Inevitably, though, there will be some who think they are better than the rest of us. "Too many persons place themselves above mankind," said Bastiat; "they make a career of organizing it, patronizing it, and ruling it." But mankind does not need their help. "God has given to men all that is necessary for them to accomplish their destinies." Bastiat had no use for "quacks and organizers . . . with their artificial systems!" He denounced "the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monop olies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!"

Bastiat's challenge to the do-gooders bears frequent repetition: "You who think that you are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don't you reform yourselves?"


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