A SOLI Hard-to-Find Document.
Hard to find it anywhere else.
by Frederic Bastiat
THE BOOK AND AUTHOR: When a reviewer wishes to give special recognition to
a book, he predicts that it will still be read "a hundred years from now."
The Law, first published as a pamphlet in June, 1850, is already more than
a hundred years old. And because its truths are eternal, it will still be
read when another century has passed.
Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist, statesman, and author.
He did most of his writing during the years just before--and immediately
following--the Revolution of February 1848. This was the period when France
was rapidly turning to complete socialism. As a Deputy to the Legislative
Assembly, Mr. Bastiat was studying and explaining each socialist fallacy as
it appeared. And he explained how socialism must inevitably degenerate into
communism. But most of his countrymen chose to ignore his logic.
The Law is here presented again because the same situation exists in
America today as in the France of 1848. The same socialist-communist ideas
and plans that were then adopted in France are now sweeping America. The
explanations and arguments then advanced against socialism by Mr. Bastiat
are--word for word-- equally valid today. His ideas deserve a serious
This translation of The Law was done by Dean Russell of The Foundation
staff. His objective was an accurate rendering of Mr. Bastiat's words and
ideas into twentieth century, idiomatic English.
A nineteenth century translation of The Law, made in 1853 in England by an
unidentified contemporary of Mr. Bastiat, was of much value as a check
against this translation. In addition, Dean Russell had his work reviewed
by Bertrand de Jouvenel, the noted French economist, historian, and author
who is also thoroughly familiar with the English language.
While Mr. de Jouvenel offered many valuable corrections and suggestions, it
should be clearly understood that Dr. Russell bears full responsibility for
The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted along with
it! The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to
follow an entirely contrary purpose! The law become the weapon of every
kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the
evils it is supposed to punish!
If this is true, it is a serious fact, and moral duty requires me to call
the attention of my fellow-citizens to it.
LIFE IS A GIFT FROM GOD
We hold from God the gift which includes all others. This gift is life-
physical, intellectual, and moral life.
But life cannot maintain itself alone. The Creator of life has entrusted us
with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it. In
order that we may accomplish this, He has provided us with a collection of
marvelous faculties. And He has put us in the midst of a variety of natural
resources. By the application of our faculties to these natural resources
we convert them into products, and use them. This process is necessary in
order that life may run its appointed course.
Life, faculties, production-in other words, individuality, liberty,
property-this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political
leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are
superior to it.
Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the
contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed
beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.
WHAT IS LAW?
What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual
right to lawful defense.
Each of us has a natural right-from God-to defend his person, his liberty,
and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the
preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the
preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension
of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our
If every person has the right to defend even by force-his person, his
liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the
right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights
constantly. Thus the principle of collective right-its reason for existing,
its lawfulness-is based on individual right. And the common force that
protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or
any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since
an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or
property of another individual, then the common force-for the same reason-
cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of
individuals or groups.
Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary to our
premise. Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights.
Who will dare to say that force has been given to us to destroy the equal
rights of our brothers? Since no individual acting separately can lawfully
use force to destroy the rights of others, does it not logically follow
that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing
more than the organized combination of the individual forces?
If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than this: The law is the
organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution
of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do
only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to
protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each,
and to cause justice to reign over us all.
A JUST AND ENDURING GOVERNMENT
If a nation were founded on this basis, it seems to me that order would
prevail among the people, in thought as well as in deed. It seems to me
that such a nation would have the most simple, easy to accept, economical,
limited, non-oppressive, just, and enduring government imaginable-whatever
its political form might be.
Under such an administration, everyone would understand that he possessed
all the privileges as well as all the responsibilities of his existence. No
one would have any argument with government, provided that his person was
respected, his labor was free, and the fruits of his labor were protected
against all unjust attack. When successful, we would not have to thank the
state for our success. And, conversely, when unsuccessful, we would no more
think of blaming the state for our misfortune than would the farmers blame
the state because of hail or frost. The state would be felt only by the
invaluable blessings of safety provided by this concept of government.
It can be further stated that, thanks to the non-intervention of the state
in private affairs, our wants and their satisfactions would develop
themselves in a logical manner. We would not see poor families seeking
literary instruction before they have bread. We would not see cities
populated at the expense of rural districts, nor rural districts at the
expense of cities. We would not see the great displacements of capital,
labor, and population that are caused by legislative decisions.
The sources of our existence are made uncertain and precarious by these
state-created displacements. And, furthermore, these acts burden the
government with increased responsibilities.
THE COMPLETE PERVERSION OF THE LAW
But, unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its proper
functions. And when it has exceeded its proper functions, it has not done
so merely in some inconsequential and debatable matters. The law has gone
further than this; it has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose.
The law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to
annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and
destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has placed
the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without
risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It has
converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has
converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense.
How has this perversion of the law been accomplished? And what have been
The law has been perverted by the influence of two entirely different
causes: stupid greed and false philanthropy. Let us speak of the first.
A FATAL TENDENCY OF MANKIND
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
ceaseless, uninterrupted, and unfailing.
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. This is no
rash accusation. Nor does it come from a gloomy and uncharitable spirit.
The annals of history bear witness to the truth of it: the incessant wars,
mass migrations, religious persecutions, universal slavery, dishonesty in
commerce, and monopolies. This fatal desire has its origin in the very
nature of man-in that primitive, universal, and insuppressible instinct
that impels him to satisfy his desires with the least possible pain.
PROPERTY AND PLUNDER
Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the
ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process
is the origin of property.
But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing
and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is the
origin of plunder.
Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain-and since labor is pain
in itself-it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is
easier than work. History shows this quite clearly. And under these
conditions, neither religion nor morality can stop it.
When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful and
more dangerous than labor.
It is evident, then, that the proper purpose of law is to use the power of
its collective force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of to
work. All the measures of the law should protect property and punish
But, generally, the law is made by one man or one class of men. And since
law cannot operate without the sanction and support of a dominating force,
this force must be entrusted to those who make the laws.
This fact, combined with the fatal tendency that exists in the heart of man
to satisfy his wants with the least possible effort, explains the almost
universal perversion of the law. Thus it is easy to understand how law,
instead of checking injustice, becomes the invincible weapon of injustice.
It is easy to understand why the law is used by the legislator to destroy
in varying degrees among the rest of the people, their personal
independence by slavery, their liberty by oppression, and their property by
plunder. This is done for the benefit of the person who makes the law, and
in proportion to the power that he holds.
VICTIMS OF LAWFUL PLUNDER
Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus,
when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law,
all the plundered classes try somehow to enter-by peaceful or revolutionary
means-into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment,
these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes
when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop
lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.
Woe to the nation when this latter purpose prevails among the mass victims
of lawful plunder when they, in turn, seize the power to make laws!
Until that happens, the few practice lawful plunder upon the many, a common
practice where the right to participate in the making of law is limited to
a few persons. But then, participation in the making of law becomes
universal. And then, men seek to balance their conflicting interests by
universal plunder. Instead of rooting out the injustices found in society,
they make these injustices general. As soon as the plundered classes gain
political power, they establish a system of reprisals against other
classes. They do not abolish legal plunder. (This objective would demand
more enlightenment than they possess.) Instead, they emulate their evil
predecessors by participating in this legal plunder, even though it is
against their own interests.
It is as if it were necessary, before a reign of justice appears, for
everyone to suffer a cruel retribution-some for their evilness, and some
for their lack of understanding.
THE RESULTS OF LEGAL PLUNDER
It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change and a greater
evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.
What are the consequences of such a perversion? It would require volumes to
describe them all. Thus we must content ourselves with pointing out the
In the first place, it erases from everyone's conscience the distinction
between justice and injustice.
No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The
safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. 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. These two
evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to
choose between them.
The nature of law is to maintain justice. This is so much the case that, in
the minds of the people, law and justice are one and the same thing. There
is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is
also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons have
erroneously held that things are "just" because law makes them so. Thus, in
order to make plunder appear just and sacred to many consciences, it is
only necessary for the law to decree and sanction it. Slavery,
restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit
from them but also among those who suffer from them.
THE FATE OF NON-CONFORMISTS
If you suggest a doubt as to the morality of these institutions, it is
boldly said that "You are a dangerous innovator, a utopian, a theorist, a
subversive; you would shatter the foundation upon which society rests."
If you lecture upon morality or upon political science, there will be found
official organizations petitioning the government in this vein of thought:
"That science no longer be taught exclusively from the point of view of
free trade (of liberty, of property, and of justice) as has been the case
until now, but also, in the future, science is to be especially taught from
the viewpoint of the facts and laws that regulate French industry (facts
and laws which are contrary to liberty, to property, and to justice). That,
in government-endowed teaching positions, the professor rigorously refrain
from endangering in the slightest degree the respect due to the laws now in
force."* * General Council of Manufacturers, Agriculture, and Commerce, May
Thus, if there exists a law which sanctions slavery or monopoly, oppression
or robbery, in any form whatever, it must not even be mentioned. For how
can it be mentioned without damaging the respect which it inspires? Still
further, morality and political economy must be taught from the point of
view of this law; from the supposition that it must be a just law merely
because it is a law.
Another effect of this tragic perversion of the law is that it gives an
exaggerated importance to political passions and conflicts, and to politics
I could prove this assertion in a thousand ways. But, by way of
illustration, I shall limit myself to a subject that has lately occupied
the minds of everyone: universal suffrage.
WHO SHALL JUDGE?
The followers of Rousseau's school of thought-who consider themselves far
advanced, but whom I consider twenty centuries behind the times-will not
agree with me on this. But universal suffrage-using the word in its
strictest sense-is not one of those sacred dogmas which it is a crime to
examine or doubt. In fact, serious objections may be made to universal
In the first place, the word universal conceals a gross fallacy. For
example, there are 36 million people in France. Thus, to make the right of
suffrage universal, there should be 36 million voters. But the most
extended system permits only 9 million people to vote. Three persons out of
four are excluded. And more than this, they are excluded by the fourth.
This fourth person advances the principle of incapacity as his reason for
excluding the others.
Universal suffrage means, then, universal suffrage for those who are
capable. But there remains this question of fact: Who is capable? Are
minors, females, insane persons, and persons who have committed certain
major crimes the only ones to be determined incapable?
THE REASON WHY VOTING IS RESTRICTED
A closer examination of the subject shows us the motive which causes the
right of suffrage to be based upon the supposition of incapacity. The
motive is that the elector or voter does not exercise this right for
himself alone, but for everybody.
The most extended elective system and the most restricted elective system
are alike in this respect. They differ only in respect to what constitutes
incapacity. It is not a difference of principle, but merely a difference of
If, as the republicans of our present-day Greek and Roman schools of
thought pretend, the right of suffrage arrives with one's birth, it would
be an injustice for adults to prevent women and children from voting. Why
are they prevented? Because they are presumed to be incapable. And why is
incapacity a motive for exclusion? Because it is not the voter alone who
suffers the consequences of his vote; because each vote touches and affects
everyone in the entire community; because the people in the community have
a right to demand some safeguards concerning the acts upon which their
welfare and existence depend.
THE ANSWER IS TO RESTRICT THE LAW
I know what might be said in answer to this; what the objections might be.
But this is not the place to exhaust a controversy of this nature. I wish
merely to observe here that this controversy over universal suffrage (as
well as most other political questions) which agitates, excites, and
overthrows nations, would lose nearly all of its importance if the law had
always been what it ought to be.
In fact, if law were restricted to protecting all persons, all liberties,
and all properties; if law were nothing more than the organized combination
of the individual's right to self defense; if law were the obstacle, the
check, the punisher of all oppression and plunder-is it likely that we
citizens would then argue much about the extent of the franchise?
Under these circumstances, is it likely that the extent of the right to
vote would endanger that supreme good, the public peace? Is it likely that
the excluded classes would refuse to peaceably await the coming of their
right to vote? Is it likely that those who had the right to vote would
jealously defend their privilege?
If the law were confined to its proper functions, everyone's interest in
the law would be the same. Is it not clear that, under these circumstances,
those who voted could not inconvenience those who did not vote?
THE FATAL IDEA OF LEGAL PLUNDER
But on the other hand, imagine that this fatal principle has been
introduced: Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or
encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to
another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few-whether
farmers, manufacturers, shipowners, artists, or comedians. Under these
circumstances, then certainly every class will aspire to grasp the law, and
The excluded classes will furiously demand their right to vote-and will
overthrow society rather than not to obtain it. Even beggars and vagabonds
will then prove to you that they also have an incontestable title to vote.
They will say to you:
"We cannot buy wine, tobacco, or salt without paying the tax. And a part of
the tax that we pay is given by law-in privileges and subsidies-to men who
are richer than we are. Others use the law to raise the prices of bread,
meat, iron, or cloth. Thus, since everyone else uses the law for his own
profit, we also would like to use the law for our own profit. We demand
from the law the right to relief, which is the poor man's plunder. To
obtain this right, we also should be voters and legislators in order that
we may organize Beggary on a grand scale for our own class, as you have
organized Protection on a grand scale for your class. Now don't tell us
beggars that you will act for us, and then toss us, as Mr. Mimerel
proposes, 600,000 francs to keep us quiet, like throwing us a bone to gnaw.
We have other claims. And anyway, we wish to bargain for ourselves as other
classes have bargained for themselves!" And what can you say to answer that
PERVERTED LAW CAUSES CONFLICT
As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true
purpose-that it may violate property instead of protecting it-then everyone
will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself
against plunder or to use it for plunder. Political questions will always
be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be fighting at the
door of the Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no less
furious. To know this, it is hardly necessary to examine what transpires in
the French and English legislatures; merely to understand the issue is to
know the answer.
Is there any need to offer proof that this odious perversion of the law is
a perpetual source of hatred and discord; that it tends to destroy society
itself? If such proof is needed, look at the United States [in 1850]. There
is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper
domain: the protection of every person's liberty and property. As a
consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the
social order rests on a firmer foundation. But even in the United States,
there are two issues-and only two-that have always endangered the public
SLAVERY AND TARIFFS ARE PLUNDER
What are these two issues? They are slavery and tariffs. These are the only
two issues where, contrary to the general spirit of the republic of the
United States, law has assumed the character of a plunderer.
Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective tariff is a
violation, by law, of property.
It is a most remarkable fact that this double legal crime -a sorrowful
inheritance from the Old World-should be the only issue which can, and
perhaps will, lead to the ruin of the Union. It is indeed impossible to
imagine, at the very heart of a society, a more astounding fact than this:
The law has come to be an instrument of injustice. And if this fact brings
terrible consequences to the United States-where the proper purpose of the
law has been perverted only in the instances of slavery and tariffs-what
must be the consequences in Europe, where the perversion of the law is a
principle; a system?
TWO KINDS OF PLUNDER
Mr. de Montalembert [politician and writer] adopting the thought contained
in a famous proclamation by Mr. Carlier, has said: "We must make war
against socialism." According to the definition of socialism advanced by
Mr. Charles Dupin, he meant: "We must make war against plunder."
But of what plunder was he speaking? For there are two kinds of plunder:
legal and illegal.
I do not think that illegal plunder, such as theft or swindling-which the
penal code defines, anticipates, and punishes-can be called socialism. It
is not this kind of plunder that systematically threatens the foundations
of society. Anyway, the war against this kind of plunder has not waited for
the command of these gentlemen. The war against illegal plunder has been
fought since the beginning of the world. Long before the Revolution of
February 1848-long before the appearance even of socialism itself-France
had provided police, judges, gendarmes, prisons, dungeons, and scaffolds
for the purpose of fighting illegal plunder. The law itself conducts this
war, and it is my wish and opinion that the law should always maintain this
attitude toward plunder.
THE LAW DEFENDS PLUNDER
But it does not always do this. Sometimes the law defends plunder and
participates in it. Thus the beneficiaries are spared the shame, danger,
and scruple which their acts would otherwise involve. Sometimes the law
places the whole apparatus of judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes at the
service of the plunderers, and treats the victim-when he defends himself-as
a criminal. In short, there is a legal plunder, and it is of this, no
doubt, that Mr. de Montalembert speaks.
This legal plunder may be only an isolated stain among the legislative
measures of the people. If so, it is best to wipe it out with a minimum of
speeches and denunciations-and in spite of the uproar of the vested
HOW TO IDENTIFY LEGAL PLUNDER
But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the
law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other
persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at
the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without
committing a crime.
Then abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil itself, but
also it is a fertile source for further evils because it invites reprisals.
If such a law-which may be an isolated case-is not abolished immediately,
it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.
The person who profits from this law will complain bitterly, defending his
acquired rights. He will claim that the state is obligated to protect and
encourage his particular industry; that this procedure enriches the state
because the protected industry is thus able to spend more and to pay higher
wages to the poor workingmen.
Do not listen to this sophistry by vested interests. The acceptance of
these arguments will build legal plunder into a whole system. In fact, this
has already occurred. The present-day delusion is an attempt to enrich
everyone at the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal under
the pretense of organizing it.
LEGAL PLUNDER HAS MANY NAMES
Now, legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number of ways. Thus we
have an infinite number of plans for organizing it: tariffs, protection,
benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools,
guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a
right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on, and so on. All these
plans as a whole-with their common aim of legal plunder-constitute
Now, since under this definition socialism is a body of doctrine, what
attack can be made against it other than a war of doctrine? If you find
this socialistic doctrine to be false, absurd, and evil, then refute it.
And the more false, the more absurd, and the more evil it is, the easier it
will be to refute. Above all, if you wish to be strong, be in by rooting
out every particle of socialism that may have crept into your legislation.
This will be no light task.
SOCIALISM IS LEGAL PLUNDER
Mr. de Montalembert has been accused of desiring to fight socialism by the
use of brute force. He ought to be exonerated from this accusation, for he
has plainly said: "The war that we must fight against socialism must be in
harmony with law, honor, and justice."
But why does not Mr. de Montalembert see that he has placed himself in a
vicious circle? You would use the law to oppose socialism? But it is upon
the law that socialism itself relies. Socialists desire to practice legal
plunder, not illegal plunder. Socialists, like all other monopolists,
desire to make the law their own weapon. And when once the law is on the
side of socialism, how can it be used against socialism? For when plunder
is abetted by the law, it does not fear your courts, your gendarmes, and
your prisons. Rather, it may call upon them for help.
To prevent this, you would exclude socialism from entering into the making
of laws? You would prevent socialists from entering the Legislative Palace?
You shall not succeed, I predict, so long as legal plunder continues to be
the main business of the legislature. It is illogical-in fact, absurd-to
THE CHOICE BEFORE US
This question of legal plunder must be settled once and for all, and there
are only three ways to settle it:
1. The few plunder the many.
2. Everybody plunders everybody.
3. Nobody plunders anybody.
We must make our choice among limited plunder, universal plunder, and no
plunder. The law can follow only one of these three.
Limited legal plunder: This system prevailed when the right to vote was
restricted. One would turn back to this system to prevent the invasion of
Universal legal plunder: We have been threatened with this system since the
franchise was made universal. The newly enfranchised majority has decided
to formulate law on the same principle of legal plunder that was used by
their predecessors when the vote was limited.
No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace, order,
stability, harmony, and logic. Until the day of my death, I shall proclaim
this principle with all the force of my lungs (which alas! is all too
*Translator's note: At the time this was written, Mr. Bastiat knew that he
was dying of tuberculosis. Within a year, he was dead.
THE PROPER FUNCTION OF THE LAW
And, in all sincerity, can anything more than the absence of plunder be
required of the law? Can the law-which necessarily requires the use of
force-rationally be used for anything except protecting the rights of
everyone? I defy anyone to extend it beyond this purpose without perverting
it and, consequently, turning might against right. This is the most fatal
and most illogical social perversion that can possibly be imagined. It must
be admitted that the true solution-so long searched for in the area of
social relationships-is contained in these simple words: Law is organized
Now this must be said: When justice is organized by law-that is, by force-
this excludes the idea of using law (force) to organize any human activity
whatever, whether it be labor, charity, agriculture, commerce, industry,
education, art, or religion. The organizing by law of any one of these
would inevitably destroy the essential organization-justice. For truly, how
can we imagine force being used against the liberty of citizens without it
also being used against justice, and thus acting against its proper
THE SEDUCTIVE LURE OF SOCIALISM
Here I encounter the most popular fallacy of our times. It is not
considered sufficient that the law should be just; it must be
philanthropic. Nor is it sufficient that the law should guarantee to every
citizen the free and inoffensive use of his faculties for physical,
intellectual, and moral self-improvement. Instead, it is demanded that the
law should directly extend welfare, education, and morality throughout the
This is the seductive lure of socialism. And I repeat again: These two uses
of the law are in direct contradiction to each other. We must choose
between them. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free.
ENFORCED FRATERNITY DESTROYS LIBERTY
Mr. De Lamartine once wrote to me thusly: "Your doctrine is only the half
of my program. You have stopped at liberty; I go on to fraternity." I
answered him: "The second half of your program will destroy the first."
In fact, it is impossible for me to separate the word fraternity from the
word voluntary. I cannot possibly understand how fraternity can be legally
enforced without liberty being legally destroyed, and thus justice being
legally trampled underfoot.
Legal plunder has two roots: One of them, as I have said before, is in
human greed; the other is in false philanthropy.
At this point, I think that I should explain exactly what I mean by the
*Translator's note: The French word used by Mr. Bastiat is spoliation.
PLUNDER VIOLATES OWNERSHIP
I do not, as is often done, use the word in any vague, uncertain
approximate, or metaphorical sense. I use it in its scientific acceptance-
as expressing the idea opposite to that of property [wages, land, money, or
whatever]. When a portion of wealth is transferred from the person who owns
it-without his consent and without compensation, and whether by force or by
fraud-to anyone who does not own it, then I say that property is violated;
that an act of plunder is committed.
I say that this act is exactly what the law is supposed to suppress, always
and everywhere. When the law itself commits this act that it is supposed to
suppress, I say that plunder is still committed, and I add that from the
point of view of society and welfare, this agression against rights is even
worse. In this case of legal plunder, however, the person who receives the
benefits is not responsible for the act of plundering. The responsibility
for this legal plunder rests with the law, the legislator, and society
itself. Therein lies the political danger.
It is to be regretted that the word plunder is offensive. I have tried in
vain to find an inoffensive word, for I would not at any time-especially
now-wish to add an irritating word to our dissentions. Thus, whether I am
believed or not, I declare that I do not mean to attack the intentions or
the morality of anyone. Rather, I am attacking an idea which I believe to
be false; a system which appears to me to be unjust; an injustice so
independent of personal intentions that each of us profits from it without
wishing to do so, and suffers from it without knowing the cause of the
THREE SYSTEMS OF PLUNDER
The sincerity of those who advocate protectionism, socialism, and communism
is not here questioned. Any writer who would do that must be influenced by
a political spirit or a political fear. It is to be pointed out, however,
that protectionism, socialism, and communism are basically the same plant
in three different stages of its growth. All that can be said is that legal
plunder is more visible in communism because it is complete plunder; and in
protectionism because the plunder is limited to specific groups and
industries.* Thus it follows that, of the three systems, socialism is the
vaguest, the most indecisive, and, consequently, the most sincere stage of
*If the special privilege of government protection against competition
monopoly-were granted only to one group in France, the iron workers, for
instance, this act would so obviously be legal plunder that it could not
last for long. It is for this reason that we see all the protected trades
combined into a common cause. They even organize themselves in such a
manner as to appear to represent all persons who labor. Instinctively, they
feel that legal plunder is concealed by generalizing it.
But sincere or insincere, the intentions of persons are not here under
question. In fact, I have already said that legal plunder is based
partially on philanthropy, even though it is a false philanthropy.
With this explanation, let us examine the value-the origin and the
tendency-of this popular aspiration which claims to accomplish the general
welfare by general plunder.
LAW IS FORCE
Since the law organizes justice, the socialists ask why the law should not
also organize labor, education, and religion.
Why should not law be used for these purposes? Because it could not
organize labor, education, and religion without destroying justice. We must
remember that law is force, and that, consequently, the proper functions of
the law cannot lawfully extend beyond the proper functions of force.
When law and force keep a person within the bounds of justice, they impose
nothing but a mere negation. They oblige him only to abstain from harming
others. They violate neither his personality, his liberty, nor his
property. They safeguard all of these. They are defensive; they defend
equally the rights of all.
LAW IS A NEGATIVE CONCEPT
The harmlessness of the mission performed by law and lawful defense is
self-evident; the usefulness is obvious; and the legitimacy cannot be
As a friend of mine once remarked, this negative concept of law is so true
that the statement, the purpose of the law is to cause justice to reign, is
not a rigorously accurate statement. It ought to be stated that the purpose
of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning. In fact, it is injustice,
instead of justice, that has an existence of its own. Justice is achieved
only when injustice is absent.
But when the law, by means of its necessary agent, force, imposes upon men
a regulation of labor, a method or a subject of education, a religious
faith or creed then the law is no longer negative; it acts positively upon
people. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own wills; the
initiative of the legislator for their own initiatives. When this happens,
the people no longer need to discuss, to compare, to plan ahead; the law
does all this for them. Intelligence becomes a useless prop for the people;
they cease to be men; they lose their personality, their liberty, their
Try to imagine a regulation of labor imposed by force that is not a
violation of liberty; a transfer of wealth imposed by force that is not a
violation of property. If you cannot reconcile these contradictions, then
you must conclude that the law cannot organize labor and industry without
THE POLITICAL APPROACH
When a politician views society from the seclusion of his office, he is
struck by the spectacle of the inequality that he sees. He deplores the
deprivations which are the lot of so many of our brothers, deprivations
which appear to be even sadder when contrasted with luxury and wealth.
Perhaps the politician should ask himself whether this state of affairs has
not been caused by old conquests and lootings, and by more recent legal
plunder. Perhaps he should consider this proposition: Since all persons
seek well-being and perfection, would not a condition of justice be
sufficient to cause the greatest efforts toward progress, and the greatest
possible equality that is compatible with individual responsibility? Would
not this be in accord with the concept of individual responsibility which
God has willed in order that mankind may have the choice between vice and
virtue, and the resulting punishment and reward?
But the politician never gives this a thought. His mind turns to
organizations, combinations, and arrangements-legal or apparently legal. He
attempts to remedy the evil by increasing and perpetuating the very thing
that caused the evil in the first place: legal plunder. We have seen that
justice is a negative concept. Is there even one of these positive legal
actions that does not contain the principle of plunder?
THE LAW AND CHARITY
You say: "There are persons who have no money," and you turn to the law.
But the law is not a breast that fills itself with milk. Nor are the
lacteal veins of the law supplied with milk from a source outside the
society. Nothing can enter the public treasury for the benefit of one
citizen or one class unless other citizens and other classes have been
forced to send it in. If every person draws from the treasury the amount
that he has put in it, it is true that the law then plunders nobody. But
this procedure does nothing for the persons who have no money. It does not
promote equality of income. The law can be an instrument of equalization
only as it takes from some persons and gives to other persons. When the law
does this, it is an instrument of plunder.
With this in mind, examine the protective tariffs, subsidies, guaranteed
profits, guaranteed jobs, relief and welfare schemes, public education,
progressive taxation, free credit, and public works. You will find that
they are always based on legal plunder, organized injustice.
THE LAW AND EDUCATION
You say: "There are persons who lack education," and you turn to the law.
But the law is not, in itself, a torch of learning which shines its light
abroad. The law extends over a society where some persons have knowledge
and others do not; where some citizens need to learn, and others can teach.
In this matter of education, the law has only two alternatives: It can
permit this transaction of teaching-and-learning to operate freely and
without the use of force, or it can force human wills in this matter by
taking from some of them enough to pay the teachers who are appointed by
government to instruct others, without charge. But in this second case, the
law commits legal plunder by violating liberty and property.
THE LAW AND MORALS
You say: "Here are persons who are lacking in morality or religion," and
you turn to the law. But law is force. And need I point out what a violent
and futile effort it is to use force in the matters of morality and
It would seem that socialists, however self-complacent, could not avoid
seeing this monstrous legal plunder that results from such systems and such
efforts. But what do the socialists do? They cleverly disguise this legal
plunder from others-and even from themselves-under the seductive names of
fraternity, unity, organization, and association. Because we ask so little
from the law-only justice-the socialists thereby assume that we reject
fraternity, unity, organization, and association. The socialists brand us
with the name individualist.
But we assure the socialists that we repudiate only forced organization,
not natural organization. We repudiate the forms of association that are
forced upon us, not free association. We repudiate forced fraternity, not
true fraternity. We repudiate the artificial unity that does nothing more
than deprive persons of individual responsibility. We do not repudiate the
natural unity of mankind under Providence.
A CONFUSION OF TERMS
Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the
distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time
we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that
we object to its being done at all.
We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are
opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the
socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-
enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on,
and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting
persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.
THE INFLUENCE OF SOCIALIST WRITERS
How did politicians ever come to believe this weird idea that the law could
be made to produce what it does not contain-the wealth, science, and
religion that, in a positive sense, constitute prosperity? Is it due to the
influence of our modern writers on public affairs?
Present-day writers-especially those of the socialist school of thought-
base their various theories upon one common hypothesis: They divide mankind
into two parts. People in general-with the exception of the writer himself-
form the first group. The writer, all alone, forms the second and most
important group. Surely this is the weirdest and most conceited notion that
ever entered a human brain!
In fact, these writers on public affairs begin by supposing that people
have within themselves no means of discernment; no motivation to action.
The writers assume that people are inert matter, passive particles,
motionless atoms, at best a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own
manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being
shaped-by the will and hand of another person-into an infinite variety of
forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.
Moreover, not one of these writers on governmental affairs hesitates to
imagine that he himself-under the title of organizer, discoverer,
legislator, or founder-is this will and hand, this universal motivating
force, this creative power whose sublime mission is to mold these scattered
materials-persons-into a society.
These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner that the
gardener views his trees. Just as the gardener capriciously shapes the
trees into pyramids, parasols, cubes, vases, fans, and other forms, just so
does the socialist writer whimsically shape human beings into groups,
series, centers, sub-centers, honeycombs, laborcorps, and other variations.
And just as the gardener needs axes, pruning hooks, saws, and shears to
shape his trees, just so does the socialist writer need the force that he
can find only in law to shape human beings. For this purpose, he devises
tariff laws, tax laws, relief laws, and school laws.
THE SOCIALISTS WISH TO PLAY GOD
Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social
combinations. This is so true that, if by chance, the socialists have any
doubts about the success of these combinations, they will demand that a
small portion of mankind be set aside to experiment upon. The popular idea
of trying all systems is well known. And one socialist leader has been
known seriously to demand that the Constituent Assembly give him a small
district with all its inhabitants, to try his experiments upon.
In the same manner, an inventor makes a model before he constructs the
full-sized machine; the chemist wastes some chemicals-the farmer wastes
some seeds and land -to try out an idea.
But what a difference there is between the gardener and his trees, between
the inventor and his machine, between the chemist and his elements, between
the farmer and his seeds! And in all sincerity, the socialist thinks that
there is the same difference between him and mankind!
It is no wonder that the writers of the nineteenth century look upon
society as an artificial creation of the legislator's genius. This idea-the
fruit of classical education-has taken possession of all the intellectuals
and famous writers of our country. To these intellectuals and writers, the
relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as
the relationship between the clay and the potter.
Moreover, even where they have consented to recognize a principle of action
in the heart of man-and a principle of discernment in man's intellect-they
have considered these gifts from God to be fatal gifts. They have thought
that persons, under the impulse of these two gifts, would fatally tend to
ruin themselves. They assume that if the legislators left persons free to
follow their own inclinations, they would arrive at atheism instead of
religion, ignorance instead of knowledge, poverty instead of production and
THE SOCIALISTS DESPISE MANKIND
According to these writers, it is indeed fortunate that Heaven has bestowed
upon certain men-governors and legislators-the exact opposite inclinations,
not only for their own sake but also for the sake of the rest of the world!
While mankind tends toward evil, the legislators yearn for good; while
mankind advances toward darkness, the legislators aspire for enlightenment;
while mankind is drawn toward vice, the legislators are attracted toward
virtue. Since they have decided that this is the true state of affairs,
they then demand the use of force in order to substitute their own
inclinations for those of the human race.
Open at random any book on philosophy, politics, or history, and you will
probably see how deeply rooted in our country is this idea-the child of
classical studies, the mother of socialism. In all of them, you will
probably find this idea that mankind is merely inert matter, receiving
life, organization, morality, and prosperity from the power of the state.
And even worse, it will be stated that mankind tends toward degeneration,
and is stopped from this downward course only by the mysterious hand of the
legislator. Conventional classical thought everywhere says that behind
passive society there is a concealed power called law or legislator (or
called by some other terminology that designates some unnamed person or
persons of undisputed influence and authority) which moves, controls,
benefits, and improves mankind.
A DEFENSE OF COMPULSORY LABOR
Let us first consider a quotation from Bossuet [tutor to the Dauphin in the
Court of Louis XIV]: One of the things most strongly impressed (by whom?)
upon the minds of the Egyptians was patriotism....No one way permitted to
be useless to the state. The law assigned to each one his work, which was
handed down from father to son. No one was permitted to have two
professions. Nor could a person change from one job to another....But there
was one task to which all were forced to conform: the study of the laws and
of wisdom. Ignorance of religion and of the political regulations of the
country was not excused under any circumstances. Moreover, each occupation
was assigned (by whom?) to a certain district....Among the good laws, one
of the best was that everyone was trained (by whom?) to obey them. As a
result of this, Egypt was filled with wonderful inventions, and nothing was
neglected that could make life easy and quiet.
Thus, according to Bossuet, persons derive nothing from themselves.
Patriotism, prosperity, inventions, husbandry, science-all of these are
given to the people by the operation of the laws, the rulers. All that the
people have to do is to bow to leadership.
A DEFENSE OF PATERNAL GOVERNMENT
Bossuet carries this idea of the state as the source of all progress even
so far as to defend the Egyptians against the charge that they rejected
wrestling and music. He said:
How is that possible? These arts were invented by Trismegistus [who was
alleged to have been Chancellor to the Egyptian god Osiris].
And again among the Persians, Bossuet claims that all comes from above:
One of the first responsibilities of the prince was to encourage
agriculture....Just as there were offices established for the regulation of
armies, just so were there offices for the direction of farm work.... The
Persian people were inspired with an overwhelming respect for royal
And according to Bossuet, the Greek people, although exceedingly
intelligent, had no sense of personal responsibility; like dogs and horses,
they themselves could not have invented the most simple games:
The Greeks, naturally intelligent and courageous, had been early cultivated
by the kings and settlers who had come from Egypt. From these Egyptian
rulers, the Greek people had learned bodily exercises, foot races, and
horse and chariot races....But the best thing that the Egyptians had taught
the Greeks was to become docile, and to permit themselves to be formed by
the law for the public good.
THE IDEA OF PASSIVE MANKIND
It cannot be disputed that these classical theories [advanced by these
latter-day teachers, writers, legislators, economists, and philosophers]
held that everything came to the people from a source outside themselves.
As another example, take Fenelon [archbishop, author, and instructor to the
Duke of Burgundy].
He was a witness to the power of Louis XIV. This, plus the fact that he was
nurtured in the classical studies and the admiration of antiquity,
naturally caused Fenelon to accept the idea that mankind should be passive;
that the misfortunes and the prosperity-vices and virtues-of people are
caused by the external influence exercised upon them by the law and the
legislators. Thus, in his Utopia of Salentum, he puts men-with all their
interests, faculties, desires, and possessions-under the absolute
discretion of the legislator. Whatever the issue may be, persons do not
decide it for themselves; the prince decides for them. The prince is
depicted as the soul of this shapeless mass of people who form the nation.
In the prince resides the thought, the foresight, all progress, and the
principle of all organization. Thus all responsibility rests with him.
The whole of the tenth book of Fenelon's Telemachus proves this. I refer
the reader to it, and content myself with quoting at random from this
celebrated work to which, in every other respect, I am the first to pay
SOCIALISTS IGNORE REASON AND FACTS
With the amazing credulity which is typical of the classicists, Fenelon
ignores the authority of reason and facts when he attributes the general
happiness of the Egyptians, not to their own wisdom but to the wisdom of
We could not turn our eyes to either shore without seeing rich towns and
country estates most agreeably located; fields, never fallowed, covered
with golden crops every year; mead