Economic Sophisms, by Frèdèric Bastiat
There is a sense of sadness that a reader has about a book like this one. Let us make no mistake, this is a great book, but it is a great book that exists under a bit of a shadow. For one, the author died in the prime of life from tuberculosis during a period of time when he could have had a great influence on the practical politics of France and instead of being able to serve his country loyally and faithfully for more decades he instead left a group of texts (of which this is one) in which he bemoans himself as a visionary and utopian thinker . It is doubtful given the course of 19th century history that Bastiat’s eloquence and sound thinking alone could have prevented France from ruinous arms races and destructive wars and inflicting the horrors of imperialism on other areas, all of which are evils that Bastiat presciently condemns here, but at least a longer life would have meant more texts from this great thinker to read. As it is, this book is one of those writings that was conducted more or less under a death sentence, and it is melancholy to think of Bastiat on his deathbed still trying to refute the selfishness of politicians and special interests even as he was nearing his end.
As a book this volume of about 200 pages is divided into two sections and numerous smaller essays. In these smaller essays Bastiat shows a relentless and consistent worldview of defending the interests of the consumer and the larger population at large from the protectionist arguments of industrialists and their crony capitalist politician allies. Sometimes Bastiat does this using statistics, sometimes using humorous polemical language, sometimes using imaginary dialogues that show the French taxpayer of the mid-19th century what his taxes were going towards, and sometimes through responding politely to letters written to him by his readers. Throughout the writings Bastiat maintains a sense of humility and a moral imagination for showing the distortions of labor that are required to deal with the artificial obstructions governments so often place in the way of people who simply want to live their lives and get things done. Some may find Bastiat’s consistency of tone, despite his varied approach to tackling the problem of protectionist logic, a bit shrill, but those who agree with Bastiat will think that contemporary writings like this would still be enjoyable for someone to write, albeit focused on our own concerns.
Whether or not you like these books as a reader depends on a few matters. For one, this book is probably not best tackled in one swoop, but rather as sardonically amusing reading taken one or two essays at a time. This book is really the 19th century equivalent of a blog that has been made into a book, and the topics of the smaller essays in the book, some of them as short as a single page, and none of them extending particularly long, tend to repeat themselves over and over again as Bastiat bangs his head into the wall of argumentation and wholly thinking regarding protectionism. I, for one, found this book to be powerful if a bit repetitive, and all the more eloquent because of the melancholy conditions in which the book was written. That said, this book is only part of Bastiat’s achievement as a writer, and it is the negative part of tearing down fallacious arguments that have served to threaten the well-being of many of Europe’s socialist havens, and so this book is unquestionably relevant to today’s political economy even though it was written more than 150 years ago.
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