Essays On Political Economy, by Frèdèric Bastiat
This collection of essays contains five of the essays of this well-known and sadly all too shortly-lived French economist who explores the various ways that someone who is essentially proper and conservative can appeal to a large group of readers in speaking economic truths that are sometimes difficult to understand for many people. Two of the essays in this book I have already read and commented on at length elsewhere in my writings about this economist , namely “The Law,” which is the fifth essay here, and “That Which Is Seen, And That Which Is Unseen,” which is the second essay. The remaining three essays, though, are short but powerful examples of Bastiat’s winning graciousness and perspicacity as a writer. Namely, those essays are “Capital And Interest,” where the author provides a legitimization of interest and the productive capacity of capital, “Government,” where the author talks about the tensions governments are involved in with the simultaneous and contrary desires for low taxes and high amounts of government service, and “What Is Money?” which is a short dialogue concerning monetary policy and the difficulties of defining terms in economics.
This is the sort of book that would be deeply loved by those who are already fond of Bastiat as a writer. Some readers, when they encounter this book, may have read some of the essays here before, but even so this is a powerful collection of writings that demonstrates Bastiat’s interest in explaining economics to a mass audience and in educating ordinary French citizens (and those who read him in translation) on the fundamental aspects of political economics. He is gracious and tireless in pointing out that to be hostile to government doing something because it tends to do things poorly and because the true costs of public goods are not often revealed by those who endorse them is not to be hostile to the things that government likes to do. His essay on money, for example, ends up in an eloquent plea for freedom of education, which is not going to happen well if government is in charge, something that we can see all too well in the United States, for example. Likewise, his essays in general are full of references to areas of widespread interest and he manages to avoid being tediously repetitive about the points that he has to make, leavening his comments with humor and a fair dose of irony.
Although I happen to be a fan of Bastiat’s winsome approach, especially when it is compared to many others of the same political and economic mindset but a great deal less charm, I wonder often if Basitat’s arguments are likely to be as successful as one would hope. To be sure, Bastiat combines logic with a great deal of humanity, and no one giving these essays a fair read would assume that Bastiat was lacking in the warmth of human kindness, as can be said about many of the economics of the Austrian school. Is it the truths that authors like Bastiat proclaim that is unpopular themselves, or is the approach more fundamental than the content in determining the hearing that more contemporary writers would receive in writing this sort of material? It is hard to determine this fact for sure, and the result is that we are left with a small body of excellent writing by Bastiat but no way of knowing if his approach would have been more successful than the generally unsuccessful approach of writers who had the same opinions and beliefs as he did about political economy but were less interested in persuading and more interested in ridiculing and skinning them with the painful truth painfully said.
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