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And Here Is Hayek — Mind the Dust (Cough, Cough!) — Don’t Touch It, It Will Crumble!

October 3, 2010

Well, what can you expect when a New York Times journalist writes about Tea Party philosophy? Kate Zernike introduces her subject thus (H/T John Miller):

The Tea Party is a thoroughly modern movement, organizing on Twitter and Facebook to become the most dynamic force of the midterm elections.

But when it comes to ideology, it has reached back to dusty bookshelves for long-dormant ideas.

It has resurrected once-obscure texts by dead writers — in some cases elevating them to best-seller status — to form a kind of Tea Party canon.

Dusty bookshelves? Once-obscure texts? Dead writers? You’d think she’s speaking of hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt. But she actually means writings from Austrian economists and their precursors, as well as, eg, a fellow who published in the 1980’s. (I wonder as how dusty and obscure Mme Zernike would describe lefty intellectuals’ darling Foucault, for instance.) How “obscure” is (or was) FA von Hayek? Or — to the historian — Frédéric Bastiat, who for an 18th century French economist is as renowned as it gets?

(Let the French Cowboy just slip in a tiny “academic” quibble here: I wouldn’t, as did Zernike, list Bastiat’s writing as a classic of Austrian economics, sandwiched between von Hayek and von Mises. For one thing Bastiat was French, for the other he was born almost 100 years too early to become a member of the Austrian school. Maybe I’m doing her wrong and Zernike meant to say that Bastiat was considered a classic by Austrian economists. But then again, Bastiat is a classic, not just in the eyes of the Austrians.)

Zernike writes that some of the arguments made by those authors are out of date. For instance,

Bastiat warned that if government taxed wine and tobacco, “beggars and vagabonds will demand the right to vote”[.]

The point Bastiat makes is that when laws don’t serve to protect property rights and individual liberty only, but also to redistribute (ie, take from one citizen to give it to another) then by necessity everyone who thinks he can gain from such a scheme wants to participate in forming it. This thought is not as outdated as Mme Zernike might believe it to be. It’s been developed into an established theory by Mancur Olson in the 1980’s who — by Mme Zernike’s standard — is not quite as obscure as von Hayek, but at least as dusty. A short excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on him will serve the purpose of showing just how dusty:

In 1982,[Olson] expanded the scope of his earlier work in an attempt to explain The Rise and Decline of Nations. The idea is that small distributional coalitions tend to form over time in countries. Groups like cotton-farmers, steel-producers, and labor unions will have the incentives to form lobby groups and influence policies in their favor. These policies will tend to be protectionist and anti-technology, and will therefore hurt economic growth; but since the benefits of these policies are selective incentives concentrated amongst the few coalitions members, while the costs are diffused throughout the whole population, the “Logic” dictates that there will be little public resistance to them. Hence as time goes on, and these distributional coalitions accumulate in greater and greater numbers, the nation burdened by them will fall into economic decline.

We may no longer call it “lawful plunder” as did Bastiat, but maybe we should.

The main argument Bastiat makes is not mentioned by Zernike. It is that laws that go beyond mere “negative” laws, meaning preventing injustice rather than ordering redistributions of property, foster a culture of rent-seeking in which individuals prefer to participate in a power struggle over the distribution of a given size of cake, insetad of engaging in productive activities by which each person increases their respective slice of cake.

(Bastiat also complains about his critics’ suggestion “that every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.” Plus ça change…, n’est-ce pas?)

Beyond that, Bastiat argues that socialism always results in the clipping of individual liberty, can even end in outright dictatorship, not only because of redistribution, but because of the elitist, self-elevating point of view the intellectual fathers of redistributive policies have. According to Bastiat, those intellectuals — and the politicians who adopt their ideas — like to think that they themselves are the only enlightened ones to guide the benighted masses into a better society they couldn’t possibly form by themselves. Let me quote from Bastiat’s “The Law”:

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 – from 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!


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.


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 exchange.


Oh, sublime writers! Please remember sometimes that this clay, this sand, and this manure which you so arbitrarily dispose of, are men! They are your equals! They are intelligent and free human beings like yourselves! As you have, they too have received from God the faculty to observe, to plan ahead, to think, and to judge for themselves!

For being almost two centuries old, this criticism seems quite relevant for our days to me.

The French Cowboy is no outright opponent of government redistribution in every case. It’s understandable — and one might say “right” — for a society that shares some basic values to want some publicly organised redistribution like a more or less progressive tax code or benefits for chronically ill persons etc. Personally, it’s unclear to me wether such redistribution is best done in a public manner or by relying on private charity. The latter would need a particularly strong society, in a sense.

The complex and voluminous redistributive schemes of today’s European societies, and also the US’, are certainly infringing too much on economic liberties and are also palpably harmful to economic growth. This way they’re nibbling away on the foundation of these societies. Growing such redistribution is always politically easier than cutting back on it. Therefore, some die-hard libertarianism might be just the right cure for the road to socialism on which so many Western economies find themselves.

Bastiat saw himself fighting against the intellectual fruits of giants like Montesquieu, Rousseau and Robespierre. It’s no wonder he didn’t choose to word his opposition in a timid and “moderate” fashion. The Tea Party movement is a counterbalance to the very liberal policies of Obama and his allies. A “middle of the road” counterbalance is no counterbalance at all. I don’t think that Tea Partiers will be satisfied only once the Department of Labor is abolished. Repealing ObamaCare alone might not do the trick either. But I think it will go a long way.

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