Slavery and the Tariff: Exceptions to the American Spirit

We have much to be thankful for as Americans. We live in a country founded on the principles of liberty and limited government, and the freedom and prosperity we still enjoy today flow from those foundational principles.

I was reminded of our great heritage recently as I was re-reading Frederic Bastiat’s classic pamphlet, “The Law.” He wrote his impassioned defense of individual freedom and limited government in 1850, at a time when socialist ideas were on the march in his native France. Bastiat observed that, as government grew more powerful on the Continent, the struggle for political power became more bitter, stoking hatred, discord and social disorder.

In contrast, Bastiat beckoned his readers to

Look at the United States. There is no country in the world where the law confines itself more rigorously to its proper role, which is to guarantee everyone’s liberty and property. Accordingly, there is no country in which the social order seems to rest on a more stable foundation.

Being a lover of liberty, Bastiat also saw two great exceptions to “the general spirit” of our republic:

Nevertheless, even in the United States there are two questions, and only two, which, since it was founded, have several times put the political order in danger. And what are these two questions? The question of slavery and that of tariffs, that is, precisely the only two questions concerning which, contrary to the general spirit of this republic, the law has assumed a spoliative [despoiling or plundering] character. Slavery is a violation, sanctioned by law, of the rights of the person. Protective tariffs are a violation, perpetuated by the law, of the right to property …

Bastiat went on to warn, prophetically, that these two “scourges” posed a grave threat to the social order:

certainly it is remarkable that in the midst of so many other disputes this twofold legal scourge, a sad heritage of the Old World, should be the only one that can and perhaps will lead to the dissolution of the Union.

And then he wondered how much greater the coming conflict would be in Europe, where the law had become far more perverted. (He truly could not have imagined what was to come a few decades later.):

It is in fact impossible to imagine a graver situation in a society than one in which the law becomes on instrument of injustice. And if this fact gives rise to such dreadful consequences in the United Sates, where it is only exceptional, what must be its consequences in Europe, where it is a principle and a system?

Among today’s advocates of higher trade barriers, Pat Buchanan is especially fond of hearkening back to our “heritage” of high tariffs throughout the 19th century. Implied in his argument is that true patriots who celebrate the founding principles of our country should embrace higher duties on Chinese tires and Mexican tomatoes. But Frederic Bastiat, the Frenchman, understood far more accurately the real spirit of our Republic.