July 23, 2011 3:30PM

Bastiat on Free Trade and Living on the State

The estimable James Grant reviews a new collection of writings of the brilliant Frederic Bastiat, published by the beneficent Liberty Fund, in the always scintillating Review section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal:

Because nobody else can understand them, modern economists speak to one another. They gossip in algebra and remonstrate in differential calculus. And when the pungently correct mathematical equation doesn't occur to them, they awkwardly fall back on the English language, like a middle-aged American trying to remember his high-school Spanish. The economist Frédéric Bastiat, who lived in the first half of the 19th century, wrote in French, not symbols. But his words—forceful, clear and witty—live to this day.

Bastiat might have something to say about the attitudes and policies that have brought both Europe and the United States to the brink of debt disaster:

"The dominant notion, the one that has permeated every class of society," he wrote in the wake of the Revolution of 1848, "is that the state is responsible for providing a living for everyone."

"Poor people!" he lamented of the duped French populace in the same tumultuous year. "How much disillusionment is in store for them! It would have been so simple and so just to ease their burden by decreasing their taxes; they want to achieve this through the plentiful bounty of the state and they cannot see that the whole mechanism consists in taking away ten to give it back eight, not to mention the true freedom that will be destroyed in the operation!"

And of course, taking away eight to give back ten is fun while it lasts. But it can't last forever.