Short Cuts

Christopher Prendergast

Hands up who knows that a major source of Tea Party ideological fervour is a long-forgotten 19th-century French economist – French no less (it wasn’t so long ago that John Kerry was derided for being ‘a bit French’). Indeed, hands up who has even heard of Frédéric Bastiat. The name, canonical and talismanic in Tea Party circles, means nothing to most British economists. Nineteenth-century France produced some eccentric social and political thinkers: Fourier and assorted crackpot illuminés on the left, for example, and several on the conservative right, among them the fiercely polemical Bastiat. Bastiat was a hard-core radical liberal in the tradition of Locke and Benjamin Constant, with a strong overlay of Cobden’s free-trade beliefs. Born in 1801, in Bayonne, orphaned at the age of nine and raised by his grandparents, at 17 he was taken into the family export business, where he acquired both his lifelong hatred of protectionism and the wherewithal to sustain nearly 20 years of private study.

His first major publication, in the prestigious Journal des économistes, was on the nefarious effects of tariffs; it was the basis of his future acquaintance with Cobden. Free trade in its pure, unimpeded form became an obsession. He later published a clunky satire, notionally modelled on Swift’s Modest Proposal but without any of the wit, in which the Paris guild of candlemakers petitions the Legislative Assembly to block out the sun. Elected to the Assembly himself in 1848, he died of tuberculosis in 1850; eventually, unable to speak because of the disease, he submitted written tracts and memoranda on political economy and the state of the nation, which were left to gather dust and sink into oblivion. Apart from his contribution to the founding of pro-free trade societies (based on Cobden’s Anti-Corn Law League), his influence on his contemporaries, in France or elsewhere, was close to invisible (there is a curious reference to the – unspecified – merits of reading him in one of Flaubert’s letters to George Sand but this was in 1871, at the height of Flaubert’s hysteria over the Paris Commune).

The resurrection of Bastiat has been almost entirely an American affair, long pre-dating his appropriation by the Tea Party. It began as the Cold War got under way, as part of the American right’s campaign, under the banner of anti-Communism, against the economics and politics of the New Deal. The key players were Thomas Carver, a Harvard professor of economics, and Leonard Read, who created the Foundation for Economic Education; the emigré Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises was a member, while Hayek gave his warm support. Later fans included Reagan and Thatcher, who found his theories ‘elegant and powerful’. So far nothing very alarming. There is indeed a perfectly reasonable debate to be had around some of Bastiat’s ideas, especially those outlined in the pamphlet Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas, where the ‘unseen’ is identified as the negative unintended consequences of certain expenditures, especially government ones – an issue still active in the face-off between Keynesians and Hayekians over fiscal stimulus and the alleged misallocation of capital.

But in many ways Bastiat is the perfect luminary for the Tea Party’s continuation of the neoliberal agenda in terms so extreme that even – this is normally very hard to imagine – Dick Cheney might blench. Bastiat took from Locke the belief that personhood is anchored in the inalienability of private property and, especially in the unfinished Harmonies économiques and La Loi, used this as the basis for a root and branch attack on ‘government’ (‘Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavours to live at the expense of everybody else’) and above all on taxation, which he described as state-sanctioned ‘plunder’. He was especially incensed by the levying of taxes to assist the poor, which he described as the ‘taking from some persons that which belongs to them to give to others that which does not belong to them’.

It is a formula for ending the welfare state at a stroke. No wonder it is music to Tea Party ears (and may soon be obligatory reading in coalition circles). The demonising of taxation is a perennial of the American right, but what makes Bastiat such excellent Tea Party company is his view that any interferences by government beyond the bare Lockean minimum necessary for the protection of property and the person ‘constitute socialism’. This is one of the reasons his ideas found a home in the postwar anti-Communist crusade, its ideological energies now displaced onto those Tea Party descriptions of Barack Obama as a card-carrying socialist enemy of the American Way.

I don’t know if the Tea Party has any views on the teaching of Latin, but Bastiat did (which is where I first came across him), in a remarkable alignment of the patricians of ancient Rome and the revolutionary movements of 19th-century Europe. In one of his weirdest texts, Baccalauréat et socialisme, he argued that the study of Latin, as the language of a society based on slavery, encouraged hostility to manual work, an attitude mirrored in the hatred of ‘honest labour’ shown by socialist agitators. We could one day soon be getting a demand from Tea Party officials that the classics should be banned in American schools and universities on the grounds that they too are part of the socialist plot.