Frédéric Bastiat wrote a lifetime of work during the last few years of his too short life. He’s probably most well known for “The Broken Window” chapter of What is Seen and What Is Not Seen, an essay in which he explains and demonstrates the overlooked moral hazards that occur when economic policy is based on economic fallacy.
His other essays are worthy of attention too. In particular today, “Property and Law“, in which Bastiat addresses the fundamental questions regarding the origin of property and law and the role of legislators (he was one) in making laws concerning property. Regarding the origin of property and law, he reasons that “Property does not exist because there are laws, but laws exist because there is property…The function of the law, then, is to safeguard the right to property.” He further reasons regarding the role of legislators that their “…jurisdiction is limited to guaranteeing and safeguarding property rights.”
On both of these points, Michigan legislators failed miserably this week with their vote on HB 4377, a bill that will now (with a few special interest exceptions) prohibit private businesses from allowing patrons to smoke on their property. Especially disappointing, but not surprising, were the Republican votes. In the House, 20 of 43 Republicans voted for more, not less, government. Even worse, in the Republican controlled Senate, nine Republicans enabled passage of the bill, casting their lot with the socialists of Bastiat’s day, apparently seeing their role as one to “…organize, modify, and even eliminate property if [they deem] it good to do so.”
Among the Republicans voting for Property, State Representative Justin Amash has been clear and consistent in his principled stand. In online discussions on his Facebook page he stated that “To dismiss the [property] rights issue is to cede all power to the government, and I will never do that.”
In 1848, Bastiat could say to his countrymen that:
In a country like the United States, where the right to property is placed above the law, where the sole function of the public police force is to safeguard this natural right, each person can in full confidence dedicate his capital and his labor to production. He does not have to fear that his plans and calculations will be upset from one instant to another by the legislature.
While no longer true in Michigan or the United States, maybe that day will come again with more legislators like Amash and those who joined him in the vote for Property and Liberty.