Bastiat’s Belief in God and Denial of Human Perfection

More on the religious beliefs of French economist Claude Frederic Bastiat. This time from Frederic Bastiat: A Man Alone by George Charles Roche III, p. 194 – 197:

Unlike John Stuart Mill and the utilitarians who had preceded him, Bastiat did not make the mistake of dividing man into abstract and unreal segments such as “political man” or “economic man.” He was quite prepared to insist that religious sentiment, loyalty, love, friendship, patriotism, charity, and the whole spectrum of human social and moral values were inseparable from man’s economic life. Bastiat insisted upon a higher side to human nature, and a meaning of ultimate value to all human transactions. He derived this higher side from a simple premise:

In this book [Economic Harmonies – Karl W/ A K] there is a central dominant; it pervades every page, it gives life and meaning to every line. It is the thought that begins the Christian’s creed: I believe in God.

Building upon that belief in a Superior Power, Bastiat made it abundantly clear that he did not believe in the perfectibility of human nature or in the achievement of any utopian heaven on earth:

Evil exists. It is inherent in human frailty; it evidences itself in the moral order as in the physical order, in the mass as in the individual, in the whole as in its parts. Because our eyes may hurt and our sight grow dim, will the physiologist ignore the harmonious mechanism of these wonderful organs? Will he deny the ingenious structure of the human body because that body is subject to pain, illness, and death, because Job once cried out in his despair: “I have said to corruption, Thou art my father, to the worm, Thou art my mother and my sister!” In the same manner, because the social order will never bring mankind safely to port in the fantastic dreamland of absolute good, must the economist refuse to recognize the marvelous structure of the social order, which is so constituted as to diffuse more and more enlightenment, morality, and happiness among more and more people?

Thus, even though man is not perfectible, he does have a higher side, an understanding of the good and the right which may be cultivated. In that cultivation, the individual and his society may progress. Bastiat stands with Burke, not only on the grounds that human nature is not perfectible and that utopias are not possible of fulfillment, but also on the grounds that men have both the obligations and the opportunity to improve themselves, and, in so doing, improve their society.

In Bastiat’s view of the nature of man, we find the same emphasis upon responsibility which he so often insisted upon in his discussions of democracy and a proper social order:

Genesis relates how, when the first man had been driven from the earthly paradise because he had learned to distinguish right from wrong—to know good and evil—God pronounced this sentence upon him: In sorrow shalt thou eat of it [the fruit of the earth] all the days of thy life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee ….. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground, for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.

Here, then, we have good and evil—or human nature. Here we have acts and habits producing good or bad consequences—or human nature. Here are toil, sweat, thorns, tribulation, and death—or human nature.

Human nature, I say: for to choose, to err, to suffer, to correct one’s errors—in a word, all the elements that make up the idea of responsibility—are so much a part of our sentient, intelligent, and free nature, they are so much one with this nature, that I defy the most fertile imagination to conceive of any other kind of existence for man.

His opposition to the social architects stemmed in large part from his insistence upon this idea of responsibility. Warning that effort and satisfaction are indissolubly joined, he decried the attempts of nineteenth-century society to separate the two and to attempt the creation of a perverted social order which pretended that men need not be responsible for their acts:

Political economy has not been given the mission of finding out what society would be like if it had pleased God to make man different from what he is. It may be regrettable that Providence, at the beginning, neglected to seek the advice of some of our modern social reformers . . . if He had not disregarded the advice of Fourier, the social order would have borne no resemblance to the one in which we are obliged to live, breathe, and move about. But, since we are in it, since we do live, move, and have our being in it, our only recourse is to study it and to understand its laws, especially if the improvement of our condition essentially depends upon such knowledge.

Those laws of human nature which Bastiat felt men must come to study and understand were simply that human life demanded of us foresight, labor, virtue, and the exercise of will, since to be human was  to rise above man’s finite nature and to develop those traits of character and personality whereby we could occupy the place intended for us in God’s scheme of things on earth. He warned that any other course would lead downward, to a degradation of both the individual and his society.

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