This morning I enjoyed conversation over breakfast with Congressman Peter Roskam. The main topic of discussion, as you might guess, was healthcare reform. Having a child with severe hemophilia, whose medical costs are quite high, stimulated a myriad of questions.
Since my pastoral role obligates me to avoid partisanship, I won’t say much about how impressed I was with Peter; but I would like to elucidate one element of our conversation. It concerns the inadequacy of collectivism.
The French economist, statesman, and writer, Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850), lived through some of France’s most turbulent years in the aftermath of the 1789 Revolution. The revolutionaries insisted on the government taking over, by force if necessary, the ownership and control of the means of production. Then these politicians would manage and distribute the country’s wealth. In response, Bastiat was a tireless exponent of free trade and a critic of socialism, questioning the capacity and warrant of socialists to make choices on behalf of people.
“The claims of these organizers of humanity raise another question which I have often asked them and which, so far as I know, they have never answered: If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind? The organizers maintain that society, when left undirected, rushes headlong to its inevitable destruction because the instincts of the people are so perverse. The legislators claim to stop this suicidal course and to give it a saner direction. Apparently, then, the legislators and the organizers have received from Heaven an intelligence and virtue that place them beyond and above mankind; if so, let them show their titles to this superiority.
They would be the shepherds over us, their sheep. Certainly such an arrangement presupposes that they are naturally superior to the rest of us. And certainly we are fully justified in demanding from the legislators and organizers proof of this natural superiority.”1
Furthermore, Bastiat sought to correct the mistake of thinking that the state and its citizens are one. Not every social benefit is the responsibility of the government. His ideas are as applicable and pointed today as they were when he expressed them.
“Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”2
1 Frédéric Bastiat, The Law, trans. Dean Russell (Irvington-on-the-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc, 1998), 63-64.
2 Ibid., 29. This translation can be found online at The Library of Economics and Liberty, http://www.econlib.org/library/Bastiat/basEssContents.html.