Thursday, April 10, 2008

bookmarking bastiat

I've been sending myself emails whenever I come across passages of particular interest when reading the new collection of Claude Frederic Bastiat's essays on economics prepared by the Mises Institute. I'm not quite done yet, but I've already live-tagged so many nuggets I figured I would start sharing them with my imaginary readership.

So here without further ado is Bastiat on the topic of justice
"When law and force keep a man within the bounds of justice, they impose nothing upon him but a mere negation. They only oblige him to abstain from doing harm... In fact, it is not justice that has an existence of its own, it is injustice. The one results from the absence of the other." — book 1, page 64

On the contradictory absurdness of dialectical materialism
"They divide mankind into two parts. Men in general, except one, form the first; the politician himself forms the second, which is by far the most important.

In fact, they begin by supposing that men are devoid of any principle of action, and of any means of discernment in themselves; that they have no initiative; that they are inert matter, passive particles, atoms without impulse; at best a vegetation indifferent to its own mode of existence, susceptible of assuming, from an exterior will and hand an infinite number of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.
" — book 1, page 67

Everybody except for themselves of course, a parody of fine quining.

Where he asserts binary exchange is a trade of equal satisfactions to each party—
"After much investigation it has been found, that in order to make the two services exchanged of equivalent value, and in order to render the exchange equitable, the best means was to allow it to be free... When we look into these subjects, we are always compelled to reason upon this maxim, that equal value results from liberty. We have, in fact, no other means of knowing whether, at a given moment, two services are of the same value but that of examining whether they can be readily and freely exchanged." — book 1, page 144
And explicitly rejects Condillac's theory of the inequality of exchange
"The explanation Condillac has given appears to me to be quite unsatisfactory and empirical—in fact it explains nothing. “From the very fact,” he says, “that an exchange is made, it follows that there must be profit for the two contracting parties, for otherwise it would not take place. Then each exchange includes two gains for humanity"...Holding this proposition as true, we see in it only the statement of a result...Exchange includes two gains, you say. How? Why? It results from the fact that it takes place. But why does it take place? What motive has induced the contracting parties to effect the exchange? Has Exchange in itself a mysterious virtue, necessarily beneficial, and incapable of explanation?” - book 2, page 90

In the former quote Bastiat endorsed the idea that value is a subjective notion, an indeterminate quantum event valid to but a specific moment, observable only through the action of exchange. That's all nice and shiny, however I think Bastiat's criticism of Condillac's theory applies equally as well to his own notion of equal value; how do we know the observed exchange was of equal values? Through the fact that it took place? But why does it take place?

It also seems odd to me that here Bastiat disapproves of Condillac utilizing an empirical method to prove his inequality of exchange theory when Bastiat himself asks the reader to do the same to arrive at the notion- stating that only upon examination of exchange do we know that the values are equal. It's odd to me because Condillac is in fact utilizing a deductive method, to reflect upon a given event to deduce that if it occurred, it was because each party gave up less than what they expected to receive. And furthermore, it seems to me that what Bastiat calls "examination" is also not empirical fact gleaned through a posteriori observation, but rather a priori deduction!

Note: Philosophy mavens and bowtied economists of the cloth are hereby invited to comment and set me straight as to what Bastiat is saying. For now, I'm taking this to be the sometimes unavoidable result of a translation where concepts get mangled when bridging that gulf.

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