Bastiat on the Socialization of Wealth

By Sheldon Richman
Future of Freedom Foundation
 

That … veil which is spread before the eyes of the ordinary man, which even the attentive observer does not always succeed in casting aside, prevents us from seeing the most marvelous of all social phenomena: real wealth constantly passing from the domain of private property into the communal domain.

Wealth marvelously passing from the private to the communal domain? It sounds like a socialist’s redistributionist fantasy!

But wait — Frédéric Bastiat, the great laissez-faire radical, wrote those words in his book Economic Harmonies, chapter 8, provocatively titled “Private Property and Common Wealth.”

He repeats the point throughout his fascinating chapter:

And so, as I have already said many times and shall doubtless say many times more (for it is the greatest, the most admirable, and perhaps the most misunderstood of all the social harmonies, since it encompasses all the others), it is characteristic of progress (and, indeed, this is what we mean by progress) to transform onerous utility into gratuitous utility; to decrease value without decreasing utility; and to enable all men, for fewer pains or at smaller cost, to obtain the same satisfactions. Thus, the total number of things owned in common is constantly increased; and their enjoyment, distributed more uniformly to all, gradually eliminates inequalities resulting from differences in the amount of property owned.

Here’s what Bastiat has in mind. In a competitive marketplace with advancing technology, as the effort required to produce and, hence, acquire things diminishes, the price of gaining utility falls. For example, if the average worker had to work two hours, 40 minutes, to buy a chicken in 1900, but only 14 minutes as the 21st century approached (actual statistics), Bastiat would say the chicken “is obtained for less expenditure of human effort; less service is performed as it passes from hand to hand; it has less value; in a word, it has become gratis, [though] not completely.” In other words, most of the utility that had to be paid for with painful effort in 1900 was free by 2000. (By “less value,” Bastiat meant that the market price has fallen, not that the chicken is less useful.)

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