BASTIAT'S CONCEPT OF CIVIL LIBERTY (1850) was common to his day and can be defined as the condition in which all people are free from the arbitrary dictates of others. That is, a situation where the laws of society are used to restrain the actions of every man from injuring or controlling his neighbor. When applied to the realm of economics, the establishment of civil liberty implies that a person is free to engage in any mutually agreeable exchange of goods that might legitimately be traded. These goods include tangible commodities such as wheat and bread, and intangible goods such as advice and labor services. In addition, it includes the exchange of future claims on goods.
While it is generally recognized that these conditions give rise to the advancement of material well-being, it is often argued that they may be at odds with moral well-being. Bastiat took the opposite position. Bastiat argued that the final interests of human beings are harmonious rather than antagonistic. As such, he saw liberty as the ultimate answer to the social problem. In presenting his case, Bastiat appealed to the fundamental problems inherent in the alternative view. If human interests are forever at odds, then coercion is the only option. But, among the infinite variety of plans that employ coercion to organize society, which is best? Furthermore, even if the 'best' plan could be identified, why would we expect people to submit to it since our first premise is that the interests of individuals are always at odds with each other? And, finally, 'If you consider individual self-interest as antagonistic to the general interest, where do you propose to establish the acting principle of coercion?' With regard to this last question, it would have to be located beyond humanity if it were to escape the main premise, because arbitrary power entrusted to human beings will always explode into corruption. As a result, the "antagonistic" view has no place to end but in despair.
Bastiat rejected that position and focused on another option. He began with the assumption that God made the person as he is, a being motivated by self-love and naturally interested in social arrangements that better himself. With this as a starting point, Bastiat sought to examine how the social order would progress if people interacted freely with each other. It was that study that led Bastiat to assert that human interests are harmonious rather than antagonistic, because he discovered that such activity would give rise to human flourishing.
Paul A. Cleveland, Economic Liberty, Journal of Markets and Morality, Fall 2001.
I endorse Bastiat.