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The injustices of legal plunder: Frédéric Bastiat’s law

The County Account

There’s no law without philosophy. I’ve tried to stay true to this simple maxim in both my ruminations and approach to lawmaking. I constantly ask myself to what underlying principle is any law rooted, and how does it fare in particular with the United States and New York state constitutions to which we legislators swear allegiance?

Beyond that I look to authorities including the great (and sometimes not so great) philosophers, legal tradition and public opinion as voiced on numerous issues. I personally strive for a legislative version of the Hippocratic Oath of doing no harm, which is why I’ve made it a habit to read annually the short and concise handbook of French Revolution-reactionary Frédéric Bastiat, entitled “The Law.”

While I have mixed reviews on Bastiat’s total discourse, the thrust of doctrine has always haunted me. Bastiat suggests the law operates as a form of plunder when it takes from some persons what belongs to them and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. Overall he warns against a system that seeks to enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else. As a result he says the laws passed by legislators have the power to displace capital, labor and populations.

These state-created displacements, he says, annihilate justice while at the same time burdening government with added responsibilities that go beyond its proper functions. This legal plunder — his term for government sanctioned theft of personal property via taxation — takes on many forms including tariffs, subsidies, minimum wage, public schooling, entitlements and other euphemisms for socialist intervention. I would argue that the income taxing authority of the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution itself is a vehicle for legal plunder, yet we legislators take oaths to uphold it.

I am often troubled in reconciling Bastiat with our social structure that in so many ways has already embraced and built up a system of social equalization that Bastiat calls “perverted law.” He warned against its ability to cause conflict by violating property instead of protecting it.

I thought a lot about this a year ago when I met with Amenia property owners complaining of being overtaxed on their homes to pay for public schools. While I heard from some economically-struggling seniors, I heard more from those dismayed to be forced to pay for someone else’s education. Interestingly, the right to public education has become a staple in the New York State Constitution, as has the expectation of social welfare and labor rights.

Bastiat argues that when law normalizes legal plunder that it erases from our minds the distinction between justice and injustice. He says that when morality and the law contradict that the citizen has the cruel alternative of losing his or her moral sense or losing respect for the law. His challenge to legislators is to make laws respectable.

In recent days I am again hearing the plights of property owners struggling under onerous property tax bills. While the county property tax is smaller than other taxes I wonder anew how we lawmakers might succeed in restoring respect to the laws and budgets we adopt.

Michael Kelsey represents Amenia, Washington, Stanford, Pleasant Valley and Millbrook in the Dutchess County Legislature. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com.