Economic Harmonies : Frédéric Bastiat on the Mutual-Aid Societies

Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Harmonies, 1850. The Online Library of Liberty.

Chapter 14, Wages (p. 281-283)

Hence the various mutual-aid societies, admirable institutions that came into being within society long before even the name of socialism existed. It would be difficult to say to what impulse the invention of such arrangements should be credited. I believe, in truth, that they sprang from the very fact that the need was there, from man’s longing for stability, from that ever restless, ever active instinct that prompts us to bridge the gaps that civilization encounters in its progress toward security for all ranks of society.

In any case, I saw mutual-aid societies spring up spontaneously more than twenty years ago among the destitute day laborers and artisans in the poorest villages in the Department of Landes.

The intention of these societies is obviously to secure a stable level of satisfactions, to distribute over all periods of life the wages earned during periods of employment. In all the localities where the societies exist, they have done a great deal of good. The members of the association feel sustained by a sense of security, one of the most precious and comforting feelings that man can experience in his journey through life. In addition, all members feel their mutual dependence, their contribution to one another’s needs; they understand to how great an extent the individual’s good or bad fortune becomes the good or bad fortune of all; they meet together to observe a few religious ceremonies that their statutes provide for; in a word, they are called upon to cultivate that alert concern for one another’s activities so calculated to inspire both self-respect and an appreciation of the dignity of others, which is the first and most difficult step on the road to any kind of civilization.

The secret of the success of these societies — a success that has indeed come slowly, as does everything that involves the masses — is liberty, and this is readily explicable.

The natural danger that threatens such associations consists in the removal of the sense of responsibility. No individual can ever be relieved of responsibility for his own actions without incurring grave perils and difficulties for the future. [2] If the day should ever come when all our citizens say, “We shall assess ourselves in order to aid those who cannot work or cannot find work,” there would be reason to fear that man’s natural inclination toward idleness would assert itself, and that in short order the industrious would be made the dupes of the lazy. Mutual aid therefore implies mutual supervision, without which the benefit funds would soon be exhausted. This mutual supervision, which is for the association a guarantee of continued existence, and for each individual an assurance that he will not be victimized, is also the source of the moral influence it, as an institution, exercises. Thanks to it, drunkenness and debauchery are gradually disappearing, for by what right could a man claim help from the common fund when it could be proved that he had brought sickness and unemployment on himself through his own fault, by his own bad habits? This supervision restores the sense of responsibility that association, left to itself, would tend to relax.

Now, in order that such supervision may bear its full fruit, the mutual-aid societies must be free, must have certain well-defined prerogatives and be in complete control of their own funds. They must be allowed sufficient flexibility to adapt their regulations to fit local needs.

Suppose that the government interferes. It is easy to imagine the role it will assign itself. Its first concern will be to take over all funds on the pretext of centralizing them; and, in order to make this measure more palatable, it will promise to increase them out of resources taken from the taxpayer. [3] “For,” it will say, “is it not entirely natural and just that the state should contribute to so great, so generous, so philanthropic, so humanitarian a work as this?” The first unjust act will be to force into the society, through taxation, citizens who have no right to share in the benefits. The second unjust act will be to propose, in the name of unity, of solidarity (call it what you will), that all associations be merged into one, subject to uniform regulations.

But, I ask, what will happen to the morality of the institution when its treasury is fed by taxes; when no one, except possibly some bureaucrat, finds it to his interest to defend the common fund; when every member, instead of making it his duty to prevent abuses, delights in encouraging them; when all mutual supervision has stopped, and malingering becomes merely a good trick played on the government? The government, to give it its just due, will be disposed to defend itself; but, no longer being able to count on private action, will have to resort to official action. It will appoint various agents, examiners, controllers, and inspectors. It will set up countless formalities as barriers between the workers’ claims and his relief payments. In a word, an admirable institution will, from its very inception, be turned into a branch of the police force.

The state will perceive, first of all, the advantages to be gained from adding to the vast throng of its appointees, from multiplying the number of jobs at its disposal, from extending its patronage and electoral influence. It will not realize that, in arrogating to itself a new function, it has also placed upon itself a new, and, indeed, a frightening responsibility. For what must the immediate consequence be? The workers will no longer look upon their common treasury as property to be administered and maintained by themselves, with their own claims on it limited by the extent of its resources. Little by little they will become accustomed to considering unemployment benefits, not as something provided by the limited funds that they have accumulated by their own foresight, but as a debt that society owes them. They will never admit that society cannot pay and will never be satisfied with the benefits they receive. The state will constantly be obliged to ask for new additions to the budget. At this point, encountering opposition from the treasury officials, it will find itself in inextricable difficulties. Abuses will increase all the time, and the government will shrink, as it always does, from rectifying them until there comes the day of explosion. But when this happens, the government will discover that it has to reckon with a population that has lost the ability to act for itself, that looks to a cabinet minister or an official for everything, even its livelihood, a population whose thinking has become so warped as to have lost any notion of right, property, liberty, or justice.

These were some of the reasons for my alarm, I admit, when I discovered that a commission of the legislative assembly had been instructed to prepare a bill on mutual-aid societies. I felt that the knell of doom had rung for them, and I was the more distressed because I am convinced that a great future is in store for them provided they continue to be allowed to breathe the bracing air of freedom. And, indeed, is it so difficult to permit men to experiment, to feel their way, to choose, to make mistakes, to correct them, to learn, to work together, to manage their own property and their own interests, to act for themselves, at their own risk and peril, on their own responsibility? Do we not see that this is what makes them men? Must we always start with the fatal premise that all those who govern are guardians and all the governed are wards?

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