One of the political trends of the past few years has been an expanding disconnect between political unity rhetoric and the increasing disharmony politicians’ proposals create.
The root of this beltway cognitive dissonance is the rapid increase in government power. Unity rhetoric helps mobilize candidates’ political bases and can sway some independents, helping win elections. However, their postelection expansion of government power into areas where people have dramatically or even diametrically opposed beliefs about Washington’s legitimate role, combined with the fact that government can give nothing it does not first take, guarantees growing disharmony. Once such choices are appropriated into government hands, there is only the question of whose preferences will be imposed on others.
One person who has adroitly analyzed this issue is Frédéric Bastiat, one of history’s most dedicated defenders of freedom. Whether government created social harmony or social disharmony was a major theme in his unfinished (because of tuberculosis) book Economic Harmonies. Because of the large and often dictatorial involvement of government in virtually every area of American life, which has robbed many Americans of rights, freedoms, and property to benefit others, it is worth reconsidering some of those insights, particularly well-presented in Economic Harmonies’ opening chapter:
All men’s impulses, when motivated by legitimate self-interest, fall into a harmonious social pattern . . . the practical solution to our social problem is simply not to thwart those interests or to try to redirect them.
Coercion . . . [has] never yet done anything to solve the problem except to eliminate liberty.
If you consider individual self-interest as antagonistic to the general interest, where do you propose to establish the acting principle of coercion? . . . For if you entrust men with arbitrary power, you must first prove that . . . their minds will be exempt from error, their hands from greed, and their hearts from covetousness.
Socialists . . . felt that men’s interests are fundamentally antagonistic, for otherwise they would not have had recourse to coercion . . . they have found fundamental antagonisms everywhere: Between the property owner and the worker . . . capital and labor . . . the common people and the bourgeoisie . . . the producer and the consumer. . . . Between personal liberty and a harmonious social order.
The economist school, on the contrary, starting from the assumption that there is a natural harmony among men’s interests, reaches a conclusion in favor of personal liberty.
It is not necessary to force into harmony things that are inherently harmonious.
The economists observe man, the laws of his nature and the social relations that derive from these laws. The socialists conjure up a society out of their imagination and then conceive of a human heart to fit this society.
[Liberty] is practical, for certainly no maxim is easier to put into practice than this: Let men labor, exchange, learn, band together, act, and react upon one another . . . there can result from their free and intelligent activity only order, harmony and progress.
The question is whether or not we have liberty . . . not profoundly disrupted by the contrary act of institutions of human origin.
Under the philanthropic pretext of fostering among men an artificial kind of solidarity, the individual’s sense of responsibility becomes more and more apathetic and ineffectual.
This is exactly the tendency not only of most of our governmental institutions but . . . to an even greater degree of those institutions that are designed to serve as remedies for the evils that afflict us.
Social order, freed from its abuses and the obstacles that have been put in its way—enjoying, in other words, the condition of freedom—[is] the most admirable, the most complete, the most lasting, the most universal, and the most equitable of all associations . . . the present social order has only to achieve freedom in order to realize and go beyond your fondest hopes and prayers.
However much we may admire compromise, there are two principles between which there can be no compromise—liberty and coercion.
If the laws of Providence are harmonious, they can be so only when they operate under conditions of freedom. . . . Therefore when we perceive something inharmonious in the world, it cannot fail to correspond to some lack of freedom or justice. Oppressors, plunderers . . . cannot take your place in the universal harmony.
The state always acts through the instrumentality of force. . . . The question then amounts to this: What are the things that men have the right to impose on one another by force? Now, I know of only one, and that is justice. I have no right to force anyone to be religious, charitable, well educated, or industrious; but I have the right to force him to be just: this is a case of legitimate self-defense.
Now there cannot exist for a group of individuals any new rights over and above those that they already possessed as individuals. If, therefore, the use of force by the individual is justified solely on grounds of legitimate self-defense, we need only recognize that government action always takes the form of force to conclude that by its very nature it can be exerted solely for the maintenance of order, security, and justice.
All government action beyond this limit is an encroachment upon the individual’s conscience, intelligence, and industry—in a word, upon human liberty.
Accordingly, we must [turn] . . . to the task of freeing the whole domain of private activity from the encroachments of government. Only on this condition shall we succeed in winning our liberty.
Will the power of government be weakened by these restrictions? On the contrary: to restrict the public police force to its one and only rightful function . . . is the way to win it universal respect and cooperation. Once this is accomplished . . . from what source could come all our present ills . . . which teach the people to look to the government for everything . . . to the ever increasing and unnatural meddling of politics into all things?
All these and a thousand other causes of disturbances, friction, disaffection, envy, and disorder would no longer exist; and those entrusted with the responsibility of governing would work together for, and not against, the universal harmony.
Harmony does not exclude evil, but it reduces evil to the smaller and smaller area left open to it by the ignorance and perversity of our human frailty, which it is the function of harmony to prevent or chastise.
If man can only win back his freedom of action . . . his gradual, peaceful development is assured.
Men’s interests are harmonious; therefore, the answer lies entirely in this one word: freedom.
In Economic Harmonies, Frédéric Bastiat made the case that freedom was the key to economic harmony and progress, and that such freedom required a government “that by its very nature . . . can be exerted solely for the maintenance of order, security, and justice.” In contrast, because “all government action beyond this limit is an encroachment upon the individual’s conscience, intelligence, and industry—in a word, upon human liberty,” it is the expansion of government beyond its limited defensible role, with consequent reductions on citizens’ freedoms, that expands disharmony rather than harmony.
The 2024 election circus, already well underway, looks to be a particularly interesting election year with regard to unity. The likely major party candidates have in the past promised unity but produced results far from it. Those deviant results have featured contractions in Americans’ liberty as well as their economic well-being, where the closest thing to general unity in the country at the moment seems to be a common distrust of or disgust about both candidates, where the primary disagreement is who would be worse.
In facing the need to make such judgement, citizens need to be particularly on the lookout for proposals that only unify particular groups in divisive battles to impose their will on those who disagree. And in evaluating those efforts, we could benefit by remembering that harmony is a synonym for unity, and ask, with Bastiat, whether the coercive proposals advanced will expand or erode harmony.