Franklin Cudjoe’s introduction to Frederic Bastiat’s Essays on Political Economy

 Writing in the early 19th century, Frederic Bastiat, the French journalist, economist and philosopher capably weighed in, with wit and insight, into the popular discussions of individual freedom versus power. But alas, not even the warnings of Bastiat could stem the tide of populist statism that culminated in the rise of totalitarianism and in two deadly world wars by the mid 20th century. The fallout from the wars demanded a rethink of the role of government. Informed thinkers understand the importance of the rule of law. There is no better guide than Frederic Bastiat, the man who warned us of the fallacies of socialism in the first place.

While many western nations learned about the unintended consequences of large governments, they were in significant denial of the role a limited government rooted in the rule of law could achieve. The real architects of European rebuilding were those, such as finance minister Ludwig Erhard in postwar West Germany, who understood the simple institutional foundations of freedom. The Austrian thinker F.A. Hayek, like Bastiat, had warned of governments legislating powers to enable them to drive their utopian ideas of equalizing welfare for everyone, when, in fact, the only way to achieve that was by un-equalizing power by giving rulers the power to take what everyone had productively applied their minds and physical labor to. How apt Bastiat was in The Law when he wrote that “The state is the great fiction by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.” We use the state to loot and plunder our neighbours, who are also using the state to loot and plunder us. The only real “winners” are the rulers who manipulate us.

But alas eternal vigilance could not keep predatory western governments from growing. Notwithstanding this, the basic blocks to building a prosperous society, for instance property rights, were institutionalized, although there were wavering degrees of application at home and among client states or western colonies abroad.

Abroad in Africa, Western states prior to Independent Africa subsidized special interests to grab resources, take land and monopolize commerce. Africa was easy prey and was chopped up into political fiefdoms. Western powers imposed their rule and way of life, especially the French through their policy of assimilation. The British chose not to upset the cultural setting of a people, but learned to ‘tame’ them through their indigenous institutions such as chieftaincy. However one looked at it, Colonialism was unjustifiable, but in some cases it did result in an important element of people power, as expressed through the institutions of governance that the colonialists re-formed. Re-formed, because pre-colonial Africa had its own indigenous institutions of law and popular consultation, a separation of powers that reminds us of Montesquieu’s studies of European institutions.

Yet, rather than form the basis for building modern democratic forms of discourse, Independent African leaders saw an opportunity to cast themselves in the mould of the pre-colonial monarchs, but with far greater powers than the African Kings. They tended to copy not African kings but European dictators. We Africans got to see the “legal plunder” Bastiat so succinctly describes in The Law, given full reality in Africa: “Sometimes the law defends plunder and participates in it. Thus the beneficiaries are spared the shame and danger that their acts would otherwise involve… But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them and gives it to the other persons to whom it doesn’t belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime. Then abolish that law without delay… No legal plunder; this is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony and logic.”

Through the law, many an Independent Africa leader declared de facto or de jure one-party states. Our leaders introduced what they called the African way of social organisation, a uniquely authoritarian top-down command politics unknown to pre-colonial traditional African governance. That was matched with massive investments in state-run industry. The result was unproductive and stunted political and economic systems; tight control of economic activity meant the death of individual entrepreneurship. Paternalism or state dependency, poverty, squalor, corruption, ignorance, confiscation of legitimately acquired properties, and widespread suppression of differing opinion became our lot.

Throughout the late 90s some semblance of constitutional order, some form of democratization of ideas paved the way for economic reforms. But the lessons have been bitter simply because we did not muster the discipline to apply the gains, however minute they were, to build on them. Our economies remain largely agrarian, under-developed and donor-dependent. Productive commercial farming is stunted, manufacturing limited, and both are stifled by bureaucracy, corruption and mercantilism.

The rest of the world has left us. Even if Europe, America and Japan can adopt a mercantilist approach to keep Africa’s agricultural produce from their markets, we cannot pursue similar ruinous policies, especially when we have a potential market of 900 million people within Africa. But then many in Africa push protectionism even from neighboring African countries that through sensible economic decisions have made local production cheaper. Here again, Bastiat comes to mind, as in The Candlemakers’ Petition, when he satirizes French opposition to foreign competition:

“We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a foreign rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on us so mercilessly that we suspect he is being stirred up against us by perfidious Albion (excellent diplomacy nowadays!), particularly because he has for that haughty island a respect that he does not show for us.”

Bastiat urged abandoning such inward-looking economic policies in favor of a more open system. But free trade is not only economically rational, he insisted, it is an ingredient of peace. He advised that “when goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.” But peace and free trade seem a pipe dream away for us in Africa. We in Africa are not allowed to trade locally or regionally, let alone internationally. Instead of giving us economic freedom to raise ourselves out of poverty and unshackling us from state serfdom, our leaders prefer grandiose political unification of the continent backed by foreign aid rather than opening up our huge continent to trade and economic freedom. Our leaders also refuse to face up to their own failures, while preventing us from using our ingenuity to build up our own future.
 Trade is a far more beneficial tool to enhancing international understanding than any other political arrangement such as foreign aid. Bastiat underscores this purpose succinctly: “The sort of dependence that results from exchange, i.e. from commercial transactions, is a reciprocal dependence. We cannot be dependent upon a foreigner without his being dependent on us. Now, this is what constitutes the very essence of society. To sever natural interrelations is not to make oneself independent, but to isolate oneself completely.”
 The life-changing power of trade has been demonstrated universally and not just in the West. At the height of their glory, many pre-colonial African states and empires found trade to be a better way to prosperity than conquests.  Gold was shipped from Wangara in the Upper Niger across the Sahara desert to Taghaza, in Western Sahara, in exchange for salt, and to Egypt for ceramics, silks and other Asian and European goods. The old Ghana empire controlled much of the trans-Sahara trade in copper and ivory. At Great Zimbabwe gold was traded for Chinese pottery and glass. From Nigeria, leather and iron goods were traded throughout West Africa.
 But to take part in the bounty made possible by voluntary exchange, we need to secure individual freedom. Individual freedom is the foundation of social cooperation, which creates prosperity. It is not difficult to understand that promoting human rights, property rights, the rule of law and market freedoms would allow Africans to emulate the growth of Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea, which were as poor as we were at independence in the 1960s.

No-one could have summed up the need for liberty better than in Bastiat’s words in his book The Law. “It seems to me that this is theoretically right, for whatever the question under discussion –whether religious, philosophical, political, or economic; whether it concerns prosperity, morality , equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, cooperation, property, labor, trade, capital, wages, taxes, population, finance, or government –at whatever point on the scientific horizon I begin my researches, I invariably reach this one conclusion: the solution to the problems of human relationships is to be found in liberty.”