The Bastiat Strategy for Liberty
Humor is one of the few constants in the human condition. No matter where you go, no matter what language you speak, at any time, and in any culture, there is always humor. There is always laughing and jokes. It seems to be almost a core part of what it means to be human. It has the powerful features of alleviating pain, bringing happiness, and brightening even the darkest of circumstances.
Among these aspects of humor, however, is another very peculiar feature: the power to de-legitimize. Because of the inherent power that humor holds, it can effective overpower and cancel out our other perceptions. For example, if you can level humor at an object of authority, all reverence and respect it held can be completely lost. Where once an individual, place, or event held great esteem and austerity, humor has the strange power to wash it all away. This is why kings and other heads of state have historically not taken kindly to humor and satire at their expense. It weakens their perceived right to rule, and consequently, has to be stamped out to preserve their power.
Similarly, if you can apply humor to an object of fear, it loses the intimidating aspects that it held before. Just as humor can erase authority of individuals, it can also erase the authority of our fear. The phenomenon of “gallows humor” is exemplary of this phenomenon. When placed in situations of intense stress, human beings naturally turn to humor as a coping mechanism.
We can find countless examples of humorous de-legitimizing around us. One of the best and most famous examples from history is “The Great Dictator”. Released in 1940, it was a short film starring the great comedic actor, Charlie Chaplin. The film satirized Adolf Hitler and made him out to be a bumbling, clumsy fool, and parodied many of the iconic characteristics that Hitler was known for. While the United States was not yet at war with Germany when the film was released, the effect of the film was that the fear that the film-goers may have had for Adolf Hitler was greatly lessened by watching Chaplin’s comical portrayal of him. All of the aspects of Hitler that had previously caused fear and concern were made into laughter-inducing and unflattering character flaws.
For Libertarians, this peculiar de-legitimizing power of humor should be of particular interest. The goal of the Libertarian is to see the size, power, and scope of the state reduced as much as possible. As one might expect, there have been no shortage of strategies proposed for how this goal is to be achieved. How many of these strategies might find any success is another matter. Despite the plethora of proposals, the utilization of humor as a tool for liberty has scarcely been mentioned. While Libertarians have no shortage of humor, the idea of using it against the state has mostly larger gone without consideration.
What merits does humor possess in terms of strategy? Why should Libertarians make use of it in their fight against the state? It has a number of appealing features, which ought to make it an attractive strategic option. First, it doesn’t require any kind of special effort. Liberty-minded individuals have already been infusing humor into their message for some time now. Additionally, it is perfectly compatible with other strategies for achieving a libertarian society as well. Just because we utilized humor to its fullest extent does not exclude us from pursuing other means as well. Lastly, humor allows Libertarians to reach everyone, regardless of their knowledge or interest in political affairs. As we stated at the outset, humor is universal. Everyone can laugh at a good joke. Similarly, everyone can laugh at a good joke at the expense of the state.
Has this strategy of using humor ever been used in the past? While not a regular occurrence, it has been used before by certain liberty-minded individuals. The foremost of these is the French classical liberal economist, Frederic Bastiat. Bastiat spent years arguing in favor of free markets and free trade in France through his books and essays. The most famous of these is his “Petition of the Candlemakers”, which is read even today by economics students. In the paper, he claims to represent a guild of candlemakers, who are petitioning the government for protection against unfair competition. What competition, you might ask? Well, the sun of course! The sun provides light for free for hours each day, and the candlemakers have no chance of being able to compete against such a prevalent source of light. The solution? The citizens of France are to cover their windows with curtains and sheets during the day to prevent the sunlight from coming in. They must also do as much work as possible indoors and journey outside as little as possible. As a result, they will be forced to buy more candles and the candlemakers will no longer be ravaged by the unfair competition caused by the sun.
The point of this essay is to satirize the arguments that guilds and industries within France would make to protectionist tariffs in order to fight “unfair competition” from abroad. What Bastiat ingeniously points out with this essay is that such arguments presuppose that tough competition is somehow a bad thing. Why should the French producers and manufacturers receive any protection? After all, if those producers abroad are more efficient than those in France, wouldn’t it be better for the citizens of France to buy from them instead?
On a more fundamental level, however, the essay dismantles the protectionist arguments by pulling their perceived legitimacy out from under them. Once you read the essay, the arguments for protectionism can’t quite be taken seriously again. Any plausibility they once held is now gone. Even if one cannot identify why they are wrong or where their error lies, the use of humor points out that something must be incorrect. Though Bastiat doesn’t use any arguments or economic analysis in this essay, any case for protectionism is effectively neutered by the end of it. Bastiat himself was a master of using this method to argue against economic intervention by the state, thus the title, the “Bastiat Strategy for Liberty”.
Bastiat used this method specifically against economic protectionism, but Libertarians can utilize it in other fights against the state as well. Indeed, the state itself is an organization that is uniquely vulnerable to this sort of attack. The Libertarian views the state as constantly presenting itself as something that it is not. The state presents itself as a good and benevolent organization, but in reality, is nothing more than a mafia gang. It claims itself to be a protector of property rights, but in reality, is by far the greatest violator of property rights in society. This comprised position of the state and the actions it takes is inherently comical, and one that Libertarians should exploit.
What are some practical ways that Libertarians can use humor against the state? One way that has already been in use for quite some time. This is the modern advent of “meme” culture. If you are reading this, I’m sure you are already familiar with the concept of an internet meme, so I’ll spare you a detailed explanation. Nevertheless, Libertarians have been utilizing them a means of spreading a Libertarian message (and mostly just having a good laugh) for as long as memes have been around. Memes are particularly suited for this task as they are easy to share, easy to replicate, and are already a common humor mechanism over the internet. Libertarians have already been utilizing this as a tool, albeit mostly unconsciously, but it should also be utilized purposefully in the fight against state tyranny as well.
Unfortunately for the Libertarian, there are no magic bullets in fighting against the state. The hypothetical button that Murray Rothbard imagined that would abolish the state upon pressing does not actually exist, sad as it may be. Libertarians must consciously fight and strategize in their struggle against state power. The most powerful weapon that the state has is its perceived sense of legitimacy. The people it rules over must believe the state has the right to in order to maintain itself. If that is removed, the state will come crumbling down. Humor has the unique power of de-legitimization, and the state is in a uniquely humorous position. Libertarians have utilized many tools in their struggle with the state, and they would be wise to add humor to their arsenal as well. If it doesn’t work, at least we had a good laugh along the way.