Thursday, August 26, 2010

Inconvenient Classical Liberals - Bastiat on Labor Unions

From Selected Essays on Political Economy

"Fellow Representatives:

11.2 I am here to support the amendment of my honorable friend, M. Morin; I cannot support it without also examining the proposal of the committee. It is impossible to discuss the amendment of M. Morin without entering involuntarily, so to speak, into the general discussion; this requires us to discuss the committee's conclusions as well.

11.3 In fact, M. Morin's amendment is more than a mere modification of the principal proposition; he is opposing one system to another system, and, to decide between them, we must compare them carefully.

11.4 Citizens, I do not bring into this discussion any partisan spirit or any class prejudice. I shall not seek to play upon your emotions, but the Assembly sees that my lungs*128 cannot struggle against parliamentary tumults; I need its kindest attention.

11.5 To evaluate the committee's system, let me recall some words of its honorable reporter, M. de Vatimesnil. He said: "There is a general principle in Article 44 and those that follow it in the Penal Code; namely: Combination, whether between employers or between workers, constitutes an offense only when an attempt or a beginning has been made to put it into effect." This is written into the law, and it is this that gave rise to an immediate response to an observation concerning it made by the honorable M. Morin. He said to you: "The workers, then, cannot join together, cannot come to their employer and honorably discuss their wages with him!" (That is the expression he used: "honorably discuss with him.")

11.6 "Pardon me; they can join together," interjects M. Vatimesnil; "they can decidedly do so, either by all coming to the employer together or by naming committees to come; the offense, according to the terms of the Code, begins only when an attempt or a beginning has been made to effect a combination, that is, when, after having discussed the conditions, and despite the spirit of conciliation that the employers in their own interest always bring to this kind of thing, the workers say to them: 'Since you will not give all that we ask of you, we are going to quit, and, by using our influence, by exerting pressures that are well known and that depend upon our identity of interests and our comradeship, we are going to get all the other workers in other shops to go on strike.' "

11.7 After reading this, I ask myself what the offense consists in; for in this Assembly there cannot be, it seems to me, what is called a systematic majority or minority on such a question. We all wish to repress offenses; we all aim at not introducing fictitious, imaginary offenses into the Penal Code, just to have the pleasure of punishing them.

11.8 I ask myself what the offense consists in. Is it in the combination, in the strike, or in the pressure to which allusion has been made? It is said: "It is the combination itself that constitutes the offense." I cannot accept this doctrine, because the word combination is synonymous with association; it has the same etymology and the same meaning. Combination in itself, aside from the end it aims at and the means it employs, cannot be considered as an offense, and the honorable reporter feels that himself; for, replying to M. Morin, who asked whether the workers could discuss wages with their employers, the honorable M. de Vatimesnil said: "They certainly can; they can come separately or all together to name committees." Now, to name committees, they must certainly come to an understanding, plan together, associate; they must form a combination. Strictly speaking, then, it is not in the mere fact of combination that the offense consists.

11.9 Nevertheless, some would like to make this the offense, and they say: "A beginning has to be made in effecting a combination." But can the fact of beginning to put an innocent action into effect render that action culpable? I do not believe so. If an action is bad in itself, certainly the law cannot deal with it until it has been begun. Indeed, I say that it is the beginning of the action that brings the action into existence. Your language, on the contrary, is tantamount to saying that a look is an offense, but it does not become an offense until one begins to look. M. de Vatimesnil himself recognizes that it is not possible to seek for the thought behind a culpable action. Now, when the action is in itself innocent and is manifested by innocent deeds, it is evident that it is not incriminating and cannot change its nature.

11.10 Now, what is to be understood by the words "beginning to effect a combination"?

11.11 A combination can occur, can begin to be put into effect, in a thousand different ways. But no, the concern is not with these thousand different ways, but with the strike. In that case, if it is the strike that is necessarily the beginning of the combination, then say that the strike is in itself an offense, punish the strike, and say that the strike will be punished, that whoever refuses to work at wage rates that he does not accept will be punished. Then your law will be honest.

11.12 But is there any conscience that can admit that the strike is an offense in itself, independently of the means employed? Does a man not have the right to refuse to sell his labor at a rate that does not suit him?

11.13 The reply to me will be: "All this may be true when only a single individual is involved, but it is not true when men have associated together for this purpose."

11.14 But, gentlemen, an action that is innocent in itself is not criminal because it is multiplied by a certain number of men. When an action is bad in itself, I admit that if that action is performed by a certain number of individuals, one may say that it is aggravated; but when it is innocent in itself, it cannot become criminal because it is the deed of a great number of individuals. I do not understand, then, how one can say that a strike is criminal. If one man has the right to say to another: "I don't want to work under such and such conditions," two or three thousand men have the same right; they have the right to quit. This is a natural right, which should also be a legal right.

11.15 However, my opponents need to impose a stigma of criminality on the strike. And how do they go about it? They slip between parentheses these words: "Since you will not give us what we ask of you, we are going to quit; we are going, by exerting pressures that are well known and that depend upon our identity of interests and our comradeship...."

11.16 This, then, is the offense: the well-known pressures—violence and intimidation. This is the offense; this is what you ought to punish. And, in fact, that is precisely what the amendment of the honorable M. Morin does. How can you refuse him your support?"

No comments: