Bastiat: Patron Saint of Signal Light Bums

The wisdom of Frederic Bastiat continues to open new doors for me. His fantastic essay 'The State' penetrates to the core of the rot that hangs over all of us like a weighted fisherman's net: 'The State is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.' This sad axiom is the master link of the chain that binds humanity: everyone wants to ride, but precious few are willing to pay. Give me what I want on your dime! Sadly, theft is the guiding principle of the lives of the bulk of modern humanity.

Well, in an unanticipated way, Bastiat's words helped resolve a difficult personal issue for me--one of how am I supposed to handle the increasing glut of signal light bums? They stake out the busy intersections of my drives with their 'Homeless, Please Help' and 'Will Work for Food' signs. I feel certain Jesus wouldn't ignore them and expects no less of us who claim to follow him. I, on the other hand, have been barely able to contain my anger and disgust when I'm accosted by an able-bodied man begging for spare change. To me, a failure to find compassion and act on behalf of these bums was a failure to be a Christian, and it's been a test I've been steadily failing.

My conversion ends with this essay. It began some years ago at my local comic book shop (which now doubles as a freedom bookstore!) The customers are literate, and there you could get into some robust debates on topics both trivial and important. Then--during the Clinton regime--I was trying to get as many people as I could riled up about the sanctions the Iraqi people were suffering under to motivate them to write letters to their congressmen to try and stop them. But my strident appeals to reason had no effect that I could see. Unfortunately, most people did not care much about the blockade. So I next deliberately worked up an argument that would appeal to emotion. I drew on the analogy of police surrounding a hi-rise full of people who then proceed to starve the whole building to try and get a small gang of hostage-takers to surrender. I consciously kept my voice soft and non-accusatory. I used every touch-feely PC word I could remember from my freshman Speech 125 class, making direct appeals for mercy and compassion. 'I know you're a caring person,' I pleaded. 'Do you feel in your heart that it's right to starve innocent hostages even when the criminals are going to have plenty to eat?'

'Sure, WE can because WE'RE an empire and that's what WE do!' was the unhesitating retort of one particular jerk on one particular day. He then picked up his comics and headed out of the door. Well, of course he could sacrifice hostages--because it cost him nothing that he could see! Iraqi children and old people would pay the freight for a policy--a stupid and doomed one as events have revealed--that he actually had nothing to do with, but with which he generally approved.

How much is it worth to one person to endeavor to meddle in the lives of people who never harmed or sought to harm him or his? Shouldn't some price be required for an experiment that will kill thousands and wreck the lives and property of countless others? What if there was a physical price? What if you could engage in some experimental murder and destruction (for the greater good, of course) at the price of a little finger? Maybe we could have a ritual like I've seen in movies where Japanese gangsters offer a finger to their overlords to atone for a mistake. Then we could set up a referendum process; say, we get a million fingers in the basket, and we'll suit up and go kick some Serbian, North Korean and Iraqi ass to bring about peace on earth! How many chicken hawks would line up to hack off their pinkies? We'll if the willingness to risk life and limb in that imperial fevered dream called Vietnam is any indication; we already know the answer to that. Most passed on the opportunity to sacrifice even their personal time some 35 years ago. We would have to make certain, though, to stipulate in the law that you could only vote with your own fingers. Otherwise, I'm sure they wouldn't mind sacrificing my fingers whether I wanted them in the basket or not!

But it's not just war I'm talking about. Peter McWilliams dead in his own vomit? Baby Charity Bowers murdered over the skies of Peru by flunkies of the U.S. government? Unfortunate costs, but worth it to Jane Suburbia so she can feel something is being done to protect her kids from the particular drugs that our governors have made illegal. She may even feel sad momentarily if she ever learns what happened to these drug war victims.

Let's look at private property. Let Joe Handyman purchase and renovate a blighted building with his own money, materials, sweat and tools. If he offers the upper flats for rent to the public, but doesn't care for my Black face or the Christian bumper sticker on my car when I come asking, can he refuse to rent to me? He had better not appear to refuse for those reasons--not unless he wants my nanny, the state, to violate a lot more than his prejudices! After all, I've got a right to live in a formerly worthless property that became usable solely through that portion of his life that Joe put into it. It'll be even better if we can get some rent control laws passed after I sign my first lease!

Or look at Mr. and Mrs. Next Town-Over who want to remove their own tree from their own yard. After all, the tree's roots are destroying their driveway and it poses a potential hazard since it blocks their view as they back their car out of it. Well, their temporary spikes in blood pressure from the tricky driveway exit or the cost to redo the asphalt driveway is a small price to Joe Twostreetsover who enjoys the view of the tree on his afternoon walk.

The endless examples of people forcing their neighbors to foot the bill for the things they want certainly puts the intersection bum in a different light. On the 'Force or Fraud' scale, he is fairly clean. Sure, there's a smidgen of deception. Of course, he doesn't really want to 'Work for Food' or use that spare change for the metro bus. But he's not holding me up to pay for fuel air bombs or prescription drugs, either. Thanks to the great Bastiat, I've been able to kiss my anger at these people goodbye. As my fellow citizens and neighbors go, these guys are some of the more considerate and unobtrusive souls. So if I see you waving a sign at me on the corner, you may get a lecture even if I don't have an extra dollar on me, but you'll no longer get my contempt.

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Columns on STR: 27

Bob Jackson is the author of "The Amazing Liberteens."  His libertarian comic book can be viewed online by clicking the SANCTUARY link at