Nowadays, socialism has become synonymous with progress; anybody who craves for any type of change is a socialist.
Complete Works volume I, page 103 (in French)
Letter from early 1850
This letter is not dated but there is a reference to the first volume of the Economic Harmonies, which places it after February 1850. Frédéric Bastiat deplores the very little attention that his economic treaty is meeting in France but rejoices that, in Germany, it is arousing debate. This success abroad combined to disdain in France is still valid nowadays – I would be curious to understand why.
Today’s quote seems to me to be perfectly valid these days for a good reason – I used to think of myself as a socialist before discovering that I was a liberal. It is astonishing to see how this word (socialism) seduces people, in particular young people who get a little bit interested in politics (or public policies). Most people who call themselves socialists consider that it encompasses their own political ideal, which is to improve society and the life of people, without really thinking about the constraints that explain why the situation is what it is despite all our predecessors having ideals as well. As Thomas Sowell noted: “If there is any lesson in the history of ideas, it is that good intentions tell you nothing about the actual consequences.”
In the context, Frédéric Bastiat sees in this a source of optimism. The fact that everybody consider themselves socialists does not mean that everybody is in agreement, which allows for a divided opposition. In France, the scission between socialists and communists at the Congress of Tours in 1920 illustrates well what he meant. That said, if the words “socialist” and “liberal” could have the same meaning for each one of us, it might help in having more enlightened debates.