Public opinion is what creates the law; public opinion needs to be enlightened.
Complete Works, Volume 2, pages 72 to 77 (in French)
March 20th, 1847
In this article, Frédéric Bastiat shows why export restrictions are not desirable, even when there are shortages. The issue is that it seems “natural” that such restrictions would allow to improve the situation (if cereals’ exports are prohibited, “national” production will be available to face the shortages). This is the same type of error that price controls command (the number of governments legislating a price ceiling on rents in order to fight against housing crises are infinite).
What today’s quote reveals is of a more general reach. Governments legislate (via parliament but it is a technical detail) in order to satisfy public opinion. As a consequence, if they are mistaken (which is the case with export restrictions), it is because public opinion is not enlightened. The founding of the Free-Trade Association and its newspaper, Libre-Echange, therefore aimed at reversing public opinion where it was mistaken. The latter has made some real progress but there remains enormous fields, including about free-trade, where this work that is 175 years old desserves to be pursued.
Guillaumin adds a footnote on this quote referring to some developments about this idea on public opinion made by Frédéric Bastiat in his pamphlet Physiology of Plunder. This idea will also be developed later on by Friedrich von Hayek, as mentionned by Pierre Lemieux.