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The Economic Point of View: An Essay in the History of Economic Thought; Kirzner, Israel M.
6 paragraphs found.
Chapter 4

Bastiat is an example of an economist who, stressing the exchange point of view, did see the prime interest of his subject as existing in the exposition of such a system. And it seems likely that at least part of the criticism aimed at his work arises from a misunderstanding of Bastiat's self-assigned scope of investigation. Bastiat is often characterized as a shallow optimist content to bestow lyric praise on the laissez-faire economy. Cairnes attacked Bastiat as unscientific. Bastiat, Cairnes complained, considers it his task as an economist, not only to discuss the phenomena of wealth in a laissez-faire economy, but also to demonstrate that this system is the optimum one. *77 This, Cairnes declares, is to assert that the results of political economy are a foregone conclusion, and if this is the case, then it is not a science at all, because "science has no foregone conclusions." By attempting to justify rather than explain the facts of wealth, Bastiat is departing from the impartiality of science.


Cairnes' insistence on the disinterested character of scientific inquiry in general, and of economics in particular, is a classic statement of a jealously guarded tenet of scientific economics. Bastiat's enthusiasm for the innate harmonies of a free economy did produce passages in his writings that are vulnerable to the type of criticism levelled by Cairnes. Nevertheless, it seems that Bastiat's conception of his subject was sufficiently different from that of Cairnes to exculpate him from at least part of the blame imputed to him in the latter's reproaches. Bastiat was impressed by the comparative smoothness with which the tremendously complicated machinery of economic endeavor succeeded in fulfilling the wants of consumers. His classic passages in the opening chapter of Harmonies économiques,*78 in which he describes how a humble carpenter is served, in exchange for his skilled labor, with commodities brought from the four corners of the earth and how each day the great city of Paris is provided with colossal quantities of food and other articles, have been echoed in subsequent economics textbooks again and again. One would be closing one's eyes to the light, Bastiat observes, if one failed to recognize that all this is the product of a "prodigiously ingenious mechanism." "This mechanism is the object of study of political economy."


Clearly, then, Bastiat felt some justification for assuming beforehand that the system to be studied by political economy was one that worked. After all, it was this successful operation of the system—a success that Bastiat felt to be grounded on observation—that was the object of the study. For Cairnes, who considered economics a dispassionate study of the phenomena of wealth, any predilections towards one system in particular must be unscientific. For Bastiat, what invited explanation was precisely the large degree of efficiency empirically evinced by the system, a phenomenon of which the recognition hardly deserves the suspect position of a "foregone conclusion."


Be this as it may, Bastiat is typical of a fairly numerous group of writers stressing the organization of the economy as the focus of economic attention and seeing the significance of exchange primarily in this connection. Two eminent twentieth-century economists may be cited as examples of the popularity of this view.Hawtrey writes:

...when the perfect cooperation which would be the ideal of reason is denied us, we turn back to...the whole apparatus of human motives, instinctive, habitual, or other. If each member of society can be induced or impelled to do his allotted task by associating it with some motive that appears to him adequate, then he need never know how he is contributing to the real end, and need not even be aware of the end at all. It is this problem of organization that we shall call the Economic Problem. It is in fact the real subject matter of political economy. *79

And Hayek writes:

...the spontaneous interplay of the actions of individuals may organism in which every part performs a necessary function for the continuance of the whole, without any human mind having devised it....The recognition of the existence of this organism is the recognition that there is a subject matter for economics. It is one of the causes of the unique position of economics that the existence of a definite object of its investigation can be realized only after a prolonged study... *80
J. E. Cairnes, "Bastiat," reprinted in his Essays in Political Economy (London, 1873), pp. 312 f.
F. Bastiat, Harmonies économiques (8th ed.; Paris, 1881), pp. 25-28.