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Progress and Poverty; George, Henry
3 paragraphs found.
Book III, Chapter 3

The attempts to refute these views do not appear to me always successful. For instance, as it illustrates the usual reasoning, take Bastiat's oft-quoted illustration of the plane. One carpenter, James, at the expense of ten days' labor, makes himself a plane, which will last in use for 290 of the 300 working days of the year. William, another carpenter, proposes to borrow the plane for a year, offering to give back at the end of that time, when the plane will be worn out, a new plane equally as good. James objects to lending the plane on these terms, urging that if he merely gets back a plane he will have nothing to compensate him for the loss of the advantage which the use of the plane during the year would give him. William, admitting this, agrees not merely to return a plane, but, in addition, to give James a new plank. The agreement is carried out to mutual satisfaction. The plane is used up during the year, but at the end of the year James receives as good a one, and a plank in addition. He lends the new plane again and again, until finally it passes into the bands of his son, "who still continues to lend it," receiving a plank each time. This plank, which represents interest, is said to be a natural and equitable remuneration, as by giving it in return for the use of the plane, William "obtains the power which exists in the tool to increase the productiveness of labor," and is no worse off than he would have been had he not borrowed the plane; while James obtains no more than he would have had if he had retained and used the plane instead of lending it.


Is interest, then, natural and equitable? There is nothing in this illustration to show it to be. Evidently what Bastiat (and many others) assigns as the basis of interest, "the power which exists in the tool to increase the productiveness of labor," is neither in justice nor in fact the basis of interest. The fallacy which makes Bastiat's illustration pass as conclusive with those who do not stop to analyze it, as we have done, is that with the loan of the plane they associate the transfer of the increased productive power which a plane gives to labor. But this is really not involved. The essential thing which James loaned to William was not the increased power which labor acquires from using planes. To suppose this, we should have to suppose that the making and using of planes was a trade secret or a patent right, when the illustration would become one of monopoly, not of capital. The essential thing which James loaned to William was not the privilege of applying his labor in a more effective way, but the use of the concrete result of ten days' labor. If "the power which exists in tools to increase the productiveness of labor" were the cause of interest, then the rate of interest would increase with the march of invention. This is not so. Nor yet will I be expected to pay more interest if I borrow a fifty-dollar sewing machine than if I borrow fifty dollars' worth of needles; if I borrow a steam engine than if I borrow a pile of bricks of equal value. Capital, like wealth, is interchangeable. It is not one thing; it is anything to that value within the circle of exchange. Nor yet does the improvement of tools add to the reproductive power of capital; it adds to the productive power of labor.


To recur now to Bastiat's illustration. It is evident that if there is any reason why William at the end of the year should return to James more than an equally good plane, it does not spring, as Bastiat has it, from the increased power which the tool gives to labor, for that, as I have shown, is not an element; but it springs from the element of time—the difference of a year between the lending and return of the plane. Now, if the view is confined to the illustration, there is nothing to suggest how this element should operate, for a plane at the end of the year has no greater value than a plane at the beginning. But if we substitute for the plane a calf, it is clearly to be seen that to put James in as good a position as if he had not lent, William at the end of the year must return, not a calf, but a cow. Or, if we suppose that the ten days' labor had been devoted to planting corn, it is evident that James would not have been fully recompensed if at the end of the year he had received simply so much planted corn, for during the year the planted corn would have germinated and grown and multiplied; and so if the plane had been devoted to exchange, it might during the year have been turned over several times, each exchange yielding an increase to James. Now, therefore, as James' labor might have been applied in any of those ways—or what amounts to the same thing, some of the labor devoted to making planes might have been thus transferred—he will not make a plane for William to use for the year unless he gets back more than a plane. And William can afford to give back more than a plane, because the same general average of the advantages of labor applied in different modes will enable him to obtain from his labor an advantage from the element of time. It is this general averaging, or as we may say, "pooling" of advantages, which necessarily takes place where the exigencies of society require the simultaneous carrying on of the different modes of production, which gives to the possession of wealth incapable in itself of increase an advantage similar to that which attaches to wealth used in such a way as to gain from the element of time. And, in the last analysis, the advantage which is given by the lapse of time springs from the generative force of nature and the varying powers of nature and of man.