Economic Harmonies

Frédéric Bastiat
Bastiat, Frédéric
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
George B. de Huszar, trans. and W. Hayden Boyers, ed.
First Pub. Date
Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
Pub. Date
Introduction by Dean Russell
18 of 34

Conclusion to the Original Edition


In the first part of this work—alas, all too hastily written!—I have tried to fix the reader's attention on the line of demarcation, always shifting, but always distinct, that separates the two regions of the economic world: Nature's collaboration and man's labor, the liberality of God and the handiwork of man, what is gratuitous and what is onerous, what is paid for in exchange and what is donated without charge, total utility and the partial and supplementary utility that constitutes value, absolute wealth and relative wealth, the contribution of chemical or mechanical forces brought to the aid of production by the instruments that render them serviceable and the just returns due the labor that has created these instruments, common wealth and private property.


It was not enough to point out these two orders of phenomena, so fundamentally different in nature; it was also necessary to describe their relations, and, if I may so express it, their harmonious evolution. I have tried to explain how it was the function of private property to seize hold of utility for the human race, to transfer it to the communal domain, and then to fly away to new conquests, so that each given effort (and, consequently, the sum total of all efforts) constantly renders available to mankind an increasing number of satisfactions. Progress consists in the fact that human services, when exchanged, while keeping their relative value, act as a vehicle to convey a larger and larger proportion of utility which is free of charge, and therefore common to all. Thus, the possessors of value, of any kind whatsoever, far from usurping and monopolizing God's gifts, actually multiply them, but do not on that account make them any the less gratuitous to all—which was the intent of Providence.


In proportion as satisfactions (for which progress makes Nature foot the bill) fall, by reason of that very fact, within the communal domain, they become equal, since inequality can be conceived only in the realm of men's services, which are compared, appraised, and evaluated for exchange. Hence, it follows that equality is necessarily progressive. It is also progressive in another respect, for the inevitable result of competition is to equalize services themselves and to make their rewards correspond more and more closely with their true worth.


Let us now glance over the ground remaining for us to cover.


In the light of the theory that we have set forth in this volume, we still have to examine more closely the following subjects:


Man's relations, both as producer and as consumer, with economic phenomena.


The law of rent on landed property.


The law of wages.


The law of credit.


The law of taxation, which, introducing us to what is, strictly speaking, the subject of government, will lead us to the comparison of private and voluntary services with public and compulsory services.


The law of population.


We shall then be in a position to solve a number of practical problems that are still subjects of controversy: free trade, automation, luxury, leisure, association, organization of labor, etc.


Anticipating our findings in this study, I do not hesitate to say that they may be expressed in the following terms: A steady approach by all men toward a continually rising standard of living—in other words: improvement and equalization—in a single word: HARMONY.


Such is the final result of the providential plan, of the great laws of Nature, when they act without impediment, when we consider them in themselves, apart from the disturbance to which their action has been subjected by error and violence. At the sight of this harmony the economist may well cry out, as does the astronomer on beholding the movement of the planets, or the physiologist when he contemplates the structure of our human organs: Digitus Dei est hic!*94


But man is a free agent, and consequently fallible. He is subject to ignorance and passion. His will, which can err, enters as an element into the workings of economic laws; he can misunderstand them, he can nullify them, he can divert them from their purpose. Just as the physiologist, after admiring the infinite wisdom that has gone into the creation and arrangement of each one of our organs and vital parts, also studies them in their abnormal state, when they are sickly and diseased; so we too shall have to enter a new world, the world of social disturbances.


We shall introduce this new study with a few observations on man himself. It would be impossible for us to evaluate the ills of society, their origin, their effects, their function, the ever narrowing limits within which their own action compresses them (a phenomenon that constitutes what I would almost dare to call a harmonious discord), if we did not examine the necessary consequences of free will, the aberrations due to self-interest, which always entail retribution, and the great laws of human responsibility and solidarity.


We have seen that all the social harmonies are contained in germ in these two principles: PROPERTY and LIBERTY. We shall see that all the social discords are merely the extension of these two contrary principles: PLUNDER and OPPRESSION.


And, indeed, the words "property" and "liberty" merely express two aspects of the same fundamental notion. From the economic point of view, liberty is connected with the act of production, property with the thing produced. And, since value has its origin in human activity, we can say that liberty implies and includes property. The same holds true of oppresson as related to plunder.


Liberty! Therein, in the last analysis, lies the source of harmony. Oppression! Therein lies the source of discord. The struggle between these two forces fills the annals of history.


And since oppression has as its aim the unjust seizure of property, since it is transformed into and merges its identity with plunder, it is plunder that I shall show in action.


Man comes into this world bound to the yoke of want, which is pain.


He can escape only by subjecting himself to the yoke of toil, which is also pain.


He has, then, only a choice between two kinds of pain, and he hates pain.


For this reason he looks about him, and if he sees that his fellow man has accumulated wealth, he conceives the idea of making it his own. Hence, property unjustly acquired, or plunder!


Plunder! Here is a new element in the economy of society.


From the day when plunder first appeared on earth, until that day, if it ever comes, when plunder will have completely disappeared, this element has had and will have a profound effect on the entire social mechanism; it will disturb, to the point of making them unrecognizable, the operation of the harmonious laws that we have worked to discover and describe.


Our task, then, will not be done until we have given a complete account of plunder.


Perhaps it will be thought that it is only an accidental, abnormal phenomenon, a sore that will soon heal, unworthy of scientific investigation.


But let us beware. Plunder occupies, in the traditions of families, in the history of nations, in the occupations of individuals, in the physical and intellectual energies of all classes, in the arrangements of society, in the precautions of governments, almost as important a place as property itself.


No, plunder is not a passing scourge, accidentally affecting the social mechanism, and the science of economics may not exclude it from consideration.


In the beginning this sentence was pronounced on man: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread. Hence, it appears that effort and satisfaction are indissolubly joined, and that the one can never exist unless paid for by the other. Yet everywhere we see man revolting against this law, and saying to his brother: Yours be the toil; mine, the fruit of that toil.


Enter the hut of the savage hunter or the tent of the nomadic shepherd. What sight meets your eyes? The wife, thin, disfigured, terrified, faded before her time, bears all the burden of the household chores, while the husband lolls in idleness. What idea can we form here of family harmony? It has disappeared, because force has laid upon the defenceless the burden of toil. And how many centuries of civilization will it take before woman will be raised from this frightful degradation?


Plunder, in its most brutal form, brandishing torch and sword, fills the annals of history. What are the names that make up history? Cyrus, Sesostris,*95 Alexander, Scipio, Caesar, Attila, Tamerlane, Mohammed, Pizarro, William the Conqueror—outright plunder by means of conquest. To it go the laurel wreaths, the monuments, the statues, the triumphal arches, the songs of the poets, the heady admiration of women!


Soon the conqueror thinks of a better way of dealing with the conquered than to kill them, and slavery covers the earth. Almost down to our own day, all over the world, it was the accepted way of life, leaving in its wake hatred, resistance, civil strife, and revolution. And what is slavery except organized oppression with plunder as its object?


If plunder arms the strong against the weak, it no less lets loose the intelligent upon the credulous. What industrious peoples are there on earth who have escaped exploitation at the hand of sacerdotal theocracies, Egyptian priests, Greek oracles, Roman augurs, Gallic druids, brahmins, muftis, ulemas,*96 bonzes, monks, ministers, mountebanks, sorcerers, soothsayers, plunderers of all garbs and denominations? It is the genius of plunderers of this ilk to place their fulcrum in heaven and to glory in a sacrilegious complicity with God! They put in chains, not men's bodies alone, but their minds as well. They put the brand of servitude as much upon the conscience of a Seid*97 as upon the brow of a Spartacus, thus achieving what would seem to be impossible: the enslavement of the mind.


Enslavement of the mind! What a frightful association of words! O liberty! We have seen thee hunted from country to country, crushed by conquest, nigh unto death in servitude, jeered at in the courts of the mighty, driven from the schools, mocked in the drawing room, misinterpreted in the studio, anathematized in the temple. It would seem that in thought thou shouldst find an inviolable refuge. But if thou shouldst surrender in this last haven, what becomes of the hope of the ages and of the dignity of man?


Yet in the long run (so man's forward-looking nature wills it) plunder generates, in the very places where it holds sway, opposition that paralyzes its power, and knowledge that unmasks its impostures. It does not yield on that account, however; it merely becomes more cunning, and wrapping itself in forms of government and alignments, playing one faction against another, turns to political scheming, so long a fertile source of illicit power. Then we see plunder usurping the citizens' liberty in order the more readily to exploit their wealth, and draining off their substance the better to conquer their liberty. Private enterprise becomes public enterprise. Everything is done by government functionaries; a stupid and vexatious bureaucracy swarms over the land. The public treasury becomes a vast reservoir into which those who work pour their earnings, so that the henchmen of the government may tap them as they will. Transactions are no longer regulated by free bargaining, and nothing can establish or preserve the principle of service for service.


In this state of things the true notion of property is effaced, and every man appeals to the law to give his services an artificial and arbitrary value.


Thus, we enter the era of privilege. Plunder, becoming more and more subtle, establishes itself in monopolies and hides behind restrictions; it diverts the natural course of exchange and forces capital, and after it, labor and the whole population, into artificial channels. It produces laboriously in the north what could be produced easily in the south; it creates precarious industries and livelihoods; it substitutes for the gratuitous forces of Nature the onerous drudgery of human labor; it supports business concerns that cannot survive against competition, and then invokes the use of force against their competitors; it arouses international jealousies, encourages nationalistic sentiments, and invents ingenious theories that make allies of its own dupes; it always has impending industrial panics and bankruptcies; it undermines in the minds of the citizens all confidence in the future, all faith in liberty, and even their sense of justice. And then, when science exposes these misdeeds, Plunder stirs up even its victims against science, with the battle cry: Onward to utopia! Indeed, it repudiates not only the science that stands in its way, but even the idea that science can be applied to these areas, declaring with crowning cynicism: There are no absolute principles!


Nevertheless, spurred on by their suffering, the working-class masses revolt and topple over everything above them. Government, taxation, legislation, everything is at their mercy, and you believe perhaps that Plunder's reign is at an end; you believe that the principle of service for service will be established on the only foundation possible or imaginable, that of liberty. Undeceive yourself. Alas! This pernicious idea has infiltrated the masses: property has no origin, sanction, legitimacy, or justification other than the law, and thereupon the masses institute legislation to plunder one another. Suffering from the wounds inflicted upon them, they undertake to heal everyone of their number by giving to each the right to oppress his neighbor. This is called solidarity, brotherhood: "You have produced; I have not; we are comrades; let us share." "You own something; I own nothing; we are brothers; let us share."


We must therefore examine the abuses perpetrated in recent years in the name of "association," "organization of labor," "interest-free credit," etc. We shall have to subject them to this acid test: Are they in harmony with the principle of liberty or of oppression? In other words: Are they in conformity with the great economic laws, or do they constitute a disturbance of their operation?*98


Plunder is too universal, too persistent, to be considered a purely accidental phenomenon. In this case, as in so many others, it is impossible to separate the study of natural laws from the study of the things that disturb their operation.


But, it will be said, if plunder necessarily enters into the workings of the social mechanism as a discord, how do you dare affirm the harmony of economic laws?


I shall repeat here what I have said elsewhere: In everything that concerns man, a being who is perfectible only because he is imperfect, harmony does not consist in the complete absence of evil, but in its gradual reduction. The social body, like the physical body, is possessed of a curative force, vis medicatrix, whose laws and unfailing power cannot be studied without again eliciting the words: Digitus Dei est hic.**42

Notes for this chapter

["The hand (literally, the finger) of God is here."—Translator.]
[Mythical king of Egypt, often confused with Rameses and other pharaohs of his dynasty.—Translator.]
[A body composed of the hierarchy of the Moslems.—Translator.]
[The slave of Mohammed, the first person to accept Mohammed's declaration that he was the special Prophet of Allah. Voltaire uses Seid (Gallicized to Séïde) as the symbol of blind fanatical devotion in his tragedy, Mahomet, ou le fanatisme.—Translator.]
[Bastiat here refers to the ill-fated projects like the national workshops, interest-free credit, and the unemployment compensation laws set up by the socialists after the 1848 Revolution. Designed to aid the industrial workers, their costs were met by increased taxation, which fell heavily upon the rest of the nation, particularly the peasants.—Translator.]

Chapter 11

[Here ends the original edition of Economic Harmonies. We reproduce here the list of chapters, found in the author's handwriting, intended to complete the book. It indicates the writings he had planned and also the order that we have followed for the chapters, fragments, and outlines that were entrusted to us. The asterisks indicate subjects on which we have found no material.—Editor.]

Normal Phenomena

    1. Producer and Consumer
    2. The Two Mottoes
    3. Theory of Rent
    4. Money*
    5. Credit*
    6. Wages
    7. Saving
    8. Population
    9. Private and Public Services
    10. Taxation*


    11. Machinery*
    12. Free Trade*
    13. Middlemen*
    14. Raw Materials and Finished Goods*
    15. Luxury*

Disturbing Factors

    16. Plunder
    17. War
    18. Slavery*
    19. Theocracy*
    20. Monopoly*
    21. Government Exploitation*
    22. False Brotherhood or Communism*

General Observations

    23. Responsibility and Solidarity
    24. Self-Interest or Social Motivation
    25. Perfectibility
    26. Public Opinion*
    27. Relation between Political Economy and Ethics*
    28. Relation between Political Economy and Politics*
    29. Relation between Political Economy and Legislation*
    30. Relation between Political Economy and Religion*


End of Notes

18 of 34

Return to top