Economic Harmonies

Frédéric Bastiat
Bastiat, Frédéric
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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


Wants, Efforts, Satisfactions**4


What a profoundly appalling spectacle France presents! It would be difficult to say whether anarchy has passed from a theory to a fact or from a fact to a theory, but it is certain that it has spread everywhere.


The poor have risen against the rich; the proletariat against the capitalists; agriculture against industry; the country against the city; the provinces against the capital; the native-born against the foreigners.


And now the theorists who seek to build a system out of all this division and conflict step forward. "It is the inevitable result," they say, "of the nature of things, that is, of freedom. Man is possessed of self-love, and this is the cause of all the evil; for, since he is possessed of self-love, he strives for his own well-being and can find it only at the expense of his brothers' misfortune. Let us, then, prevent him from following his impulses; let us stifle liberty; let us change the human heart; let us find another motivating force to replace the one that God gave him; let us invent an artificial society and direct it as it should go!"


When the theorist reaches this point, he sees an endless vista arising to challenge his logic or his imagination. If his mind runs to dialectics and his temperament to melancholy, he devotes himself wholly to the analysis of evil; he dissects it, he puts it in the test tube, he probes it, he goes back to its very beginnings, he follows it forward to its ultimate consequences; and since, in view of our innate imperfection, there is nothing in which evil is not present, there is nothing at which he fails to carp bitterly. He presents only one side of the question when he examines property, the family, capital, industry, competition, freedom, self-interest—the damaging and destructive side. He reduces human biology, so to speak, to a clinical post-mortem. He defies God to reconcile what has been said of His infinite goodness with the existence of evil. He defiles everything, he makes everything distasteful, he denies everything; nevertheless, he does succeed in winning a certain sullen and dangerous following among those classes whose suffering has made them only too vulnerable to despair.


If, on the other hand, our theorist has a heart open to benevolence and a mind that delights in illusions, he takes off for the happy land of dreams. He dreams of Oceanas, Atlantises, Salentes, Spensones, Icarias, Utopias, and Phalansteries;*25 he peoples them with docile, loving, devoted beings who would never impede the dreamer's flights of fancy. He complacently sets himself up in his role of Providence. He arranges, he disposes, he creates men to his own taste. Nothing stops him; no disappointment overtakes him. He is like the Roman preacher who, pretending that his square cap was Rousseau, refuted vigorously the Social Contract and then triumphantly declared that he had reduced his adversary to silence. In just this way the reformer dangles before the eyes of people in misery a seductive picture of ideal bliss well fitted to make them lose their taste for the harsh necessities of real life.


But the utopian is rarely content to stop at these innocent dreams. As soon as he tries to win mankind over to them, he discovers that people do not readily lend themselves to transformation. Men resist; they grow bitter. In order to win them over, he speaks not merely of the good things that they are rejecting; he speaks especially of the evils from which he proposes to deliver them. He cannot paint these too strikingly. He grows accustomed to increasing the intensity of the colors on his palette. He seeks out the evil in present-day society as passionately as another would seek out the good. He sees only suffering, rags, emaciated bodies, starvation, pain, oppression. He is amazed, he is exasperated, by the fact that society is not sufficiently aware of all its misery. He neglects nothing as he tries to make it shake off its apathy, and, after beginning with benevolence, he, too, ends with misanthropy.**5


God forbid that I should question any man's sincerity! But I really cannot understand how those political theorists who see a fundamental antagonism at the foundation of the natural order of society can enjoy a moment's calm and repose. It seems to me that discouragement and despair must be their unhappy lot. For if nature erred in making self-interest the mainspring of human society (and her error is evident as soon as we admit that men's interests are inherently antagonistic), how can they fail to see that the evil is beyond repair? Not being able to go beyond men, for we are men ourselves, where shall we find a fulcrum for our lever with which to change human tendencies? Shall we call upon law and order, the magistrates, the state, the legislator? But to do so is to appeal to men, that is, to beings subject to the common infirmity. Shall we resort to universal suffrage? But this is only giving the freest rein of all to the universal tendency.


Only one recourse, then, remains open to these social planners. They must pass themselves off as the possessors of a special revelation, as prophets, molded from a different clay, drawing their inspiration from a different source from that of the rest of mankind; and this is doubtless the reason that we often see them enveloping their systems and their admonitions in mystical phraseology. But if they are sent from God, let them prove their high calling. In the last analysis, what they desire is supreme authority, the most absolute, despotic power that ever existed. They not only desire to control our actions; they even go so far as to propose to alter the very nature of our feelings. The least that can be asked is that they show their credentials. Do they expect that humanity will take them at their word, especially when they can come to no agreement among themselves?


But, before we examine their blueprints for artificial societies, is there not something we should make sure of, namely: Are they not on the wrong track from the very outset? Is it, indeed, certain that men's interests are inherently antagonistic, that inequality develops inevitably and irremediably in the natural order of human society, under the influence of self-interest, and that God, therefore, was obviously wrong when He told man to pursue his own happiness?


This is what I propose to investigate.


Taking man as God saw fit to make him, capable of anticipating the future and of learning from the past, hence perfectible, given to self-love admittedly, but kindly disposed toward others and invariably quick to respond to their kindly affections, I seek to learn what social order necessarily results from the combination of these elements if their free play is not interfered with.


If we find that the resulting order leads progressively toward the general welfare, improvement and equality; toward the physical, intellectual, and moral leveling of all classes, and that this level is constantly raised; then God's ways will be vindicated. We shall learn to our joy that there are no gaps in the creation, and that the social order, like all the others, bears witness to the existence of the harmonious laws before which Newton bowed in reverence, and which moved the psalmist to cry out: Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei.*26


Rousseau said: "If I were a prince or a lawgiver, I should not waste my time saying what must be done; I should do it, or hold my tongue."*27


I am not a prince, but the confidence of my fellow citizens in me has made me a lawgiver.*28 Perhaps they will tell me that it is time for me to act and not to write.


I ask their pardon. Whether it is the truth itself that urges me on, or whether I am the victim of an illusion, the fact remains that I feel the need of putting together into a single volume ideas for which, to date, I have failed to win acceptance because I have presented them separately, as scattered fragments. It seems to me that I perceive in the interplay of the natural laws of society sublime and reassuring harmonies. What I see, or think I see, must I not try to show to others, in order to rally together around an ideal of peace and brotherhood men whose minds have been misled, whose hearts have become embittered? If, when our beloved ship of state is tossed by the storm, I appear sometimes to withdraw, in order to get my bearings, from the post to which I have been called, the reason is that my feeble hands are unavailing at the helm. And besides, am I betraying my trust when I reflect on the causes of the storm and strive to act accordingly? And who knows whether it would be granted to me to do tomorrow what I should fail to do today?


I shall begin by setting down a few general ideas about economics. Using the works of my predecessors, I shall try to sum up the science of political economy in a single, simple, true, and constructive principle, one that political economists from the very beginning have been dimly aware of and have come closer and closer to comprehending. Perhaps the time has now come to give it expression in a definitive formula. Then, in the light of this clear knowledge, I shall try to resolve a few of the problems still controversial, such as competition, the role of the machine, foreign trade, luxury, capital, income from investments, etc. I shall point out some of the relationships, or rather, the harmonies, that exist between political economy and the other moral and social sciences, with a glance at the important topics designated by the words "self-interest," "property," "public ownership," "liberty," "equality," "responsibility," "solidarity," "brotherhood," "unity." Finally, I shall call the reader's attention to the artificial obstacles that beset the peaceful, orderly, and progressive development of human society. From these two ideas—natural, harmonious laws, on the one hand, and artificial, disruptive elements on the other—will be deduced the solution of the social problem.


It would be difficult to fail to see the pitfalls that threaten this undertaking from two sides. In the midst of the hurricane that is sweeping us along, if our book is too abstruse, it will not be read; if it succeeds in winning readers, it will be because the questions it poses have been touched upon only lightly. How can we reconcile scientific integrity with the demands of the reader? To satisfy all the requirements of form and content, we should have to weigh each word and study its context. It is thus that the crystal is formed drop by drop in silence and obscurity. Silence, retirement, time, peace of mind—I have none of these: and I am compelled to appeal to the good sense of the public and to beg its indulgence.


The subject of political economy is man.


But it does not embrace the whole man. Religious sentiment, paternal and maternal affection, filial devotion, love, friendship, patriotism, charity, politeness—these belong to the moral realm, which embraces all the appealing regions of human sympathy, leaving for the sister science of political economy only the cold domain of self-interest. This fact is unfairly forgotten when we reproach political economy with lacking the charm and grace of moral philosophy. How could it be otherwise? Let us challenge the right of political economy to exist as a science, but let us not force it to pretend to be what it is not. If human transactions whose object is wealth are vast enough and complicated enough to constitute a special science, let us grant it its own special appeal, and not reduce it to talking of self-interest in the language of sentiment. I am personally convinced that recently we have done it no service by demanding from it a tone of enthusiastic sentimentality that from its lips can sound only like hollow declamation. What does it deal with? With transactions carried on between people who do not know each other, who owe each other nothing beyond simple justice, who are defending and seeking to advance their own self-interest. It deals with claims that are restricted and limited by other claims, where self-sacrifice and unselfish dedication have no place. Take up the poet's lyre, then, to speak of these things. I would as soon see Lamartine*29 consult a table of logarithms to sing his odes.**6


This is not to say that political economy does not have its own special poetry. Whenever there is order and harmony, there is poetry. But it is to be found in the results, not in the demonstrations. It is revealed; it is not created by the demonstrator. Kepler did not set himself up as a poet; yet certainly the laws he discovered are the true poetry of the mind.


Thus, political economy regards man from one side only, and our first concern must be to study him from this point of view. For this reason we cannot avoid going back to the primary phenomena of human sensation and activity. Let me reassure the reader, however. Our stay in the cloudy regions of metaphysics will not be a long one, and we shall borrow from this science only a few simple, clear, and, if possible, incontestable ideas.


The soul (or, not to become involved in spiritual questions, man) is endowed with the faculty of sense perception. Whether sense perception resides in the body or in the soul, the fact remains that as a passive being he experiences sensations that are painful or pleasurable. As an active being he strives to banish the former and multiply the latter. The result, which affects him again as a passive being, can be called satisfaction.


From the general idea of sensation come the more definite ideas of pain, wants, desires, tastes, appetites, on the one hand; and, on the other, of pleasure, enjoyment, fulfillment, and well-being.


Between these extremes is interposed a mean, and from the general idea of activity come the more definite ideas of pain, effort, fatigue, labor, and production.


An analysis of sensation and activity shows one word common to both domains, the word pain. It is painful to experience certain sensations, and we can stop them only by an effort that we call taking pains. Thus, we are apprised that here below we have little else than the choice of two evils.


Everything in this complex of phenomena is on the personal level, the sensation that precedes the effort as well as the satisfaction that follows it.


We cannot doubt that self-interest is the mainspring of human nature. It must be clearly understood that this word is used here to designate a universal, incontestable fact, resulting from the nature of man, and not an adverse judgment, as would be the word selfishness. The moral sciences would be impossible if we perverted at the outset the terms that the subject demands.


Human effort does not always and inevitably intervene between sensation and satisfaction. Sometimes satisfaction is obtained by itself. More often effort is exerted on material objects, through the agency of forces that Nature has without cost placed at man's disposal.


If we give the name of utility to everything that effects the satisfaction of wants, then there are two kinds of utility. One kind is given us by Providence without cost to ourselves; the other kind insists, so to speak, on being purchased through effort.


Thus, the complete cycle embraces, or can embrace, these four ideas:

Want brace bracket Gratuitous Utility
Onerous Utility
brace bracket Satisfaction


Man is endowed with a faculty for improvement. He compares, he looks ahead, he learns, he profits by experience. If want is a pain, and effort too entails pains, there is no reason for him not to seek to reduce the pains of the effort if he can do so without impairing the satisfaction that is its goal. This is what he accomplishes when he succeeds in replacing onerous utility by gratuitous utility, which is the constant object of his search.


Our self-interest is such that we constantly seek to increase the sum of our satisfactions in relation to our efforts; and our intelligence is such—in the cases where our attempt is successful—that we reach our goal through increasing the amount of gratuitous utility in relation to onerous utility.


Every time progress of this type is achieved, a part of our efforts is freed to be placed on the available list, so to speak; and we have the option either of enjoying more rest or of working for the satisfaction of new desires if these are keen enough to stir us to action.


Such is the source of all progress in the economic order. It is also, as we easily comprehend, the source of all miscalculations, for progress and miscalculation both have their roots in that marvelous and special gift that God has bestowed upon man: free will.


We are endowed with the faculty of comparing, of judging, of choosing, and of acting accordingly. This implies that we can arrive at a good or a bad judgment, make a good or a bad choice—a fact that it is never idle to remind men of when we speak to them of liberty.


We are not, to be sure, mistaken about our own sensations, and we discern with an infallible instinct whether they are painful or pleasurable. But how many different forms our errors of judgment can take! We can mistake the cause and pursue eagerly, as something sure to give us pleasure, what can give us only pain; or we can fail to see the relation of cause and effect and be unaware that an immediate pleasure will be followed ultimately by greater pain; or again, we can be mistaken as to the relative importance of our wants and our desires.


We can give a wrong direction to our efforts not only through ignorance, but also through the perversity of our will. "Man," said de Bonald,*30 is an intellect served by bodily organs." Indeed! Do we have nothing else? Do we not have passions?


When we speak, then, of harmony, we do not mean that the natural arrangement of the social world is such that error and vice have been excluded. To advance such a thesis in the face of the facts would be carrying the love of system to the point of madness. For this harmony to be without any discordant note, man would have to be without free will, or else infallible. We say only this: Man's principal social tendencies are harmonious in that, as every error leads to disillusionment and every vice to punishment, the discords tend constantly to disappear.


A first and vague notion of the nature of property can be deduced from these premises. Since it is the individual who experiences the sensation, the desire, the want; since it is the individual who exerts the effort; the satisfactions also must have their end in him, for otherwise the effort would be meaningless.


The same holds true of inheritance. No theory, no flights of oratory can succeed in keeping fathers from loving their children. The people who delight in setting up imaginary societies may consider this regrettable, but it is a fact. A father will expend as much effort, perhaps more, for his children's satisfactions as for his own. If, then, a new law contrary to Nature should forbid the bequest of private property, it would not only in itself do violence to the rights of private property, but it would also prevent the creation of new private property by paralyzing a full half of human effort.


Self-interest, private property, inheritance—we shall have occasion to come back to these topics. Let us first, however, try to establish the limits of the science with which we are concerned.


I am not one of those who believe that a science has inherently its own natural and immutable boundaries. In the realm of ideas, as in the realm of material objects, everything is linked together, everything is connected; all truths merge into one another, and every science, to be complete, must embrace all others. It has been well said that for an infinite intelligence there would be only one single truth. It is only our human frailty, therefore, that reduces us to study a certain order of phenomena as though isolated, and the resulting classifications cannot avoid a certain arbitrariness.


The true merit consists in the exact exposition of the facts, their causes and their effects. There is also merit, but a purely minor and relative one, in determining, not rigorously, which is impossible, but rationally, the type of facts to be considered.


I say this so that it may not be supposed that I wish to criticize my predecessors if I happen to give to political economy somewhat different limits from those that they have assigned to it.


In recent years economists have frequently been reproached for too great a preoccupation with the question of wealth. It has been felt that they should have included as part of political economy everything that contributes, directly or indirectly, to human happiness or suffering; and it has even been alleged that they denied the existence of everything that they did not discuss, for example, the manifestations of altruism, as natural to the heart of man as self-interest. This is like accusing the mineralogist of denying the existence of the animal kingdom. Is not wealth—i.e., the laws of its production, distribution, and consumption—sufficiently vast and important a subject to constitute a special field of science? If the conclusions of the economist were in contradiction to those in the fields of government or ethics, I could understand the accusation. We could say to him, "By limiting yourself, you have lost your way, for it is not possible for two truths to be in conflict." Perhaps one result of the work that I am submitting to the public may be that the science of wealth will be seen to be in perfect harmony with all the other sciences.


Of the three terms that encompass the human condition—sensation, effort, satisfaction—the first and the last are always, and inevitably, merged in the same individual. It is impossible to think of them as separated. We can conceive of a sensation that is not satisfied, a want that is not fulfilled, but never can we conceive of a want felt by one man and its satisfaction experienced by another.


If the same held true of the middle term, effort, man would be a completely solitary creature. The economic phenomenon would occur in its entirety within an isolated individual. There could be a juxtaposition of persons; there could not be a society. There could be a personal economy; there could not be a political economy.


But such is not the case. It is quite possible, and indeed it frequently happens, that one person's want owes its satisfaction to another person's effort. The fact is that if we think of all the satisfactions that come to us, we shall all recognize that we derive most of them from efforts we have not made; and likewise, that the labor that we perform, each in our own calling, almost always goes to satisfy desires that are not ours.


Thus, we realize that it is not in wants or in satisfactions, which are essentially personal and intransmissible phenomena, but in the nature of the middle term, human effort, that we must seek the social principle, the origin of political economy. It is, in fact, precisely this faculty of working for one another, which is given to mankind and only to mankind, this transfer of efforts, this exchange of services, with all the infinitely complicated combinations of which it is susceptible in time and space, that constitutes the science of economics, demonstrates its origins, and determines its limits.


I therefore say: Political economy has as its special field all those efforts of men that are capable of satisfying, subject to services in return, the wants of persons other than the one making the effort, and, consequently, those wants and satisfactions that are related to efforts of this kind.


Thus, to cite an example, the act of breathing, although containing the three elements that make up the economic phenomenon, does not belong to the science of economics, and the reason is apparent: we are concerned here with a set of facts in which not only the two extremes—want and satisfaction—are nontransferable (as they always are), but the middle element, effort, as well. We ask no one's help in order to breathe; no giving or receiving is involved. By its very nature it is an individual act and a nonsocial one, which cannot be included in a science that, as its very name implies, deals entirely with interrelations.


But let special circumstances arise that require men to help one another to breathe, as when a workman goes down in a diving bell, or a doctor operates a pulmotor, or the police take steps to purify the air; then we have a want satisfied by a person other than the one experiencing it, we have a service rendered, and breathing itself, at least on the score of assistance and remuneration, comes within the scope of political economy.


It is not necessary that the transaction be actually completed. Provided only a transaction is possible, the labor involved becomes economic in character. The farmer who raises wheat for his own use performs an economic act in that the wheat is exchangeable.


To make an effort in order to satisfy another person's want is to perform a service for him. If a service is stipulated in return, there is an exchange of services; and, since this is the most common situation, political economy may be defined as the theory of exchange.


However keen may be the want of one of the contracting parties, however great the effort of the other, if the exchange is freely made, the two services are of equal value. Value, then, consists in the comparative estimation of reciprocal services, and political economy may also be defined as the theory of value.


I have just defined political economy and marked out the area it covers, without mentioning one essential element: gratuitous utility, or utility without effort.


All authors have commented on the fact that we derive countless satisfactions from this source. They have termed these utilities, such as air, water, sunlight, etc., natural wealth, in contrast to social wealth, and then dismissed them; and, in fact, since they lead to no effort, no exchange, no service, and, being without value, figure in no inventory, it would seem that they should not be included within the scope of political economy.


This exclusion would be logical if gratuitous utility were a fixed, invariable quantity always distinct from onerous utility, that is, utility created by effort; but the two are constantly intermingled and in inverse ratio. Man strives ceaselessly to substitute the one for the other, that is, to obtain, with the help of natural and gratuitous utilities, the same results with less effort. He makes wind, gravity, heat, gas do for him what originally he accomplished only by the strength of his own muscles.


Now, what happens? Although the result is the same, the effort is less. Less effort implies less service, and less service implies less value. All progress, therefore, destroys some degree of value, but how? Not at all by impairing the usefulness of the result, but by substituting gratuitous utility for onerous utility, natural wealth for social wealth. From one point of view, the part of value thus destroyed no longer belongs in the field of political economy, since it does not figure in our inventories; for it can no longer be exchanged, i.e., bought or sold, and humanity enjoys it without effort, almost without being aware of it. It can no longer be counted as relative wealth; it takes its place among the blessings of God. But, on the other hand, political economy would certainly be in error in not taking account of it. To fail to do so would be to lose sight of the essential, the main consideration of all: the final outcome, the useful result; it would be to misunderstand the strongest forces working for sharing in common and equality; it would be to see everything in the social order except the existing harmony. If this book is destined to advance political economy a single step, it will be through keeping constantly before the reader's eyes that part of value which is successively destroyed and then reclaimed in the form of gratuitous utility for all humanity.


I shall here make an observation that will prove how much the various sciences overlap and how close they are to merging into one.


I have just defined service. It is effort on the part of one man, whereas the want and the satisfaction are another's. Sometimes the service is rendered gratis, without payment, without any service exacted in return. It springs from altruism rather than from self-interest. It constitutes a gift and not an exchange. Consequently, it seems to belong, not to political economy (which is the theory of exchange), but to moral philosophy. In fact, acts of this nature are, because of their motivation, moral rather than economic phenomena. Nevertheless, we shall see that, by reason of their results, they pertain to the science with which we are here concerned. On the other hand, services rendered in return for effort, requiring payment, and, for this reason, essentially economic, do not on that account remain, in their results, outside the realm of ethics.


Accordingly, these two fields of knowledge have countless points in common; and, since two truths cannot be contradictory, when the economist views with alarm a phenomenon that the moralist hails as beneficial, we can be sure that one or the other is wrong. Thus do the various sciences hold one another to the path of truth.

Notes for this chapter

[This chapter and the next were inserted in September and December, 1818, in the Journal des économistes.—Editor.]
[Reference to various utopias, classic and contemporary: Oceana, by James Harrington (1656); The New Atlantis (unfinished), by Francis Bacon; Salente (or Salentum), the imaginary site of an imaginary government in Télémaque (1699), by Fénelon (see note to chap. 3, p. 37); Spensone, the Millennium or Happy World, by Thomas Spense (1750-1814); Voyage to Icaria, by Étienne Cabet; Phalanstére (or phalanstery, housing), the model society of Fourier (see note to chap. 1, p. 9).—Translator.]
"Our industrial system, based on irresponsible and unorganized competition, is nothing but a social hell, in which vast numbers of men suffer all the torments and all the agonies of ancient Taenarus; with one difference, however: the victims." (V. Considérant.)
["The heavens declare the glory of God." Psalm XIX.—Translator.]
[The Social Contract, Preamble to Book I.—Translator.]
[Bastiat had just been elected a Deputy to the National Assembly.—Translator.]
[Alphonse Marie Louis de Lamartine (1790-1869), one of the great poets of French romanticism and subsequently a distinguished statesman. First elected Deputy in 1834, he knew his greatest glory at the time of the Revolution of 1848, when he was a prime mover in the establishment of the Second Republic. By his eloquence he calmed the Paris mobs which threatened to destroy it, and became the head of the provisional government. More an idealist than practical politician, however, he soon lost influence and retired to private life in 1851.—Translator.]
[See chap. 2 of the second series of Economic Sophisms.—Editor.]


[Louis Gabriel Ambroise, Vicomte de Bonald (1754-1840), French moraliste and political reactionary, author of various treatises on religious, social, and philosophical questions.—Translator.]

Chapter 3

End of Notes

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