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
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Relations of Political Economy with Ethics, Politics, Legislation, and Religion**90


Any given phenomenon is always found set between two other phenomena. One of these is its efficient cause, and the other its final cause; and science has not finished with it as long as either of these relations is not clear.


I believe that the human mind usually begins by discovering the final causes, because they concern us more directly. Furthermore, no other kind of knowledge turns us so strongly toward religious ideas, or is as likely to inspire deep within our hearts a lively sense of gratitude for God's inexhaustible bounty.


Habit, it is true, has made us so familiar with a great number of these providential purposes that we enjoy them without thinking about them. We see and we hear, without a thought for the ingenious mechanism of the eye and of the ear; the sun's rays, the drops of dew or rain lavish upon us their practical benefits or their pleasant sensations without eliciting our wonder or our gratitude. This comes about solely because these wonderful phenomena are always with us. For, let even a comparatively insignificant final cause happen to be called to our attention, let the botanist show us why one plant assumes a certain form, why another has a certain color, and at once we sense the ineffable enchantment unfailingly communicated to our hearts by new proofs of God's power and of His goodness and wisdom.


The domain of final causes is therefore, for man's imagination, like an atmosphere filled with religious thoughts.


But, after we have perceived or glimpsed this aspect of the phenomenon, we still must study it from the other side; that is, we must investigate its efficient cause.


Strangely enough, it sometimes happens that, after we have become fully familiar with this cause, we discover that it so inevitably entails the effect which at first had filled us with wonder that we are no longer willing to see in it the character of a final cause, and we say: I was very naive to believe that God had provided for such an arrangement with such a design; I see now that, given the cause that I discovered (and it is inevitable), this arrangement had to follow necessarily, apart from any so-called providential design.


In this way superficial science, with its scalpel and its analyses, sometimes destroys in our soul the religious sentiment that the simple spectacle of Nature had inspired.


This is often seen in the case of the anatomist or the astronomer. What a marvelous thing, says the layman, that, when a foreign body enters our flesh, where its presence would cause serious injury, an inflammation and a secretion of pus occur that tend to expel the object! No, says the anatomist; there is nothing intentional about this expulsion. It is the necessary effect of the suppuration, and the latter in turn is the necessary effect of the presence of a foreign body in our flesh. If you wish, I will explain the mechanism to you, and you can see for yourself that the effect follows the cause, but that the cause has not been arranged intentionally to produce the effect, since it is itself the necessary effect of a previous cause.


How I marvel, says the layman, at God's foresight in preventing rain from falling on the ground in sheets, providing, instead, for it to fall in gentle drops, as if from the gardener's sprinkler! Without this, all vegetation would be impossible. You are wasting your wonder, replies the learned physicist. A cloud is not a sheet of water; it cannot be held suspended in the atmosphere. It is a mass of microscopic vesicules much like soap bubbles. When their density increases, or when they burst under pressure, these billions of tiny drops fall, increasing on the way down from the water vapor that they precipitate, etc. If vegetation is helped by this, it is accidental; but you must not think that God amuses himself by pouring water on you through the nozzle of an immense sprinkler.


What lends a certain plausibility to science when it thus analyzes relations of cause and effect is, we must admit, the fact that through ignorance people very often attribute a phenomenon to a nonexistent final cause that evaporates in the light of reason.


Thus, in the beginning, before there was any knowledge of electricity, primitive peoples, frightened by the roar of thunder, could identify this awesome voice reverberating through the clouds only as a sign of divine wrath. Many an association of this kind has been exploded by the progress of the physical sciences.


This is the way man is constituted. When a phenomenon affects him, he seeks its cause, and, when he finds it, he gives it a name. Then he sets about finding the cause of this cause, and so on, until, being unable to go any farther, he stops and says: This is God; this is the will of God. Here is our ultima ratio.*138 Yet man pauses only momentarily. Science advances, and soon the second, third, or fourth cause that had remained hidden is exposed to his view. Then the scientist says: This effect was not due, as people believed, to the immediate will of God, but to this natural cause that I have just discovered. And mankind takes possession of this discovery, and then, content with having moved back by one notch, so to speak, the line where its faith begins, asks itself: What is the cause of this cause? And, not discovering it, man persists in the tried and true explanation: It is the will of God. And so on for unnumbered centuries, in an endless progression of scientific revelations and acts of faith.


This onward march of mankind must seem to superficial minds to be destructive of every religious idea; for is its result not that, as science advances, God retreats? And do we not clearly perceive that the domain of final causes grows smaller as the domain of natural causes grows larger?


Unhappy are those who give so narrow a solution to this fine problem. No, it is not true that, as science advances, the idea of God is pushed back. Quite the contrary; the truth is that this idea grows, broadens, and is exalted in our minds. When we discover a natural cause where we thought we had seen an immediate, spontaneous, supernatural act of the divine will, does this mean that that will is absent or indifferent? By no means. All it proves is that the processes involved are different from those we had imagined; that the phenomenon that we had looked upon as an accident in creation has its own special place in the universal order of things; and that everything, down to the most particular effects, has been foreseen from all eternity by the divine mind. Now, in what way is the idea that we form of the power of God diminished when we come to see that every one of the countless results that we discern or fail to discern in our investigations not only has its own natural cause, but is also connected with an infinite series of causes; so that there is not even the slightest movement, force, form, or life that is not a product of the whole and that can be accounted for apart from the whole?


Now, why this dissertation, so foreign, it would seem, to the object of our investigation? The reason is that the phenomena of political economy also have their efficient cause and their providential purpose; that in this body of concepts, as in physics, anatomy, or astronomy, the final cause has often been denied precisely because the efficient cause appeared to operate with the force of absolute necessity.


The social world is rich in harmonies that we do not fully perceive until our minds have gone back to their causes, in order to find their explanation, and have then gone forward to their effects, in order to know the ultimate purpose of the phenomena they exhibit.....

Notes for this chapter

[The author unfortunately left no material on the four chapters indicated here, and which he had included in the plan of his work, except the introduction to the last one.—Editor.]


[Our "final reason."—Translator.]


End of Notes

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