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
34 of 34


A Tentative Preface to the Harmonies**91


My dear Frédéric:


So you have done it: you have left our village. You have said good-bye to the countryside you loved so well, to your father's house within whose walls you enjoyed such complete independence, to your old books which still cannot get used to sleeping in neglect on their dusty shelves, to the garden where on our lengthy strolls we used to talk endlessly de omni re scibili et quibusdam aliis.*139 You have bade farewell to that little plot of ground, the last resting place of so many dear ones with whom we associate our fondest hopes and our tenderest memories. Do you remember how the sight of their cherished graves renewed our faith and quickened our thoughts?*140 But nothing could prevent your departure. You could even bring yourself to leave the good farmers who looked to you not so much because you were their justice of the peace or because of your knowledge of the law, but rather for your native sense of fair play; you could even leave your circle of close friends whose quick repartee, spilling over into two languages, and whose long-standing and intimate affection you held far more precious than fine manners. You have turned a deaf ear upon your double bass—which seemed to have the power to stimulate your mind endlessly to new thoughts. My friendship could not deter you, nor even that complete freedom you enjoyed, the most precious of privileges, in regard to your activities, your hours, your studies. You have left our village, and now you are in Paris, that seething whirlpool where, as Victor Hugo says*141.....


Frédéric, it is our custom to speak to each other with complete candor. Well! I must say that I'm amazed at your decision. I'll go further: I can't approve. You have allowed yourself to be carried away by illusions, I won't say of glory, but at least of public acclaim. Glory, as you well know, and as we have said many a time, can no longer be the portion of any save those endowed with strikingly superior intellectual gifts. It is no longer enough to be able to write with purity, grace, and warmth; ten thousand men in France can write like that. It is not enough to have wit; wit is found on every street corner. Don't you remember, when we would read even the most trivial paperbacks, so often devoid of good sense and logic, but nearly always rich in verve and imagination, that we would say, "Writing well is soon going to be a characteristic of the species, like good posture in walking or sitting." How can anyone dream of glory after seeing what has happened to Benjamin Constant,*142 or Manuel?*143 Who gives them a thought today? What has become of their brilliant reputations, which once seemed destined to live forever?


Would you compare yourself to these great minds? Have you their erudition? Have you their great talent? Have you, like them, spent your life in the most brilliant social circles? Have you the same opportunities of making yourself known or heard? Can you, if need be, call upon the same influential friends? You will say to me perhaps that if you fail to shine by your writings, you will achieve distinction by your deeds. Well, what about the fame of Lafayette? Will you, like him, make your name echo and re-echo throughout the New World as well as the Old and for three quarters of a century? Will your life be lived in times as momentous as his? Will you emerge as a key figure in three revolutions? Will it be your lot to make and unmake kings? Will you be viewed as a martyr at Olmütz and a demigod at the Hôtel de Ville? Will you become commander-in-chief of the National Guard? And even if such a brilliant destiny were in store for you, consider where it leads: to casting before the nations a blameless name to which, in their indifference, they pay no heed; to lavishing upon them noble examples and distinguished services which they are quick to forget.*144


Oh, no! I cannot believe that your head has been so turned by vanity that you would sacrifice your real happiness for a public acclaim which you know full well is not for you, and which in any case would be short-lived indeed. You would never aspire to being "in the papers of the day the big man of the month." Such a course would be going counter to all that you have stood for in the past. If you had been led astray by any such vain glory, you would have bent every effort to winning your election to the Chamber of Deputies. Yet many times, when you were a candidate, I saw how you always refused to stoop to the things that get a man elected. You kept saying, "These days people have some concern for public affairs; they read, and they talk about what they have read. I will use this opportunity, under the pretext of being a candidate, to disseminate a few useful truths." And beyond that you took no serious steps to win your election.


It is, therefore, not due to the promptings of vanity that you have turned your steps toward Paris. But what did induce you to go? Was it a desire to do something for mankind? I have a few remarks to make to you on that score.


Like you I cherish all forms of freedom, and first among them that freedom which is the most universally beneficial to all men, which they enjoy every minute of the day and under all circumstances of their lives—freedom of labor and freedom of exchange. I realize that the right to possess the fruits of one's toil is the keystone of society and even of human life. I realize that exchange is implicit in the idea of property, and that restrictions on exchange shake the foundations of our right to own anything. I approve of your devotion to the defense of this freedom, whose triumph will usher in justice among all nations and consequently will eliminate international hatreds and prejudices and the wars that follow in their train.


But are the arms that you propose to carry into the lists the proper ones with which to win acclaim, if such is your dream, or to gain victory for your cause? What is your concern, your sole concern? A demonstration, a series of calculations, the solution of a single problem, to wit: Does legal coercion add to the profit or the loss column in a nation's ledger? This is the subject to which you have given all the powers of your mind. These are the limits into which you have compressed this great question. Pamphlets, books, monographs, articles, speeches, have all been directed toward isolating this unknown element: Will the nation under freedom have a hundred thousand francs more or a hundred thousand francs less? You apparently are intent on putting under a bushel every light that does not turn its full beam upon this theorem, on stamping out in your heart all those sparks of the sacred fire that the love of mankind has kindled.


Are you not afraid that your mind will wither and shrink through constant exposure to this work of analysis, this never-ending concentration on an algebraic equation?


Remember that we have often said that unless a person proposes to work for progress in only one isolated branch of human knowledge, or, rather, unless nature has given him a cranium distinguished by only one dominant protuberance, it is better, especially if he is like us, merely a scientific amateur, to let his mind travel over the whole realm of intellectual activity than to limit himself to the solution of a single problem. It is better to seek out the connections between the various fields of knowledge and the harmony of the laws that govern the social order than to exhaust one's faculties in the elucidation of a single doubtful point at the risk of losing one's sense of the grandeur and majesty of the whole.


It was for this very reason that our reading was so capricious, and that we were so careful to shake off the yoke of conventional judgments. Sometimes we would read Plato, not to admire him on the authority of the ages, but to reassure ourselves of the utter inferiority of ancient society; and we would say: "Since that is as high as the finest genius of the ancient world could rise, let us take courage; man is perfectible, and our faith in his destiny is not misplaced." Sometimes in our long walks we brought along with us Bacon, Lamartine, Bossuet, Fox,*145 Lamennais, and even Fourier. Political economy was merely one stone in the social edifice that we were seeking to build in our minds, and we would say: "It is fortunate for society that men of genius like Say have patiently and tirelessly applied themselves to observing, classifying, and setting down methodically all the facts that constitute this excellent science. Henceforth the human mind can move forward from this firm base toward new horizons." How we marveled, therefore, at Dunoyer and Comte, who, though never deviating from the strictly scientific lines traced by Say, apply so happily the truths they learned from him to morals and legislation! I will admit that sometimes, as I listened to you, it seemed to me that you too might be able to take this same torch from the hands of your predecessors and turn its light upon some of the dark recesses of the social sciences, and particularly upon those that have recently been plunged into darkness by the dissemination of mad doctrines.


Instead of this, you are totally absorbed in trying to clear up a problem that Smith and Say have already expounded a hundred times better than you could. Here you are, analyzing, defining, making your calculations and your distinctions, and, scalpel in hand, trying to cut through to find out just what, in the last analysis, is the exact meaning of the terms price, value, utility, low cost, high cost, imports, exports.


But finally, setting personal considerations aside, if you do not fear dulling your mind at such a task, do you think that, for the sake of the cause, you have chosen the best course to follow? The peoples of the world are not governed by algebraic x's, but by noble instincts, sentiments, common sympathies. What you needed to give them was a picture of the successive falling away of the barriers that divide men into mutually hostile communities, jealous provinces, warring nations. There was need to show them the fusion of races, interests, tongues, ideas, and to demonstrate how truth triumphs over error as mind meets mind in debate and discussion, how progressive institutions are substituted for the reign of absolute despotism and hereditary castes, how war is abolished, armies are demobilized, moral power replaces brute force, and the human race prepares to meet the high destiny to which it is called. These are the things that would have set the hearts of the masses afire, not your dry demonstrations.


And so, why restrict yourself? Why hold your mind a prisoner? It seems to me that you have subjected it to a monk's regimen, with the unvarying crust of dry bread as your sole diet, for you are constantly gnawing away morning, noon, and night at a mere monetary question. As much as you, I long for commerce to be free. But is all human progress dependent upon this one freedom? In times past your heart quickened at the idea of freedom of thought and speech, still held prisoner by the censor and the laws against free assembly. Your burning desire was for parliamentary reform and for the thoroughgoing separation of the delegating and controlling powers from the executive powers in all these branches. All forms of freedom are interrelated. Together they all constitute a systematic and harmonious whole; there is not one of them that, when proved true, would not help to prove the truth of the others. But you are acting like a mechanic who is taking the utmost pains to explain an isolated piece of machinery down to its most minute detail, omitting nothing. One is tempted to cry out: "Show me the other pieces; make them move together; the action of one is explained by the action of all the others."....

Notes for this chapter

[Bastiat wrote this rough draft of a tentative preface, in the form of a letter addressed to himself, toward the end of 1847.—Editor.]
["Of everything knowable, and a few other things too," a proverbial parody of the pretentious motto of the philosopher Pico della Mirandola—"to know everything knowable," the title of his "Nine Hundred Propositions."—Translator.]
[The French text has been somewhat simplified here.—Translator.]
[Although Victor Hugo does refer more than once to the teeming population of Paris, the exact comparison that Bastiat probably had in mind here (and apparently could not remember well enough to quote) is to be found in another popular contemporary work, the satirical novel Jérôme Paturot (1843) by Louis Reybaud: ".... in this whirlpool of Paris, where so many lives are so intricately enmeshed, a single turn of the wheel can disperse them and break their contact.—Translator.]
[Benjamin Constant de Rebecque (1767-1830), liberal politician and author. Today he is remembered chiefly as the author of the romantic novel Adolphe and as the lover of Mme. de Staël.—Translator.]
[Jacques Antoine Manuel (1775-1827), a noted orator and member of the opposition during the Restoration.—Translator.]
[Bastiat here summarizes very briefly and accurately the high points in the legendary career of Lafayette: his participation in the American Revolution, the French Revolution of 1789, which drove out the Bourbon kings, and the Revolution of 1830; his "martyrdom" as prisoner of war in the infamous Austrian prison camp at Olmütz (1794); and his presentation before the city of Paris, at the Hôtel de Ville, as Commander-in-chief of the National Guard (1830). Bastiat also correctly refers to the disfavor into which Lafayette's name had fallen by 1845. The novelist Balzac, for example, speaks of Lafayette as an "old idol worshiped out of habit and fit only to be labeled and put into a museum for having viewed the world through rose-colored glasses."—Translator.]
[Charles James Fox (1749-1806), British statesman, chief of the Whig party, and advocate of friendship with France.—Translator.]

Author and Editor's Notes to Economic Harmonies.

NOTE TO AUTHOR'S INTRODUCTION ("To the Youth of France")

End of Notes


Return to top