Economic Sophisms

Frédéric Bastiat
Bastiat, Frédéric
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Arthur Goddard, trans.
First Pub. Date
Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
Pub. Date
Introduction by Henry Hazlitt

First Series

Author's Introduction to the French Edition


In political economy, there is much to learn
and little to do.—Bentham.*1


I have attempted, in this brief volume,*2 to refute some of the arguments that are raised against the introduction of free trade.


I am not engaging here in controversy with the protectionists. Rather, I am trying to instill a principle into the minds of sincere men who hesitate to take a stand on the issue because they are in doubt.


I am not one of those who say that the advocates of protectionism are motivated by self-interest. Instead, I believe that the opposition to free trade rests upon errors, or, if you prefer, upon half-truths. The mistrust of free trade is quite sincere. Otherwise there would not be so many people who express fear of it.


I am, perhaps, aiming too high, but—I confess—I should like this brief work to become, as it were, the handbook of those who are called upon to judge between the two principles. Unless one has a long-standing familiarity with the doctrines of free trade, his ideas are continually being colored by the sophisms of protectionism in one form or another. To clear his mind of them, he must each time go through a lengthy process of analysis; and not everyone has the time to undertake this task, legislators least of all. That is why I have tried to furnish such an analysis ready-made.


But, it may be asked, are the benefits of freedom so well hidden that they are evident only to professional economists?


Yes, we must admit that our opponents in this argument have a marked advantage over us. They need only a few words to set forth a half-truth; whereas, in order to show that it is a half-truth, we have to resort to long and arid dissertations.


This situation is due to the nature of things. Protection concentrates at a single point the good that it does, while the harm that it inflicts is diffused over a wide area. The good is apparent to the outer eye; the harm reveals itself only to the inner eye of the mind.*3 In the case of free trade, it is just the reverse.


The same is true of almost all economic questions.


You may say, "Here is a machine that has put thirty workmen out on the street."


Or, "Here is a spendthrift whose behavior encourages every branch of industry."


Or, again, "The conquest of Algiers has doubled the trade of Marseilles."


Or, finally, "Government expenditures provide a living for a hundred thousand families."


Everyone will understand you, for your propositions are lucid, simple, and self-evident. You may go further, and deduce the following principles from them:


Machinery is an evil.


Extravagance, conquests, and heavy taxes are all good.


And your theory will be all the more widely accepted because you will be able to support it with undeniable facts.


But, for our part, we cannot limit ourselves to the consideration of a single cause and its immediate effect. We know that this effect itself becomes in its turn a cause. In order to pass judgment on a measure, we must, then, trace it through the whole chain of its effects to its final result. In other words, we are reduced, quite frankly, to an appeal to reason.


But at once we find ourselves assailed by the familiar clamor: You are theorists, metaphysicians, ideologists,*4 utopians, and doctrinaires; and all the prejudices of the public are roused against us.


What, then, are we to do? We must invoke the patience and good will of the reader, and, if we can, present our conclusions in so clear a light that truth and error show themselves plainly; so that once and for all the victory will go to either protectionism or free trade.


In this connection I have an important observation to make.


Some excerpts from this brief volume have appeared in the Journal des économistes.


In an otherwise favorable criticism that the Vicomte de Romanet*5 published (cf. the Moniteur industriel,*6 May 15 and 18, 1845), he alleges that I am asking for the abolition of tariffs. M. de Romanet is mistaken. What I am asking for is the abolition of the protectionist system. We do not refuse to pay taxes to the government; but, if it were possible, we should like to dissuade the governed from taxing one another. Napoleon once said: "The tariff should be, not an instrument of taxation, but a means of protecting industry." We maintain the contrary, and say: "The tariff should not be an instrument of reciprocal robbery in the hands of the workers, but it can be a mechanism for taxation as good as any other." We are so far—or, to involve only myself in this struggle, I am so far—from asking for the abolition of tariffs, that I view them as a key element of our future financial stability. I believe them capable of producing immense revenues for the treasury; and, to speak plainly, in view of the slowness with which sound economic doctrines are spreading as compared to the rapidity with which government expenditures are increasing, I rely more upon the needs of the treasury than upon the power of an enlightened public opinion for achieving commercial reform.


"But, after all," I may be asked, "what are your conclusions?"


I have no need to reach conclusions. I am only combatting sophisms; that is all.


"But," people may insist, "it is not enough to tear down; you must offer something constructive." I, for my part, think that to tear down an error is to build up the truth that stands opposed to it.


Beyond that, I have no reluctance to state what my wishes are. I should like to have public opinion persuaded to approve a tariff law framed in something like these terms:

The following ad valorem rates shall be imposed:
Goods of prime necessity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5%
Goods of secondary necessity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10%
Luxury goods . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15% or 20%


No doubt these distinctions belong to a domain of ideas entirely foreign to political economy properly so called, and I am far from thinking them to be as useful and as just as people commonly suppose them to be. However, that is not my subject here.

Notes for this chapter

[Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), influential English philosopher and jurist. His Book of Fallacies probably suggested to Bastiat the title of the present work.—TRANSLATOR.]
[The brief volume containing the first series of the Economic Sophisms appeared at the end of 1845. Several chapters in it had been published in the Journal des économistes, in the April, July, and October, 1845, issues.—EDITOR.]
[This concept was afterward the basis for the pamphlet, "What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen" (Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 1).—EDITOR.]
[The ideologists referred to here and at this time were the followers of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-1780), who was concerned mainly with psychology but also wrote about politics and economics. Napoleon used the word "ideologist" as a derisory denotation for visionary and impractical thinkers, and Bastiat is using it in the same sense.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Auguste, Vicomte de Romanet, author of Rapport fait au Comité central pour la défense du travail national (1843), publicist, and protectionist.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Newspaper of the Committee for the Defense of Domestic Industry, a protectionist organization founded by P. A. H. Mimerel de Roubaix. See infra, p. 12.—TRANSLATOR.]

First Series, Chapter 1

End of Notes

First Series, Chapter 1

Abundance and Scarcity


Which is preferable for man and for society, abundance or scarcity?


"What!" people may exclaim. "How can there be any question about it? Has anyone ever suggested, or is it possible to maintain, that scarcity is the basis of man's well-being?"


Yes, this has been suggested; yes, this has been maintained and is maintained every day, and I do not hesitate to say that the theory of scarcity is by far the most popular of all theories. It is the burden of conversations, newspaper articles, books, and political speeches; and, strange as it may seem, it is certain that political economy will not have a completed its task and performed its practical function until it has popularized and established as indisputable this very simple proposition: "Wealth consists in an abundance of commodities."


Do we not hear it said every day: "Foreigners are going to flood us with their products"? Thus, people fear abundance.


Has not M. de Saint-Cricq7* said: "There is overproduction"? Thus, he was afraid of abundance.


Do not the workers wreck machines? Thus, they are afraid of overproduction, or—in other words—of abundance.


Has not M. Bugeaud8* uttered these words: "Let bread be dear, and the farmer will be rich"? Now, bread can be dear only because it is scarce. Thus, M. Bugeaud was extolling scarcity.


Has not M. d'Argout9* based his argument against the sugar industry on its very productivity? Has he not said again and again: "The sugar beet has no future, and its cultivation cannot be extended, because just a few hectares of sugar beets in each department10* would be enough to supply all the consumers in France"? Thus, as he sees things, good consists in barrenness and scarcity; and evil, in fertility and abundance.


Do not La Presse, Le Commerce, and the majority of the daily newspapers publish one or more articles every morning to prove to the Chambers11* and to the government that it is sound policy to legislate higher prices for everything through manipulation of the tariff? Do not the Chambers and the government every day comply with this injunction from the press? But tariffs raise the prices of things only because they reduce their supply in the market! Thus, the newspapers, the Chambers, and the government put the theory of scarcity into practice, and I was right to say that this theory is by far the most popular of all theories.


How does it happen that in the eyes of workers, of publicists, and of statesmen, abundance seems dangerous and scarcity advantageous? I propose to trace this illusion to its source.


We observe that a man acquires wealth in proportion as he puts his labor to better account, that is to say, as he sells at a higher price. He sells at a higher price in proportion to the shortage, the scarcity, of the type of commodity produced by his labor. We conclude from this that, at least so far as he is concerned, scarcity enriches him. Applying this mode of reasoning successively to all workers, we deduce from it the theory of scarcity. Thereupon we proceed to put the theory into practice, and, in order to favor all producers, we artificially raise prices and cause a scarcity of all goods by restrictive and protectionist measures, the elimination of machinery, and other analogous means.


The same holds true of abundance. We observe that, when a product is plentiful, it sells at a low price; thus, the producer earns less. If all the producers are in this plight, they are all poverty-stricken; hence, it is abundance that ruins society. And, as every person holding a theory seeks to put it into practice, one sees in many countries the laws of man warring against the abundance of things.


This sophism, phrased as a generalization, would perhaps make little impression; but, when applied to a particular set of facts—to this or that industry or to a given class of producers—it is extremely specious, and this is easily explained. It constitutes a syllogism which, although not false, is incomplete. Now, what is true in a syllogism is always and necessarily present to the mind. But what is incomplete is a negative quantity, a missing element that it is quite possible and even very easy not to take into account.


Man produces in order to consume. He is at once both producer and consumer. The argument that I have just set forth considers him only from the first of these points of view. From the second, the argument would lead to an opposite conclusion. Could we not say, in fact:


The consumer becomes richer in proportion as he buys everything more cheaply; he buys things more cheaply in proportion as they are abundant; hence, abundance enriches him; and this argument, extended to all consumers, would lead to the theory of abundance!


It is an imperfect understanding of the concept of exchange that produces these illusions. If we analyze the nature of our self-interest, we realize clearly that it is double. As sellers, we are interested in high prices, and, consequently, in scarcity; as buyers, we are interested in low prices, or, what amounts to the same thing, in an abundance of goods. We cannot, then, base our argument on one or the other of these two aspects of self-interest without determining beforehand which of the two coincides with and is identifiable with the general and permanent interest of the human race.


If man were a solitary animal, if he worked solely for himself, if he consumed directly the fruits of his labor—in short, if he did not engage in exchange—the theory of scarcity could never have been introduced into the world. It would be all too evident, in that case, that abundance would be advantageous for him, whatever its source, whether he owed it to his industriousness, to the ingenious tools and powerful machines that he had invented, to the fertility of the soil, to the liberality of Nature, ox even to a mysterious invasion of goods that the tide had carried from abroad and left on the shore. No solitary man would ever conclude that, in order to make sure that his own labor had something to occupy it, he should break the tools that save him labor, neutralize the fertility of the soil, or return to the sea the goods it may have brought him. He would easily understand that labor is not an end in itself, but a means, and that it would be absurd to reject the end for fear of doing injury to the means. He would understand, too, that if he devotes two hours of the day to providing for his needs, any circumstance (machinery, the fertility of the soil, a gratuitous gift, no matter what) that saves him an hour of this labor, so long as the product is as great, puts that hour at his disposal, and that he can devote it to improving his well-being, He would understand, in short, that a saving in labor is nothing else than progress.


But exchange hampers our view of so simple a truth. In society, with the division of labor that it entails, the production and the consumption of an object are not performed by the same individual. Each person comes to regard his labor no longer as a means, but as an end. Exchange creates, in relation to each object, two interests, that of its producer and that of its consumer; and these two interests are always directly opposed to each other.


It is essential to analyze them and to study their nature.


Take the case of any producer. In what does his immediate self-interest consist? It consists in two things: (1) that the smallest possible number of persons engage in the same kind of labor as he; and (2) that the greatest possible number of persons be in quest of the product of his labor. Political economy expresses this more succinctly in these terms: that the supply be very limited, and the demand very extensive; in still other terms: limited competition, and unlimited market.


In what does the immediate self-interest of the consumer consist? That the supply of the product he wants be extensive, and the demand limited.


Since these two interests are mutually incompatible, one of them must necessarily coincide with the social or general interest, and the other must be hostile to it.


But which one should legislation favor, as being the expression of the public weal—if, indeed, it should favor either one of them?


To know this, it suffices to discover what would happen if the secret desires of men were fulfilled.


In so far as we are producers, it must be admitted, each of us has hopes that are antisocial. Are we vineyardists? We should be little displeased if all the vines in the world save ours were blighted by frost: this is the theory of scarcity. Are we the owners of ironworks? We want no other iron to be on the market but our own, whatever may be the public need for it, precisely because this need, keenly felt and incompletely satisfied, brings us a high price: this too is the theory of scarcity. Are we farmers? We say, with M. Bugeaud: Let bread be costly, that is to say, scarce, and the farmers will prosper: this is still the theory of scarcity.


Are we physicians? We cannot blind ourselves to the fact that certain physical improvements, such as better public sanitation, the development of such moral virtues as moderation and temperance, the progress of knowledge to the point at which everyone can take care of his own health, and the discovery of certain simple, easily applied remedies, would be just so many deadly blows struck at our profession. In so far as we are physicians, our secret wishes are antisocial. I do not mean to say that physicians actually give expression to such wishes. I like to believe that they would welcome with joy the discovery of a universal cure; but it would not be as physicians, but as men and as Christians that they would yield to such an impulse: by a laudable art of self-abnegation, they would take the point of view of the consumer. But in so far as the physician practices a profession, in so far as he owes to that profession his well-being, his prestige, and even the means of supporting his family, it is impossible for his desires—or, if you will, his interests—not to be antisocial.


Do we make cotton textiles? We wish to sell them at the price that is most advantageous for us. We should heartily approve the proscription of all rival manufacturers; and though we do not dare to express this wish publicly or to seek its full realization with any likelihood of success, we nevertheless attain it to a certain extent by roundabout menus: for example, by excluding foreign textiles, so as to diminish the supply, and thereby to produce, by the use of force and to our profit, a scarcity of clothing.


In the same way, we could make a survey of all industries, and we should always find that producers, as such, have antisocial attitudes. "The merchant," says Montaigne,12* "prospers only by the extravagance of youth; the farmer, by the high cost of grain; the architect, by the decay of houses; officers of justice, by men's lawsuits and quarrels, Even the ministers of religion owe the honor and practice of their high calling to our death and our vices. No physician takes pleasure in the good health of even his friends; no soldier, in the peace of his country; and so it goes for the rest."


It follows that, if the secret wishes of each producer were realized, the world would speedily retrogress toward barbarism. The sail would take the place of steam, the oar would replace the sail, and it in turn would have to yield to the wagon, the latter to the mule, and the mule to the packman. Wool would ban cotton, cotton would ban wool, and so on, until the scarcity of all things made man himself disappear from the face of the earth.


Suppose for a moment that legislative power and executive authority were put at the disposal of the Mimerel Committee,13* and that each of the members of that association had the right to introduce and enact a favorite law. Is it very hard to imagine what sort of industrial code the public would be subjected to?


If we now turn to consider the immediate self-interest of the consumer, we shall find that it is in perfect harmony with the general interest, i.e., with what the well-being of mankind requires. When the buyer goes to the market, he wants to find it abundantly supplied. He wants the seasons to be propitious for all the crops; more and more wonderful inventions to bring a greater number of products and satisfactions within his reach; time and labor to be saved; distances to be wiped out; the spirit of peace and justice to permit lessening the burden of taxes; and tariff walls of every sort to fall. In all these respects, the immediate self-interest of the consumer follows a line parallel to that of the public interest. He may extend his secret wishes to fantastic or absurd lengths; yet they will not cease to be in conformity with the interests of his fellow man. He may wish that food and shelter, roof and hearth, education and morality, security and peace, strength and health, all be his without effort, without toil, and without limit, like the dust of the roads, the water of the stream, the air that surrounds us, and the sunlight that bathes us; and yet the realization of these wishes would in no way conflict with the good of society.


Perhaps people will say that, if these wishes were granted, the producer's labor would be more and more limited, and finally would cease for want of anything to occupy it. But why? Because, in this extreme hypothetical case, all imaginable wants and desires world be fully satisfied. Man, like the Almighty, would create all things by a simple act of volition. Will someone tell me what reason there would be, on this hypothesis, to deplore the end of industrial production?


I referred just now to an imaginary legislative assembly composed of businessmen, in which each member world have the power to enact a law expressing his secret wish in his capacity as a producer; and I said that the laws emanating from such an assembly would create a system of monopoly and put into practice the theory of scarcity.


In the same way, a Chamber of Deputies in which each member considered solely his immediate self-interest as a consumer would end by creating a system of free trade, repealing all restrictive laws, and removing all man-made commercial barriers—in short, by putting into practice the theory of abundance.


Hence, it follows that to consult solely the immediate self-interest of the producer is to have regard for an antisocial interest; whereas to consider as fundamental solely the immediate self-interest of the consumer is to take the general interest as the foundation of social policy.


Allow me to emphasize this point, at the risk of repeating myself.


There is a fundamental antagonism between the seller and the buyer.14*


The former wants the goods on the market to be scarce, in short supply, and expensive.


The latter wants them abundant, in plentiful supply, and cheap.


Our laws, which should at least be neutral, take the side of the seller against the buyer, of the producer against the consumer, of high prices against low prices,15* of scarcity against abundance.


They operate, if not intentionally, at least logically, on the assumption that a nation is rich when it is lacking in everything.


For they say it is the producer who must be favored, by being assured a good market for his product. To achieve this end, it is necessary to raise its price; to raise its price, it is necessary to limit the supply; and to limit the supply is to create scarcity.


Just suppose that, at the present moment, when these laws are in full force, a complete inventory were taken, not in terms of monetary value, but in terms of weight, size, volume, and quantity, of all the objects existing in France that are capable of satisfying the wants and tastes of its people—meat, cloth, fuel, wheat, colonial products, etc.


Suppose further that the following day all barriers to the importation of foreign goods into France were removed.


Finally, suppose that, in order to determine the consequences of this reform, a second inventory is taken three months later.


Is it not true that there will be in France more wheat, livestock, cloth, linen, iron, coal, sugar, etc., at the time of the second inventory than at the time of the first?


This is so true that our protective tariffs have no other goal than to prevent us from importing all these things, to limit their supply, to forestall a decline in their prices, and to prevent their abundance.


Note, are we to believe that the people are better fed under the laws that prevail at present, because there is less bread, meat, and sugar in the country? Are they better clad, because there is less linen and woolen cloth? Are their houses better heated, because there is less coal? Is their labor made easier because there is less iron and copper, or because there are fewer tools and machines?


But, you say, if foreigners flood us with their products, they will carry off our money!


Well, what difference does that make? Men are not fed on cash, they do not clothe themselves with gold, nor do they heat their houses with silver. What difference does it make whether there is more or less money in the country, if there is more bread in the cupboard, more meat in the larder, more clothing in the wardrobe, and more wood is the woodshed?


Restrictive laws always present us with the same dilemma.


Either we admit that they produce scarcity, or we do not admit it.


If we do admit it, we thereby confess that they inflict upon the people all the harm that they can do. If we do not admit it, then we deny that they limit the supply of goods and raise their prices, and consequently they deny that they favor the producer.


Such laws are either injurious or ineffective. They cannot be useful.16*

Notes for this chapter

[Pierre Laurent Barthélemy, Comte de Saint-Cricq, member of the Chamber of Deputies, Minister of Commerce from January 4, 1848 to August 8, 1829, and later a Peer of France.—TRANSLATOR.]
[T. R. Bugeaud de la Piconnerie (1784-1849), known chiefly as a military leader. He was also a member of the Chamber of Deputies, and was interested in agriculture, and endorsed protectionist principles.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Antoine Maurice Appolinaire, Comte d'Argout (1782-1858), administrator and fiscal specialist, Governor of the Bank of France.—TRANSLATOR.]
[A hectare is 2.471 acres. A department is the largest administrative subdivision of France, averaging about 3,000 square miles.—TRANSLATOR.]
[The legislature of France, comprising the Chamber of Peers and the Chamber of Deputies.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), limed humanistic essayist of the Renaissance.—TRANSLATOR.]
[A businessmen's association headed by P. A. H. Mimerel de Roubaix (1786-1871), a textile manufacturer.—TRANSLATOR.]
[The author modified the terms of this proposition in a later work. Cf. Economic Harmonies, chap. 11.—EDITOR.]
We have no noun in French to express the idea that is opposite to high price ("cheapness" in English). It is quite noteworthy that the people instinctively express this idea by this paraphrase: advantageous market, good market [bon marché]. The protectionists really ought to do something about changing this expression. It implies a whole economic system that is the converse of theirs.
[The author has treated this subject at greater length in Economic Harmonies, chap. 11, and, in another form, in the article "Abundance" written for the Dictionnaire de l'économie politique.—EDITOR.]

First Series, Chapter 2

End of Notes

First Series, Chapter 2

Obstacle and Cause


To regard the obstacle as the cause—to mistake scarcity for abundance—is to be guilty of the same sophism in another guise. It deserves to be studied in all its forms.


Man in the primitive state is destitute of everything.


Between his destitution and the satisfaction of his wants there is a multitude of obstacles, which it is the goal of labor to surmount. It is curious to inquire how and why these very obstacles to his well-being have come to be mistaken for its cause.


Suppose I need to travel to a point a hundred leagues away. But between the point of departure and my destination are mountains, rivers, swamps, impenetrable forests, and highwaymen—in short, obstacles; and, to surmount these obstacles, I must exert myself vigorously, or—what comes to the same thing—others must exert themselves on my behalf and charge the for doing so. Is it not clear that under these circumstances I should have been better off if these obstacles did not exist in the first place?


To go through the long journey of life from the cradle to the grave, man must ingest a vast quantity of food, protect himself from the inclemency of the weather, and guard against or cure himself of a host of diseases. Hunger, thirst, sickness, heat, and cold are just so many obstacles strewn along his part. In a state of isolation he would have to overcome all of them by hunting, fishing, farming, spinning, weaving, and building; and it is clear that it would be better for him if these obstacles were fewer in number, and better still if they did not exist at all. In society, he does not personally attack each of these obstacles, but others do so for him; and he in turn removes one of the obstacles confronting his fellow men.


It is also clear that, all things considered, it would be better for all mankind, or for society, if obstacles were as easy to overcome and as infrequent as possible.


But if one scrutinizes social phenomena in detail and the attitudes of men as they have been modified by exchange, one soon sees how men have come to confuse wants with wealth and obstacle with cause.


The division of labor, which results from the opportunity to engage in exchange, makes it possible for each man, instead of struggling on his own behalf to overcome all the obstacles that stand in his way, to struggle against only one, not solely on his own account, but for the benefit of his fellow men, who in turn perform the same service for him.


Now, the result is that each man sees the immediate cause of his prosperity in the obstacle that he makes it his business to struggle against for the benefit of others. The larger the obstacle, the more important and more intensely felt it is, then the more his fellow men are disposed to pay him for having overcome it, that is, the readier they are to remove on his behalf the obstacles that stand in his way.


A physician, for instance, does not occupy himself with baking his own bread, making ins own instruments, or weaving or tailoring his own clothes. Others do these things for him, and, in return, he treats the diseases that afflict his patients. The more frequent, severe, and numerous these diseases are, the more willing people are—indeed, the more they are obliged—to work for his personal benefit. From his point of view, illness—which is a general obstacle to human well-being—is a cause of his individual well-being. All producers, with respect to their particular field of operation, reason in the same manner. The shipowner derives his profits from the obstacle called distance; the farmer, from that called hunger; the textile manufacturer, from that called cold; the teacher lives on ignorance; the jeweler, on vanity; the lawyer, on greed; the notary, on possible bad faith, just as the physician lives on the illnesses of mankind. It is therefore quite true that each profession has an immediate interest in the continuation, even the extension, of the particular obstacle that is the object of its efforts.


Seeing this, theorists attempt to found a system on the basis of these attitudes on the part of individuals and declare that need is wealth, that labor is wealth, and that the obstacle to well-being is well-being itself. To multiply obstacles is, in their eyes, to encourage industry.


Then the statesmen take over. They hold the power of the government in their hands; and what is more natural than to put it to use in increasing and spreading obstacles, since this is the same as increasing and spreading wealth? They say, for example: "If we prevent iron from coming from the places where it is abundant, we create in our own country an obstacle to obtaining it. This obstacle, when it is felt acutely, will induce people to pay in order to get rid of it. A certain number of our fellow citizens will devote themselves to struggling against it, and this obstacle will make their fortune. The greater it is, that is, the scarcer, the more inaccessible, the more difficult to transport, the more remote from the blast furnaces the ore is, the more manpower all the branches of this industry will employ. Hence, let us bar foreign iron ore; let us create the obstacle, so as to create the need for labor to struggle against it."


The same reasoning leads to the proscription of machinery.


Here, let us say, are some men who need to store their wine. This is an obstacle; and here are some other men whose job it is to remove the obstacle by making tuns. It is fortunate, then, that the obstacle exists, since it provides employment for a part of the domestic labor force and enriches a certain number of our fellow citizens. But then an ingenious machine is invented that fells the oak, squares it, divides it into staves, assembles them, and transforms them into wine-barrels. The obstacle is greatly diminished, and with it the affluence of coopers. Let us pass a law that will preserve both of them. Let us outlaw the machine.


To get at the root of this sophism, one need only remind oneself that human labor is not an end, but a means. It never remains unemployed. If it removes one obstacle, it turns to another; and mankind is rid of two obstacles by the same amount of labor that used to be needed to remove only one. If the labor of coopers ever becomes useless, it will turn in another direction. But with what, people ask, would it be paid? With exactly what pays for it today; for when a certain amount of labor becomes available as a result of the removal of an obstacle, a corresponding quantity of goods also becomes available for the remuneration of labor. To maintain that the time will ever come when human labor will lack employment, it would he necessary to prove that mankind will cease to encounter obstacles. But in that case labor would not be simply impossible; it would be superfluous. We should no longer have anything to do, far we should be omnipotent; and we should only have to pronounce a fiat to have all our needs and all our desires satisfied.17*

Notes for this chapter

[Cf. on this same subject infra, Second Series, chap. 14, and Economic Harmonies, chaps. 3 and 11.—EDITOR.]

First Series, Chapter 3

End of Notes

First Series, Chapter 3

Effort and Result


We have just seen that there are obstacles between our wants and their satisfaction. We succeed in eliminating these obstacles or in lessening them by employing our productive capacities to overcome them. Thus, it may be said, in a very general way, that industry is an effort followed by a result.


But what constitutes the measure of our well-being, that is, of our wealth? Is it the result of the effort? Or is it the effort itself? There is always a ratio between the effort applied and the result obtained. Does progress consist in the relative increase in the first or in the second term of this ratio?


Both theses have had their defenders, and political economists are divided in their opinions about them.


According to the first thesis, wealth is the result of labor. It increases proportionately to the increase to the ratio of result to effort. Absolute perfection, whose archetype is God, consists in the widest possible distance between the two terms, that is, a situation in which no effort at all yields infinite results.


The second contends that effort itself constitutes and measures wealth. To progress is to increase the ratio of effort to result. Its ideal may be represented by the toil of Sisyphus—at once barren and eternal.18* *19


Naturally, the proponents of the first doctrine welcome everything that tends to diminish exertion and to increase output: the powerful machines that add to the strength of man; exchange, which permits him to get a better share of the natural resources that are distributed in varying amounts on the face of the earth; intelligence, which makes discoveries; experience, which confirms hypotheses; competition, which stimulates production; etc.


Just as logically, the proponents of the second doctrine welcome everything that has the effect of increasing exertion and of diminishing output: privileges, monopolies, restrictions, interdictions, the suppression of machinery, infertility, etc.


It is well to note that the universal practice of mankind is always guided by the principle on which the first doctrine is founded. No one has ever seen, and no one ever will see, any person who works, whether he be farmer, manufacturer, merchant, artisan, soldier, writer, or scholar, who does not devote all the powers of his mind to working better, more quickly, and more economically—in short, to doing more with less.


The opposite doctrine is the stock in trade of theorists, legislators, journalists, statesmen, and cabinet ministers—men, in brief, whose role in this world is to conduct experiments on the body of society.


Yet it is notable that, with respect to their personal concerns, they act on the same principle as everyone else; that is, they seek to obtain from their labor the greatest possible quantity of useful results.


People will perhaps think I am exaggerating, and that there are no real Sisyphists.


If this means that in practice no one carries the principle to its logical extreme, I willingly agree. This is always the case when one starts from a false premise. It soon leads to such absurd and injurious consequences that one is obliged to stop short. That is why it is never the practice of industry to permit Sisyphism; the penalty would follow the mistake too closely not to expose it. But in the realm of speculation, such as theorists and statesmen engage in, one can cling to a false principle for a long time before being made aware of its falsity by its complex practical consequences, especially in areas with which one is unfamiliar; and when these finally do reveal their origin, one adopts the opposite principle, thereby contradicting oneself, and seeks justification in that incomparably absurd modern axiom: In political economy there are no absolute principles.


Let us see, then, whether the two conflicting principles that I have just described do not prevail, by turns, the one in the practice of industry, the other in industrial legislation.


I have already repeated a saying of M. Bugeaud; but M. Bugeaud is actually two persons, a farmer and a legislator.


As a farmer, M. Bugeaud directs all his efforts toward the twofold end of saving labor and of obtaining bread cheaply. When he prefers a good plow to a poor one; when he improves his pastures; when, in order to turn over his soil, he substitutes as far as possible the action of the wind for that of the harrow or the hoe; when he summons to his aid all the processes whose power and efficacy science and experience have shown him; he has and can have only one goal: to diminish the ratio of effort to result. Indeed, we have no other way of judging the skill of the farmer and the extent of the improvement effected by his operations than to measure what they have subtracted from the effort and added to the result; and, as all the farmers in the world act in accordance with this principle, one can say that all men strive, undoubtedly to their advantage, to obtain bread and all other commodities more cheaply—that is, to lessen the effort needed to have a given quantity at their disposal.


This indisputable tendency of mankind, once its existence is verified, should suffice, it would seem, to make the correct principle clear to the legislator and show him in what way he ought to help industry (in so far as it is within his province to do so); for it would be absurd to say that the laws of man should run counter to the laws of Providence.


However, M. Bugeaud, the legislator, has been heard to exclaim: "I understand nothing of the theory of cheapness; I should prefer to see bread more expensive and work more abundant." And, in consequence, the deputy from the Dordogne votes for legislative measures whose effect is to hinder trade, precisely because trade procures for us indirectly what direct production can furnish us only at a higher cost.


Now, it is quite evident that the principle of M. Bugeaud, the legislator, is diametrically opposed to that of M. Bugeaud, the farmer. To be consistent, either he would have to vote against every restrictive measure, or he would have to put into practice on his own farm the principle that he proclaims from the rostrum. He would, in the latter case, have to sow his seed in the most barren field, for in that way he would succeed in working a great deal in order to obtain little result. He would have to eschew the use of the plow, since tilling the soil by hand would satisfy his twofold desire for dearer bread and more abundant toil.


The avowed object and acknowledged effect of restrictive measures is to increase the amount of labor necessary for a given result.


Another of its avowed objects and acknowledged effects is to raise prices, which means nothing more nor less than a scarcity of goods. Thus, carried to its extreme, the policy of restriction is pure Sisyphism, as we have defined it: infinite labor, without any result.


Baron Charles Dupin,20* said to be the torch of learning among the peerage in the science of economics, accuses the railroads of injuring navigation; and it is certainly natural for a swifter conveyance to lessen the use of a comparatively less efficient one. But railroads can harm shipping only by taking away its business; they can take away its business only by doing the job of transportation more cheaply; and they can transport goods more cheaply only by lowering the ratio of the effort applied to the result obtained, since this is precisely what constitutes low cost. Thus, when Baron Dupin deplores this diminution in the labor employed to obtain a given result, he is following the doctrine of Sisyphism. Logically, since he prefers the ship to the train, he ought to prefer the wagon to the ship, the packsaddle to the wagon, and the basket to every other known means of transport, for it is the one that demands the most labor for the least result.


"Labor constitutes the wealth of a nation," was the saying of M. de Saint-Cricq, the Minister of Commerce who has imposed so many fetters on commerce. It should not be supposed that this was merely an elliptical proposition meaning: "The results of labor constitute the wealth of a nation." No, this economist definitely meant to say that the intensity of labor is the measure of wealth; and the proof is that, step by step, from one restriction to another (and always with the best of intentions), he managed to get France to double the amount of labor expended in order to provide itself, for example, with the same quantity of iron. In England iron then cost eight francs; in France it cost sixteen. Assuming that one day of labor costs one franc, it is clear that France could, by way of exchange, obtain for itself a quintal21* of iron for eight days' labor. Thanks to the restrictive measures of M. de Saint-Cricq, France came to need sixteen days' labor in order to obtain a quintal of iron by direct production. Twice the labor to satisfy an identical need, hence twice the wealth; hence too, wealth is measured, not by the result, but by the intensity, of labor. Is this not Sisyphism in its purest form?


And so that there might be no mistaking his meaning, His Excellency has taken the trouble to explain his ideas more fully; and just as he has called the intensity of labor wealth, so he can be heard calling the abundance of the results of labor, or of things suitable for satisfying our wants, poverty. "Everywhere," he says, "machinery has replaced manual labor; everywhere there is overproduction; everywhere the balance between productive capacity and consumer purchasing power has been upset." It is clear, according to M. de Saint-Cricq, that if France was in a critical situation, it was because it was producing too much; its labor was too intelligent, too fruitful. We were too well fed, too well clothed, too well provided with all things; production became too rapid and outran our demands. It was necessary to put an end to this calamitous situation, and for that purpose to compel us, by restrictive measures, to work more so as to produce less.


I have also cited the opinion of another Minister of Commerce, M. d'Argout. It deserves our attention for a moment. In an effort to strike a blow at the sugar-beet industry, he said:

    Doubtless the cultivation of the sugar beet is useful, but its usefulness is limited. Its potentialities fall far short of the gigantic developments that people are fond of predicting for it. To be convinced of this, one need only note that its cultivation will of necessity be confined to the limits set by the demands of the consumers. Double, triple if you will, the present consumption of sugar in France; you will still find that a very small portion of the land will be enough to satisfy the needs of the consumers. [Now, there's a remarkable complaint!] Do you desire proof of this? How many hectares were planted in sugar beets in 1828? A total of 3,130, or 1/10,540 of the arable land. How many are there today, when native sugar supplies one third of our consumption? A total of 16,700 hectares, or 1/1,978 of the arable land, or forty-five centiares per commune.22* Even if we assume that native sugar were to supply the whole of our consumption, we should still have only 48,000 hectares cultivated in sugar beets, or 1/689 of the arable land.23*


There are two elements to be noted in this quotation: the facts and the doctrine. The facts tend to establish that it takes little land, capital, and manual labor to produce a great deal of sugar, and that every commune in France would provide itself with an abundant supply by devoting one hectare of its area to cultivating the sugar beet. The doctrine consists in regarding this circumstance as harmful, and in seeing in the very efficiency and productiveness of the new industry a limit to its usefulness.


I am not going to set myself up here as the defender of the sugar beet, nor do I mean to pass judgment on the strange facts advanced by M. d'Argout;24* but it is worth while to examine the doctrine of a statesman to whom France for along time entrusted the fate of its agriculture and its commerce.


I said at the beginning that there is a variable ratio between the intensity of labor and its result; that absolute imperfection consists in an infinite effort without any result; absolute perfection, in an unlimited result without any effort; and perfectibility, in the progressive diminution of effort by comparison with the result.


But M. d'Argout teaches us that what we view as life is actually death, and that the importance of an industry is in direct proportion to its unproductiveness. What is to be expected, for example, from the cultivation of the sugar beet? Do you rest see that 48,000 hectares of land, with capital and labor in proportion, would be enough to supply all France with sugar? Hence, this is an industry with a limited usefulness—limited, of course, with respect to the labor it demands, for, according to the former Minister of Commerce, demanding a large quantity of labor is the only manner in which an industry can be useful. This usefulness would be still more limited if, thanks to the fertility of the soil or the vigor of the sugar beet, we were to harvest from 24,000 hectares what we can now obtain from only 48,000. Oh, how much better if it only took twenty times, one hundred times, the land, capital, and labor to achieve the same result! We might build some hopes on the new industry, and it would be worthy of the full protection of the state, for it would offer a vast field for our domestic labor force. But to produce much with little! That sets a bad example, and it is time for the law to set things to rights.


But what holds true for sugar cannot be false in regard to bread. If, therefore, the usefulness of an industry is to be judged, not by the number of needs that it is capable of satisfying with a definite amount of labor, but, on the contrary, by the increase in labor that it demands in order to satisfy a given quantity of needs, what we should wish for, clearly, is that each hectare of land produce little wheat, and that each kernel of wheat contain little sustenance—in other words, that our land should be unfruitful; for then the amount of land, capital, and labor that would be required to feed the people would be comparatively much greater; one could even say that job opportunities would be in direct proportion to this unfruitfulness. The prayers of Messrs. Bugeaud, Saint-Cricq, Dupin, and d'Argout would be answered: bread would he expensive; work, abundant; and France, rich, at least in the sense that these gentlemen give to the word.


What we should desire still more is that human intelligence should be enfeebled or extinguished; for, so long as it survives, it ceaselessly endeavors to increase the ratio of the end to the means and of the product to the effort. It is in this, and in this alone, that intelligence consists.


Thus, Sisyphism has been the doctrine of all those who have been entrusted with the rate of our country's industry. It would not be fair to reproach them for that. This principle guides our cabinet ministers only because it prevails among our legislators; it prevails among our legislators only because they are representative of the electorate; and the electorate is imbued with it only because public opinion is saturated with it.


I feel it my duty to repeat here that I am not accusing such men as Messrs. Bugeaud, Dupin, Saint-Cricq, or d'Argout, of being Sisyphists absolutely and under all circumstances. They are certainly not so in their private business activities; certainly each one of them obtains for himself, by way of exchange, what it would cost him much more to procure for himself by direct production. But I do say that they are Sisyphists when they keep the country from doing the same thing.25*

Notes for this chapter

[Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, is the symbol of human futility. For his crimes on earth he was condemned to spend eternity in the underworld rolling a heavy stone to the top of a mountain only to have it roll back to its starting place.—TRANSLATOR.]
For this reason, and for the sake of conciseness, we ask the reader to pardon us if we henceforth designate this system by the term Sisyphism.
[Baron P. C. F. Dupin (1784-1873), an engineer, mathematician, statistician, and economist; member of the Chamber of Peers and Minister of the Navy.—TRANSLATOR.]
[A quintal varies greatly from place to place; in this context it is probably the metric measure of 100 kilograms or 220.46 pounds.—TRANSLATOR.]
[The centiare is 1/10,000 of the hectare, one square meter, or 1.196 square yards. The commune is the smallest administrative unit in France, averaging less than ten square miles. The error may be Argout's, Bastiat's, or the publisher's, but centiare here should read are (1/100 of a hectare): with about 35,000 communes in France, there would be about 0.45 hectare, or forty-five ares, per commune in sugar beets.—TRANSLATOR.]
It is only fair to state that M. d'Argout put this strange language into the mouths of the opponents of the sugar beet. But he expressly appropriated it and sanctioned it besides by virtue of the very law for which it served as justification.
Assuming that from 48,000 to 50,000 hectares are enough to provide for the present per capita consumption, it would require 150,000 if per capita consumption were tripled, as M. d'Argout admits is possible. Furthermore, if the sugar-beet crop were rotated every six years, it would occupy successively 900,000 hectares, or 1/38 of the arable land.
[Cf. on the same subject infra, Second Series, chap. 16, and Economic Harmonies, chap 6.—EDITOR.]

First Series, Chapter 4

End of Notes

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