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.
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Introduction by Henry Hazlitt
19 of 46

First Series, Chapter 13

Theory and Practice


We advocates of free trade are accused of being theorists, of not taking practice sufficiently into consideration.


"In what a frightfully prejudicial light M. Say60* is put," observes M. Ferrier,61* "by that long line of distinguished administrators and that imposing band of writers who disagreed with his views! And M. Say was not unaware of it. Let us see how he deals with it:

"People have asserted, in support of long-standing errors, that there must really be some truth in ideas so generally accepted in all countries. Should we not mistrust observations and conclusions that run counter to opinions that up to our own day have been held to be well founded, and that have been regarded as certain by so many persons who are esteemed for their knowledge and disinterestedness? This argument, I admit, is very plausible and might well cast doubt even on the most indisputable matters, were it not for the fact that the most erroneous opinions whose falsity is now generally recognized—were successively accepted and propagated by everybody for century after century. It was not very long ago that all nations, from the most barbarous to the most enlightened, and all men, from the lowliest porter to the wisest philosopher, accepted it as true that there are four elements. No one would have dreamed of disputing this doctrine, which, nevertheless, is false; so much so that there is not a naturalist's assistant who would not bring himself into disrepute if he regarded earth, water, and fire as elements."


Upon this, M. Ferrier makes the following observation:

If M. Say thinks that this comment constitutes an adequate reply to the very strong objection he raises, he is singularly mistaken. It is understandable that men otherwise very well-informed should have been in error for several centuries concerning some point or other in natural history. This fact, in itself, proves nothing. Whether or not water, air, earth, and fire are elements, they are not less useful to man. Such errors are of no consequence; they do not lead to riots; they do not unsettle men's minds; above all, they do not have an adverse effect on anyone's well-being, and that is why they could endure for thousands of years without occasioning the slightest inconvenience. The physical world goes on as if they did not exist. But can the same be said of errors that attack the moral world? Is it to be supposed that an absolutely wrong, and consequently harmful, system of government could be maintained for several centuries and among many nations with the general approval of all educated men? Can it be explained how such a system could be compatible with the constantly increasing prosperity of these nations? M. Say concedes that the argument he is combatting is very plausible. Indeed it is, and it retains its plausibility, for M. Say has increased rather than destroyed it.


Now let us hear what M. de Saint-Chamans has to say on this subject:

It was not until the middle of the eighteenth century—that age in which no subject or principle was exempt from discussion—that these purveyors of speculative ideas, which were applied to everything without being applicable to anything, began writing on political economy. The system of political economy that existed previously was not put in written form, but was practiced by governments. Colbert,62* it is said, was its inventor, and it was the system that prevailed in all the nations of Europe. What is even more extraordinary, it still does so today, in spite of the abuse and the scorn directed against it, and in spite of all the discoveries made by modern economics. This system, which our authors have called the mercantilist system, consisted in .... banning, whether by outright exclusion or by the imposition of customs duties, foreign products that could destroy our industries by their competition..... Economists of all schools have pronounced this system inept, absurd, and likely to impoverish the whole country;63* it has been banished from all their books and forced to take refuge in the practice of every nation; and they cannot conceive why, in what concerns the wealth of nations, governments should not rely upon the advice of learned authors rather than trust to their long experience with a system, etc..... Above all, they cannot understand why the French government should,.... in matters of political economy, go on obstinately resisting the advance of knowledge and retaining in its practice those inveterate errors which all our writers on economics have exposed..... But enough of this mercantilist system, which has nothing in its favor but the facts, and which is not defended by any writers!64*


Words such as these might lead one to suppose that the economists, in demanding for everyone the freedom to dispose of his property, have, like the Fourierists, excogitated a new social order, visionary and bizarre—a sort of phalanstery without precedent in the annals of the human race. Yet it seems to me that if anything is contrived or contingent, it is not free trade, but protectionism; it is not the freedom to engage in voluntary exchange, but the use of the tariff to upset artificially the natural order in the pricing process.


However, our concern here is not to compare or evaluate the two systems, but to inquire which of the two is based on experience.


Now, in regard to this question, which is all that interests us for the moment, you advocates of monopoly contend that the facts are on your side, and that we have only theories on ours.


You even flatter yourselves that the long series of governmental actions, the long experience of Europe, which you invoke, has seemed to M. Say to carry a certain weight; and I concede that he has not refuted you protectionists on this point with his customary acumen. But I do not concede your claim that the facts are in your favor; for the only facts on your side are isolated cases resulting from the exercise of compulsion, whereas on our side we have the universal practice of mankind, the free and voluntary actions of all men.


What do we say, and what do you say?


We say:


"It is better to buy from another what it would be more costly to make oneself."


And you say:


"It is better to make things oneself, even if it would be less expensive to buy them from another."


Now, gentlemen, setting aside theory, demonstration, and reasoning, all of which seem to fill you protectionists with disgust, which of these two assertions enjoys the sanction of universal practice?


Visit fields, workshops, mills, and stores; look around you everywhere; examine what is done in your own household; observe your own actions at every moment; and then say which principle it is that guides these farmers, workers, industrialists, and merchants, not to mention your own personal practice.


Does the farmer make his own clothes? Does the tailor raise the wheat that he consumes? Does your housekeeper continue to bake bread at home when she finds she can buy it more cheaply at the bakery? Do you propose to give up the pen for the shoebrush in order to avoid paying tribute to the bootblack? Does not the whole economy of society depend on the division of labor, i.e., on exchange? And what is exchange but the calculation that induces us, so far as possible, to discontinue direct production whenever indirect acquisition enables us to effect a saving in time and effort?


It is not you, therefore, who are the practical men, for you could not point to a single person on the face of the earth who acts according to your principle.


But, you may say, we never intended to make our principle a guide for individual relations. We fully understand that this would be to break the bonds of society and to force men to live like snails, each in his own shell. We mean only that this is the prevailing practice in the relations that have been established among different groups of men.


Well, this assertion too is erroneous. The family, the commune, the canton,65* the department, the province, are just so many groups that all, without any exception, reject your principle in practice and have never even dreamed of acting on it. All procure for themselves by way of exchange whatever it would cost them more to procure by way of direct production. And nations would do the same if you did not prevent them by force.


It is therefore we who are the practical men; we are the ones who base our principles on experience; for, in order to oppose the restrictions that you have chosen to place upon a certain part of international trade, we base our argument on the practice and experience of every individual and every group of individuals whose acts are voluntary and can therefore be adduced as evidence. You, on the other hand, begin by coercing or by impeding, and then you seize upon forced or prohibited acts to support your case: "See; practice proves us in the right!"


You inveigh against our theory, and even against theory in general. But, when you put forward a principle antagonistic to ours, did you perchance imagine that you were not framing a theory? Disabuse yourselves, gentlemen. You are theorists no less than we; but between your theory and ours there is this difference:


Our theory consists only in observing universal facts, universal attitudes, calculations, and procedures, and at most in classifying and coordinating them so as to understand them better.


Our theory is so little opposed to practice that it is nothing else than practice explained. We observe that men are motivated by the instinct for self-preservation and a desire for progress, and what they do freely and voluntarily is precisely what we call political economy or the economy of society. As we never cease to point out, each man is in practice an excellent economist, producing or exchanging according as he finds it more advantageous to do the one or the other. Everyone gains a knowledge of this science through experience; or rather, the science itself is only this same experience accurately observed and methodically interpreted.


You, on the other hand, may properly be called theorists in the pejorative sense of the word. The procedures you invent are not sanctioned by the practice of any man on earth, and so you find it necessary to resort to coercion in order to compel men to produce what they find it more advantageous to purchase. What you want is that they should renounce this advantage and act in accordance with a doctrine that is essentially self-contradictory.


I defy you to extend this doctrine, which you yourselves must admit would be absurd if applied to the relations among individuals, to transactions among families, communities, or provinces. By your own admission, it is applicable only to international relations.


And that is why you are reduced to repeating every day:


"There are no absolute principles. What is good for an individual, a family, a commune, or a province is bad for a nation. What is good on a small scale—to purchase rather than to produce, when purchasing is more advantageous than producing—is bad on a large scale; the political economy of individuals is not that of nations," and other nonsense of the same kind.


And what purpose does it all serve? Face up to it frankly. You want to prove that we consumers are your property! That we belong to you, body and soul! That you have an exclusive right over our stomachs and our limbs! That it is your prerogative to feed and clothe us at your price, whatever may be your incapacity, your greed, or the economic disadvantages of your situation!


No, you are not practical men; you are impractical visionaries—and extortionists.66*

Notes for this chapter

[Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832), a French professor of political economy and a free-trade advocate. His ideas had great influence on Bastiat.—TRANSLATOR.]
[De l'administration commerciale opposée a l'économie politique, page 5.—EDITOR.]*

    * [F. L. A. Ferrier (1777-1861), French tariff administrator and author of books on tariffs and finance.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), French statesman, chief economic and financial advisor to King Louis XIV, under whom he served as Controller-General of Finances. He is credited with introducing the mercantilist system in conjunction with the many industries that he promoted.—TRANSLATOR.]
Could we not say: In what a frightfully prejudicial light Messrs. Ferrier and Saint-Chamans are put by the fact that economists of every school, that is, all the men who have studied the question, have reached the conclusion that, after all, freedom is better than coercion, and the laws of God are wiser than those of Colbert?
Du système de l'impôt, etc., by the Vicomte de Saint-Chamans, p. 11.
[An administrative unit in France, between the commune and the department.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Cf. chap. 15.—EDITOR.]

First Series, Chapter 14

End of Notes

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First Series, Chapter 14

Conflict of Principles


One thing that confuses me is this:


Sincere political theorists, after studying economic problems solely from the producers' point of view, arrive at the following two conclusions:


"Governments should compel the consumers who are subject to their laws to do what is beneficial for domestic industry.


"Governments should make foreign consumers subject to their laws in order to compel them to do what is beneficial for domestic industry."


The first of these policies is called protectionism; the second, opening up markets for our products.


The premise on which both are based is what is called the balance of trade:


"A nation impoverishes itself when it imports, and enriches itself when it exports."


For, if every purchase from abroad is a tribute paid and a national loss, it is quite natural to restrict, and even to prohibit, imports.


And if every sale to a foreign country is a tribute received and a national profit, it is quite natural to open up markets for our products, even by force.


The protectionist system and the colonial system are, then, simply two aspects of one and the same theory. Preventing our fellow citizens from buying from foreigners and forcing foreigners to buy from our fellow citizens are simply two consequences of one and the same principle.


Now, it is impossible not to recognize that, according to this doctrine—if it is true—the general welfare depends upon monopoly, or domestic plunder, and conquest, or foreign plunder.


I enter one of the cottages that cling to the French side of the Pyrenees.


The head of the family receives only a slender wage for his work. His half-naked children shiver in the icy north wind; the fire is out, and there is nothing on the table. On the other side of the mountain there are wool, firewood, and corn; but these goods are forbidden to the family of the poor day-laborer, for the other side of the mountain is not in France. Foreign spruce will not gladden the cottage hearth; the shepherd's children will not know the taste of Biscayan maslin;67* and wool from Navarre will never warm their numbed limbs. All this is, we are told, in the interest of the general welfare. Very well. But then it must be admitted that in this instance the general welfare is in conflict with justice.


To regulate consumers by law and limit them to the products of domestic industry is to encroach upon their freedom by forbidding them an action—exchange—that in itself is in no way contrary to morality; in short, it is to do them an injustice.


And yet, we are told, this is necessary if production is to be maintained and the prosperity of the country is not to receive a fatal blow.


The writers of the protectionist school thus reach the melancholy conclusion that there is a radical incompatibility between justice and the general welfare.


On the other hand, if it is in the interest of all nations to sell and not to buy, a succession of violent actions and reactions must be the natural state of their relations; for each will strive to impose its products on all, and all will attempt to reject the products of each.


In reality, a sale implies a purchase; and since, according to this doctrine, to sell is to profit, and to buy is to lose, every international transaction is to the advantage of one country and to the detriment of another.


But, on the one hand, men are irresistibly impelled toward what benefits them; on the other hand, they instinctively resist what harms them. Hence, the conclusion is inescapable that each nation contains within itself a natural tendency toward expansion and a no less natural tendency to resist encroachment on its own domain, and that both these tendencies are equally harmful to all other nations; or, in other words, that antagonism and war are the natural state of human society.


Thus, the theory that I am discussing may be summed up in these two axioms:


The general welfare is incompatible with justice at home.


The general welfare is incompatible with peace abroad.


Now, what astonishes me, what amazes me, is that a political theorist or a statesman who sincerely professes an economic doctrine whose basic principle runs so violently counter to other principles that are indisputable, can enjoy a moment's calm or peace of mind.


For my own part, I think that if my study of the science of economics had led me to such conclusions, if I did not clearly perceive that freedom, the general welfare, justice, and peace are not only compatible but also closely connected and, so to speak, identical, I should endeavor to forget all I had learned; and I should ask myself:


"How could God have willed that men should attain prosperity only through injustice and war? How could He have willed that they should renounce war and injustice only at the price of their well-being?


"Is this science not misleading me when it requires me to accept the frightful blasphemy that this dilemma implies? How can I dare take it upon myself to make such a doctrine the basis of the laws of a great nation? And when a long succession of illustrious scholars has drawn more reassuring conclusions from the same science after devoting their entire lives to its study; when they assert that freedom and the general welfare are perfectly compatible with justice and peace, and that all these great principles run parallel to one another and will do so through all eternity without ever coming into conflict, do they not have on their side the presumption that stems from all that we know of the goodness and wisdom of God, as manifested in the sublime harmony of the physical universe? In the face of such a presumption and so many impressive authorities, am I, after a merely cursory investigation, to believe that this same God saw fit to introduce antagonism and discord into the laws of the moral universe? No; before concluding that all the principles of social order run counter to and neutralize one another and are in anarchic, eternal, and irreconcilable conflict; before imposing on my fellow citizens the impious system to which my reasoning has led me; I intend to review every step in the argument and make sure that there is not some point along the route where I have gone astray."


If, after an unprejudiced investigation, repeated twenty times over, I always arrived at the appalling conclusion that one must choose between material goods and the moral good, I should be so disheartened that I should reject this science, I should bury myself in voluntary ignorance, and, above all, I should decline to participate in any way in public affairs, leaving to men of another character the burden of, and the responsibility for, so painful a choice.68*

Notes for this chapter

[In French, la méture, a rather rare dialect word. Maslin is a mixture of different kinds of grain, usually wheat and rye, or a bread baked from such a mixture. Biscay and Navarre are provinces of Spain just across the Pyrenees from France.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Cf., infra, chaps. 18 and 20, and the letter to M. Thiers entitled "Protectionism and Communism," Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 7.—EDITOR.]

First Series, Chapter 16

End of Notes

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First Series, Chapter 15

Reciprocity Again


M. de Saint-Cricq inquires: "Are we sure that foreigners will buy from us as much as they sell to us?"


M. de Dombasle would like to know: "What reason have we to believe that English producers will look to our country, rather than to any other, for the products they may need, or that the value of what they import from us will equal that of their exports to us?"


I marvel how men who call themselves practical above everything else can employ reasoning so completely divorced from all practice!


In practice, is there one exchange in a hundred, in a thousand, in possibly even ten thousand, that involves the direct barter of one product for another? Ever since there has been money in the world, has any farmer said to himself: "I wish to purchase shoes, hats, counsel, and lessons only from the shoemaker, the hatter, the lawyer, or the teacher who will buy my wheat from me for exactly the equivalent value"? Why, then, should nations impose such an inconvenience upon themselves?


How is business actually transacted?


Suppose that a nation does not trade with the rest of the world, and that one of its inhabitants has produced some wheat. He sells it in the domestic market at the highest price he can get, and in exchange he receives .... what? Money, that is, warrants or drafts that are infinitely divisible, by means of which he may lawfully withdraw from the supply of domestic goods, whenever he deems it opportune, and subject to due competition, as much as he may need or want. Ultimately, at the end of the entire operation, he will have withdrawn from the total precisely the equivalent of what he put into it, and, in value, his consumption will exactly equal his production.


If the exchanges of this nation with the outside world are free, it is no longer the domestic market, but the general or world market, to which each individual sends his products and from which each withdraws the means of satisfying his wants and needs. It is no concern of his whether what he sends to the market is purchased by a fellow countryman or by a foreigner; whether the money he receives comes to him from a Frenchman or an Englishman; whether the commodities for which he afterwards exchanges this money in order to satisfy his needs were produced on this or the other side of the Rhine or the Pyrenees. For each individual there is always an exact balance between what he puts into and what he withdraws from the great common reservoir; and if this is true of each individual, it is true of the nation as a whole.


The sole difference between the two cases is that in the latter each unit has a wider market in which to buy and sell, and it consequently has more opportunities for carrying on both operations advantageously.


But, it may be objected, if everyone agrees not to buy the products of a given individual when they are brought to market, he cannot, in his turn, buy anything from anyone else. The same is true of nations.


The reply to this is that, if a nation cannot buy anything from any other nation, it will no longer sell anything on the world market; it will work for itself. It will be forced in that case to submit to what you want to impose on it from the outset, i.e., isolation.


And this will realize the ideal of the protectionist system.


Is it not ridiculous that you are now inflicting such a system upon the nation for fear that we might otherwise run the risk of coming to it some day without your interference?

22 of 46

First Series, Chapter 16

Obstructed Rivers as
Advocates for the Protectionists


Some years ago I was in Madrid, where I attended a session of the Cortes.69* The subject under discussion was a treaty with Portugal for improving navigation on the Douro.70* One of the deputies rose and said: "If the Douro is canalized, shipping rates for cargoes traveling on it will be reduced. Portuguese grain will consequently sell at a lower price in the markets of Castile and will provide formidable competition for our domestic industry. I oppose the project, unless our cabinet ministers agree to raise the customs duty so as to redress the balance." The assembly found this argument unanswerable.


Three months later I was in Lisbon. The same question was up for discussion in the Senate. A great hidalgo71* said: "Mr. President, the project is absurd. At great cost you have set guards along the banks of the Douro to prevent an invasion of Portugal by Castilian grain, and at the same time you propose, again at great cost, to facilitate that invasion. It is an inconsistency to which I cannot assent. Let us leave the Douro to our children in just the same condition as our forefathers left it to us."


Later, when the question of improving the Garonne was being discussed, I remembered the arguments of these Iberian orators, and I said to myself: If the deputies from Toulouse were as good economists as those from Palencia, and the representatives from Bordeaux as skillful logicians as those from Oporto,72* certainly they would leave the Garonne

To drowse in the soothing murmur of its overflowing wave.73*


For the canalization of the Garonne would favor, to the injury of Bordeaux, its invasion by products from Toulouse, and, to the detriment of Toulouse, its inundation by products from Bordeaux.

Notes for this chapter

[The Spanish legislature.—TRANSLATOR.]
[A river rising in Spain and flowing through Portugal into the Atlantic.—TRANSLATOR.]
[A member of the inferior nobility.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Toulouse is a French city on the Garonne well upstream from Bordeaux. Palencia is a Spanish city on a tributary of the Douro; and Oporto, a Portuguese city at the mouth of the Douro.—TRANSLATOR.]
[A modified version of the personification of the Rhine in the Fourth Epistle of the French poet Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636-1711).—TRANSLATOR.]

First Series, Chapter 17

End of Notes

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First Series, Chapter 17

A Negative Railroad


I have said that as long as one has regard, as unfortunately happens, only to the interest of the producer, it is impossible to avoid running counter to the general interest, since the producer, as such, demands nothing but the multiplication of obstacles, wants, and efforts.


I find a remarkable illustration of this in a Bordeaux newspaper.


M. Simiot74* raises the following question:


Should there be a break in the tracks at Bordeaux on the railroad from Paris to Spain?


He answers the question in the affirmative and offers a number of reasons, of which I propose to examine only this:


There should be a break in the railroad from Paris to Bayonne at Bordeaux; for, if goods and passengers are forced to stop at that city, this will be profitable for boatmen, porters, owners of hotels, etc.


Here again we see clearly how the interests of those who perform services are given priority over the interests of the consumers.


But if Bordeaux has a right to profit from a break in the tracks, and if this profit is consistent with the public interest, then Angoulême, Poitiers, Tours, Orléans, and, in fact, all the intermediate points, including Ruffec, Châtellerault, etc., etc., ought also to demand breaks in the tracks, on the ground of the general interest—in the interest, that is, of domestic industry—for the more there are of these breaks in the line, the greater will be the amount paid for storage, porters, and cartage at every point along the way. By this means, we shall end by having a railroad composed of a whole series of breaks in the tracks, i.e., a negative railroad.


Whatever the protectionists may say, it is no less certain that the basic principle of restriction is the same as the basic principle of breaks in the tracks: the sacrifice of the consumer to the producer, of the end to the means.

Notes for this chapter

[Alexandre Étienne Simiot, author of Gare du chemin de fer de Paris à Bordeaux (Bordeaux: Durand, 1846), and subsequently representative of the Gironde in the Constituent Assembly.—TRANSLATOR.]

First Series, Chapter 18

End of Notes

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First Series, Chapter 18

There Are No Absolute Principles


We cannot but be astonished at the ease with which men resign themselves to ignorance about what it is most important for them to know; and we may be certain that they are determined to remain invincibly ignorant if they once come to consider it as axiomatic that there are no absolute principles.


Attend a session of the legislature and listen to a debate over the question whether the law should prohibit international exchange or permit free trade.


A deputy rises and says:


"If you permit these exchanges, foreigners will flood you with their goods—the English with textiles, the Belgians with coal, the Spanish with woolens, the Italians with silks, the Swiss with cattle, the Swedes with iron, and the Prussians with wheat, so that no industry will any longer be possible in our country."


Another replies:


"If you prohibit these exchanges, you will not be able to share in the various bounties that Nature has lavished on different countries. You will not share in the mechanical skill of the English, the wealth of the Belgian mines, the fertility of the Polish soil, the fruitfulness of Swiss pastures, the low cost of Spanish labor, or the warmth of the Italian climate; and you will have to produce for yourselves under adverse conditions what you could have obtained, by exchange, on easier terms."


One of these deputies must certainly be mistaken. But which one? It is worth the trouble to find out, for this is not a merely academic question. You stand at a crossroads; you must decide which direction to take; and one of them leads inescapably to poverty.


To avoid the dilemma, people say that there are no absolute principles.


This axiom, which is so fashionable nowadays, not only encourages indolence, but also ministers to ambition.


Whichever theory, protectionism or the doctrine of free trade, should come to prevail, our entire economic code would, in either case, be comprised in one very brief law. In the first case, it would declare: All exchanges with foreign countries are prohibited; in the second: All exchanges with foreign countries are permitted, and many distinguished personages would lose some of their importance.


But if exchange has no peculiar character of its own; if it is governed by no natural law; if it is sometimes beneficial and sometimes injurious; if its incentive is not to be found in the good that it does, and its limit in the good that it ceases to do; if its effects are beyond the comprehension of those who engage in it; in a word, if there are no absolute principles, then we must weigh, balance, and regulate every transaction, we must equalize the conditions of production and strive to keep profits at an average level—a colossal task well calculated to provide those who undertake it with big salaries and to invest them with great authority.


On coming to Paris for a visit, I said to myself: Here are a million human beings who would all die in a few days if supplies of all sorts did not flow into this great metropolis. It staggers the imagination to try to comprehend the vast multiplicity of objects that must pass through its gates tomorrow, if its inhabitants are to be preserved from the horrors of famine, insurrection, and pillage. And yet all are sleeping peacefully at this moment, without being disturbed for a single instant by the idea of so frightful a prospect. On the other hand, eighty departments have worked today, without co-operative planning or mutual arrangements, to keep Paris supplied. How does each succeeding day manage to bring to this gigantic market just what is necessary—neither too much nor too little? What, then, is the resourceful and secret power that governs the amazing regularity of such complicated movements, a regularity in which everyone has such implicit faith, although his prosperity and his very life depend upon it? That power is an absolute principle, the principle of free exchange. We put our faith in that inner light which Providence has placed in the hearts of all men, and to which has been entrusted the preservation and the unlimited improvement of our species, a light we term self-interest, which is so illuminating, so constant, and so penetrating, when it is left free of every hindrance. Where would you be, inhabitants of Paris, if some cabinet minister decided to substitute for that power contrivances of his own invention, however superior we might suppose them to be; if he proposed to subject this prodigious mechanism to his supreme direction, to take control of all of it into his own hands, to determine by whom, where, how, and under what conditions everything should be produced, transported, exchanged, and consumed? Although there may be much suffering within your walls, although misery, despair, and perhaps starvation, cause more tears to flow than your warmhearted charity can wipe away, it is probable, I dare say it is certain, that the arbitrary intervention of the government would infinitely multiply this suffering and spread among all of you the ills that now affect only a small number of your fellow citizens.


If we all have faith in this principle where our domestic transactions are concerned, why should we not have faith in the same principle when it affects our international transactions, which are certainly less numerous, less delicate, and less complicated? And if there is no need for the local government of Paris to regulate our industries, to balance our opportunities, our profits, and our losses, to concern itself with the draining off of our currency, or to equalize the conditions of production in our domestic commerce, why should it be necessary for the customhouse to depart from its fiscal duties and to undertake to exercise a protective function over our foreign commerce?75*

Notes for this chapter

[Cf., in Vol. V (of the French edition), the first letter to M. de Larmartine, and Economic Harmonies, chap. 1—EDITOR.]*

    * [Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine (1790-1869), leading French poet, a less important historian, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, and a major political figure just after the fall of King Louis Philippe in 1848.—TRANSLATOR.]

First Series, Chapter 19

End of Notes

25 of 46

First Series, Chapter 19

National Independence


Among the arguments that have been advanced in favor of the protectionist system, we must not forget the one that is founded on the idea of national independence.


"What shall we do in case of war," people ask, "if we have put ourselves at the mercy of England for iron and coal?"


The English monopolists for their part do not fail to exclaim:


"What will happen to Great Britain in time of war if she makes herself dependent on France for food?"


The one thing that people overlook is that the sort of dependence that results from exchange, i.e., from commercial transactions, is a reciprocal dependence. We cannot be dependent upon a foreigner without his being dependent upon us. Now, this is what constitutes the very essence of society. To sever natural interrelations is not to make oneself independent, but to isolate oneself completely.


And observe, too, that one isolates oneself in anticipation of war, but that the very act of isolating oneself is a beginning of war. It makes war easier to wage, less burdensome, and consequently less unpopular. If nations remain permanently in the world market; if their interrelations cannot be broken without their peoples' suffering the double discomfort of privation and glut; they will no longer need the mighty navies that bankrupt them or the vast armies that weigh them down; the peace of the world will not be jeopardized by the caprice of a Thiers or a Palmerston;76* and war will disappear for lack of materials, resources, motives, pretexts, and popular support.


I am well aware that I shall be reproached (it is the fashion nowadays) for basing the brotherhood of nations on anything so mean and prosaic as self-interest. There are those who would prefer it to have its roots in charity, in love, even in a little self-denial, and, by impairing somewhat men's material wellbeing, to have the merit of a generous sacrifice.


When shall we ever have done with these childish declamations? When shall we finally rid science of cant? When shall we cease interposing this nauseating inconsistency between what we preach and what we practice? We deride and revile self-interest—that is to say, we execrate what is useful and good (for to say that something is in the interest of all nations is to say that it is good in itself), as if self-interest were not the necessary, eternal, and indestructible motive force to which Providence has entrusted the improvement of mankind. Are we not all being represented as angels of disinterestedness? And is not the public surely beginning to see with disgust that this affected language disfigures the pages of the very writers that are most highly paid? Oh, affectation, thou art truly the canker of our times!


What! Because well-being and peace are correlative, because it has pleased God to establish this beautiful harmony in the moral sphere, am I not to admire and adore His decrees and to accept gratefully laws that make justice the necessary condition of happiness? You want peace only in so far as it conflicts with well-being, and free trade is burdensome to you because, you say, it imposes no sacrifices on you. But if you find self-sacrifice so attractive, what prevents you from practicing it in your private affairs? Society will be grateful to you for it, since at least someone will reap its fruits; but to seek to impose it upon mankind as a principle is the height of absurdity, because self-sacrifice by everyone means the sacrifice of everyone; it is evil elevated to the dignity of a moral theory.


But, thank heaven, a great deal of this bombast can be written and read without the world's ceasing on that account to be impelled by its natural motive force, which is, whether one likes it or not, self-interest.


It is, after all, rather strange to see sentiments of the most lofty self-denial invoked in support of plunder itself. For that, in the end, is what all this ostentatious disinterestedness comes to. These men, so delicately fastidious that they do not want peace itself if it is based on the mean self-interest of mankind, are not averse to putting their hands into someone else's pocket, especially that of the poor; for what article in the tariff law protects the poor? Gentlemen, do as you like with your own property, but allow us to do likewise with the fruits of our toil, to use them or to exchange them as we wish. Declaim as much as you like on the virtue of self-renunciation; that is all very fine and noble; but at the same time, at least be honest.77*

Notes for this chapter

[Louis Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877), French statesman and historian, opponent of free trade and, in Bastiat's time, advocate of an aggressively anti-English policy for France. Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865), British statesman, Foreign Secretary when Economic Sophisms was written, and an opponent of France.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Cf. the pamphlet entitled "Justice and Fraternity," Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 4. Cf. also the Introduction to "Cobden and the English League," and the "Second Campaign of the League," in Vol. II (of the French edition).—EDITOR.]

First Series, Chapter 20

End of Notes

26 of 46

First Series, Chapter 20

Human vs. Mechanical Labor and Domestic vs. Foreign Labor


Destroying machinery and interdicting the entry of foreign goods are alike in being both founded on the same doctrine.


Those who at the same time applaud the appearance of a great invention and nevertheless advocate protectionism are most inconsistent.


What is their objection to free trade? They charge it with encouraging foreigners who are more skillful than we are, or who live under more advantageous economic conditions than we do, to produce things that, in the absence of free trade, we should produce ourselves. In short, they accuse it of injuring domestic labor.


But then, should they not, for the same reason object to machinery of every kind, since, in enabling us to accomplish, by means of physical instruments, what, in their absence, we should have to do with our bare hands, it necessarily hurts human labor?


In effect, is not the foreign worker who lives under more advantageous economic conditions than the French worker a veritable economic machine that crushes him by its competition? And, in like manner, is not a machine that performs a particular operation at lower cost than a certain number of workers a veritable foreign competitor that hamstrings them by its rivalry?


If, therefore, it is expedient to protect domestic labor from the competition of foreign labor, it is no less expedient to protect human labor from the competition of mechanical labor.


Therefore, whoever supports the protectionist system, should, in all consistency, not stop at interdicting the entry of foreign products; he should also outlaw the products of the shuttle and the plow.


And that is why I much prefer the logic of those who, in denouncing the invasion of foreign goods, have at least the courage to denounce also the overproduction due to the inventive power of the human mind.


Such a one is M. de Saint-Chamans. "One of the strongest arguments against free trade and the excessive use of machinery," he says, "is that many workingmen are deprived of employment, either by foreign competition, which depresses manufacturing, or by the machines that take the place of men in the workshops."78*


M. de Saint-Chamans has grasped perfectly the analogy—or, rather, the identity—that exists between imports and machines; that is why he outlaws both of them. It is indeed a pleasure to deal with those who are consistent in their reasoning, for even when they are in error, they boldly carry their argument to its logical conclusion.


But just see the difficulty that is waiting for them!


If it is true, a priori, that the domain of invention and that of labor cannot expand save at each other's expense, then it must be in the places where there are the most machines—in Lancashire, for example—that one should expect to find the fewest workers. And if, on the contrary, it is proved that in fact machinery and manual labor coexist to a greater degree among rich nations than among savages, the conclusion is inevitable that these two types of production are not mutually exclusive.


I cannot understand how any thinking being can enjoy a moment's rest in the face of the following dilemma:


Either man's inventions do not lessen his opportunities for employment, as the facts in general attest, since there are more of both among the English and the French than among the Hurons and the Cherokees; and, in that case, I am on the wrong track, though I know neither where nor when I lost my way. I should be committing the crime of treason to humanity if I were to introduce my mistake into the legislation of my country.


Or else, the discoveries of the human mind do limit the opportunities for the employment of manual labor, as certain facts would seem to indicate, since every day I see some machine replacing twenty or a hundred workers; and then I am obliged to acknowledge the existence of a flagrant, eternal, and irremediable antithesis between man's intellectual and his physical capacities—between his progress and his well-being—and I am forced to conclude that the Creator should have endowed man either with reason or with physical strength, either with force of character or with brute force, but that He mocked him by endowing him at the same time with faculties that are mutually destructive.


The problem is an urgent one. But do you know how we extricate ourselves from the dilemma? By means of this remarkable maxim:


In political economy, there are no absolute principles.


In plain and simple language, this means:


"I do not know which is true and which is false; I have no idea what constitutes general good or evil. I do not trouble myself about such questions. The immediate effect of each law on my personal well-being is the only principle that I consent to recognize."


There are no absolute principles! You might as well say there are no facts; for principles are only formulas that summarize a whole array of facts that have been fully established.


Machines and imports certainly do have some effects. These effects may be either good or bad. On this point there may well be differences of opinion. But, whichever position one adopts, it is expressed by one of these two principles: Machinery is a good; or, machinery is an evil. Imports are beneficial; or, imports are injurious. But to say that there are no principles, is certainly to exhibit the lowest depth to which the human mind can descend; and I confess that I blush for my country when I hear so monstrous a heresy expressed in the presence of the members of the French legislature, with their approval, that is, in the presence and with the approval of the elite of our fellow citizens; and this in order to justify their imposing laws upon us in utter ignorance of their consequences.


But, I may be reminded, all this does not constitute a refutation of the sophism. It still has to be proved that machines do not injure human labor, and that imports do not injure domestic labor.


In a work of this kind, such demonstrations cannot be really exhaustive. My purpose is rather to state difficulties than to resolve them, and to stimulate reflection rather than to satisfy the thirst for knowledge. The mind never fully accepts any convictions that it does not owe to its own efforts. I shall try, nevertheless, to put the reader on the right track.


The mistake made by the opponents of imports and machinery is in evaluating them according to their immediate and temporary effects instead of following them out to their general and ultimate consequences.


The immediate effect of an ingenious machine is to make a certain quantity of manual labor superfluous for the attainment of a given result. But its action does not stop there. Precisely because this result is obtained with less effort, its product is made available to the public at a lower price; and the total savings thus realized by all purchasers enables them to satisfy other wants, that is, to encourage manual labor in general to exactly the same extent that it was saved in the particular branch of industry that was recently mechanized. The result is that the level of employment does not fall, even though the quantity of consumers' goods has increased.


Let us give a concrete example of this whole chain of effects.


Suppose that the French people buy ten million hats at fifteen francs each; this gives the hatmaking industry an income of 150 million francs. Someone invents a machine that permits the sale of hats at ten francs. The income of this industry is reduced to 100 million francs, provided that the demand for hats does not increase. But the other fifty million francs are certainly not for that reason withdrawn from the support of human labor. Since this sum has been saved by the purchasers of hats, it will enable them to satisfy other wants and consequently to spend an equivalent amount for goods and services of every kind. With these five francs saved, John will buy a pair of shoes; James, a book; Jerome, a piece of furniture, etc. Human labor, taken as a whole, will thus continue to be supported to the extent of 150 million francs; but this sum will provide the same number of hats as before, and, in addition, satisfy other needs and wants to the extent of the fifty million francs that the machine will have saved. These additional goods are the net gain that France will have derived from the invention. It is a gratuitous gift, a tribute that man's genius will have exacted from Nature. We do not deny that in the course of the transformation a certain amount of labor will have been displaced; but we cannot agree that it will have been destroyed or even lessened.


The same is true of imports. Let us revert to our hypothesis.


Let us say that France has been making ten million hats whose sales price was fifteen francs. Foreigners invade our market by supplying us with hats at ten francs. I maintain that opportunities for domestic labor will in no way be thereby lessened.


For it will have to produce only to the extent of 100 million francs in order to pay for ten million hats at ten francs apiece.


And then, each buyer will have available the five francs saved per hat, or, in all, fifty millions, which will pay for other commodities, that is to say, other kinds of labor.


Therefore, the total of employment will remain what it was, and the additional commodities produced by the fifty millions saved on the hats will comprise the net profit from imports under a system of free trade.


And people should not try to frighten us with a picture of the sufferings that, on this hypothesis, the displacement of labor would involve.


For, if the restrictive measures had never been imposed, labor on its own initiative would have allocated itself in accordance with the law of supply and demand so as to achieve the highest ratio of result to effort, and no displacement would have occurred.


If, on the contrary, restrictive measures have led to an artificial and unproductive allocation of labor, then they, and not free trade, are responsible for the inevitable displacement during the transition from a poor to a good allocation.


At least let no one argue that, because an abuse cannot be suppressed without injuring those who profit from it, the fact that it has existed for a time gives it the right to last forever.

Notes for this chapter

Du système de l'impôt, etc., p. 438.

First Series, Chapter 21

End of Notes

27 of 46

First Series, Chapter 21

Raw Materials


It is said that the most advantageous of all branches of trade is that in which one exchanges manufactured goods for raw materials. For these raw materials are the staff of life for domestic labor.


Hence, the conclusion is drawn that the best tariff law would be the one that would most facilitate the importation of raw materials and would erect the most obstacles to the entry of finished goods.


There is, in political economy, no sophism more widely accepted than this. It is dear not only to the protectionist school but also, and above all, to the self-styled liberal school; and this is regrettable, for the worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.


Freedom of exchange will probably share the fate of freedom in general: it will become a part of our laws only after having taken possession of our minds. But if it is true that a reform must be generally accepted in order to be firmly established, it follows that nothing can delay it so much as that which misleads public opinion; and what is better fitted to mislead it than works that, while advocating free trade, are themselves based on the doctrines of monopoly?


A few years ago three large French cities—Lyons, Bordeaux, and Le Havre—rebelled against the protectionist system. The nation—indeed, the whole of Europe—was stirred on seeing raised what they took for the banner of free trade. Alas, it was still the banner of monopoly—of a monopoly a little more grasping and a great deal more absurd than the one the rebels were apparently trying to overthrow. By using the sophism that I am going to try to unmask, the petitioners did nothing more than reproduce, with an additional inconsistency, the doctrine of protection for domestic labor.


What, really, is the protectionist system? Let us hear what M. de Saint-Cricq has to say on this subject:


"Labor constitutes the wealth of a nation, because labor alone creates the material objects that our wants demand, and because universal well-being consists in the abundance of these objects." So much for the premise of the argument.


"But this abundance must be the product of domestic labor. If it were the product of foreign labor, domestic labor would at once be disemployed." Here lies the error. (See the preceding chapter.)


"What, then, should an agricultural and industrial country do? Secure its market for the products of its own soil and its own labor." This is the end to be attained.


"And, to this end, restrict by means of tariffs and, if need be, exclude entirely the products of the soil and the labor of other nations." These are the means to be employed.


Let us compare this system with that proposed in the Bordeaux petition.


It divided goods into three classes.


"The first comprises food and raw materials on which no human labor has been bestowed. In principle, a wise economic system would require that this class of goods enter duty-free." Here, as there is no labor, there is no need of protection.


"The second is composed of articles that have undergone preliminary fabrication. This preliminary fabrication warrants the levying of some duties." Here protection begins, because, according to the petitioners, domestic labor starts contributing to the product.


"The third includes finished goods, which can in no way provide employment for domestic labor; we consider this class the most dutiable." Here labor, and with it protection, reach their maximum.


It is clear that the petitioners are arguing that foreign labor harms domestic labor; this is the error of the protectionist system.


They are demanding that the French market be secured for French labor; this is the end aimed at by the protectionist system.


They are requiring that foreign labor be subjected to restrictions and taxes. This is the means employed by the protectionist system.


What difference, therefore, is it possible to detect between the petitioners from Bordeaux and M. de Saint-Cricq, the leader of the protectionist chorus?


Only one: the breadth of the meaning given the word labor.


M. de Saint-Cricq extends it to everything. Therefore he insists on protecting everything.


"Labor constitutes all the wealth of a nation," he says; "protect agricultural industry, all agricultural industry; protect manufacturing industry, all manufacturing industry—that is the cry which will be heard again and again in this Chamber."


The petitioners consider as labor only what is performed in connection with manufacturing; hence, they would confer the privileges of protection only on manufactured goods.


"Raw materials are those on which no human labor has been bestowed. In principle, they should not be dutiable. Finished goods can no longer provide employment for domestic labor; we consider them the most dutiable."


It is not our task here to investigate whether protection for domestic labor is reasonable. On this point M. de Saint-Cricq and the Bordeaux petitioners agree, and we, as the reader has seen in previous chapters, differ with both of them.


Our task is to ascertain which of them—M. de Saint-Cricq or the Bordeaux petitioners—uses the word labor in its proper sense.


Now, on this ground, we must say that the position taken by M. de Saint-Cricq is a thousand times better founded, for here is the dialogue that might take place between them:


M. de Saint-Cricq: "You grant that the products of domestic labor should be protected. You grant that no products of foreign labor can be introduced into our market without destroying an equal quantity of job opportunities for our domestic labor. But you allege that there are many goods which are possessed of value, since they are sold, and on which, nevertheless, no human labor has been bestowed. And among these you include wheat, flour, meat, cattle, bacon, salt, iron, copper, lead, coal, wool, pelts, seeds, etc.


"If you will prove to me that the value of these things is not due to labor, I shall agree that it is useless to protect them.


"But, on the other hand, if I prove to you that there is as much labor in 100 francs' worth of wool as in 100 francs' worth of textiles, you will have to admit that protection is as obligatory for the one as it is for the other.


"Now, why is this sack of wool worth 100 francs? Is it not precisely because that is its sales price? And what is the sales price but the total amount that had to be paid out, in wages, salaries, interest, and profits, to all the workers and capitalists who cooperated in the production of the article?"


The Petitioners: "As regards the wool, you may be right. But can it be said that a sack of grain, an ingot of iron, a quintal of coal, are products of labor? Are they not created by Nature?"


M. de Saint-Cricq: "Undoubtedly, Nature creates the elements of all these things, but it is labor that produces their value. I myself was wrong in saying that labor creates material objects, and this faulty expression has led me into many other errors. It is not within the capability of man to create, to make something out of nothing, whether he is an industrialist or a farmer; and if by production is meant creation, all our labors must be considered unproductive, and yours, as merchants, more so than all the others, save perhaps my own.


"The farmer, then, cannot rightly claim to have created wheat, but he can rightly claim to have created its value—I mean, by his labor and that of his domestic servants, his cowherds, and his reapers, to have changed into wheat some substances that in no way resembled it. What more is there in the action of the miller who transforms it into flour, or of the baker who shapes it into bread?


"For man to be able to clothe himself, a great many operations are necessary. Prior to the application of any human labor, the real raw materials of clothing are air, water, heat, carbon dioxide, light, and the minerals that must enter into its composition. These are the raw materials of which it may truly be said that no human labor has been bestowed on them, since they have no value, and I should not dream of protecting them. But the first application of labor transforms these substances into fodder, a second into wool, a third into yarn, a fourth into cloth, and a fifth into a finished garment. Who will be so bold as to say that any part of this whole enterprise is not labor, from the first furrow cut by the farmer's plow to the last stitch of the tailor's needle?


"And because the labor involved is spread over several branches of industry for the sake of greater speed and better quality in the manufacture of the finished product, which in this case is a piece of clothing, do you want, by an arbitrary distinction, to rank the importance of these operations in terms of the order in which they follow one another, so that the first in the sequence does not deserve even the name of labor, while the last, which is pre-eminently worthy of the appellation, alone merits the privileges of protection?"


The Petitioners: "Yes, we are beginning to see that wheat, like wool, is not entirely a product on which no human labor has been bestowed. But the farmer has not, at least, like the manufacturer, done everything himself or with the assistance of his workers. Nature too has helped him; and if labor is involved in the production of wheat, it is not solely the product of labor."


M. de Saint-Cricq: "But the value of everything resides exclusively in the labor needed to produce it. I am glad that Nature contributed to the physical production of the wheat. I could even wish that this were the achievement of Nature alone. But you must admit that I have, by my labor, compelled Nature to come to my assistance; and when I sell you wheat, please observe that it is not Nature's labor that I ask you to pay for, but my own.


"Indeed, from your mode of reasoning it would follow that manufactured goods are not exclusively the products of labor either. For does not the manufacturer summon Nature to his assistance? Does he not assist the steam engine by availing himself of the weight of the atmosphere, just as I avail myself of its humidity to assist the plow? Are the laws of gravitation, of the transmission of energy, or of the affinity of chemical elements his handiwork?"


The Petitioners: "Very well. This case is analogous to that of wool. But coal is surely the work of Nature, and of Nature alone. It is really a product on which no human labor has been bestowed."


M. de Saint-Cricq: "Yes, Nature created coal, but labor created its value. During the millions of years when it lay buried and unknown under a hundred feet of earth, the coal had no value. Someone had to go there and search for it: that was a form of labor. Someone had to bring it to the market: that too was a form of labor. Thus, as we have said, the price that you pay for it on the market is nothing but the remuneration for the labor involved in its extraction and transportation."79*


It is evident that up to this point M. de Saint-Cricq has had the better of the argument; that the value of raw materials, like that of manufactured goods, represents the costs of production, that is, of the labor involved in rendering them marketable; that it is not possible to conceive of an object which has value but without having had any human labor bestowed on it; that the distinction the petitioners are making is futile in theory and would be iniquitous in practice, for the unequal distribution of economic advantages that would result from its application would permit the one-third of the French people that are engaged in manufacturing to enjoy the privileges of monopoly on the ground that they produce by laboring, whereas the other two-thirds—that is, the farm population—would be abandoned to competition, on the pretext that they produce without laboring.


No doubt the reply to this will be that it is more advantageous for a nation to import what are called raw materials, whether produced by labor or not, and to export manufactured goods.


This is an opinion very often expressed and widely accepted.


"The more abundant raw materials are," says the Bordeaux petition, "the more manufacturing will multiply and expand."


"Raw materials," it adds, "provide unlimited opportunities for employment for the inhabitants of the country into which they are imported."


"Since raw materials are essential for labor," says the Le Havre petition, "they must be subjected to different treatment and gradually admitted at the lowest customs rates."


The same petition holds that protection for manufactured goods should be reduced, not gradually, but after an indefinite lapse of time; not to the lowest rate, but to twenty per cent.


"Among other items that must be cheap and abundant," says the Lyons petition, "the manufacturers include all raw materials."


All this is based on an illusion.


We have seen that all value represents labor. Now, it is quite true that manufacturing labor multiplies tenfold, sometimes a hundredfold, the value of an unfinished product; that is, it distributes ten times, or even a hundred times, more in earnings throughout the nation. Hence, people are led to reason as follows: The production of a quintal of iron earns only fifteen francs for all classes of workers. The transformation of this quintal of iron into watch springs raises their earnings to 10,000 francs. Will anyone venture to say that the nation does not have a greater interest in receiving 10,000 francs than fifteen francs for its labor?


This mode of reasoning disregards the fact that exchange, whether international or interpersonal, is not carried on in terms of equal quantities of weight or measure. People do not exchange a quintal of iron ore for a quintal of watch springs, or a pound of unwashed wool for a pound of cashmere shawls; but rather a certain value of one of these things for an equal value of another. Now, to exchange a value for an equal value is to exchange a quantity of labor for an equal quantity of labor. Hence, it is not true that the nation that sells textiles or watch springs for 100 francs gains more than one that sells wool or iron for 100 francs.


In a country where no law may be voted and no tax may be levied save with the consent of those whom the law is to govern and upon whom the tax is to fall, the public can be robbed only if it is first deceived. Our ignorance is the raw material of every extortion that is practiced upon us, and we may be certain beforehand that every sophism is the precursor of an act of plunder. My friends, when you detect a sophism in a petition, get a good grip on your wallet, for you may be sure that this is what the petitioners are aiming at.


Let us see, then, just what is the ulterior motive of the shipowners of Bordeaux and Le Havre and the manufacturers of Lyons that they are concealing behind their distinction between agricultural products and manufactured goods.


"It is mainly this first class [that comprising raw materials, on which no human labor has been bestowed]," say the Bordeaux petitioners, "that constitutes the chief support of our merchant marine..... In principle, a wise economic system would require that this class be duty-free..... The second [semifinished goods] can be taxed to a certain extent. The third [finished goods requiring no further labor], we regard as the most dutiable."


The Le Havre petitioners are of the opinion "that it is imperative for us to reduce gradually the duties on raw materials to the lowest rate, so that industry can successively put to work the maritime facilities that will provide it with the primary and indispensable means for the employment of its labor."


The manufacturers were not long in returning the shipowners' courtesy. Accordingly, the Lyons petition demands the duty-free entry of raw materials "in order to prove," as it says, "that the interests of manufacturing cities are not always opposed to those of maritime cities."


No; but it must be said that the interests of both, understood in the sense in which the petitioners use the term, are directly opposed to the interests of farmers and of consumers in general.


This, gentlemen, is what you are really aiming at! This is the actual goal of your nice economic distinctions! You want the law to keep finished goods from crossing the ocean, so that the far more costly transportation of raw materials in the coarse state in which a good part of their bulk still consists of impurities and wastes may provide more employment for your merchant marine and put your maritime facilities to work on a larger scale. This is what you call a wise economic system.


Why not, then, on the same principle, demand that pine trees be brought from Russia with their branches, bark, and roots; gold from Mexico in its mineral state; and hides from Buenos Aires still attached to the bones of their stinking carcasses?


I shortly expect to see railroad stockholders, as soon as they manage to gain a majority in the Chambers, pass a law forbidding the production at Cognac of the brandy that is consumed in Paris. Would not a law requiring the transportation of ten barrels of wine for every barrel of brandy furnish Parisian industry with the indispensable means for the employment of its labor and, at the same time, put our locomotive resources to work?


How long will people shut their eyes to such a simple truth?


Industry, maritime facilities, and labor have as their goal the general welfare, the common good; to create useless industries, to favor superfluous transportation facilities, to foster needless labor, not for the good of the public, but at the expense of the public, is to begin at the wrong end of the stick. What is desirable in itself is not labor, but consumption; all nonproductive labor is a dead loss. Paying sailors for carrying useless wastes across the seas is like paying them for skimming pebbles over the surface of the water. Thus, we reach the conclusion that all economic sophisms, despite their infinite variety, are alike in confusing the means with the end and in enlarging the one at the expense of the other.80*

Notes for this chapter

I do not mention explicitly here that portion of the remuneration which reverts to the entrepreneur, the capitalist, etc., for several reasons: first, if one looks at the matter closely, one will see that this always involves the reimbursement of money paid in advance or the payment for labor already performed; secondly, because under the general term labor I include not only the wages of the workingman but also the legitimate recompense of all factors co-operating in the work of production; and thirdly, and above all, because the production of manufactured goods is, like that of raw materials, burdened with interest charges and costs other than those for manual labor, so that the objection, in itself absurd, would apply to the most complicated spinning operation just as well as, and even better than, to the most primitive kind of agriculture.
[Cf., in Vol. I (of the French edition), the brief work dated 1834, entitled: "Reflections on the Petitions from Bordeaux, from Le Havre, etc."—EDITOR.]

First Series, Chapter 22

End of Notes

28 of 46

First Series, Chapter 22



Sometimes a sophism expands until it permeates the whole fabric of a long and elaborate theory. More often it contracts and shrinks, assumes the form of a principle, and takes cover behind a word or a phrase.


Paul-Louis81* used to pray, "May the good Lord deliver us from the snares of the devil—and of the metaphor!" And indeed, it would be hard to say which does more mischief in this world. It is the devil, you say; he puts the spirit of plunder into the hearts of all of us, frail creatures that we are. Yes, but he leaves the repression of abuses entirely to the counteraction of those who suffer from them. What paralyzes this counteraction is sophistry. The sword that malice puts into the hand of the assailant would be powerless if sophistry did not shatter the shield on the arm of the man who is assailed; and Malebranche82* was right when he wrote on the frontispiece of his book: Error is the cause of man's misery.


Let us see how this takes place. Ambitious hypocrites may have some evil objective, such as, for instance, planting the seeds of international discord in the mind of the public. These fateful seeds may germinate, lead to general warfare, arrest the progress of civilization, cause torrents of blood to be shed, and inflict on the country that most dreadful of all catastrophes—invasion. In any case, and aside from this, these feelings of hostility lower us in the estimation of other nations and compel Frenchmen who have retained any sense of justice to blush for their country. These are undoubtedly great evils; and for the public to protect itself against the machinations of those who would expose it to such risks, it needs no more than a clear insight into their nature. How has it been deprived of this insight? By the use of metaphors. Twist, stretch, or pervert the meaning of three or four words, and the whole job is done.


The word invasion itself is a good example of this.


A French ironmaster says: "We must protect ourselves from the invasion of English iron!" An English landlord cries: "We must repel the invasion of French wheat!" And they urge the erection of barriers between the two nations. Barriers result in isolation; isolation gives rise to hatred; hatred, to war; war, to invasion. "What difference does it make?" say the two sophists. "Is it not better to risk the possibility of invasion than to accept the certainty of invasion?" And the people believe them, and the barriers remain standing.


And yet, what analogy is there between an exchange and an invasion? What possible similarity can there be between a warship that comes to vomit missiles, fire, and devastation on our cities, and a merchant vessel that comes to offer us a voluntary exchange of goods for goods?


The same is true of the word flood. This word is customarily used in a pejorative sense, for floods often ravage fields and crops. If, however, what they deposited on our soil was of greater value than what they washed away, like the floods of the Nile, we should deify and worship them, as the Egyptians did. Before crying out against the floods of foreign goods, before putting up onerous and costly obstacles in their way, do people ask themselves whether these are floods that ravage or floods that fertilize? What should we think of Mohammed Ali83* if, instead of spending great sums to raise dams across the Nile so as to extend the area covered by its floods, he used his piastres to dredge out a deeper channel for it, so that Egypt would not be soiled by this foreign slime brought down from the Mountains of the Moon?84* We display exactly the same degree of wisdom and judgment when we try, by spending millions of francs, to protect our country—from what? From being flooded by the blessings that Nature has bestowed upon other lands.


Among the metaphors that conceal an altogether pernicious theory, none is more widespread than that which is contained in the words tribute and tributary.


These words have become so common that people treat them as synonymous with purchase and purchaser, and use either the one pair or the other indiscriminately.


However, a tribute is as different from a purchase as a theft is from an exchange; and I should as lief hear it said that Cartouche85* broke into my strongbox and purchased a thousand crowns from it, as hear it reiterated in our legislative chambers that we have paid Germany tribute for the thousand horses she sold us.


For what differentiates the action of Cartouche from a purchase is that he has not put into my strongbox, and with my consent, a value equivalent to that which he took out of it.


And what differentiates the payment of 500,000 francs that we have made to Germany from a tribute is precisely the fact that she has not received the money for nothing, but has delivered to us in exchange a thousand horses that we ourselves have judged to be worth over 500,000 francs.


Is it really necessary to subject such linguistic abuses to serious criticism? Why not, since they figure seriously in newspapers and books?


And it should not be supposed that these are mere slips of the pen on the part of certain ignorant writers. For every writer that refrains from using such expressions I can name you ten that employ them, including the cleverest—the D'Argouts, the Dupins, the Villèles,86* peers, deputies, cabinet ministers—men, in short, whose word is law, and whose most glaring sophisms serve as the basis on which the country is governed.


A celebrated modern philosopher has added to the categories of Aristotle the sophism that consists in begging the question by the use of a single word. He cites several examples of it. He could have added the word tributary to his list. The question actually at issue here is whether purchases made abroad are advantageous or harmful. They are harmful, you say. Why? Because they make us tributaries of foreigners. But this is simply to use a word that already presupposes the fact in question.


How did this deceptive figure of speech come to be introduced into the rhetoric of the monopolists?


Money leaves the country to satisfy the greed of a victorious enemy. Money also leaves the country to pay for imports. The two events are treated as analogous by taking into account only the respects in which they resemble each other and disregarding those in which they differ.


However, the latter, that is, the nonreimbursement in the first case, and the reimbursement voluntarily agreed to in the second, establishes between these two events such a difference that it is not really possible to put them in the same category. It is one thing to be forced to hand over a hundred francs to one who has you by the throat, and quite another to do so willingly to one who supplies you with what you want. You might as well say that it makes no difference whether you throw bread into the river or eat it, because the bread is destroyed in either case. What is wrong with this reasoning, as with that involving the word tribute, is that it treats two events as alike in every respect simply because of their resemblance in one respect and disregards the respects in which they differ.

Notes for this chapter

[Paul-Louis Courier de Méré (1772-1825), French army officer, scholar, and publicist. The quotation is from his political satire, the Pamphlet des pamphlets.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Nicolas de Malebranche (1638-1715), theologian and philosopher, author of La Recherche de la vérité.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Also known as Mehemet Ali (1769-1849), viceroy of Egypt, who reformed Egypt to some extent according to European principles.—TRANSLATOR.]
[The Mountains of the Moon, in east-central Africa, are the traditional source of the Nile. However, the Nile-borne sediment in Egypt comes from Ethiopia via the Blue Nile.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Louis Dominique Cartouche (1693-1721), a celebrated Parisian outlaw, as synonymous with "highway robber" to the French as Jesse James is to Americans.—TRANSLATOR.]
[J. P. G. M. A. Seraphin, Comte de Villèle (1773-1854), French statesman, an extreme conservative, in Bastiat's time a member of the Chamber of Peers.—TRANSLATOR.]

First Series, Chapter 23 Conclusion

End of Notes

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First Series, Chapter 23



All the sophisms that I have so far attacked concern only the question of the policy of protectionism; and even of those, out of pity for the reader, "I pass over some of the best":87* acquired rights, practical difficulties in the way, depletion of the currency, etc., etc.


But political economy is not confined within this narrow circle. Fourierism, Saint-Simonianism, communism, mysticism, sentimentalism, false humanitarianism, affected aspirations for an imaginary equality and fraternity; questions relating to luxury, wages, machinery; to the so-called tyranny of capital; to colonies, outlets, conquests, population, emigration, association, taxes, and loans, have crowded the field of the science with a host of parasitic arguments, of sophisms, that call for the hoe and the mattock of the diligent economist.


It is not that I fail to see the defect in my plan, or rather in my absence of plan. To attack, one by one, so many incoherent sophisms, which sometimes are in conflict with one another and more often are included in one another, is to condemn oneself to a disorderly and capricious struggle and to expose oneself to perpetual repetitions.


I should so much prefer simply to state how things are, without concerning myself about the thousand aspects under which ignorance sees them! To set forth the laws under which society prospers or perishes is virtually to destroy all sophisms at once. When Laplace88* described all that could be known up to his time about the movements of the heavenly bodies, he dispelled—even without naming them—all the astrological fantasies of the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Hindus, much more surely than he could have done by refuting them directly in innumerable volume. Truth is one; the book that sets it forth is an imposing and durable structure:

Bolder than the pyramids
And more durable than brass,
It defies greedy tyrants.


Error is manifold and ephemeral: the work that combats it cannot in itself be either great or permanent.


But if I have lacked the strength and perhaps the opportunity89* to proceed in the manner of Laplace and of Say, I cannot but believe that the form I have here adopted also has its modest usefulness. It seems to me particularly well adapted to the needs of the age, which is able to devote only occasional fleeting moments to study.


A treatise doubtless has an incontestable superiority, but on the one condition that it be read, pondered, and thoroughly examined. It is addressed only to a select few. Its mission is first to establish, and then to expand, the domain of acquired knowledge.


The refutation of commonplace prejudices cannot have such a lofty function. It aims only at clearing the way for truth, at preparing men's minds to understand it, at correcting public opinion, at breaking dangerous weapons in the hands of those who misuse them.


It is above all in political economy that this hand-to-hand struggle, this ever reviving combat with popular error, has real practical value.


The sciences can be arranged in two categories.


Some can be known, in a strict sense, only by scholars. These are the ones whose practical application is confined to particular professions. Despite his ignorance, the common man benefits from them. Although he knows nothing of mechanics or astronomy, he nonetheless enjoys the utility of a watch; with nothing but his faith in the engineer or the pilot, he is nonetheless transported by the locomotive or the steamship. We walk according to the laws of equilibrium without our being aware of them, just as M. Jourdain produced prose without knowing it.90*


But there are, on the other hand, sciences that influence the public only in proportion to the understanding of them that the public itself has, and that derive all their efficacy, not from the knowledge accumulated by a few exceptionally learned men, but from that diffused among mankind in general. These include ethics, hygiene, political economy, and, in countries where men are their own masters, politics. It is probably above all these sciences of which Bentham could say: "It is better to disseminate them than to advance them." What difference does it make that a great man, or even God Himself, has promulgated the rules of ethics, so long as men, imbued with wrong ideas, mistake virtue for vice and vice for virtue? What difference does it make that Smith,91* Say, and—according to M. de Saint-Chamans—the economists of every school have proclaimed, with respect to business transactions, the superiority of freedom over coercion, if those who make the laws and those for whom they are made are convinced of the contrary?


These sciences, which have been rightly called social, also have this peculiarity: precisely because their practical application concerns everyone, no one admits ignorance of them. If someone needs to solve a problem in chemistry or geometry, he does not pretend to have an innate knowledge of the science, nor is he ashamed to consult M. Thénard or to seek for information in the pages of Legendre or Bezout.92* But in the social sciences, people acknowledge scarcely any authorities. Since each person every day acts upon his own ideas, whether good or bad, reasonable or absurd, of ethical conduct, of hygiene, of economics, and of politics, each one feels himself competent to expound, discuss, decide, and settle these matters. Are you ill? There is not a good old lady in the country who is not prepared to tell you at once both the cause and the cure for your ills: "These are humors," she asserts; "what you need is a cathartic." But what are humors? And are there such things as humors at all? These are questions she does not trouble herself about. I immediately think of this good old lady whenever I hear all the ailments of society explained in such banal phrases as: overproduction, the tyranny of capital, excessive industrial capacity, and other nonsense of which one cannot even say Verba et votes, praetereaque nihil, for these are just so many fateful errors.93*


From what precedes, two conclusions can be drawn: (1) Sophisms must be more abundant in the social sciences than in any others, for they are the ones in which each person consults only his own opinion or his own instinctive feelings; and (2) it is in these sciences that sophisms are especially harmful, because they mislead public opinion in a field in which public opinion is authoritative—is, indeed, law.


Thus, these sciences require two kinds of books: those that expound them and those that propagate them, those that set forth the truth and those that combat error.


It seems to me that the inherent shortcoming in the form of this brief work, repetition, is what gives it its chief utility.


In regard to the question that I have been dealing with, each sophism doubtless has its own phraseology and its particular meaning, but all have a common root: the disregard of men's interests in their capacity as consumers. To show that this sophism is the starting point for a thousand roads to error is to teach the public to recognize it, to understand it, and to mistrust it under all circumstances.


After all, my aim is not to inspire convictions, but to raise doubts.


It is not my expectation that when the reader puts down this book he will cry out, "I know!" Would to heaven that he might honestly say to himself, "I don't know!"


"I don't know, for I am beginning to fear that there may be something illusory about the alleged blessings of scarcity." (Sophism I.)


"I am no longer so enthusiastic about the wonderfully beneficial effects of obstacles." (Sophism II.)


"Effort without result no longer seems to me so desirable as result without effort." (Sophism III.)


"It may well be that the key to success in business is not, as in dueling (according to the definition of it given by the fencing master in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme),94* to give and not to receive." (Sophism VI.)


"I understand that an article gains in value in proportion to the amount of work that is done upon it; but, for the purposes of an exchange, do two equal values cease to be equal because one comes from the plow and the other from a Jacquard loom?"95*


"I confess I am beginning to find it odd that man improves by being fettered and becomes rich by being taxed; and frankly, I should be relieved of a great anxiety, I should experience a sense of pure elation, if it were proved to me, as the author of the Sophisms asserts, that there is no incompatibility between prosperity and justice, between peace and freedom, between the expansion of job opportunities and the advancement of knowledge." (Sophisms XIV and XX.)


"Therefore, without considering myself altogether satisfied by his arguments, which I am not sure whether to regard as well reasoned or as paradoxical, I shall consult the experts in this science."


Let us conclude this monograph with one last and important observation.


The world is not sufficiently aware of the influence that sophistry exerts over it.


When the rule of the stronger was overthrown, sophistry transferred the empire to the more subtle, and it would be hard to say which of these two tyrants has been the more disastrous for mankind.


Men have an immoderate love of pleasure, influence, prestige, power—in a word, wealth.


And, at the same time, they are driven by a powerful impulse to obtain these things for themselves at the expense of others.


But these others, who constitute the public, are impelled no less powerfully to keep what they have acquired, provided that they can and that they know how.


Plunder, which plays such an important role in the affairs of the world, has but two instruments: force and fraud, and two impediments: courage and knowledge.


The annals of mankind are replete with instances of force employed for plunder. To retrace its history would be to reproduce almost entirely the history of all nations: Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Goths, Franks, Huns, Turks, Arabs, Mongols, Tartars, not to speak of that of the Spaniards in America, the English in India, the French in Africa, the Russians in Asia, etc., etc.


But, at least among civilized nations, the men that produce wealth have become numerous and strong enough to defend it. Does this mean that they are no longer being plundered? Not at all; they are being plundered just as much as ever, and, what is more, they are plundering one another.


The only difference is that the instrument of plunder has changed; it is no longer by force, it is by fraud, that the public is being despoiled of its wealth.


To rob the public, it is necessary to deceive it. To deceive it is to persuade it that it is being robbed for its own benefit, and to induce it to accept, in exchange for its property, services that are fictitious or often even worse. This is the purpose of sophistry, whether it be theocratic, economic, political, or monetary. Thus, ever since brute force has been held in check, the sophism has been not merely a species of evil, but the very essence of evil. It must, in its turn, be held in check. And, to this end, the public must be made more subtle than the subtle, just as it has already become stronger than the strong.


Good people, it is with this idea in mind that I address this first essay to you—although the Preface is strangely misplaced and the Dedication somewhat delayed.96*

Notes for this chapter

[In French, "j'en passe, et des meilleurs," a line from the famous and controversial play Hernani, by Victor Hugo (1801-1885). It was spoken by the Spanish grandee, Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, as he exhibited the portraits of his ancestors.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Pierre Simon, Marquis de Laplace (1749-1827), French astronomer and mathematician, whose great achievement was to solve the problem of apparent instability in the solar system.—TRANSLATOR.]
[We noted, at the end of chapter 4, that it obviously contained the germ of the doctrines expanded in Economic Harmonies. Here again we find on the author's part, a desire to undertake the writing of this last work at the first suitable opportunity.—EDITOR.]
[In The Would-Be Gentleman (Le Bourgeois gentilhomme), by J. B. P. Molière (1622-1673), M. Jourdain, a bourgeois being trained in the manners of gentlemen, had never realized that common speech could have the high-sounding name of "prose."—TRANSLATOR.]
[Adam Smith (1723-1790), Scottish moral philosopher and economist, probably the most influential of all writers and thinkers in the realm of economic freedom.—TRANSLATOR.]
[L. J. Thénard (1777-1857), a chemist; A. M. Legendre (1752-1834), a geometrist; Étienne Bezout (1730-1783), a mathematician.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Latin, "Mere words and sounds, and nothing more."—TRANSLATOR.]
[In The Would-Be Gentleman, the fencing master assures M. Jourdain that dueling is not at all dangerous, for all M. Jourdain need do is hit his adversary and not be hit in return.—TRANSLATOR.]
[A complex and efficient weaving apparatus developed over a lengthy period; one of the numerous contributors to this development was J. M. Jacquard (1752-1834), a businessman and inventor of Lyons, France.—TRANSLATOR.]
[This thought, which ends the first series of Economic Sophisms, was to be taken up again and expanded by the author at the beginning of the second series. The impact of plunder upon the fate of man concerned him deeply. Having touched on this subject several times in Economic Sophisms and Selected Essays on Political Economy (cf., in particular, "Property and Plunder," chap. 6, and "Plunder and Law," chap. 8), he reserved a place for a lengthy discussion of it in the second part of Economic Harmonies, among the "Disturbing Factors," chap. 18. Final testimony of the importance that he attached to it was his statement on the eve of his death: "An important task for political economy is to write the history of plunder. It is a long history involving, from the very beginning, conquests, migrations of peoples, invasions, and all the disastrous excesses of violence at grips with justice. All this has left an aftermath that still continues to plague us and that renders it more difficult to solve the problems of the present day. We shall not solve them so long as we are unaware of the way, and of the extent to which, injustice, present in our very midst, has gained a foothold in our customs and laws."—EDITOR.]

Second Series

End of Notes

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