Economic Sophisms

Frédéric Bastiat
Bastiat, Frédéric
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Arthur Goddard, trans.
First Pub. Date
Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
Pub. Date
Introduction by Henry Hazlitt
40 of 46

Second Series, Chapter 11

The Utopian53*


"If only I were His Majesty's prime minister....!"


"Well, what would you do?"


"I would begin by .... by .... really, by being very much embarrassed. For after all, I should not be prime minister if I did not have a majority; I should not have a majority if I did not win it for myself; I should not have won it for myself, at least by honorable means, if I did not govern according to its ideas..... Thus, if I undertook to make my ideas prevail by opposing those of the majority, I should no longer have a majority; and if I did not have a majority, I should no longer be His Majesty's prime minister."


"I shall assume that you are and that consequently the majority do not stand in your way. What would you do?"


"I should first seek for ways of attaining justice."


"And then?"


"I should seek for ways of improving well-being."


"And next?"


"I should seek to determine whether they are mutually compatible or antagonistic."


"And if you found that they are incompatible?"

"I should say to King Philip:
" 'Take back your cabinet post.'
"The rhyme is not rich, and the style is old-fashioned,
"But do you not see that this is much better
"Than these transactions against which good sense protests
"And that honesty speaks out there quite pure?"54*


"But suppose you discover that both justice and well-being are attained by one and the same means?"


"Then I shall proceed straight on."


"Very well. But in order to attain well-being by way of justice a third element is required."


"And what is that?"


"The opportunity."


"You granted me that."




"Just now."




"By conceding me a majority."


"This seems a risky concession to have made, after all, for it implies that the majority clearly sees what is just and what is useful, and sees no less clearly that they are in perfect harmony."


"And if the majority saw all this so clearly, good would result, so to speak, all by itself."


"This is the point to which you are constantly directing my attention: that reform is possible only by way of progress in general enlightenment."


"And that such progress renders every necessary reform inevitable."


"Admirably put. But this prerequisite progress is itself a little slow and long-drawn-out. Let us assume it to have been accomplished. What would you do? For I am most eager to see you set to work, getting things done and putting your ideas into practice."


"First, I should reduce the postage on letters to ten centimes."


"I understood you to say five centimes."55*


"Yes; but since I have other reforms in mind, I must proceed cautiously if I am to avoid a deficit."


"Gracious! What discretion! Your proposal already involves a deficit of thirty millions."


"Next, I should reduce the tax on salt to ten francs."


"Fine! That will give you another deficit of thirty millions. You have doubtless invented a new tax?"


"Heaven preserve me from that! Besides, I do not pretend to have so inventive a mind."


"Nevertheless, it takes a great deal.... Ah! I have it. Why did I not think of it before? You are simply going to reduce expenditures. It never occurred to me."


"You are not the only one who has overlooked that possibility. I do plan on resorting to such measures, but for the moment, they are not what I am counting on."


"Yes, very likely. You reduce revenue without reducing expenditures, and you avoid a deficit?"


"Yes, by reducing other taxes at the same time."


(Here, the interlocutor, touching his brow with the index finger of his right hand, sadly shakes his head, which may be translated as: "He's out of his mind.")


"To be sure, this scheme of yours is most ingenious. I now pay one hundred francs into the treasury; you reduce my salt tax by five francs and my postal rate by five francs; and, in order for the treasury to receive no less than one hundred francs, you are going to reduce some other tax of mine by ten francs."


"Exactly! You have quite caught my meaning."


"Devil take me if I have! I am not even sure that I heard you aright."


"I repeat that I recoup one tax reduction by another."


"The deuce you do! I have a few moments to spare; I might as well use them to hear you expound this paradox."


"The whole mystery is easily explained: I know a tax that costs you twenty francs, of which not a centime reaches the treasury; I have half of it refunded to you and the other half sent to the tax collector."


"Really, you are a peerless financier! There is only one problem. In what way, if you please, do I pay a tax that does not go to the treasury?"


"How much did that suit cost you?"


"One hundred francs."


"And if you had had the cloth brought from Verviers,56* how much would it have cost you?"


"Eighty francs."


"Then why did you not order it from Verviers?"


"Because that is interdicted."


"And why is it interdicted?"


"So that the suit would cost me one hundred francs instead of eighty."


"That interdiction thus costs you twenty francs."


"Without a doubt."


"And where do these twenty francs go?"


"Where would they go? To the textile manufacturer."


"Very well. Give me twenty francs for the treasury, I shall have the interdiction removed, and you will still be ten francs ahead."


"Oh, I am beginning to see it all clearly now. This is what the balance sheet of the treasury would look like: five francs lost on the postal service, and five francs on salt; and ten francs gained on the cloth. Hence, everything comes out even."


"And here is what your own balance sheet would show: five francs gained on salt, and five francs on the postal service; and ten francs on the cloth."


"Total, twenty francs. This proposal is very agreeable to me. But what will happen to the unfortunate textile manufacturer?"


"Oh, I have not forgotten him. I manage to find some way of compensating him, always by means of tax reductions that will be profitable for the treasury; and what I have done for you in regard to cloth, I shall do for him with respect to wool, coal, machinery, etc.; so that he will be in a position to lower his price without suffering any loss."


"But are you sure that everything will balance?"


"The tendency will be all in that direction. The twenty francs that I have you gain on the cloth will be increased by those I shall save you on meat, fuel, wheat, etc. That will amount to a good deal; and a like saving will be realized by each of the thirty-five million of your fellow citizens. There is enough there to buy all the cloth in Verviers and Elbeuf57* too. The nation will be better clothed, that is all."


"I shall have to think about it; for it is all a little confused in my mind."


"After all, as far as clothing is concerned, the essential thing is to be clothed. Your limbs are your property, and not that of the manufacturer. Protecting them from the cold is your business, and not his. If the law takes his side against you, the law is unjust, and you have authorized me to reason according to the hypothesis that what is unjust is harmful."


"Perhaps I have gone too far, but continue the description of your financial plan."


"Then I shall make a tariff law."


"In two folio volumes?"


"No, in two articles."


"Then, for once, people will no longer say that the famous axiom, 'Ignorance of the law is no defense,' is a fiction. Let us see your tariff, then."


"Here it is:


" 'Art. 1. All imported goods shall pay a duty of five per cent ad valorem.' "


"Even raw materials?"


"Unless they have no value."


"But they all have some, more or less."


"In that case, they shall pay more or less."


"How do you expect our factories to compete with foreign factories that get their raw materials duty-free?"


"Assuming that government expenditures remain the same, if we shut off this source of revenue, we shall have to open up another; that will not lessen the relative inferiority of our factories, and there will be one more government bureau to establish and pay for."


"True; I was reasoning as if it were a question of abolishing the tax and not of redistributing it. I shall have to think about that. Let us see your second article."


" 'Art. 2. All exported goods shall pay a tax of five per cent ad valorem.' "


"Mercy on us, Mr. Utopian! You are going to get yourself stoned, and, if need be, I shall cast the first stone."


"We have supposed that the majority is already enlightened."


"Enlightened! Do you maintain that an export tax is not burdensome?"


"Every tax is burdensome, but this one is less so than any other."


"I suppose a certain amount of eccentric behavior must be expected at carnival time. Please be so kind as to make this new paradox plausible, if you can."


"How much did you pay for this wine?"


"One franc a liter."


"How much would you have paid outside the customs gate?"


"Fifty centimes."


"Why this difference?"


"Ask at the octroi, where they took ten sous extra."


"And who created the octroi?"58*


"The commune of Paris, in order to pave and light the streets."


"Then it is an import duty, is it not? But suppose it were the adjacent communes that had erected the octroi for their benefit, what then?"


"I should nonetheless pay one franc for my fifty-centime wine, and the additional fifty centimes would go for the paving and lighting of the streets of Montmartre and Les Batignolles."59*


"So that it is ultimately the consumer who pays the tax?"


"That is beyond doubt."


"Then, by imposing a duty on exports, you make foreigners contribute toward the payment of your expenses."


"Here I must find fault with you, for what you are proposing is no longer justice."


"Why not? In order to make a product, a country must have a school system, police, roads—all things that cost money. Why should not foreigners, if they are the ultimate consumers, bear all the costs involved in making the product?"


"But that is contrary to received opinion."


"Not in the least. The ultimate consumer should defray all the direct or indirect costs of production."


"Whatever you may say, it is as clear as can be that such a measure would paralyze trade and cut us off from our foreign markets."


"That is an illusion. If you had to pay this tax over and above all the others, you would be right. But if the one hundred millions levied in this way reduce other taxes by the same amount, your products now appear on foreign markets with all your advantages, and even with greater advantages if this tax proves less burdensome and costly."


"I shall give the matter some thought. And so, that takes care of salt, the postal service, and the customhouse. Are you all finished?"


"I have hardly begun."


"Please, acquaint me with your other utopian ideas."


"I lost sixty millions on salt and the postal service. The customs duty allows me to recoup them; but it gives me something still more valuable."


"And what in the world is that, if you please?"


"International relations founded on justice, and a probability of peace that is equivalent to a certainty. I shall demobilize the army."


"The whole army?"


"Except for the special branches, which will be recruited voluntarily, like all other professions. You see what I mean; conscription is abolished."


"I beg your pardon, sir. You must use the term recruitment."


"Ah! I forgot. It is amazing how easy it is, in certain countries, to perpetuate the most unpopular policies by giving them another name."


"The same is true of combined duties, which have become indirect taxes."60*


"And the police61* have taken the name of municipal guards."


"In brief, you are disarming the country in expectation of a utopia."


"I said that I would disband the army, not that I would disarm the country. On the contrary, I expect to give it an invincible armed force."


"How do you extricate yourself from such a tangle of contradictions?"


"I propose to summon all the citizens into service."


"It was hardly worth your trouble to discharge a few soldiers only to call everybody back into the service."


"You did not make me prime minister simply to leave things just as they are. Therefore, on attaining power, I shall say, like Richelieu:62* 'The maxims of the state have changed.' And my principal maxim, which shall serve as the fundamental principle of my administration, is this: Every citizen must know how to do two things: to provide for his own existence and to defend his country."


"That does seem to me, at first sight, to show at least some glimmerings of good sense."


"Consequently, I propose to base the national defense on a law containing two articles:


" 'Art. 1. Every able-bodied citizen, without exception, shall remain in service for four years, between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five, to receive military training.' "


"A big saving, indeed! You discharge four hundred thousand soldiers and create ten million."


"Wait for my second article.


" 'Art. 2. Unless he proves, at the age of twenty-one, that he has completely mastered platoon drill.' "


"I did not expect that ending. In order to avoid four years of service, our young men would surely vie with one another in learning 'squads-right!' and 'forward march, double time!' The idea is fantastic."


"It is better than that. For, after all, without bringing sorrow to any family or violating the principle of equality, does it not assure the country, in a simple and inexpensive manner, ten million defenders capable of defying a coalition of all the standing armies in the world?"


"I must say that, if I were not a cautious man, I should end by giving support to these fantastic ideas of yours."


The utopian, warming to his subject: "Thank heaven, I have found a means of reducing my budget by two millions! I shall abolish the octroi, reform the system of indirect taxation...."


"Just a moment, Mr. Utopian!"


The utopian, warming more and more to his subject: "I shall establish freedom of religion and freedom of education.63* New projects: I shall buy the railroads,64* repay the national debt, and halt speculation."


"Mr. Utopian!"


"Freed from excessive responsibilities, I shall concentrate all the powers of the government on suppressing fraud, on administering prompt and equal justice to all, . . . ."


"Mr. Utopian, you are undertaking too many things; the nation will not follow you!"


"You gave me a majority."


"I take it away from you."


"Very well! In that case I am no longer prime minister, and my plans remain what they are, utopian."

Notes for this chapter

[First published in Le Libre échange, January 17, 1847.—EDITOR.]
[Bastiat again offers a parody of Molière, this time the words of Alceste in the dialogue about the poor sonnet, from The Misanthrope, Act I, scene ii.—TRANSLATOR]
[In fact, the author had said five centimes, in May, 1846, in an article in the Journal des économistes, which became chapter 12 in the second series of Economic Sophisms.—EDITOR.]
[A textile-manufacturing city in Belgium.—TRANSLATOR]
[A textile-manufacturing city in France, near Paris.—TRANSLATOR]
[A local tax on certain commodities (foodstuffs, liquids, fuels, fodder, building materials, etc.) imposed as a condition of their being brought into a town or district. The term is also used, by extension, as here, to refer to the place where the octroi is payable or the official body empowered to collect it.—TRANSLATOR]
[Two suburban communes that became parts of the city of Paris in 1860.—TRANSLATOR]
[The French word for "tax" here, and in many other places in the book, is contribution. This word also means in French a voluntary and nongovernmental act.—TRANSLATOR]
[French gendarmes, a word with no exact English equivalent.—TRANSLATOR]
[Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642), brilliant chief minister of France, 1624-1642.—TRANSLATOR]
["Freedom of education" for Bastiat involved lessening or removing the strict controls on the schools imposed by both the Roman Catholic Church and certain government officials.—TRANSLATOR.]
[The first French railroads were constructed partly by private British capital, and partly by cooperation between the French government and private French capital.—TRANSLATOR.]

Second Series, Chapter 12

End of Notes

41 of 46

Second Series, Chapter 12

Salt, the Postal Service,
and the Tariff 65*


A few days ago, people expected to see the mechanism of representative government create an utterly novel product that its wheels had not yet succeeded in grinding out: the relief of the taxpayer.


Everyone anxiously awaited the outcome; the experiment affected men's pocketbooks as much as it aroused their curiosity. No one, then, doubted that the machine had sufficient impulsion, because when self-interest and novelty turn the wheels, it runs admirably at all times, in all places, during all seasons, and under all circumstances.


But as for reforms tending to simplify and equalize the costs of government and to render them less burdensome, no one yet knows what it can do.


People said: "You will soon see. Now is the time. This is a job for the fourth session, when public approval is worth something. In 1842, we got the railroads; in 1846, we are to get a lowering of the salt tax and postal rates; we shall have to wait until 1850 for the reform of the tariff and a change in our system of indirect taxation. The fourth session is the jubilee year for the taxpayer."66*


Hence, everyone was full of hope, and everything seemed to favor the experiment. The Moniteur had announced that from one quarter to the next, government revenue kept increasing; and what better use could be made of these unanticipated funds than to permit the villager an extra grain of salt for his warm water67* and an extra letter from the battlefield where his son is risking his life?


But what happened? Just as two sweet substances, it is said, prevent each other from crystallizing, or like the two dogs that fought so fiercely that nothing was left but their tails, the two reforms nullified each other. All that we have left are the tails, that is to say, a number of proposed laws, arguments for and against them, reports, statistics, and addenda, in which we have the consolation of seeing our sufferings appreciated in humanitarian terms and diagnosed for homeopathic therapy. As for the reforms themselves, they did not crystallize. Nothing came from the crucible, and the experiment failed.


Soon the chemists will present themselves before the members of the jury in order to explain this failure, and will address them in the following terms:


One: "I proposed postal reform; but the Chamber wanted to lower the tax on salt, and I had to withdraw my proposal."


Another: "I voted for the reduction of the salt tax; but the ministry proposed postal reform, and the vote did not carry."


And the jury, finding this logic excellent, will start the experiment all over again with the same data and will send the same chemists back to work on it.


This shows us that there could very well be something sensible, despite the source, in the practice, introduced half a century ago on the other side of the Channel, which consists, so far as the public is concerned, in undertaking just one reform at a time.68* It is time-consuming and tedious, but it does result in something.


We have about a dozen reforms in progress at the same time; they press on one another like the souls of the departed before the gate to oblivion, and not one enters.


Alas! how weary I am! One at a time, for mercy's sake!69*


That is what Jacques Bonhomme70* was saying in a debate with John Bull over postal reform. It is worth repeating.



JACQUES BONHOMME: Oh, who will deliver me from this whirlwind of reforms! My head is splitting. People seem to be inventing them every day: educational reform, financial reform, sanitary reform, parliamentary reform, electoral reform, commercial reform, social reform, and now here comes postal reform!


JOHN BULL: The last is so easy to carry out, and so useful, as we have discovered here, that I may venture to recommend it to you.


JACQUES: Still, they say that it turned out badly in England, and that it cost your Exchequer ten million.


JOHN: Which brought the public a hundred million.


JACQUES: Is that quite certain?


JOHN: Look at all the signs of public satisfaction. Observe how the whole nation, under the ministries of Peel and Russell, has given Mr. Rowland Hill,71* in British fashion, tangible evidence of its gratitude. Look at the poor, mailing their letters only after showing their sentiments by an imprint of a seal bearing the device: The people grateful for postal reform. Note the declaration made by the heads of the League72* on the floor of Parliament that without it they would have needed thirty years to complete their great work of freeing the food of the poor from all customs restrictions. Look at the statement made by the officials of the Board of Trade deploring the fact that the English monetary system does not lend itself to an even greater reduction in the postal rate on letters. What more proof do you need?


JACQUES: Yes, but the treasury?


JOHN: Are not the treasury and the public in the same boat?


JACQUES: Not exactly. And besides, is it quite certain that our postal system needs reforming?


JOHN: That is precisely the question. Let us take a look at the way things are done. What happens to letters that are put in the mail?


JACQUES: Oh, the whole mechanism is wonderfully simple. The postmaster opens the mailbox at a certain hour and takes out, let us assume, a hundred letters.


JOHN: And then?


JACQUES: Then he examines them one after another. With the aid of a geographic table and a scale, he assigns each to its appropriate category on the basis of both its destination and weight. There are only eleven zones and a like number of weight classifications.


JOHN: That makes a good one hundred and twenty-one combinations for each letter.


JACQUES: Yes, and we must double this number, for the letter may or may not be posted for rural delivery.


JOHN: This means, then, that the hundred letters will have to be scrutinized 24,200 times. Then what does the postmaster do?


JACQUES: He writes the weight in one corner and the amount of the postage due in the very middle of the address, in the form of a conventional symbol in use in the postal service.


JOHN: And then?


JACQUES: He postmarks them; he divides the letters into ten packets, according to the post offices to which they are to be sent; and he adds up the total postage for the ten packets.


JOHN: And then?


JACQUES: Next, he writes the ten sums down a column in one account book, and across the columns of another.


JOHN: And then?


JACQUES: Then he writes a letter to the postmaster at each of the ten points of destination in order to inform him of the accounting item that concerns him.


JOHN: Suppose the letters are prepaid?


JACQUES: Oh, then, I must admit, the service becomes a little complicated. The postmaster must receive the letter, weigh it and determine the distance it is to travel, as before, collect the postage due, and make change; choose from among thirty postmarks the one that applies; note on the letter its zone number, its weight, and the postage; transcribe the entire address first into one account book, then into a second, then into a third, then onto a separate slip; wrap the letter in the slip, send the whole well tied with string to the postmaster at the point of destination, and record each of these circumstances in a dozen columns of the fifty that line his ledger.


JOHN: And all that for just forty centimes!


JACQUES: Yes, on the average.


JOHN: I see that the departure is really rather simple. Let us see how things go on the arrival of the letter at its destination.73*


JACQUES: The postmaster opens the mailbag.


JOHN: And after that?


JACQUES: He examines the ten bills from the postmasters at the points of origin.


JOHN: And after that?


JACQUES: He compares the total indicated on each bill with the total he gets by adding up the amounts in each packet of letters.


JOHN: And after that?


JACQUES: He computes the grand total to determine how much in all he will hold the postmen responsible for.


JOHN: And after that?


JACQUES: After that, with the aid of a table of distances and a scale, he verifies and corrects the postage on each letter.


JOHN: And after that?


JACQUES: He writes in one account book after another, in one column after another, depending upon innumerable circumstances, the overcharges and the undercharges.


JOHN: And after that?


JACQUES: He enters into correspondence with the ten postmasters to call their attention to errors amounting to ten or twenty centimes.


JOHN: And after that?


JACQUES: He sorts all the letters he has received in order to give them to the postmen.


JOHN: And after that?


JACQUES: He computes the total postage that each postman is charged with.


JOHN: And after that?


JACQUES: The postman verifies the charges; he and the postmaster discuss the meaning of the symbols. The postman pays the sum in advance, and leaves.


JOHN: Go on.74*


JACQUES: The postman goes to the home of the addressee; he knocks at the door; a servant comes down and opens it. There are six letters for that address. The servant and the mailman add up the postage due, first independently, then together. They find it comes to two francs seventy centimes.


JOHN: Go on.


JACQUES: The servant goes to find his master; the latter proceeds to verify the symbols. He takes threes for twos, and nines for fours; he has doubts about the weights and the distances; in brief, the postman has to be summoned upstairs, and, while waiting for him, the master tries to guess who sent the letters, thinking it might be wise to refuse them.


JOHN: Go on.


JACQUES: The postman gets there and pleads the case for the postal administration. He and the master of the house discuss, examine, and weigh the letters, and calculate the distances; at last, the addressee accepts five letters and refuses to accept one.


JOHN: Go on.


JACQUES: Now the only question is that of payment. The servant runs to the grocer's to get small change. Finally, after twenty minutes, the postman is free to leave, and he runs downstairs to begin anew the same ritual from one door to the next.


JOHN: Go on.


JACQUES: He returns to the post office. He and the postmaster go over his figures twice. He returns the letters refused and gets a refund of the money he has advanced. He recounts the objections of the addressees in regard to weights and distances.


JOHN: Go on.


JACQUES: The postmaster looks for the account books, the ledgers, and the special forms needed to make his accounting of the letters refused.


JOHN: Go on, if you please.


JACQUES: Good heavens, I am not a postmaster. We might go on from here to the statements of the tenth, the twentieth, and the end of the month; to the methods devised, not only to set up, but also to audit, such detailed accounts for 50 million francs resulting from postal charges averaging 43 centimes and from 116 million letters, each one of which might belong to any of 242 categories.


JOHN: That certainly looks like, a rather complicated kind of simplicity. Surely the man who resolved this problem must have had a hundred times the genius of your M. Piron75* or of our Rowland Hill.


JACQUES: You seem to be laughing at our system; suppose you explain yours.


JOHN: In England, the government has arranged for the sale of envelopes and paper wrappers at a penny apiece, at all places it deems appropriate.76*


JACQUES: And after that?


JOHN: You write your letter, fold it in four, put it into one of these envelopes, and mail it.


JACQUES: And after that?


JOHN: And after that, there is nothing more to be said. That is all there is to it. There are no considerations of weight or distance, no overcharges or undercharges, no letters refused, no forms to fill out, no account books or ledgers or columns to total, no bookkeeping or auditing to be done, no change to give or receive, no symbols to interpret, no compulsion, etc., etc.


JACQUES: I must say that does appear simple. But is it not too simple? A child could understand it. It is reforms like this that stifle the genius of great administrators. For my part, I prefer the French method. And then, your uniform postal rate has the greatest of all defects. It is unjust.


JOHN: Why in the world do you say that?


JACQUES: Because it it unjust to make people pay as much for a letter carried to a neighbor as for one carried a hundred leagues away.


JOHN: In any case, you will admit that the extent of the injustice is limited to a penny.


JACQUES: What difference does that make? It is still an injustice.


JOHN: In fact, it is limited to just a halfpenny, for the other half goes to defray costs that are the same for all letters, regardless of the distance they are carried.


JACQUES: Penny or halfpenny, it is still unjust in principle.


JOHN: Finally, the injustice, which, at most, is only a halfpenny in a particular case, is completely wiped out in the total correspondence of each citizen, since everyone writes sometimes to distant points and at other times to points in the neighborhood.


JACQUES: I still do not accept it. The injustice may, if you like, be infinitely attenuated and mitigated; it may be imperceptible, infinitesimal, innocuous, but it exists.


JOHN: Does the government make you pay more for the gram of tobacco you buy on the rue de Clichy than for that sold you on the Quai d'Orsay?77*


JACQUES: What connection is there between the two objects being compared?


JOHN: The fact that, in one case as in the other, someone must pay the costs of transportation. It would be just; mathematically, if each pinch of tobacco cost a millionth of a centime more on the rue de Clichy than on the Quai d'Orsay.


JACQUES: True enough. After all, one should not demand the impossible.


JOHN: To say nothing of the fact that your postal system is just only in appearance. Two houses are situated side by side, but one is outside the zone and the other is inside. The first will have to pay ten centimes more than the second, which is as much as the entire cost of posting the letter in England. You can see quite readily that, in spite of appearances, injustice occurs in your country on a far greater scale.


JACQUES: That seems quite true. My objection is of no great importance, but there is still the revenue loss.


Here I stopped listening to the two interlocutors. It seems, however, that Jacques Bonhomme was entirely converted; for, a few days later, after the report of M. de Vuitry78* had appeared, he wrote the distinguished legislator the following letter:


Jacques Bonhomme to M. de Vuitry, Deputy,
Chairman of the Committee in Charge of
the Bill Relating to Postal Rates



"Although I am not unaware of the extreme disapprobation that one runs the risk of incurring when one takes one's stand on the basis of an absolute theory, I do not believe I ought to abandon the cause of a uniform postal rate no higher than the amount needed merely to reimburse the government for the service rendered.


"I am well aware that in writing to you I am putting myself at a disadvantage, for I do nothing more than underline the contrast between us. On the one hand, a hothead, a doctrinaire reformer, who talks of suddenly overthrowing a whole system without providing for any period of transition; a dreamer who perhaps has never set eyes on that mountain of laws, administrative decrees, tables, addenda, and statistics that accompany your report; in a word, a theorist! On the other, a sober, judicious, and temperate legislator, who weighs everything carefully and compares one proposal with another, who gives due consideration to all the different interests that may be affected, and who rejects all systems, or, what amounts to the same thing, forms one of his own out of what he borrows from all the others. Surely there can be no doubt concerning the outcome of a struggle so unequal.


"Nevertheless, while the question is pending, a person has the right to state his convictions. I know that mine are sufficiently plain to evoke a smile of derision on the lips of the reader. All that I dare expect from him is that he bestow it on me, if there be occasion for it, after, and not before, hearing my reasons.


"For after all, I too can invoke experience. A great nation has put it to the test. What is their opinion of it? No one denies that they are expert in these matters, and their opinion should carry some weight.


"Well, there is not a single voice in England that does not bless the postal reform. Witness the subscription fund raised in honor of Mr. Rowland Hill; witness the original way in which the people, according to what John Bull tells me, are expressing their gratitude; witness this oft-repeated acknowledgement by the League: 'Never, without penny postage, would we have developed the public opinion that is turning against the protectionist system.' Witness the following statement, which I find in a work emanating from an official source:

"The postal rate on letters ought to be set, not in consideration of a fiscal goal, but with the sole purpose of covering the costs.


"To which Mr. MacGregor79* adds:

"It is true that since the postal rate has been reduced to the level of our coins of lowest denomination, it is not possible to lower it further, although it still produces some net revenue. But this net revenue, which will go on increasing, should be devoted to improving the service and to extending our system of packet boats on every ocean.80*


"This leads me to examine the fundamental idea on which the committee bases its reasoning, namely, that, on the contrary, the postage on letters ought to be a source of revenue for the government.


"This idea dominates your whole report, and I have to admit that, as long as such a preconception had any influence, you could not accomplish anything great or produce anything finished; you would be fortunate if, in trying to reconcile all systems, you did not combine their various disadvantages.


"The fundamental question that confronts us, then, is this: Is correspondence between private individuals a fit subject for taxation?


"I shall not revert to abstract principles. I shall refrain from mentioning that, since society exists only by virtue of the communication of ideas, the object of all government should be to encourage and not to hamper that communication.


"I shall simply examine the facts of the situation.


"The total length of the national, departmental, and connecting roads is about 1,000,000 kilometers. Assuming that each kilometer cost 100,000 francs, that makes a capital expenditure of 100 billions by the state in order to facilitate the movement of men and things.


"Now, I ask you, if one of your distinguished colleagues were to propose in the Chamber a law phrased in this manner:

"On and after January 1, 1847, the state shall levy on all travelers a tax calculated not only to cover the costs of the roads but also to secure the return, into its general funds, of four or five times the total of these costs.....
would you not find such a proposal socially destructive and intrinsically abominable?


"How does it happen that this notion of profit—what am I saying?—of simple remuneration, is never entertained when the circulation of things is in question, yet appears so natural to you when it is a question of the movement of ideas?


"I dare say that this is the result of habit. If what was in question were the creation of the postal service, certainly it would appear abominable to base it on the fiscal principle.


"And please observe that in this case the compulsion is more clearly marked.


"When the state opens a road, it does not force anyone to use it. (It would no doubt do so if the use of the road were taxed.) But when once a national postal service is established, nobody can send a letter, even to his mother, by any other means.


"Thus, in principle, the postal rate on letters should be no more than what is required to render it remunerative, and, for that reason, uniform.


"Now, if one begins with this idea, how can one fail to be struck by the beauty and simplicity of the reform and by the ease with which it can be carried out?


"Here it is in its entirety, and, save for editing, drafted in the form of a bill:

"Art. 1. On and after January 1, 1847, there shall be placed on sale, wherever the government deems it useful, stamped envelopes and stamped wrappers at the price of five (or ten) centimes.
"Art. 2. Every letter placed in one of these envelopes and not exceeding fifteen grams in weight, every newspaper or piece of printed matter enclosed in one of these wrappers and not exceeding.... grams, shall be carried and delivered, without charge, to its address.
"Art. 3. The accounting division of the postal service is entirely abolished.
"Art. 4. All criminal and penal laws on the subject of the postage are repealed.


"This is very simple, I admit—much too simple—and I anticipate a storm of objections.


"But, granting that this system has its disadvantages, these are not in question; the question is whether your system does not have still greater ones.


"And in all honesty, can it in any respect whatsoever (except for revenue) stand a moment's comparison with the system I am proposing?


"Examine the two of them; compare them in terms of ease, convenience, speed, simplicity, orderliness, economy, justice, equality, the promotion of business, emotional satisfactions, intellectual and moral development, and cultural impact; and tell me, in all good conscience, whether it is possible to hesitate for one moment.


"I shall refrain from expatiating on any of these considerations. I content myself merely with mentioning the headings of a dozen chapters, and I leave the rest blank, convinced that no one is more competent than you to fill them in.


"But, since there is only one objection, the revenue, I really must say a word about that.


"You have made a chart showing that a uniform postal rate, even at twenty centimes, would involve a loss of twenty-two millions for the treasury.


"At ten centimes, the loss would be twenty-eight millions; at five centimes, thirty-three millions—hypotheses so terrifying that you did not even formulate them.


"But permit me to call your attention to the fact that these figures in your report are a little too much subject to variation to be allowed to pass unchallenged. In all your charts, in all your calculations, you tacitly presuppose the words 'other things being equal.' You assume that a simple administrative system will cost the same as a complicated one, and that the same number of letters will be mailed when the average rate is forty-three centimes as when there is a uniform rate of twenty centimes. You limit yourself to the rule of three, thus: Eighty-seven million letters at forty-two and one-half centimes yield so much. Hence, at twenty centimes they would yield so much; conceding, however, some variations—when they are adverse to the cause of reform.


"In order to compute the real sacrifice that the treasury would have to make, it would be necessary to know, first, what would be saved in the operation of the postal service; and then, to what extent the volume of mail would increase. Let us take into account only the latter datum, because we can assume that the savings realized in the costs of operation would amount to no more than the economies effected by having the existing personnel handle an increased volume of mail.


"No doubt it is impossible to anticipate in precise numerical terms the amount of this increase in the volume of mail. But, in these matters, a reasonable basis of approximation has always been considered acceptable.


"You yourself say that in England a reduction of seven-eighths in the postal rate led to an increase of 360% in the total volume of mail.


"In our country, lowering the postal rate, which presently averages forty-three centimes, to five centimes would likewise constitute a reduction of seven-eighths. It is therefore reasonable to expect the same result, that is to say, 417 million letters instead of 116 million.


"But let us calculate on the basis of 300 million.


"After the postal reform in England, the per capita number of letters increased to thirteen. Are we going too far, then, in assuming that, if our postal rate is reduced to one-half that of the English, our per capita volume of mail will increase to eight?


300 million letters at 5 centimes ............................. 15 million fr.
100 million newspapers and pieces of printed matter
    at 5 centimes ....................................................
5 million fr.
Travelers using mail coaches .................................. 4 million fr.
Shipments of money ............................................. 4 million fr.

    Total receipts .............................................. 28 million fr.
Present expenditures (which may be reduced) .......... 31 million fr.
Minus that of packet boats ...................................... 5 million fr.
Remainder on mailbags, travelers, and
    shipments of money ...........................................
26 million fr.

Net yield ........................................................ 2 million fr.
Net yield today .............................................. 19 million fr.

Loss, or rather, reduction of profit ................. 17 million fr.


"Now, should not the state, which makes a positive sacrifice of 800 millions each year in order to facilitate the free movement of persons, make a negative sacrifice of seventeen millions in order not to profit on the movement of ideas?


"But, after all, the Treasury has, I know, become used to taking certain things for granted; and just as it easily falls into the habit of seeing receipts increase, so it accustoms itself only with difficulty to seeing them diminished by a centime. It is as if it were equipped with those wonderful valves which allow our blood to flow in one direction but prevent it from flowing in the other. So be it. The treasury is a little too old for us to be able to change its ways. Therefore, let us not entertain any hopes of persuading it to give up any of its accustomed revenue. But what would it say if I, Jacques Bonhomme, were to call, its attention to a simple, easy, convenient, essentially practical way of conferring a great boon upon the country that would not cost it a centime?


Gross revenue from the postal system .................... 50 million fr.
Gross revenue from the salt tax ............................. 70 million fr.
Gross revenue from the tariff ................................. 160 million fr.

    Total from these three sources .......................... 280 millions


"Well, set the postage on letters at the uniform rate of five centimes.


"Lower the tax on salt to ten francs per quintal, as the Chamber has voted.


"Give me authority to modify tariff rates by formally prohibiting me to raise any duty, but permitting me to lower duties as I see fit.


"And I, Jacques Bonhomme, guarantee you, not 280, but 300 millions. Two hundred French bankers will be my security. All I ask for myself is what the three taxes will produce above and beyond 300 millions.


"Now, do I need to enumerate the advantages of my proposal?


"1. The nation will reap all the benefits of cheapness in the price of an article of prime necessity, viz., salt.


"2. Fathers will be able to write to their sons, and mothers to their daughters. Feelings of affection, demonstrations of love and friendship will not, as today, be suppressed within the depths of men's hearts by the hand of the treasury.


"3. Carrying a letter from one friend to another will not be proscribed in our laws as a criminal act.


"4. Commerce will flourish anew, along with free trade; our merchant marine will recover from its humiliating condition.


"5. The treasury will gain, at first, twenty millions; and after that, all that will flow into other channels of taxation through the savings realized by each citizen on salt, on letters, and on the commodities on which the customs duties have been lowered.


"If my proposal is not accepted, what conclusion should I draw? Assuming that the group of bankers whom I find to sponsor it offer sufficient guarantees, under what pretext could my offer be rejected? Certainly not the need for a balanced budget. It will indeed be unbalanced, but unbalanced in such a way that receipts will exceed expenditures. What is at issue here is not a theory, a system, a set of statistics, a probability, a conjecture; you are being made an offer, an offer like that of a company seeking the concession for a railroad. The treasury lets me know what it receives from the postal system, from the salt tax, and from the tariff. I offer to give it more. Hence, the objection cannot come from the treasury. I offer to reduce the salt tax, postal rates, and customs duties; I give my pledge not to raise them; hence, the objection cannot come from the taxpayers. Where, then, could it come from? The monopolists? It remains to be seen whether their voice is to drown out that of the French government and the French people. To protect us from that, I urge you to transmit my proposal to the Council of Ministers.



"P.S. Here is the text of my offer:


"I, Jacques Bonhomme, representing a group of bankers and businessmen, prepared to give all assurances and to post all the necessary bonds;


"Having learned that the state obtains only 280 millions from the tariff, the postal system, and the salt tax, at the rates presently fixed;


"Offer to give it 300 millions of gross revenue from these three sources;


"Even after it has reduced the salt tax from thirty francs to ten francs;


"Even after it has reduced the postal rate on letters from an average of forty-two and one-half centimes to a single, uniform rate of from five to ten centimes;


"On the sole condition that I be permitted, not to raise customs duties (which I shall be expressly forbidden to do), but to lower them as much as I choose.



"But you are mad," I told Jacques Bonhomme, when he showed his letter to me; "you never have been able to do anything in moderation. Only the other day you yourself were protesting against the whirlwind of reforms, and here you are, demanding three of them, making one the condition of the other two. You will ruin yourself."


"Set your mind at ease," he said. "I have taken everything into account. Would to heaven my proposal were accepted! But it will not be."


Thereupon we parted company, his head full of figures, and mine filled with reflections that I spare the reader.

Notes for this chapter

[First published in the Journal des économistes of May, 1846.—EDITOR.]
[These were simply the meetings of the Chambers in election years. The same principle is well known in the United States.—TRANSLATOR.]
[This is a reference to the common practice of drinking hot water for therapeutic purposes.—TRANSLATOR.]
[In Bastiat's own time he might have referred to British parliamentary reform in 1832, postal reform in 1839, and fiscal reform piecemeal from 1842 on.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Quoted from the "Largo al factotum" aria in the first act of The Barber of Seville.—TRANSLATOR.]
[I.e., James Goodfellow, the French counterpart of John Bull.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), English statesman, member of the Conservative Party, Prime Minister in the 1840's; Lord John Russell (1792-1878), English statesman, member of the Whig Party, Peel's successor as Prime Minister; later, Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879), British educator and administrator chiefly responsible for the introduction of the "penny post" in England in 1840. The reference in the text is to the sum of £13,360 presented to Mr. Hill by public subscription in 1846.—TRANSLATOR.]
[The Anti-Corn-Law League, organized in England to publicize the desirability of repealing the import duties on grains, and to bring pressure on Parliament to enact this repeal. It soon broadened its efforts into a general free-trade movement.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Bastiat here reverts to the case of the letter that is not prepaid.—TRANSLATOR.]
[This "Go on" and the six that follow are in English in the original.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Alexis Piron (1689-1773), a minor poet and dramatist, but a legendary figure because of his brilliant and devastating wit, which often bested even the redoubtable Voltaire.—TRANSLATOR.]
[For some reason there is no mention of stamps, although the first ones appeared in 1840, and this essay was written in 1846.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Tobacco was and is a government monopoly in France.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Adolphe Vuitry (1813-1885), French economist and legislator.—TRANSLATOR.]
[John MacGregor (1797-1857), statistician, historian, diplomat, and freetrader. In 1840 he became one of the joint secretaries of the British Board of Trade. He published between 1841 and 1850 voluminous reports on tariff regulations in various countries.—TRANSLATOR.]
[What Mr. MacGregor actually wrote on this subject in his The Commercial and Financial Legislation of Europe and America (London: Henry Hooper, 1841) was: "The tax imposed upon the public by the late post-office reform is so very moderate, that while it still yields a considerable revenue, which we believe confidently will increase, no one can desire any alteration in the rate of postage" (p. 264).—TRANSLATOR.]

Second Series, Chapter 13

End of Notes

42 of 46

Second Series, Chapter 13

Protectionism, or the Three Aldermen



The scene takes place in the mansion of Peter, an alderman. The window looks out upon a beautiful grove of trees; three gentlemen are seated at a table near a blazing fire.


PETER: I must say, there is nothing like a good fire after a satisfying meal. You have to admit that it is very agreeable indeed. But, alas, how many good people, like the Roi d'Yvetot

Are blowing on their fingers
From lack of firewood!81*


Unfortunate creatures! A charitable idea that must be an inspiration from Heaven has just occurred to me. You see those fine trees? I want them cut down and the wood distributed among the poor.


PAUL AND JOHN: What! Free of charge?


PETER: Not exactly. My good deeds would soon be at an end if I dissipated my estate that way. I estimate my grove of trees to be worth a thousand livres;82* by chopping them down, I shall get a good deal more for them.


PAUL: Not so. Your wood as it stands is worth more than that of the neighboring forests, because it performs services that the latter cannot perform. Once your trees are chopped down, they will be good only for firewood, like the rest, and not be worth a denier83* more per load.


PETER: Ho, ho! Mr. Theorist, you are forgetting that I am a practical man. I should think my reputation as a speculator well enough established to prevent me from being taken for a fool. Do you think I am going to amuse myself by selling my wood at the same price as floated wood?84*


PAUL: You will simply have to.


PETER: How naive you are! And suppose I stop floated wood from reaching Paris?


PAUL: That would change matters. But how would you go about it?


PETER: Here is the whole secret. You know that floated wood pays ten sous a load on entering the city. Tomorrow I persuade the aldermen to raise the duty to 100, 200, 300 livres—in short, high enough to keep even a single log from getting in. Now do you understand? If the good people do not want to die of cold, they will have no alternative but to come to my woodyard. They will scramble for my wood, I shall sell it for its weight in gold, and this well-organized charitable undertaking will put me in a position to conduct others.


PAUL: What a wonderful project! It gives me the idea for another just as efficacious.


JOHN: Tell us what it is. Does it also involve philanthropy?


PAUL: What do you think of this butter from Normandy?


JOHN: Excellent.


PAUL: Well, maybe! It seemed tolerable to me a moment ago. But do you not find that it burns your throat? I intend to produce a better quality in Paris. I shall have four or five hundred cows and arrange to distribute milk, butter, and cheese among the poor.


PETER AND JOHN: What! As charity?


PAUL: Nonsense! Let us always maintain an appearance of charity. It has so fair a face that even its mask is an excellent passport. I shall give my butter to the people, and the people will give me their money. Do you call that selling?


JOHN: Not according to Le Bourgeois gentilhomme;85* but whatever you may choose to call it, you will ruin yourself. Can Paris compete with Normandy in the raising of cows?


PAUL: I shall gain the advantage by saving the costs of transportation.


JOHN: All right. But even after paying these costs, the Normans can still beat the Parisians.86*


PAUL: Do you call it beating someone to let him have things at low prices?


JOHN: That is the customary term. The fact remains that you will be the one who is beaten.


PAUL: Yes, like Don Quixote. The blows will fall on Sancho. John, my friend, you forget the octroi.


JOHN: The octroi! What connection does it have with your butter?


PAUL: From tomorrow on, I shall demand protection; I shall persuade the commune to keep butter from Normandy and Brittany from entering Paris. Then the people will either have to get along without it or buy mine, and at my price, too.


JOHN: I must say, gentlemen, I feel myself quite caught up in the wave of your humanitarianism.


"One learns to howl," says the proverb, "by living with the wolves."


My mind is made up. No one shall say that I am an unworthy alderman. Peter, this crackling fire has set your soul aflame; Paul, this butter has activated your intellectual faculties; and now I feel that this piece of salt pork is likewise sharpening my wits. Tomorrow I shall vote, and have others vote, for the exclusion of pigs, living or dead; that done, I shall build superb pens in the heart of Paris

For the unclean animal forbidden to the Hebrews.


I shall become a swineherd and pork butcher. Let us see how the good people of Paris will avoid coming to provision themselves at my shop.


PETER: Not so fast, gentlemen. If you increase the price of butter and salt pork in this way, you will cut beforehand the profit I was expecting from my wood.


PAUL: Well, my project will no longer be so wonderful either, if you levy tribute on me for your logs and your hams.


JOHN: And what shall I gain by overcharging you for my sausages, if you overcharge me for faggots and for the butter on my bread?


PETER: Well, there is no reason why we should quarrel about this. Let us rather co-operate with one another and make reciprocal concessions. Besides, it is not good to consult only one's own self-interest; one should consider mankind as well. Must we not make sure the people are warm?


PAUL: Quite true. And the people must have butter to spread on their bread.


JOHN: Undoubtedly. And a bit of bacon for their stew.


ALL: Hurrah for charity! Long live humanitarianism! Tomorrow we shall take the City Hall by storm.


PETER: Ah! I forgot. One more word; it is essential. My friends, in this age of selfishness, the world is distrustful; and the purest intentions are often misinterpreted. Paul, you plead the case for local wood; John, you defend local butter; and I, for my part, shall devote myself to the protection of the local hog. It is well to forestall evil-minded suspicions.


PAUL AND JOHN (leaving): Upon my word, there's a clever man!



Meeting of the Board of Aldermen


PAUL: My dear colleagues, every day large quantities of wood enter Paris, and as a result large sums of money leave the city. At this rate we shall all be ruined in three years, and then what will become of the poor? [Cheers.] Let us ban all foreign wood. It is not on my behalf that I am speaking, because all the wood I own would not make one toothpick. Hence, I am completely free from any personal interest in regard to this question. [Hear! Hear!] But Peter here has a grove of trees and will guarantee to supply fuel for our fellow citizens, who will no longer be dependent upon the charcoal sellers of the Yonne.87* Has it ever occurred to you that we run the danger of dying of cold if the owners of foreign forests took it into their heads not to deliver wood to Paris any longer? Therefore, let us ban their wood. By this means we shall prevent the draining away of our money, create a domestic woodcutting industry, and open to our workers a new source of employment and income. [Applause.]


JOHN: I support this proposal by the distinguished previous speaker, who is so humanitarian, and, as he himself said, so completely disinterested. It is high time we put a stop to this brazen laissez passer, which has brought unbridled competition into our market, so that there is not one province whose situation is at all advantageous for the production of any commodity whatsoever that does not flood us with it, undersell us, and destroy Parisian industry. It is the duty of the government to equalize the conditions of production by the imposition of judiciously selected duties, to admit only goods that cost more outside Paris than they do within the city, and in this way to extricate us from an unequal contest. How, for instance, can we be expected to produce milk and butter in Paris in competition with Brittany and Normandy? Just remember, gentlemen, that it costs the Bretons less for their land, their fodder, and their labor. Is it not only common sense to equalize opportunities by a protective town tariff? I demand that the duty on milk and butter be raised to 1000%, and higher if need be. Breakfast may cost the people a little more on that account, but how their wages will go up as well! We shall see barns and dairies rising, creameries multiply, new industries established. It is not that I stand to profit in the least from the adoption of my proposal. I am not a cowherd, nor do I wish to be one. My only desire is to be helpful to the toiling masses. [Cheers and applause.]


PETER: I am delighted to find that this assembly includes statesmen so pure in heart, so enlightened, so dedicated to the best interests of the people. [Cheers.] I admire their disinterestedness, and I can do no better than imitate their noble example. I second their motion, and I add to it a motion of my own to prohibit the entry of pigs from Poitou.88* It is not that I have any desire to become a swineherd or a pork butcher; in that case, my conscience would make it my duty to remain silent. But is it not disgraceful, gentlemen, that we should be forced to pay tribute to these Poitou peasants, who have the audacity to come right into our own market and seize possession of an industry that we ourselves could carry on; and who, after flooding us with their sausages and hams, take perhaps nothing from us in return? In any case, who will tell us that the balance of trade is not in their favor and that we are not obliged to pay them the balance due in hard cash? Is it not clear that if this industry were transplanted from Poitou to Paris, it would create jobs for Parisian workingmen? And then, gentlemen, is it not quite possible, as M. Lestiboudois89* so well observed, that we may be buying salt pork from Poitou, not with what we sell them in return, but with our capital? How long can we go on doing that? Let us not, then, allow a pack of greedy, grasping, false-hearted competitors to come here and undersell us and make it impossible for us to produce the same commodities ourselves. Aldermen, Paris has put her trust in us; it is for us to justify that trust. The people are without jobs; it is for us to create jobs for them; and if salt pork costs them a little more, we shall at least have the consciousness of having sacrificed our personal interests to those of the masses, as every right-thinking alderman should do. [Thunderous applause.]


A VOICE: I hear a great deal of talk about the poor; but, under the pretext of giving them jobs, you begin by depriving them of what is worth more than the job itself—wood, butter, and soup.


PETER, PAUL, AND JOHN: Put our motions to a vote! Put them to a vote! Away with utopians, theorists, abstract thinkers! Put them to a vote! Put them to a vote! [The three motions are carried.]



Twenty Years Later: Jacques Bonhomme and His Son.


THE SON: Father, make up your mind to it; we must leave Paris. We cannot live here any longer. There is no work to be had, and everything is frightfully expensive.


THE FATHER: My son, you do not know what a wrench it is for one to leave the place where one was born.


THE SON: It is even worse to starve to death.


THE FATHER: Go, my son, seek a more hospitable land. As for myself, I shall not leave this place, where your mother, your brothers, and your sisters are buried. I long to find at last by their side the rest that has been denied me in this city of desolation.


THE SON: Take heart, dear father; we shall find work somewhere else—in Poitou, in Normandy, or in Brittany. It is said that all the industries of Paris are gradually moving to these distant provinces.


THE FATHER: That is quite understandable. Being unable any longer to sell us wood and provisions, the people of these provinces have ceased to produce beyond their own needs; whatever time and capital they have available they devote to making for themselves what we once used to furnish them with.


THE SON: Just as at Paris they have stopped making fine furniture and beautiful clothing, and have turned to planting trees and raising pigs and cows. Although still young, I have lived to see great stores, elegant neighborhoods, and busy docks along the banks of the Seine overgrown with weeds and underbrush.


THE FATHER: While the hinterland is being covered with cities, Paris is becoming a bare field. What an appalling reversal! And it took just three misguided aldermen, helped by public ignorance, to bring this frightful calamity upon us.


THE SON: Tell me its history, Father.


THE FATHER: It is really quite simple. Under the pretext of establishing three new branches of industry in Paris and of thereby increasing job opportunities for the working classes, these men had the importation of wood, butter, and meat prohibited. They arrogated to themselves the right to provide their fellow citizens with these commodities. First, their prices rose to exorbitant heights. No one was earning enough to afford them, and the small number of those who could obtain some, by spending all their earnings on them, were no longer able to buy anything else. This at once spelled the doom of all the industries in Paris, and the end came all the more quickly as the provinces no longer provided our city with a market for its products. Poverty, death, and emigration began to depopulate Paris.


THE SON: And when is this going to stop?


THE FATHER: When Paris has become a forest and a prairie.


THE SON: The three aldermen must have made a great deal of money.


THE FATHER: At first they realized enormous profits; but in the long run they were engulfed in the general misery.


THE SON: How is that possible?


THE FATHER: This ruin you are looking at was once a splendid mansion encircled by a beautiful grove of trees. If Paris had continued to expand, Squire Peter would get more in rent from it than he could sell it for today.


THE SON: How can that be, since he no longer has any competition?


THE FATHER: Competition among sellers has disappeared, but competition among buyers is disappearing every day and will continue to disappear until Paris has become open country and the brushwood of Squire Peter has no more value than an equal area of brushwood in the forest of Bondy.90* It is thus that monopoly, like every injustice, carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.


THE SON: That does not seem altogether clear to me, but what is incontestable is the decadence of Paris. Is there, then, no way of repealing this iniquitous law that Peter and his colleagues had the town council adopt twenty years ago?


THE FATHER: I am going to tell you a secret. I am staying in Paris to do just that. I shall call the people to my assistance. It depends upon them to restore the town tariff duties to their former basis, to rid them of the deadly principle that was grafted onto them and that has continued to vegetate there like a parasitical fungus.


THE SON: You are sure to succeed in this from the very first.


THE FATHER: Oh, on the contrary, the task is difficult and toilsome. Peter, Paul, and John understand one another wonderfully well. They are ready to do anything rather than permit wood, butter, and meat to enter Paris. They have on their side the people themselves, who see clearly the jobs that these three protected industries give them, who know how many woodcutters and cowherds they give employment to, but who cannot have as clear an idea of how much employment would develop in the spacious atmosphere of free trade.


THE SON: If that is all they need, you will enlighten them.


THE FATHER: My child, at your age one never lacks confidence. If I write, the people will not read what I have to say; for with all the hours they must work to eke out their miserable existence, they have no time left for reading. If I speak, the aldermen will shut my mouth. Thus, the people will long continue in their disastrously mistaken ways, and the political parties that place their trust in arousing popular passions will concern themselves far less with dispelling error than with exploiting the prevailing prejudices. Therefore, I shall have on my hands at one and the same time the two most powerful forces of our age—the people and the political parties. Oh! I see a frightful storm ready to burst over the head of anyone bold enough to venture a protest against an iniquity so deeply rooted in this country.


THE SON: You will have justice and truth on your side.


THE FATHER: And they will have force and calumny on theirs. If only I were young again! But age and suffering have exhausted my strength.


THE SON: Well, father, dedicate what strength you still have to the service of your country. Begin this work of liberation and leave me as my legacy the task of completing it.



Popular Uprising


"JACQUES BONHOMME: Parisians, let us demand the reform of the town tariff duties; let us insist that they be restored to their original purpose. Let every citizen be free to buy wood, butter, and meat wherever he sees fit.


THE PEOPLE: Long live freedom!


PETER: Parisians, do not let yourselves be misled by that word. What difference does the freedom to buy make to you, if you do not have the means? And how can you have the means, if you do not have a job? Can Paris produce wood as cheaply as the forest of Bondy, meat as inexpensively as Poitou, butter as easily as Normandy? If you open your gates freely to these competitive products, what will become of the cowherds, the woodcutters, and the pork butchers? They cannot do without protection.


THE PEOPLE: Long live protection!


"JACQUES BONHOMME: Protection! But is it you, the workers, who are being protected? Do you not compete with one another? Then let the wood dealers experience competition in their turn. They have no right to raise the price of their wood by law unless they also raise wage rates by law. Are you no longer in love with equality?


THE PEOPLE: Long live equality!


PETER: Do not listen to this agitator. We have, it is true, raised the price of wood, of meat, and of butter; but we have done so in order to be able to give good wages to the workers. We are prompted by motives of charity.


THE PEOPLE: Long live charity!


JACQUES BONHOMME: Use the town tariff duties, if you can, to raise wages, or else do not use them to raise commodity prices. What the people of Paris demand is not charity, but justice.


THE PEOPLE: Long live justice!


PETER: It is precisely high commodity prices that make for high wages.


THE PEOPLE: Long live high prices!


JACQUES BONHOMME: If butter is dear, it is not because you are paying high wages to the workers; it is not even because you are making big profits; it is solely because Paris is ill-situated for that industry, because you insisted that people produce in the city what they should be producing in the country, and in the country what used to be produced in the city. It is not that there are more jobs for the people, but only jobs of a different kind. It is not that their wages are higher, but that the prices at which they buy things are no longer as low.


THE PEOPLE: Long live low prices!


PETER: This man is seducing you with his honeyed words. Let us put the question in all its simplicity. Is it not true that if we grant entry to butter, wood, and meat, we shall be flooded with them? Shall we not perish of the surfeit? There is, thus, no other way of saving ourselves from this new species of invasion than by slamming the gates in its face, and no other way of maintaining commodity prices than by producing an artificial scarcity.


SOME FEW SCATTERED VOICES: Long live scarcity!


JACQUES BONHOMME: Let us put the question to the test of truth. One can divide among all the people in Paris only what there is in Paris; if there is less meat, less wood, less butter, each person's share will be smaller. Now, there will be less of these commodities if we ban them than if we admit them. Parisians, there can be abundance for everyone only in so far as there is general abundance.


THE PEOPLE: Long live abundance!


PETER: This man can talk all he wants; he will never be able to show you that it is in your interest to be subjected to unbridled competition.


THE PEOPLE: Down with competition!


"JACQUES BONHOMME: This man can declaim all he wants; he cannot make it possible for you to taste the sweets of restriction.


THE PEOPLE: Down with restriction!


PETER: And I, for my part, declare that if the poor cowherds and swineherds are to be deprived of their daily bread, if they are to be sacrificed to theories, I can no longer be answerable for public order. Workingmen, put no faith in that man. He is an agent of perfidious Normandy; he goes there to get his orders. He is a traitor; he must be hanged. (The people remain silent.)


JACQUES BONHOMME: Parisians, everything I am saying today, I was saying twenty years ago, when Peter took it into his head to exploit the town tariff duties for his own advantage and to your disadvantage. I am not, then, an agent of the Normans. Hang me if you will, but that will not make oppression any the less oppressive. Friends, it is neither Jacques Bonhomme nor Peter who must be killed, but free trade if it frightens you, or restriction if it does you harm.


THE PEOPLE: Let us hang no one, and set everybody free.

Notes for this chapter

[Reference to the most famous of all the popular songs of Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780-1857)—TRANSLATOR.]
[An old French monetary unit, originally equal to the value of a pound of silver, but gradually reduced and finally replaced by the franc.—TRANSLATOR.]
[A coin of minor denomination, worth about three-fifths of a sou, deriving from the Roman denarius, in use up to the French Revolution.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Wood for fuel used to be floated down the Seine into Paris.—TRANSLATOR.]
[In Molière's The Would-Be Gentleman, a flatterer assures M. Jourdain that his father did not "sell" dry goods; he merely "gave them away for money," thus "proving" that he was a noble and not a bourgeois.—TRANSLATOR.]
[There is a pun here almost impossible to render into English. The French word battre, which means "beat," also means "churn."—TRANSLATOR.]
[A French department southeast of Paris, situated on the Yonne River, a tributary of the Seine.—TRANSLATOR.]
[A province of France, southwest of Paris.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Cf. supra, First Series, chap. 6.—EDITOR.]
[A forest just north of Paris, notorious as a resort of thieves.—TRANSLATOR.]

Second Series, Chapter 14

End of Notes

42 of 46

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