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
43 of 46

Second Series, Chapter 14

Something Else91*


"What is restriction?"


"It is a partial interdiction."


"What is interdiction?"


"It is an absolute restriction."


"So that what is true of the one is true of the other?"


"Yes; the difference is only one of degree. The relation between them is the same as that between the arc of a circle and the circle itself."


"Therefore, if interdiction is bad, restriction cannot be good?"


"No more than the arc of a circle can be anything but circular."


"What is the generic name for both restriction and interdiction?"




"What is the ultimate effect of protectionism?"


"To require that men expend more labor for the same result."


"Why are men so attached to the protectionist system?"


"Because, as free trade enables them to attain the same result with less labor, this apparent diminution of labor terrifies them."


"Why do you say apparent?"


"Because all the labor that has been saved can be devoted to something else."


"What else?"


"That is what cannot be specified and does not need to be."




"Because, if the total quantity of consumers' goods enjoyed by the French people could be obtained with one-tenth less labor, no one can predict what new satisfactions they would try to obtain for themselves with the remaining available labor. One person would want to be better clothed; another, better fed; this one, better educated; that one, better entertained."


"Explain to me the functioning and the effects of protectionism."


"That is not so easy. Before considering the more complicated cases, one should study the simpler ones."


"Take the simplest case you wish."


"You remember how Robinson Crusoe managed to make a board when he had no saw?"92*


"Yes. He cut down a tree; then, by trimming the trunk, first on one side and then on the other, with his axe, he reduced it to the thickness of a plank."


"And that cost him a great deal of labor?"


"Two full weeks."


"And what did he live on during that time?"


"On his provisions."


"And what happened to the axe?"


"It became very dull as a result."


"Quite right. But perhaps you do not know this: just as he was about to strike the first blow with his axe, Robinson Crusoe noticed a plank cast up on the beach by the waves."


"Oh, what a lucky accident! He ran to pick it up?"


"That was his first impulse; but then he stopped and reasoned as follows:


" 'If I go to get that plank, it will cost me only the exertion of carrying it, and the time needed to go down to the beach and climb back up the cliff.


" 'But if I make a plank with my axe, first of all, I shall be assuring myself two weeks' labor; then, my axe will become dull, which will provide me with the job of sharpening it; and I shall consume my provisions, making a third source of employment, since I shall have to replace them. Now, labor is wealth. It is clear that I shall only be hurting my own interests if I go down to the beach to pick up that piece of driftwood. It is vital for me to protect my personal labor, and, now that I think of it, I can even create additional labor for myself by going down and kicking that plank right back into the sea!' "


"What an absurd line of reasoning!"


"That may be. It is nonetheless the same line of reasoning that is adopted by every nation that protects itself by interdicting the entry of foreign goods. It kicks back the plank that is offered it in exchange for a little labor, in order to give itself more labor. There is no labor, even including that of the customs official, in which it does not see some profit. It is represented by the pains Robinson Crusoe took to return to the sea the present it was offering him. Consider the nation as a collective entity, and you will not find an iota of difference between its line of reasoning and that of Robinson Crusoe."


"Did he not see that he could devote the time he could have saved to making something else?"


"What else?"


"As long as a person has wants to satisfy and time at his disposal, he always has something to do. I am not obliged to specify the kind of work he could undertake to do."


"I can certainly specify precisely the kind that probably escaped his attention."


"And I maintain, for my part, that, with incredible blindness, he confused labor with its result, the end with the means, and I am going to prove it to you....."


"You do not have to. The fact still remains that this is an illustration of the system of restriction or interdiction in its simplest form. If it seems absurd to you in this form, it is because the two functions of producer and consumer are here combined in the same individual."


"Let us therefore proceed to a more complicated case."


"Gladly. Some time later, after Robinson had met Friday, they pooled their resources and began to co-operate in common enterprises. In the morning, they hunted for six hours and brought back four baskets of game. In the evening, they worked in the garden for six hours and obtained four baskets of vegetables.


"One day a longboat landed on the Isle of Despair. A handsome foreigner93* disembarked and was admitted to the table of our two recluses. He tasted and highly praised the products of the garden, and, before taking leave of his hosts, he addressed them in these words:


" 'Generous islanders, I dwell in a land where game is much more plentiful than it is here, but where horticulture is unknown. It will be easy for me to bring you four baskets of game every evening, if you will give me in exchange only two baskets of vegetables.'


"At these words, Robinson and Friday withdrew to confer, and the debate they had is too interesting for me not to report it here in full.


"Friday: Friend, what do you think of it?


"Robinson: If we accept, we are ruined.


"F.: Are you quite sure of that? Let us reckon up what it comes to.


"R.: It has all been reckoned up, and there can be no doubt about the outcome. This competition will simply mean the end of our hunting industry.


"F.: What difference does that make if we have the game?


"R.: You are just theorizing! It will no longer be the product of our labor.


"F.: No matter, since in order to get it we shall have to part with some vegetables!


"R.: Then what shall we gain?


"F.: The four baskets of game cost us six hours of labor. The foreigner gives them to us in exchange for two baskets of vegetables, which take us only three hours to produce. Therefore, this puts three hours at our disposal.


"R.: You ought rather to say that they are subtracted from our productive activity. That is the exact amount of our loss. Labor is wealth, and if we lose one-fourth of our working time, we shall be one-fourth less wealthy.


"F.: Friend, you are making an enormous mistake. We shall have the same amount of game, the same quantity of vegetables, and—into the bargain—three more hours at our disposal. That is what I call progress, or there is no such thing in this world.


"R.: You are talking in generalities! What shall we do with these three hours?


"F.: We shall do something else.


"R.: Ah! I have you there. You are unable to mention anything in particular. Something else, something else—that is very easy to say.


"F.: We can fish; we can decorate our cabin; we can read the Bible.


"R.: Utopia! Who knows which of these things we shall do, or whether we shall do any of them?


"F.: Well, if we have no wants to satisfy, we shall take a rest. Is not rest good for something?


"R.: But when people lie around doing nothing, they die of hunger.


"F.: My friend, you are caught in a vicious circle. I am talking about a kind of rest that will subtract nothing from our supply of game and vegetables. You keep forgetting that by means of our foreign trade, nine hours of labor will provide us with as much food as twelve do today.


"R.: It is very clear that you were not brought up in Europe. Had you ever read the Moniteur industriel, it would have taught you this: 'All time saved is a dead loss. What counts is not consumption, but production. All that we consume, if it is not the direct product of our labor, counts for nothing. Do you want to know whether you are rich? Do not measure the extent of your satisfactions, but of your exertion.' This is what the Moniteur industriel would have taught you. As for myself, being no theorist, all I see is the loss of our hunting.


"F.: What an extraordinary inversion of ideas! But . . . .


"R.: But me no buts. Moreover, there are political reasons for rejecting the selfish offers of the perfidious foreigner.


"F.: Political reasons!


"R.: Yes. First, he is making us these offers only because they are advantageous to him.


"F.: So much the better, since they are so for us too.


"R.: Then, by this traffic, we shall make ourselves dependent upon him.


"F.: And he will make himself dependent on us. We shall have need of his game; and he, of our vegetables; and we shall all live in great friendship.


"R.: You are just following some abstract system! Do you want me to shut you up for good?


"F.: Go on and try. I am still waiting for a good reason.


"R.: Suppose the foreigner learns to cultivate a garden, and that his island is more fertile than ours. Do you see the consequence?


"F.: Yes. Our relations with the foreigner will be severed. He will no longer take our vegetables, since he will have them at home with less labor. He will no longer bring us game, since we shall have nothing to give him in exchange, and we shall then be in precisely the same situation that you want us to be in today.


"R.: Improvident savage! You do not see that after destroying our hunting industry by flooding us with game, he will destroy our gardening industry by flooding us with vegetables.


"F.: But this will happen only so long as we shall be in a position to give him something else, that is to say, so long as we shall be able to find something else to produce with a saving in labor for ourselves.


"R.: Something else, something else! You always come back to that. You are up in the clouds, my friend; there is nothing practical in your ideas.


"The dispute went on for a long time and left each one, as often happens, unchanged in his convictions. However, since Robinson had great influence over Friday, he made his view prevail; and when the foreigner came to learn how his offer had been received, Robinson said to him:


" 'Foreigner, in order for us to accept your proposal, we must be very sure about two things:


" 'First, that game is not more plentiful on your island than on ours; for we want to fight only on equal terms.


" 'Second, that you will lose by this bargain. For, as in every exchange there is necessarily a gainer and a loser, we should be victimized if you were not the loser. What do you say?'


" 'Nothing,' said the foreigner. And, bursting into laughter, he re-embarked in his longboat."


"The story would not be so bad if Robinson were not so absurd."


"He is no more so than the committee of the rue Hauteville."94*


"Oh, their case is very different. In the hypothetical cases you cited, first, one man was living by himself, and then (what amounts to the same thing), two men were living in a state of common ownership. That is far from being the picture presented by the world in which we are living today; the division of labor and the intervention of tradesmen and money change the picture considerably."


"These conditions do, in fact, make transactions more complicated, but they do not change their essential nature."


"What! You want to compare modern commerce to simple barter?"


"Commerce is nothing but barter on a grand scale; barter and commerce are essentially identical in nature, just as labor on a small scale is of essentially the same nature as labor on a large scale, or as the force of gravitation that moves an atom is of essentially the same nature as the force of gravitation that moves a planet."


"Then, as you see it, these arguments, which are so clearly untenable when advanced by Robinson Crusoe, are no less so when advanced by our protectionists?"


"No less; the only reason the error is less evident is that the circumstances are more complicated."


"In that case, why not give us an example taken from conditions as they are at present?"


"Very well. In France, owing to custom and the demands of the climate, cloth is a useful item. Is the essential thing to make it or to have it?"


"A fine question! In order to have it, you must first make it."


"Not necessarily. In order to have it, someone must make it, no doubt; but it is not necessary that the person or the country that consumes it should also produce it. You did not make the fabric that clothes you so well, nor did France produce the coffee on which her inhabitants breakfast."


"But I bought my cloth, and France its coffee."


"Precisely, and with what?"


"With money."


"But you did not produce the metal for your money, nor did France either."


"We bought it."


"With what?"


"With the products we sent to Peru."


"Thus, in reality, it is your labor that is exchanged for cloth, and French labor that is exchanged for coffee."




"Hence, it is not absolutely necessary that you produce what you consume?"


"Not if we produce something else that we give in exchange."


"In other words, France has two ways of providing itself with a given quantity of cloth. The first is to manufacture it herself; the second is to make something else, and to exchange that something else with foreigners for cloth. Of these two ways, which is the better?"


"I hardly know."


"Is it not that which, for a given amount of labor, yields a larger amount of cloth?"


"It would seem so."


"And which is better for a nation, to be free to choose between these two ways of getting cloth, or to have a law interdicting one of them, on the chance of stumbling on the better of the two?"


"It seems to me that it is better for a nation to be free to choose, all the more so since in such matters it always chooses wisely."


"The law that bans foreign cloth thus determines that if France wants to have cloth, she must make it herself, and prohibits her from making that something else with which she could buy foreign cloth."




"And since the law compels the making of cloth and forbids the making of something else, precisely because that something else would require less labor (for otherwise there would be no need for the law to interfere), it thus virtually decrees that for a given quantity of labor France shall have but one meter of cloth by making it herself, whereas for the same amount of labor she would have had two meters by making something else."


"But what else, for goodness' sake?"


"For goodness' sake, what difference does it make? Once given freedom of choice, she will make something else only in so far as there is something else to be made."


"That is possible; but I keep being haunted by the idea that foreigners may send us cloth and not take the something else from us in return, in which case we should be thoroughly victimized. In any case, this is the objection, even from your point of view. You do agree, do you not, that France will make this something else to exchange for cloth with less labor than if she had made the cloth itself?"


"Without a doubt."


"Therefore, there will be a certain quantity of her available labor supply that will be disemployed."


"Yes, but without her being any the less well clothed—a little circumstance that makes all the difference in the world. It was this that Robinson lost sight of, and that our protectionists either do not see or pretend not to see. The piece of driftwood also disemployed Robinson's labor for two weeks, at least in so far as it might have been applied to making a plank, but it did not deprive him of its use. We must, therefore, distinguish between two senses in which labor may be disemployed: that in which the effect is privation, and that in which the cause is satisfaction. They are worlds apart, and if you regard them as alike, your reasoning is no better than Robinson's. In the most complicated cases, as well as in the simplest, the sophism consists in judging the utility of labor by its duration and intensity, and not by its results; which leads to the economic policy of reducing the results of labor with the aim of increasing its duration and intensity."95*

Notes for this chapter

[First published in Le Libre échange, March 21, 1847.—EDITOR.]
[What follows is based on Robinson Crusoe, the famous novel by the English author, Daniel Defoe (1659-1731). A number of students of economics, including Bastiat, have used what has been called the "Crusoeist" approach to economic problems by starting with the simplest possible economic organization.—TRANSLATOR.]
[There is a nuance of meaning here in the French that cannot be reproduced in English. The French word étranger means both "foreigner" and "stranger." Bastiat's point, as is evident in what follows, is, not that the visitor was just a stranger, but that he was a foreigner in the sense of being external to Robinson's and Friday's economic system.—TRANSLATOR.]
[The reference is to the Odier Committee. See supra, p. 167.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Cf. supra, First Series, chaps. 2 and 3, and Economic Harmonies, chap. 6.—EDITOR.]

Second Series, Chapter 15

End of Notes

44 of 46

Second Series, Chapter 15

The Little Arsenal of the Freetrader96*


Suppose someone tells you: "There are no absolute principles. Interdiction can be bad, and restriction good."


Answer: "Restriction interdicts the importation of everything it prevents from entering."


Suppose someone tells you: "Agriculture is the nutricial mother that furnishes the whole country with food."


Answer: "What furnishes the country with nutriment is not strictly agriculture, but wheat."


Suppose someone tells you: "The sustenance of the nation is dependent on agriculture."


Answer: "The sustenance of the nation is dependent on wheat. That is why a law compelling the nation to obtain two hectoliters of wheat by agricultural labor instead of the four hectoliters it might have obtained, in the absence of the law, by applying the same amount of labor to industrial production, far from being a law for the people's sustenance, is a law for their starvation."


Suppose someone tells you: "Restricting the importation of foreign wheat is conducive to an increase in domestic agriculture and, therefore, to an increase in domestic production."


Answer: "It is conducive to the extension of agriculture to the rocky slopes of mountains and the barren sands of the seashore. If you milk a cow and keep on milking, you will get more milk; for who can say just when you will no longer be able to squeeze out another drop? But that drop will cost you dear."


Suppose someone tells you: "Let the price of bread be high, for the farmer who becomes rich will enrich the industrialist."


Answer: "The price of bread is high when it is scarce; but scarcity makes only for poor people, or, if you like, starving rich people."


Suppose someone presses the point and says: "When the price of bread goes up, wages go up."


Answer by showing that in April, 1847, five-sixths of the workers were living on charity.


Suppose someone tells you: "A rise in wages must necessarily follow a rise in the cost of living."


Answer: "That is tantamount to saying that in a ship with no provisions everyone has as much to eat as if it were well stocked."


Suppose someone tells you: "The man who sells wheat must be assured a good price."


Answer: "Very well. But in that case the man who buys it must be assured a good wage."


Suppose someone tells you: "The landowners, who make the law, raised the price of bread without concerning themselves about wages because they know that, when the price of bread goes up, wages go up quite naturally."


Answer: "By the same token, then, when workers make the law, do not blame them if they fix a high wage rate without concerning themselves about protecting wheat, for they know that, when wages are raised, the cost of living rises quite naturally."


Suppose someone asks you: "What must we do, then?"


Answer: "Be just to everyone."


Suppose someone tells you: "It is essential for a great country to have an iron industry."


Answer: "What is more essential is that this great country have iron."


Suppose someone tells you: "It is indispensable for a great country to have a clothing industry."


Answer: "What is more indispensable is that the citizens of this great country have clothes."


Suppose someone tells you: "Labor is wealth."


Answer: "That is not true."


And, by way of explanation, add: "Bloodletting is not health; and the proof is that its object is to restore health."


Suppose someone tells you: "To compel men to dig a mine and to extract an ounce of iron from a quintal of iron ore is to increase their labor and consequently their wealth."97*


Answer: "To compel men to dig wells by forbidding them to take water from the river is to increase their useless labor, but not their wealth."


Suppose someone tells you: "The sun gives its light and heat without remuneration."


Answer: "So much the better for me; it costs me nothing to see clearly."


And suppose someone replies: "Industry in general loses what you might have spent for artificial illumination."


Parry with: "No; for what I save by paying nothing to the sun, I use for buying clothing, furniture, and candles."


Similarly, suppose someone tells you: "These English scoundrels have amortized their investments."


Answer: "So much the better for us; they will not oblige us to make interest payments."


Suppose someone tells you: "These perfidious Englishmen find iron and coal in the same pit."


Answer: "So much the better for us; they will not charge us anything for bringing them together."


Suppose someone tells you: "The Swiss have lush pastures that cost little."


Answer: "The advantage is on our side, for this means that less labor will be demanded on our part to promote our domestic agriculture and provide ourselves with food."


Suppose someone tells you: "The fields of the Crimea have no value and pay no taxes."


Answer: "The profit is on our side, since the wheat we buy is exempt from these charges."


Suppose someone tells you: "The serfs of Poland work without wages."


Answer: "The misfortune is theirs, and the profit is ours; since their labor does not enter into the price of the wheat that their masters sell us."


Finally, suppose someone tells you: "Other nations have many advantages over us."


Answer: "Through exchange, they are, in fact, compelled to let us share in these advantages."


Suppose someone tells you: "With free trade, we are going to be flooded with bread, beef à la mode, coal, and overcoats."


Answer: "Then we shall be neither hungry nor cold."


Suppose someone asks you: "What shall we use for money?"


Answer: "Don't let that worry you. If we are flooded, it will be because we are able to pay; and if we are not able to pay, we shall not be flooded."


Suppose someone tells you: "I should be in favor of free trade if foreigners, in bringing us their products, took ours in exchange; but they will take away our money."


Answer: "Money does not grow in the fields of the Beauce98* any more than coffee does, nor is it turned out by the workshops of Elbeuf.99* For us, paying foreigners with cash is like paying them with coffee."


Suppose someone tells you: "Eat meat."


Answer: "Permit it to be imported."


Suppose someone tells you, like La Presse: "When one does not have the means to buy bread, one must buy beef."


Answer: "This is advice just as wise as that of Mr. Vulture to his tenant:

When one does not have the means to pay his rent,
One has to get a house of one's own."100*


Suppose someone tells you, like La Presse: "The government should teach people why and how they ought to eat beef."


Answer: "The government has only to permit the importation of beef; the most civilized people in the world are sufficiently grown up to learn how to eat it without being taught."


Suppose someone tells you: "The government should know everything and foresee everything in order to manage the lives of the people, and the people need only let themselves be taken care of."


Answer: "Is there a government apart from the people? Is there any human foresight apart from humanity? Archimedes could have gone on repeating every day of his life, 'Give me a fulcrum and a lever, and I will move the earth'; he would never, for all that, have been able to move it, for want of a fulcrum and lever. The fulcrum of the state is the nation, and nothing is more senseless than to base so many expectations on the state, that is, to assume the existence of collective wisdom and foresight after taking for granted the existence of individual imbecility and improvidence."


Suppose someone tells you: "Good heavens! I am not asking for favors, but just enough of an import duty on wheat and meat to compensate for the heavy taxes to which France is subjected; only a small duty equal to what these taxes add to the sales price of my wheat."


Answer: "A thousand pardons, but I too pay taxes. If, then, the protection that you are voting yourself has the effect of adding to the price I pay for wheat an amount exactly equal to your share of the taxes, what your honeyed words really come to is nothing less than a demand to establish between us an arrangement that, as formulated by you, could be expressed in the following terms: 'Considering that the public charges are heavy, I, as a seller of wheat, am to pay nothing at all, and you, my neighbor who buys it, are to pay double, viz., your own share and mine as well.' Wheat merchant, you may, my neighbor, have might on your side; but you surely do not have right."


Suppose someone tells you: "It is, however, very hard for me, who pay taxes, to compete in my own market with a foreigner who pays none."




"1. In the first place, it is not your market, but our market. I, who live on wheat and pay for it, ought to count for something too.


"2. Few foreigners nowadays are exempt from taxes.


"3. If the tax that you are voting repays you, in the form of roads, canals, security, etc., more than it costs you, you are not justified in barring, at my expense, the competition of foreigners who do not pay the tax, but who, by the same token, do not enjoy the advantages of the security, roads, and canals that you have. It would make just as much sense to say: 'I demand a compensatory duty, because I have finer clothes, stronger horses, and better plows than the Russian peasant.'


"4. If the tax does not repay you what it costs, do not vote it.


"5. And finally, after voting the tax, do you desire to exempt yourself from it? Then contrive some scheme that will shift it onto foreigners. But the tariff makes your share of the tax fall upon me, who already have quite enough of my own to bear."


Suppose someone tells you: "For the Russians free trade is necessary to enable them to exchange their products to advantage." [Opinion expressed by M. Thiers in committee, April, 1847.]


Answer: "Free trade is necessary everywhere and for the same reason."


Suppose someone tells you: "Each country has its wants and it must act accordingly." [M. Thiers.]


Answer: "It does so of its own accord when it is not hindered from doing so."


Suppose someone tells you: "Since we have no sheet iron, we must permit its importation." [M. Thiers.]


Answer: "Much obliged!"


Suppose someone tells you: "Our merchant marine needs freight. The lack of cargoes on return voyages prevents our ships from competing with foreign vessels." [M. Thiers.]


Answer: "When a country wants to produce everything at home, it cannot have cargoes either to export or to import. It is just as absurd to want a merchant marine when foreign products are barred as it would be to want carts where all shipments have been prohibited."


Suppose someone tells you: "Even granting that the protectionist system is unjust, everything has been organized on the basis of it: capital has been invested; rights have been acquired; the system cannot be changed without suffering."


Answer: "Every injustice is profitable for someone (except, perhaps, restriction, which in the long run benefits nobody); to express alarm over the dislocation that ending an injustice occasions the person who is profiting from it is as much as to say that an injustice, solely because it has existed for a moment, ought to endure forever."

Notes for this chapter

[First published in Le Libre échange, April 26, 1847.—EDITOR.]
[It would be uneconomic to work ore of such low grade.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Flourishing grain region of north-central France.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Industrial town in the vicinity of Rouen.—TRANSLATOR.]
[From the play, Mr. Vulture (Monsieur Vautour), by the French dramatist Marc Antoine Madeleine Désaugiers (1772-1827). The name became a common slang expression used to typify the heartless usurer, creditor, and landlord.—TRANSLATOR.]

Second Series, Chapter 16

End of Notes

45 of 46

Second Series, Chapter 16

The Right Hand and the Left101*





When we see the advocates of free trade boldly disseminating their doctrine, and maintaining that the right to buy and to sell is included in the right to own property (a piece of insolence that has found its true champion in M. Billault),102* we may quite properly feel serious concern about the fate of our domestic industry; for to what use will the French people put their hands and their minds when they live under a system of free trade?


The government that you have honored with your confidence has been obliged to concern itself with so grave a situation, and has sought in its wisdom to discover a means of protection that might be substituted for the present one, which seems endangered. They propose that you forbid your loyal subjects to use their right hands.


Sire, do not do us the injustice of thinking that we have lightly adopted a measure that at first sight may seem bizarre. Deep study of the protectionist system has revealed to us this syllogism, upon which the whole of it is based:


The more one works, the richer one is.


The more difficulties one has to overcome, the more one works.


Ergo, the more difficulties one has to overcome, the richer one is.


What, in fact, is protection, if not an ingenious application of this line of reasoning, so cogent and conclusive that it must resist even the subtlety of M. Billault himself?


Let us personify the country and view it as a collective being with thirty million mouths and, as a natural consequence, sixty million hands. It makes a clock that it intends to exchange in Belgium for ten quintals of iron.


But we tell it: "Make the iron yourself."


"I cannot," it replies; "it would take too long. I could not make more than five quintals in the time that I can make one clock."


"Utopian dreamer!" we reply; "that is precisely the reason why we are forbidding you to make the clock and ordering you to make the iron. Do you not see that we are providing employment for you?"


Sire, it could not have escaped your discernment that this is exactly the same as if we were to say to the country: Work with your left hand, and not with your right.


The old system of restriction was based on the idea of creating obstacles in order to multiply job opportunities. The new system of restriction that we are proposing to take its place is based on exactly the same idea. Sire, to make laws in this fashion is not to innovate; it is to carry on in the traditional way.


As for the efficacy of the measure, it is incontestable. It is difficult, much more difficult than people think, to do with the left hand what one is accustomed to doing with the right. You will be convinced of this, Sire, if you will deign to put our system to the test in performing some act that is familiar to you, such as, for instance, that of shuffling cards. We can, therefore, flatter ourselves on opening to labor an unlimited number of job opportunities.


Once the workers in every branch of industry are restricted to the use of their left hands alone, imagine, Sire, the immense number of people that will be needed to meet the present demand for consumers' goods, assuming that it remains constant, as we always do when we compare different systems of production. So prodigious a demand for manual labor cannot fail to bring about a considerable rise in wages, and pauperism will disappear from the country as if by magic.


Sire, your paternal heart will rejoice at the thought that this law will extend its benefits also to the more interesting part of the large family whose destiny engages all your solicitude. What future is there now for women in France? The bolder and hardier sex is imperceptibly driving them from every branch of industry.


There was a time when they could always get a job in the lottery offices. These have been closed by a pitiless humanitarianism, and on what pretext? "To save," it was said, "the pennies of the poor." Alas! Have the poor ever enjoyed, for the price of a single coin, entertainment as mild and as innocent as that provided by the mysterious urn of Fortune? Deprived as they were of all the sweets of life, when they used to put, fortnight after fortnight, the price of a day's labor on a quaterne sec,103* think how many hours of delightful anticipation they gave their families! There was always a place for hope at the domestic hearth. The garret the family occupied was peopled with illusions: the wife hoped to eclipse her neighbors by the splendor of her wardrobe; the son would see himself as a drum major; and the daughter imagined herself led to the altar on the arm of her betrothed.

There is something to be said, after all, for dreaming
beautiful dreams!104*


Oh, the lottery was the poetic vision of the poor, and we have let it slip awayl


Now that the lottery is gone, what other means do we have for taking care of the ladies we are seeking to protect? The tobacco industry and the postal service.


Let it be the sale of tobacco, by all means; its use is spreading, thank heaven, and thanks also to the genteel habits that our elegant young men have been most skillfully taught by the example of certain august personages.


But the postal service!.... We shall say nothing about it; it will constitute the subject of a special report.


Thus, apart from the sale of tobacco, what employment remains for your female subjects? Nothing but embroidering, knitting, and sewing—sorry makeshifts that the barbarous science of mechanics is limiting more and more.


But as soon as your new law is promulgated, as soon as all right hands are either cut off or tied down, things will change. Twenty times, thirty times as many embroiderers, pressers and ironers, seamstresses, dressmakers and shirtmakers, will not suffice to meet the national demand (shame to him who thinks ill of it), always assuming, as before, that it remains constant.


It is true that this assumption may be disputed by dispassionate theorists; for dresses will cost more, and so will shirts. The same could be said of the iron that we extract from our mines, as compared with what we could obtain in exchange for the produce of our vineyards. Hence, this argument is no more acceptable against left-handedness105* than against protectionism; for this high cost is itself at once the result and the sign of the superabundance of effort and labor that is precisely the basis on which, in the one case as in the other, we maintain that the prosperity of the working class is founded.


Yes, we may picture a touching scene of prosperity in the dressmaking business. Such bustling about! Such activity! Such animation! Each dress will busy a hundred fingers instead of ten. No young woman will any longer be idle, and we have no need, Sire, to indicate to your perspicacity the moral consequences of this great revolution. Not only will more young women be employed, but each of them will earn more, for all of them together will be unable to satisfy the demand; and if competition reappears, it will no longer be among the workers who make the dresses but among the fine ladies who wear them.


You see, Sire, our proposal is not only in accord with the economic traditions of the government, but is essentially moral and democratic as well.


In order to appreciate its consequences, let us assume that it has been put into effect, and, transporting ourselves in imagination into the future, let us imagine that the system has been in operation for twenty years. Idleness has been banished from the country; steady employment has brought affluence, harmony, contentment, and morality to every household; poverty and prostitution are things of the past. The left hand being very clumsy to work with,106* jobs are superabundant, and the pay is satisfactory. Everything has been organized on this basis; consequently, the workshops are thronged. Is it not true, Sire, that if at such a time utopian dreamers were suddenly to appear, demanding freedom for the right hand, they would throw the country into a panic? Is it not true that this supposed reform would upset everyone's life? Hence, our system must be good, since it cannot be destroyed without causing suffering.


And yet we have a gloomy foreboding that one day there will be formed (so great is human perversity!) an association for the freedom of right hands.


We have the feeling that we can already hear the advocates of freedom for the right hand, at Montesquieu Hall,107* speaking in this manner:


"My friends, you think yourselves richer because you have been deprived of the use of one hand; you take account only of the additional employment which that brings you. But, I beg you, consider also the high prices that result from it, and the forced diminution in the supply of consumers' goods of all kinds. This measure has not made capital more abundant, and capital is the fund from which wages are paid. The waters that flow from this great reservoir are directed into other channels, but their volume has not been increased; and the ultimate consequence for the nation as a whole is a loss of wealth equal to all that the millions of right hands could produce over and above what the same number of left hands can turn out. Therefore, let us form an association, and, at the price of a few inevitable dislocations, let us win the right to work with both hands."


Happily, Sire, there will be formed an association in defense of labor with the left hand, and the advocates of left-hand labor will have no trouble in demolishing all these generalities, speculations, assumptions, abstractions, reveries, and utopian fantasies. They will need only to exhume the Moniteur industriel of 1846; and they will find ready-made arguments against freedom of trade that will do quite as well against freedom for the right hand if they will merely substitute one expression for the other.


The Parisian league for free trade did not doubt that it would receive the support of the workers. But the workers are no longer men to be led about by the nose. They have their eyes open, and they are better informed about political economy than our Ph.D. professors..... "Free trade," they replied, "would deprive us of our jobs, and our jobs are all that we really possess. Employment is the great sovereign that rules over our destinies. With employment, with jobs abundant, the price of commodities is never beyond our reach. But without a job, even if bread costs only one sou per pound, the workingman is forced to die of hunger. Now, your doctrines, instead of increasing the present number of jobs in France, will lessen it, which means that you will reduce us to poverty." [Issue of October 13, 1846.]


When there are too many commodities in the market, it is true that their price falls; but as wages fall when commodity prices drop, the result is that, instead of being in a position to buy more, we are no longer able to buy anything. Therefore, it is when commodities are at their lowest price that the workingman is in the worst situation. [Gauthier de Rumilly, Moniteur industriel, November 17.]


It will not be inappropriate for the proponents of left-hand labor to intermingle a few threats among their fine theories. Here is a model for them:


"What! You wish to substitute the labor of the right hand for that of the left, and thus force down, if not entirely abolish, wages, the sole resource of almost the entire nation!


"And this at a time when poor harvests are already imposing painful sacrifices upon the worker, causing him to worry about his future, and making him more readily disposed to listen to bad advice and to abandon the wise course of conduct to which he has hitherto adhered!"


We are confident, Sire, that, armed with such cogent reasoning, if it comes to a battle, the left hand will emerge the victor.


Perhaps there will also be formed an association with the aim of inquiring whether the right hand and the left hand are not both wrong, and whether a third hand can be found to mediate between them.


After depicting the advocates of freedom for the right hand as misled by the apparent latitude of a principle whose correctness has not yet been tested by experience, and the proponents of left-handed labor as entrenching themselves in the positions they have gained, the association may argue as follows:

Can it be denied that there is a third position that can be taken in the midst of the conflict? Is it not evident that the workers have to defend themselves at one and the same time against those who want nothing changed in the present situation, because they find it advantageous, and those who dream of an economic revolution of which they have calculated neither the extent nor the implications? [National of October 16.]


Nevertheless, we do not intend to conceal from Your Majesty that there is one respect in which our project is vulnerable. We may be told that in twenty years all left hands will be as skillful as right hands are now, and it will then no longer be possible to count on left-handedness to increase the number of jobs in the country.


Our reply to this is that, according to learned doctors, the left side of the human body has a natural weakness that is completely reassuring for the future of labor.


If, then, Your Majesty consents to sign the decree, a great principle will be established: All wealth stems from the intensity of labor. It will be easy for us to extend and vary its applications. We shall ordain, for example, that it shall no longer be permissible to work except with the foot. This is no more impossible (as we have seen) than to extract iron from the mud of the Seine. Men have even been known to write without using either hands or feet. You see, Sire, that we shall not be lacking in means of increasing the number of job opportunities in your realm. As a last resort, we should take recourse to the limitless possibilities of amputation.


Finally, Sire, if this report were not intended for publication, we should call your attention to the great influence that all measures of the kind we are proposing to you are likely to confer upon men in power. But this is a matter that we prefer to reserve for a private audience.

Notes for this chapter

[First published in Le Libre échange, December 13, 1846.—EDITOR.]
[Auguste Adolphe Marie Billault (1805-1863), an economist and member of the Chamber of Deputies.—TRANSLATOR.]
[A ticket at odds of 75,000 to one.—TRANSLATOR.]
[This is quoted from Collin d'Harleville (1785-1806), minor dramatist and writer of light verse.—TRANSLATOR.]
[There is a pun here that cannot be rendered into English. The French word gaucherie means both "left-handedness" and "clumsiness;" and Bastiat clearly intended this double sense.—TRANSLATOR.]
[Another pun in French: La main gauche étant fort gauche à la besogne,....—TRANSLATOR.]
[It was at Montesquieu Hall that the first public meeting of the French freetraders was held, on August 28, 1846.—TRANSLATOR.]

Second Series, Chapter 17

End of Notes

46 of 46

Second Series, Chapter 17

Domination through
Industrial Superiority108*


"Just as, in time of war, a nation attains ascendancy over its enemies by virtue of its superiority in weapons, can a nation, in time of peace, attain ascendancy over its competitors by virtue of its industrial superiority?"


This is a question of the highest interest in an age when no one seems to doubt that in the field of industry, as on the field of battle, the stronger crushes the weaker.


For this to be so, someone must have discovered, between the labor that is exerted upon things and the violence that is exerted upon men, a melancholy and discouraging analogy; for how could these two kinds of operations be identical in their effects if they are opposite in nature?


And if it is true that in industry, as in war, ascendancy is the necessary result of superiority, why do we concern ourselves with progress or with political economy, since we live in a world in which everything has been so arranged by Providence that one and the same effect—oppression—inevitably follows from principles that are directly opposed to each other?


In regard to the entirely new policy into which free trade is leading England, many people are making the following objection, which, I must admit, carries weight even with the most openminded among us: Is England doing anything else than pursuing the same end by different means? Has she not always aspired to world supremacy? Assured of superiority in capital and labor, is she not inviting free competition in order to stifle Continental industry, reign supreme, and win for herself the privilege of feeding and clothing the nations she has ruined?


It would be easy for me to demonstrate that these alarms have no basis in fact; that our supposed inferiority is greatly exaggerated; that every one of our major industries is not only holding its ground, but is actually expanding under the impact of foreign competition, and that its inevitable effect is to bring about a general increase in consumption that is capable of absorbing both domestic and foreign products.


Today I propose, rather, to make a frontal attack upon this objection, allowing it all the strength and the advantage of the ground it has chosen. Disregarding for the moment the special case of the English and the French, I shall seek to discover, in general terms, whether a country that, by its superiority in one branch of industry, succeeds in eliminating foreign competition in that industry, has thereby taken a step toward domination over the other country, and the latter a step toward dependence on it; whether, in other words, both do not profit from the operation, and whether it is not the nation that has been bested in this commercial rivalry that profits the most.


If a product is viewed only as an opportunity for expending labor, the alarms of the protectionists are certainly well founded. If we consider iron, for example, only in connection with ironmasters, we might well fear that the competition of a country in which iron is a gratuitous gift of Nature could extinguish the fires in the blast furnaces of another country in which there is a scarcity of ore and fuel.


But is this a complete view of the subject? Is iron connected only with those who make it? Does it have no connection with those who use it? Is its sole and ultimate end simply to be produced? And if it is useful, not on account of the labor for which it provides employment, but by reason of the qualities it possesses, the numerous services for which its hardness and its malleability render it fit, does it not follow that a foreigner cannot reduce its price, even to the point of rendering its production in our country completely unprofitable, without doing us more good in the latter respect than harm in the former?


It should be kept in mind that there are many things that foreigners, on account of the natural advantages by which they are surrounded, prevent us from producing directly, and with relation to which we are situated, in fact, in the hypothetical position we have been considering with regard to iron. We produce at home neither tea, coffee, gold, nor silver. Does this mean that our industry as a whole thereby suffers some diminution? No; it means only that, in order to create the equivalent value needed to acquire these commodities by way of exchange, we employ less labor than would be required to produce them ourselves. We thus have more labor left over to devote to satisfying other wants. We are that much richer and stronger. All that foreign competition has been able to do, even in cases in which it has absolutely eliminated us from a particular branch of industry, is to save labor and increase our productive capacity. Is this the way for the foreigner to attain mastery over us?


If someone found a gold mine in France, it does not follow that it would be to our interest to work it. In fact, it is certain that the enterprise should not be undertaken if each ounce of gold absorbed more of our labor than would an ounce of gold bought from Mexico with cloth. In that case it would be better to continue to regard our looms as gold mines. And what is true of gold is no less true of iron.


The illusion has its source in our failure to see that foreign superiority eliminates the need for but one particular kind of labor in the domestic market and renders that particular kind of labor superfluous only by putting at our disposal the result of the very labor so eliminated. If men lived in diving bells under water and had to provide themselves with air by means of a pump, this would be an immense source of employment for them. To do anything that might interfere with their employing their labor in this way, while leaving their conditions unchanged, would be to inflict frightful harm on them. But if their labor ceases only because there is no longer a need for it, because the men are placed in another environment in which air is introduced into their lungs without effort, then the loss of this labor is in no way regrettable, except in the eyes of those who persist in seeing the sole value of labor in the labor itself.


It is precisely this type of labor that machinery, free trade, and progress of every kind are gradually eliminating; not productive labor, but labor that has become superfluous, surplus labor devoid of purpose or result. Protectionism, on the contrary, puts it back to work; it places us once again under water, in order to furnish us with the opportunity of using the air pump; it compels us to seek for gold in the inaccessible domestic mine rather than in our domestic looms. Its whole effect is expressed in the phrase: waste of energy.


It will be understood that I am speaking here of general effects, and not of the temporary inconveniences occasioned by the transition from a bad system to a good one. A momentary disturbance necessarily accompanies every advance. This may be a reason for easing the transition as much as possible; it is not a reason for systematically prohibiting all progress, still less for failing to recognize it.


Industrial competition is generally represented as a conflict; but this is not a true picture of it, or it is true only if we confine ourselves to the consideration of each industry in terms of its effects upon another, similar industry, isolating both of them, in thought, from the rest of mankind. But there is something else to be considered: their effects upon consumption and upon general well-being.


That is why it is not permissible to compare commercial relations, as is often done, to war and to treat the two of them as analogous.


In war, the stronger overcomes the weaker.


In business, the stronger imparts strength to the weaker. This utterly destroys the analogy.


The English may be strong and skillful; they may have enormous amortized investments; they may have at their disposal the two great forces of production: iron and fuel; all this means that the products of their labor are cheap. And who profits from the low cost of a product? The person who buys it.


It is not within the power of the English to annihilate absolutely any part whatsoever of our labor. All they can do is to render it superfluous with respect to a given result that has already been achieved, to furnish us the air and at the same time dispense with the pump, to increase thereby the productive capacities at our disposal, and—what is especially noteworthy—to render their alleged ascendancy over us the less possible the more their industrial superiority becomes incontestable.


Thus, by a rigorous yet reassuring demonstration, we reach the conclusion that labor and violence, which are so opposite in nature, are none the less so in their effects, whatever protectionists and socialists may say of them.


In order to reach this conclusion all that we have to do is to distinguish between labor that has been abolished and labor that has been saved.


To have less iron because one works less, and to have more iron although one works less, are things that are more than just different; they are opposite. The protectionists confuse them; we do not. That is all.


We should realize that if the English undertake enterprises that involve a great deal of activity, labor, capital, and intelligence, and a great number of natural resources, it is not just for show, but to procure for themselves a great number of satisfactions in exchange for their products. They certainly expect to receive at least as much as they give, and what they produce in their own country pays for what they buy elsewhere. If, therefore, they flood us with their products, it is because they expect to be flooded with ours. In that case, the best way to acquire for ourselves as many of their products as possible is to be free to choose between these two means of obtaining them: direct production or indirect production. All the arts of British Machiavellism cannot force us to make a poor choice.


Let us, then, cease this childish practice of comparing industrial competition to war; whatever element of plausibility this faulty analogy has comes of isolating two competing industries in order to determine the effects of their competition. As soon as one introduces into this calculation the effect produced upon the general well-being, the analogy breaks down.


In a battle, he who is killed is utterly destroyed, and the army is so much the weaker. In industry, a factory closes only when what it produced is replaced, with a surplus besides, by the whole of domestic industry. Imagine a state of affairs in which, for each man killed in action, two spring from the ground full of strength and energy. If there is a planet where such things happen, war, it must be admitted, is conducted there under conditions so different from those we see down here that it no longer deserves even to be called by the same name.


Now, this is the distinguishing characteristic of what has been so inappropriately called industrial warfare.


Let the English and the Belgians lower the price of their iron, if they can; let them keep on lowering it until they send it to us for nothing. They may quite possibly, by this means, extinguish the fire in one of our blast furnaces, i.e., in military parlance, kill one of our soldiers; but I defy them to prevent a thousand other branches of industry from springing up at once, as a necessary consequence of this very cheapness, and becoming more profitable than the one that has been killed.


Our conclusion must be, then, that domination through industrial superiority is impossible and self-contradictory, since every superiority that manifests itself in a nation is transformed into low-cost goods and in the end only imparts strength to all other nations. Let us banish from political economy all expressions borrowed from the military vocabulary: to fight on equal terms, conquer, crush, choke off, be defeated, invasion, tribute. What do these terms signify? Squeeze them, and nothing comes out. Or rather, what comes out is absurd errors and harmful preconceptions. Such expressions are inimical to international co-operation, hinder the formation of a peaceful, ecumenical, and indissoluble union of the peoples of the world, and retard the progress of mankind.109*

Notes for this chapter

[First published in Le Libre échange, February 14, 1847.—EDITOR.]
[If the author had lived longer, he probably would have published a third series of Economic Sophisms. The chief contents of such a book would appear to have already been published in the columns Le Libre échange.—EDITOR.]

End of Notes


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