Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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EXPORTS AND IMPORTS. By imports is meant all the merchandise brought into a country from other countries; by exports, all the merchandise which leaves a country for other countries. The imports and exports together constitute the foreign trade, a statement of which is annually made out by those in charge of the customs.


—Formerly, when commercial policy was still more influenced by the ideas of the mercantile doctrine than it is to-day, tables of the exports and imports were drawn up for the especial purpose of showing the difference between these two branches of foreign commerce, a difference which was called the balance of trade. To-day, these tables, which are made public in most countries, and notably in England, France, the United States, and Belgium, where they have been brought to a good degree of perfection, are no longer considered by the administrative authorities as anything but statistical information on commerce, navigation, the course of trade between ports, transit, etc.


—The reader is referred to the article BALANCE OF TRADE for anything which pertains to the false theory which so long induced the legislator to encourage exportation by artificial measures and to hinder importation by innumerable political, diplomatic, administrative, financial and commercial restrictions. We shall confine ourselves here to a few considerations.


—One who studies the nature of exchanges is not slow in perceiving that it is only in exceptional cases, such as where there is trickery, fraud or ignorance, that one of the contracting parties can be injured. In general, in exchange transactions, interests counterbalance each other, the values exchanged are equal. It is consequently difficult to admit that a nation, which is a collection of a great number of individuals, parts with the mass of its products for products of inferior value; hence the official reports which acquaint us with the exports and imports of a country should present no noteworthy difference between the exports of that nation to all other countries and the imports from all other countries to that nation. It would even seem that the difference, if there is any, must of necessity be in favor of the imports, for the reason which leads to an exchange is that one has greater need of the products he receives than of those he parts with, and consequently he must attribute more value to the former than to the latter. In fact, the amount of the imports must necessarily exceed, among all nations, that of the exports. [An apparent exception to this rule occurs in the case of a debtor nation, which, until its foreign debt is paid, sends abroad, besides its other exports, merchandise to pay the interest and principal of its indebtedness to other countries. If, however, we take into account the period from the time of contracting the debt until its final discharge, this case will be found to be no exception to the rule. —E. J. L.] J. B. Say admitted this proposition, and an explanation of it is found in Necker's work on the administration of the finances. "If we estimate," said Necker, "the merchandise we take from foreigners at the prices current within our kingdom, we shall overrate the debt contracted by the state; for the price current is composed not only of the sum paid to the nation which has sold the merchandise, but also of the profit and the interest on the advances of the merchants, and the expenses of transportation and freight which may have been earned by our merchant marine; whence it results that the true balance always inclines in favor of the people under consideration." This has been completely established in the article on BALANCE OF TRADE.


—In the second place, it should be observed that the custom house records only show those exchanges which are manifested by the payment of duties; that they say nothing of the contraband trade so considerable in all countries where there are prohibitions and high tariffs; nothing of the various securities and titles to property which are exchanged between citizens of different nations; nothing, or at least nothing accurate, concerning the daily importation or exportation of specie, especially between countries which border on each other. Now this clandestine movement of merchandise which escapes the eye of the customs officials, this transmission of securities of various kinds, and this constant filtration of specie, must be taken into account in any comparison of imports and exports; and it is another error of the partisans of the doctrine of balance of trade that they fail to do this.


—If, then, we should find in the official statements a notable difference arising either from excess of imports or excess of exports, we must simply conclude, admitting the accounts to be free from any systematic error or any material error in the calculations, that they are not the complete expression of what takes place in the commerce of the nation under consideration, whether because the officials who prepare them must of necessity omit a notable part of the imports and exports, or because their bases of valuation are incorrect, or because they do not include sufficiently long periods in their totals. System and base of valuation have been mentioned under the article CUSTOMS DUTIES. As to extent of the periods of observation, we must consider that the statistical tables are made out yearly for inspection, that the commercial transactions are neither completed nor balanced in the course of these periods, which are artificial in this respect, and that it is necessary to extend the calculations to periods which would include the whole of the reciprocal movements of this commerce between two countries—movements which are influenced by various circumstances, climatic, political and economic. (See BALANCE OF TRADE, SMUGGLING, CUSTOMS DUTIES, COMMERCE, FREE TRADE, VALUE.)

E. J. L., Tr.

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