Selected Essays on Political Economy
By Frédéric Bastiat
Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist, statesman, and author. He led the free-trade movement in France from its inception in 1840 until his untimely death in 1850. The first 45 years of his life were spent in preparation for five tremendously productive years writing in favor of freedom. Bastiat was the founder of the weekly newspaper,
Le Libre Échange, a contributor to numerous periodicals, and the author of sundry pamphlets and speeches dealing with the pressing issues of his day. Most of his writing was done in the years directly before and after the Revolution of 1848—a time when France was rapidly embracing socialism. As a deputy in the Legislative Assembly, Bastiat fought valiantly for the private property order, but unfortunately the majority of his colleagues chose to ignore him. Frederic Bastiat remains one of the great champions of freedom whose writings retain their relevance as we continue to confront the old adversary.
Seymour Cain, trans. / George B. de Huszar, ed.
First Pub. Date
Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
Includes Preface by George B. de Huszar, introduction by Friedrich A. Hayek
The text of this edition is under copyright
- About the Author
- Preface to the English-Language Edition, by George B. de Huszar
- Introduction, by F. A. Hayek
- Chapter 1, What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen
- Chapter 2, The Law
- Chapter 3, Property and Law
- Chapter 4, Justice and Fraternity
- Chapter 5, The State
- Chapter 6, Property and Plunder
- Chapter 7, Protectionism and Communism
- Chapter 8, Plunder and Law
- Chapter 9, Academic Degrees and Socialism
- Chapter 10, Declaration of War against the Professors of Political Economy
- Chapter 11, Speech on the Suppression of Industrial Combinations
- Chapter 12, Reflections on the Amendment of M. Mortimer-Ternaux
- Chapter 13, The Balance of Trade
To M. Thiers
Protectionism and Communism
Do not be ungrateful to the February Revolution. It surprised you, perhaps shocked you, but it also prepared unexpected triumphs for you as author, as orator, and as privy councillor.
**47 Among these successes is one that is certainly very extraordinary. In recent days we read in
The Association for the Defense of Domestic Industry [the former Mimerel Committee] has just addressed a circular to all its correspondents announcing that a subscription has been opened to contribute to the dissemination in the workshops of M. Thiers’ book on property. The Association itself has subscribed for five thousand copies.
I should like to have been present when this flattering notice came to your attention. It must have afforded you some amusement.
There is good reason to say that the ways of God are as infallible as they are inscrutable. For if you will just grant me for a moment (what I shall very soon try to demonstrate) that protectionism, when it becomes widespread, becomes communism, just as a little carp becomes a big carp, provided that God lets it live, I shall show you how odd it is that a champion of protectionism should pose as the destroyer of communism; but what is still more extraordinary and still more reassuring is that a powerful organization that was formed to disseminate the theory and practice of communism (in so far as this is deemed profitable to its members) should today devote half of its resources to destroying the evil it has done with the other half.
This is, I repeat, a reassuring spectacle. It reassures us as to the inevitable triumph of truth, since it shows us the first authentic disseminators of subversive doctrines, frightened by their success, now concocting the antidote and the poison in the same laboratory.
This presupposes, it is true, the identity of the communist and protectionist principles, and perhaps you do not admit this identity, although, to tell the truth, it does not seem possible to me that you could have written four hundred pages on property without being struck by it. Perhaps you think that my few efforts devoted to the cause of
free trade, my impatience with an inconclusive discussion, my ardor in combat, and the sharpness of the struggle have made me look at my adversaries’ errors through a magnifying glass, as we polemicists are only too prone to do. Undoubtedly, you believe, it is my imagination that is blowing up the theory of the
Moniteur industriel to the same proportions as that of the
Populaire, in order to win the argument with the protectionists. What likelihood is there that the great manufacturers, respectable landowners, rich bankers, and able statesmen have made of themselves, without knowing or desiring it, the initiators and the apostles of communism in France? And why not, I pray you? There are many workers full of a sincere faith in the
right to employment, and consequently communists without knowing or desiring it, who would not tolerate their being considered as such. The reason for this is that in all classes of society, self-interest influences the will; and the will, as Pascal says, is the principal organ of belief. Many industrialists, otherwise quite respectable, promote communism (under another name), as people always do, that is, on condition that only the goods of others are to be divided and shared. But as soon as the principle has gained ground, and it is a matter of sharing their own property too, oh, then communism strikes them with horror. Previously, they circulated the
Moniteur industriel; now they are distributing the book on property. To be astonished at this, one must be ignorant of the human heart, its inner springs, and its proclivity toward clever casuistry.
No, sir, it is not the heat of the struggle that has made me see the protectionist doctrine in this light; on the contrary, it is because I saw the doctrine in this light in the first place, before the struggle, that I committed myself to engage in it.
**48 Please believe me, the motive that induced me to do so was never the hope of increasing our foreign trade a little, although this collateral result is surely not to be scorned. I believed and still believe that this is a question of property rights. I believed and still believe that our protective tariff, by virtue of the mentality that has brought it into being and the arguments by which it is defended, has opened a breach in the right to property through which all the rest of our legislation threatens to pass. In the existing state of public opinion, it seemed to me that a form of communism (unconscious of itself and of its extent, I must admit) was on the point of overwhelming us. It seemed to me that this form of communism (for there are several kinds) was availing itself of protectionist reasoning and doing no more than carrying it to its logical conclusion. Hence, it was on this ground that it seemed to me useful to fight communism; for, since it had armed itself with sophisms circulated by the Mimerel Committee,
*77 there was no hope of overcoming it so long as these sophisms held sway in the public mind.
This was our point of view at Bordeaux, at Paris, at Marseilles, and at Lyons, when we established the Association for
Free Trade. Commercial freedom, considered in itself, is undoubtedly a precious good for the nations of the world; but, after all, if this was all we had in mind, we should have called our organization the
Association for Commercial Freedom, or, still more shrewdly,
for the Gradual Reform of Tariffs. But the term
free trade implies
freedom to dispose of the fruit of one’s labor, in other words,
property, and that is the reason we preferred it.
**49 Certainly, we knew that this term would cause us many difficulties. It affirmed a principle, and hence it had to range among our adversaries all the partisans of the opposite principle. Moreover, it was extremely repugnant even to those who were the most disposed to side with us, that is, businessmen, who were more concerned at that time with reducing the tariff than with defeating communism. Le Havre, while entirely in sympathy with our views, refused to join us. People said to me from all sides: “We shall have a better chance of obtaining some reductions in our tariffs if we do not make any absolute demands.”
I replied: “If that is all you have in view, act through your chambers of commerce.”
They said to me further: “The term
free trade is alarming and will hinder your success.”
Nothing was more true; but I drew from the very fright caused by this term my strongest argument for its adoption. “The more it terrifies,” I said, “the more this proves that the notion of property is being obliterated in people’s minds. The protectionist doctrine has led to the acceptance of false ideas, and false ideas have produced protection. To obtain by deception or through the good will of the Minister of Commerce an adventitious improvement in the tariff, is to palliate an effect, not to destroy the cause.”
Hence, I retained the term
free trade, not in spite of, but because of, the obstacles that it would create for us; obstacles, which, in revealing the sickness of men’s minds, were the certain proof that the very foundations of the social order were being threatened.
It would not have sufficed just to indicate our goal with a slogan; we had also to define it. That is what we did, and I transcribe here, in confirmation, the first act or manifesto of this Association.
At the moment of uniting in defense of a great cause, the undersigned feel the need of setting forth their
beliefs; of proclaiming the
means, and the
character of their association.
property, is a natural right. Every citizen who has produced or acquired a product should have the option of applying it immediately to his own use or of transferring it to whoever on the face of the earth agrees to give him in exchange the object of his desires. To deprive him of this option when he has committed no act contrary to public order and good morals, and solely to satisfy the convenience of another citizen, is to legitimize an act of plunder and to violate the law of justice.
It is, further, to violate the conditions of public order; for what order can exist in a society where each industry, aided and abetted by the law and the public police force, seeks its success in the oppression of all the others?
It is to disregard the providential design that presides over men’s destinies, as revealed in the infinite variety of climates, seasons, natural powers, and aptitudes—gifts that God has unequally distributed among men only in order to unite them, through trade, in the bonds of universal brotherhood.
It is to thwart the development of public prosperity; since he who is not free to exchange is not free to choose his work, and finds himself compelled to misdirect his efforts, his faculties, his capital, and the forces that Nature has placed at his disposal.
Finally, it is to jeopardize international peace, because it ruptures the commercial relations that render wars impossible by rendering them onerous.
The Association, then, has
free trade as its goal.
The undersigned do not contest the right of a nation to levy on the merchandise that crosses its borders taxes reserved for the common expense, provided that they are determined solely by the needs of the public treasury.
But as soon as the tax, losing its fiscal character, has for its object the exclusion of a foreign product, to the detriment of the treasury itself, in order to raise artificially the price of a similar domestic product, and thus to exact tribute from the community for the profit of one class, from that moment protection, or rather plunder, makes its appearance; and this is the principle that the Association seeks to discredit and to efface completely from our laws, independently of any reciprocity or of systems that prevail elsewhere.
From the fact that the Association aims at the complete destruction of the protectionist system, it does not follow that it demands that such a reform be accomplished in a day and result from a single election. Even to return from bad to good and from an artificial state of things to a natural condition, precautions may well be recommended by prudence. These details of execution are for the authorities to work out; the function of the Association is to disseminate and to popularize the basic principle.
As for the means that it intends to make use of, it will never seek them elsewhere than in constitutional and legal ways.
Finally, the Association is completely nonpartisan. It is not in the service of any industry, class, or region. It embraces the cause of eternal justice, of peace, of unity, of free communication, of universal brotherhood, the cause of the general welfare, which is everywhere and in all respects identical with that of the
Is there a word in this program that does not reveal the ardent desire to strengthen or even to re-establish in men’s minds the idea of property, which has been perverted by the protectionist system? Is it not evident that the commercial interest is secondary, and the social interest primary? Note that the tariff, in itself, whether good or bad from the administrative or fiscal point of view, concerns us little. But as soon as it acts
intentionally in the protectionist sense, that is, as soon as it reveals its purpose to be plunder and the negation, in principle, of the right to property, we combat it, not as a tariff, but as a system.
“This,” we say, “is the idea that we are seeking to discredit, in order to make it disappear from our laws.”
No doubt it will be asked why, having in mind a general question of this importance, we have restricted the struggle to the area of a particular question.
The reason for this is simple. We had to pit organization against organization, to enlist support and soldiers for our army. We knew well that the debate between protectionists and freetraders could not be prolonged without raising and ultimately resolving all the questions, moral, political, philosophical, and economic, that are connected with property; and, since the Mimerel Committee, in concerning itself with a particular goal, had jeopardized the right to property, we hoped to reinstate it in principle by ourselves aiming directly at the opposite goal.
But what does it matter what I may once have said or thought? What does it matter that I may have perceived, or believed I perceived, a certain connection between protectionism and communism? The essential thing is to prove that this connection exists. This is what I propose to undertake.
You no doubt remember the day when, with your customary astuteness, you extracted from M. Proudhon this admission, which has become famous: “Give me my right to employment, and I will let you keep your right to property.” M. Proudhon did not conceal the fact that in his eyes these two rights are incompatible.
If property is incompatible with the right to employment, and if the right to employment is founded on the same principle as protectionism, what are we to conclude from this, if not that protectionism is itself incompatible with property? In geometry, it is regarded as an incontestable truth that two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other.
Now, it happened that an eminent orator, M. Billault,
*78 believed he should make a speech in support of the right to employment. This was not easy in the face of the confession that M. Proudhon allowed to slip by. M. Billault understood very well that to make the state intervene to equalize wealth and keep everyone’s standard of living at a given level is to set oneself on the road to communism. What, then, did he say in order to persuade the National Assembly to violate property rights? He told you quite simply that what he was asking you to do you were already doing through your tariffs. His demand did not go beyond a somewhat more extensive application of doctrines you have already accepted and applied.
Here are his words:
Look at our customs duties. By means of protective tariffs, discriminatory taxes, subsidies, and schemes of all kinds, society supports, retards, or advances all the plans of our national industry. [Very good!] Not only does it hold the balance between French labor, which it protects, and foreign labor, but it continually intervenes more and more in various domestic industries. Listen to the constant protests brought by some industries against others. Witness, for example, the industries that use iron complaining of the protection granted to French iron against foreign iron; those that use linen or cotton thread protesting against the protection granted to French thread by the exclusion of foreign thread; and so on with other industries. Society [he should have said, the government] finds itself, then, necessarily involved in all the struggles and all the difficulties of industry. It intervenes actively every day, directly and indirectly; and as soon as you have to deal with customs questions, you will see that you will be, whether you like it or not, compelled to take sides and to evaluate all these claims for yourselves.
It is no objection, then, against the idea that society owes a debt to the destitute worker, that this idea would require the government to intervene in the affairs of industry.
And please note that M. Billault, in resorting to this mode of argumentation, in no way intended to be ironic. He is no freetrader in disguise, taking delight in exposing the obvious inconsistency of protectionism. No, M. Billault is himself a bona fide protectionist. He is aiming at the equalization of wealth by law. In order to attain this goal, he deems the action of tariffs useful; finding the right to property an obstacle, he jumps over it, as you do. Next, the right to employment, which is a second step on the same road, is suggested to him. Again he finds the right to property an obstacle, and again he jumps over it. But when he looks back, he is quite surprised to see that you have not followed him. He asks you for the reason. If you were to reply to him, “I grant in principle that the law can violate property rights, but I find it inopportune that it should do so under the guise of the right to employment,” M. Billault would understand you and would discuss with you this secondary question of opportuneness. But you counter with an appeal to property rights themselves. This astonishes him, and he thinks himself entitled to say to you, “Don’t start preaching to me at this late date; for if you reject the right to employment, at least let it not be on the grounds of the right to property, since you violate this right by your tariffs when it suits you to do so.” He could add with some reason: “By means of protective tariffs you often violate the property rights of the poor for the profit of the rich. By the right to employment you would violate the property rights of the rich for the advantage of the poor. Why are you so late in feeling any qualms of conscience?”
There is, then, only one difference between M. Billault and you. Both of you travel along the same road, that of communism. But you have taken only one step, and he has taken two. In this respect, the advantage, at least in my eyes, is on your side. But you lose it when it comes to logic. For, since you proceed as he does, though more slowly, by turning your back on property, it is certainly quite ridiculous that you should pose as its champion. M. Billault has been able to avoid this inconsistency. But, alas, it is only to fall into a lamentable sophism! M. Billault is too enlightened not to feel, at least vaguely, the danger of each of his steps along a road that must end in communism. He does not make himself ridiculous in posing as a champion of property rights at the moment that he violates them. But what does he think of to justify himself? He invokes the favorite axiom of whoever wants to reconcile two things that are irreconcilable:
There are no absolute principles. Private property and communism—let us have a little of each everywhere, according to circumstances.
In my view, the pendulum of civilization, which oscillates from one to the other principle, according to the needs of the moment, but which always keeps on indicating greater progress, is returning to the necessity of governmental action after having swung strongly towards the absolute liberty of individualism.
Thus, there is nothing true in the world, and there are no absolute principles, since the
pendulum must oscillate from one principle to the other, according to the needs of the moment. O metaphor, where wouldst thou lead us, if only we let thee!
As you said very judiciously on the rostrum, one cannot say—still less write—everything at once. It should be clearly understood that I am not examining here the economic aspect of the protective system, nor am I inquiring whether, from the point of view of our national wealth, it does more good than harm, or more harm than good. The only point that I want to prove is that it is nothing else than a manifestation of communism. Messrs. Billault and Proudhon have begun the demonstration. I am going to try to complete it.
In the first place, what must we understand by
communism? There are several ways, if not of bringing about, at least of trying to bring about, the common ownership of goods. M. de Lamartine knows of four. You think that there are a thousand ways, and I agree with you. However, I think that all of them can be put into three general categories, of which only one, as I see it, constitutes a real danger.
First, two or more men can plan to work and live in common. As long as they do not try to disturb the security or restrict the liberty or encroach upon the property of others, directly or indirectly, then, if they do any harm at all, they do it only to themselves. The tendency of such men will always be to go into distant uninhabited places to make their dream come true. Whoever has reflected on these matters knows that these poor fellows will die of hardship, the victims of their illusions. In our day, communists of this kind have given to their fantastic Elysium the name of Icaria, as if they had had a sad forboding of the dreadful catastrophe toward which they were headed. We should lament their blindness; we should be obliged to warn them if they were prepared to listen to us; but society has nothing to fear from their fantasies.
Another form of communism, and certainly the most brutal, consists in putting all existing property into one heap and parceling it out
ex aequo. This is plunder erected into a universal rule of law. It involves the destruction not only of property, but also of labor and of the very motive that impels a man to work. This kind of communism is so violent, so absurd, and so monstrous that I cannot really believe it to be dangerous. This is what I said some time ago before a considerable gathering of voters, the great majority of whom belonged to the suffering classes. An outburst of murmurs greeted my words.
I indicated my surprise at this. “What!” they said. “M. Bastiat dares to say that communism is not dangerous? Then he is a communist! Oh, well, we suspected as much, for communists, socialists, and economists are birds of a feather.” I had some difficulty in getting myself out of this predicament. But the interruption itself proved the truth of my thesis. No, communism is not dangerous when it appears in its most naive form, that of pure and simple plunder. It is not dangerous, because it inspires horror.
I hasten to add that if protectionism can be and should be compared to communism, it is not to this form of communism that I have just described.
But communism assumes a third form.
To make the state intervene, to give it the task of stabilizing profits and equalizing wealth by taking from some, without their consent, in order to give to others, without receiving anything in return on their part, to make the state responsible for achieving equality by means of plunder—this indeed is communism. The procedures employed by the state to attain this end do not matter, any more than the fancy names with which the idea is tricked out. Whether the state seeks to realize it by direct or by indirect means, by restrictive measures or by taxes, by tariffs or by the right to employment; whether it goes under the name of equality, solidarity, or fraternity, in no way changes the nature of things. The plunder of property is nonetheless plunder because it is accomplished in a regular, orderly, systematic way, through the action of the law.
I add that in our day this is the truly dangerous form of communism. Why? Because in this form we see it constantly ready to encroach on everything. Just look! Someone asks that the state furnish
tools of production free of charge to craftsmen and farmers. This is tantamount to insisting that it steal them from other craftsmen and farmers. Another wants the state to make loans without interest. It could not do so without violating property rights. A third calls for gratuitous education at all levels. Gratuitous! That means at the expense of the taxpayers. A fourth demands that the state subsidize associations of workers, theatres, artists, etc. But these subsidies are just so much wealth taken away from those who have legitimately earned it. A fifth cannot rest until the state has artificially raised the price of a product for the advantage of the one who sells it. But this is to the detriment of the one who buys it. Yes, there are very few persons who, at one time or another, are not communists in this sense. You are, M. Billault is, and I fear that all of us in France are to some degree. It seems that the intervention of the state reconciles us to plunder by shifting the responsibility for it on everybody, that is, on nobody in particular, an arrangement that enables us to enjoy the property of others with a perfectly good conscience. Did not the honorable M. Tourret,
*79 one of the most upright men who have ever occupied a ministerial post, begin his statement of the reasons for the proposed law on advances to agriculture with these words: “It is not enough to give instruction in order to cultivate the arts; we must, in addition, furnish the tools of production”? After this preamble, he submitted to the National Assembly a draft of a law of which the first article reads as follows:
Art. 1. A credit of ten million francs is granted to the Minister of Agriculture and Commerce in the budget of 1849, for the purpose of making advances to the owners and the associations of owners of rural lands.
Admit that if legislative language plumed itself on its precision, the article should have been worded thus:
The Minister of Agriculture and Commerce is authorized, during the year 1849, to take ten million francs from the pockets of farmers who have great need of them and
to whom they belong, in order to deposit them in the pockets of other farmers who are in equal need of them and
to whom they do not belong.
Is this not a communist act; and, if it becomes widespread, does it not amount to giving legal status to communism itself?
Similarly, the manufacturer who would rather die than steal a centime does not hesitate in the slightest to make this request of the legislature: “Make a law that will raise the price of my cloth, my iron, and my coal and will put me in a position to fleece my buyers.” Since the basis for his request is that he is not satisfied with the profit he makes by exchanging freely or by free trade (which I declare to be the same thing, whatever may be said about it); and since, on the other hand, we are all dissatisfied with our profits and inclined to appeal to the legislature; it is clear, to me at least, that if the legislature does not hasten to reply: “That is no concern of ours; we are not authorized to violate property rights, but to guarantee them,” we are plunged into complete communism. The means of execution set in operation by the state may differ, but they have the same end and stem from the same principle.
Suppose that I appear before the National Assembly and say: “I am engaged in business, and I find that my profits are insufficient. That is why I request you to issue a decree authorizing the tax collectors to take just one little centime from each French family.” If the legislature approves my request, one may, if one wishes, see in this only an isolated case of legal plunder, which does not yet deserve the name of communism. But if all Frenchmen, one after another, come to make the same petition, and if the legislature examines their requests with the avowed aim of equalizing wealth, it is in this principle, followed by its effects, that I see, and that you yourself cannot fail to see, communism.
It matters little whether, in order to attain this end, the legislature makes use of the customs officer or the tax collector, direct taxation or an indirect levy, restrictive measures or subsidies. Does it believe itself authorized to
take and to
give without compensation? Does it believe that its function is to equalize profits? Does it act in accordance with this belief? Does most of the public approve and favor this kind of action? In that case, I say that we are on the road to communism, whether we are aware of it or not.
And if I am told: “The state does not act thus on behalf of everyone, but only on behalf of a few classes,” I shall reply: “Then it has found the means to make even communism worse.”
I am aware, sir, that it is very easy to cast doubt on my reasoning by confusing the issue. Quite legitimate administrative facts will be cited, cases where the intervention of the state is as equitable as it is useful; then, an apparent analogy between these cases and those against which I protest having been established, I shall be placed in the wrong and told: “Either you should not see communism in protective tariffs, or you should see it in all governmental action.”
This is a trap into which I do not wish to fall. That is why I am obliged to seek for the precise circumstance that gives the intervention of the state a communist character.
What is the function of the state? What are the things that the citizens should entrust to the organized force of government? What are those that it should reserve for private activity? To answer these questions would be to give a course in political philosophy. Fortunately, I do not need to do this in order to solve the problem that concerns us here.
When the citizens, instead of performing a service for themselves, turn it into a public service, that is, when they judge it opportune to join together to get work done or to procure a satisfaction
in common, I do not call this
communism, because I do not see here the element that constitutes the hallmark of communism:
leveling by means of plunder. The
state takes, it is true, by way of taxation, but
gives back by way of service. This is a particular but legitimate form of
exchange, the foundation of all society. I will go further. In entrusting a special service to the state, the citizens may be performing a good or a bad action. They are performing a good one if, by this means, the service is done better and more economically; it is bad on the contrary hypothesis. But in neither case do I see the principle of communism making its appearance. In the first instance, the citizens succeeded; in the second, they were mistaken; that is all; and if communism is an error, it does not follow that all error is communism.
Political economists are in general quite suspicious of governmental intervention. They see in it inconveniences of all kinds—a diminution of individual liberty, energy, prudence, and experience, which constitute the most precious resources of any society. Hence, it often happens that they oppose this intervention. But it is not at all from the same point of view and for the same reasons that they reject protectionism. Therefore, our predilection, perhaps too pronounced, for liberty should not be cited as an argument against us, nor should it be said: “It is not surprising that these gentlemen oppose the protectionist system, for they oppose every form of state intervention.”
In the first place, it is not true that we oppose it in regard to everything. We grant that it is the function of the state to maintain order and security, to protect persons and property, to repress frauds and acts of violence. As for the services which have, so to speak, an industrial character, we have no other rule but this: that the state should assume the burden if it can thereby effect an aggregate saving in resources. But, for Heaven’s sake, in making the reckoning, let us take into account all the innumerable inconveniences of a state monopoly.
Next, I am compelled to repeat, it is one thing to vote against a new grant of power to the state on the ground that, taking everything into account, it is disadvantageous and would constitute a national loss; and it is quite another to vote against this new grant of power because it is illegitimate and spoliative, and authorizes the government to do precisely what its rational function is to prevent and to punish. Now, against the protectionist system, as it is called, we have these two kinds of objections, but it is the latter that carries the greater weight in our determination to wage implacable war against it—by legal means, of course.
Thus, if, for example, the question is submitted to a municipal council whether it would be better to let each family send a half mile for its water, or whether it is preferable that the municipal authority should levy an assessment to bring the water to the village square, I should have no objection
in principle to an investigation of this question. The calculation of the advantages and the disadvantages for all would be the sole element in the decision. There might be a mistake in the calculation, but an error that results in a loss of property does not itself constitute a systematic violation of property rights.
But if the mayor proposes to oppress one industry for the profit of another, to forbid wooden shoes for the benefit of the shoemakers, or something of the sort, then I should say to him that this is no longer a question of calculating advantages and disadvantages; what we are concerned with in this case is an abuse of authority, a perverse use of the public police force. I should say to him: “How can you, who are the trustee of the public authority, bound to enforce the law in order to punish plunder, dare to use that authority and force to protect and organize plunder?”
If the mayor’s idea triumphs; if I see, following the precedent thus set, all the industries of the village agitating to solicit favors at the expense of one another; if in the midst of this tumult of unscrupulous ambitions I see the very idea of property foundering; it will be quite permissible for me to think that, in order to save it from going down, the first thing to do is to sound a warning against what is unjust about the measure that constituted the first link in this deplorable chain.
It would not be difficult for me, sir, to find in your work passages that bear on this subject and corroborate my views. In fact, it would suffice to open it at random. Yes, if, playing once again a childish game, I were to plunge a pin into this book, I should find on whatever page I chanced to hit, the condemnation, implicit or explicit, of the protectionist system, the proof that this system is identical, in principle, with communism. And why do I not make this test? Good; here I go. The pin has lighted on page 283. There I read:
It is, then, a grave error to lay the blame on competition and not to see that, if the nation is a producer, it is also a consumer, and that in receiving less, on the one hand [which I deny, and you yourself deny a few lines lower], and paying less, on the other, there remains then, to everyone’s profit, the difference between a system that restrains human industry and one that gives it infinite scope by telling it never to stop.
I defy you to say that this does not apply as well to the competition that takes place across the Bidassoa
*80 as it does to that which occurs across the Loire. Let us try sticking the pin in again. This time we are at page 325.
Either rights exist, or they do not exist. If they exist, they involve absolute consequences…. Furthermore, if a right exists, it exists at every moment. It is absolute today, yesterday, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, in summer as in winter, not when it pleases you to declare it in force, but when it pleases the worker to invoke it!
Would you maintain that an iron manufacturer has an unlimited, perpetual right to prevent me from producing indirectly two hundredweight of iron where I work, which is in a vineyard, for the advantage of producing directly only one hundredweight in his factory, which is an ironworks? This right too either exists or does not exist. If it exists, it is absolute today, yesterday, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, in summer as in winter, not when it pleases you to declare it in force, but when it pleases the
iron manufacturer to invoke it!
Let us try our chances again. We find ourselves on page 63. There I read this aphorism:
Property does not exist if I cannot give it as well as
We, for our part, say: “Property does not exist if I cannot
exchange it as well as
consume it.” And permit me to add that the
right to exchange is at least as precious, as socially important, as characteristic of property, as the
right to make a gift. It is to be regretted that in a work designed to examine all aspects of property, you felt obliged to devote two chapters to
gifts, which are hardly in danger, and not a line to
exchange, the right to which has been so boldly violated under the very authority of the law.
Another prick of the pin. Ah! It puts us on page 47.
Man has a primary property right to his person and his labor. He has a second, less a part of his being but no less sacred, to the products of his labor, which comprise all that is called worldly goods, and which society has the highest interest in
guaranteeing to him. For, without this guarantee, no work would be done, and without work, there would be no civilization, not even the necessities, but poverty, robbery, and barbarism.
All right, sir, let us expatiate, if you so desire, on this text.
Like you, I consider the right to property to consist in the
freedom to dispose first of one’s person, then of one’s labor, and finally, of the products of one’s labor—which proves, incidentally, that, from a certain point of view, freedom and the right to property are indistinguishable from each other.
I should hardly dare to say, as you do, that the right to own the products of our labor is less a part of our being than our productive skills themselves. Physically speaking, this is incontestable; but whether a man is deprived of the use of his labor or of its products, the result is the same, and this result is called
slavery—a further proof of the essential identity between freedom and the right to property. If I use force to turn another man’s labor to my profit, that man is my slave. He still is, if, though allowing him to work freely, I find the means, by force or by cunning, to get hold of the fruits of his labor. The first type of oppression is more odious; the second is more astute. When it was observed that free labor is more intelligent and more productive, the masters said: “Let us not directly pre-empt the labor of our slaves, but let us appropriate the more abundant products of their free labor, and let us give to this new form of servitude the fine name of
You say, besides, that society is interested in
protecting property. We are in agreement; only I go much further than you, and if by
society you mean the
government, I say that its sole function in regard to property is to
protect it; that if it tries to
equalize it, by that very fact it violates property rights instead of guaranteeing them. This point deserves further examination.
When a certain number of men, who cannot live without labor and without property, join together to support a
common police force, their aim is evidently to work and to enjoy the fruit of their labor in complete security, and not to put their labor and their property at the mercy of that force. Even before the institution of any form of regular government, I do not believe that the
right to self-defense, the right of individuals to defend their persons, their freedom of labor, and their property, can be contested.
Without pretending to philosophize here on the origin and extent of the rights of governments, a vast subject quite frightening to my weak brain, permit me to submit an idea for your consideration. It seems to me that the rights of the state can be nothing but the regularizing of
pre-existent personal rights. For my part, I cannot conceive a
collective right that does not have its foundation in an
individual right or presuppose it. Hence, to know whether the state is legitimately invested with a right, we must ask whether the individual has that right in virtue of his nature and in the absence of all government. It is on this basis that I rejected a few days ago the right to employment. I said: Since Peter does not have the right to require Paul directly to give him employment, he is not authorized to exercise this pretended right through the intermediation of the state; for the state is only the
common police force created by Peter and by Paul, at their expense, for a definite end, which could never be to render just what is not just. It is by this touchstone that I also judge between the
protection and the
equalization of property by the state. Why does the state have the right to
protect, even by force, each man’s property? Because that right pre-exists in the individual. One cannot deny to individuals the
right to legitimate self-defense, the right to employ force, if necessary, in order to repel aggression directed against their persons, their freedom of labor, or their property. It is understandable that this individual right, since it belongs to all the citizens, may assume a collective form and legitimize the
common police force. And why does the state not have the right to equalize property? Because, in order to do so, we must take it away from some and bestow it on others. Now, since none of the thirty million Frenchmen has the right to take property by force under the pretext of equalizing wealth, we do not see how they could invest the
common police force with this right.
And note that the right to
equalize property is destructive of the right to have it protected. Take the case of savages who have not yet founded a government. Each of them has the
right to legitimate self-defense, and it is not difficult to see that it is this right that will become the basis of a
legitimate common police force. If one of these savages has devoted his time, his energy, and his intelligence to making a bow and arrows, and another tries to take them away from him, all the sympathies of the tribe will be for the victim; and if the case is submitted to the judgment of the elders, the despoiler will be condemned without fail. It is only one step beyond this to the organization of a public police force. But does this force have as its function, at least as its legitimate function, the task of regulating the act of the one who defends his property, in virtue of his right, or the act of the one who encroaches on the property of others, in violation of that right? It would be very strange if the collective force were to be based, not on the right of the individual, but on its permanent and systematic violation! No, the author of the book that I have before me cannot support such a thesis. But it is not enough that he does not support it; perhaps he should also fight against it. It is not enough to attack the crude and absurd form of communism that a few sectarians propose in some disreputable pamphlets. It would perhaps have been good to expose and discredit that other bold and subtle form of communism, which, by the simple perversion of the just idea of the rights of the state, has wormed its way into some branches of our legislation and threatens to invade all of them.
For, sir, it is indeed incontestable that, by the action of tariffs, by means of the so-called
protectionist system, governments have brought about the monstrous situation that I have just described. They cease to uphold the right to legitimate self-defense preexisting in every citizen, which is the basis on which they are constituted and the essential function which they exist to perform, in order to arrogate to themselves a pretended right to equalize wealth by way of plunder, a right that, not residing previously in anyone, cannot, by the same token, reside in the community.
But what good is it to insist on these general ideas? What good is it to demonstrate here the absurdity of communism, since you have done so yourself (save for one of its manifestations, and, in my opinion, the most threatening in actual practice) much better than I could do?
Perhaps you will tell me that the protectionist system is not, in principle, opposed to the right to property. Let us look, then, at the procedures of that system.
There are two of them: export bounties and restrictions on imports.
As for subsidies, their effect is obvious. I defy anyone to maintain that the system of export bounties, if carried to its ultimate extreme, would not culminate in absolute communism. The citizens work under the protection of the common police force, responsible, as you say, for
guaranteeing to each his own,
suum cuique. But here is the state, with the most philanthropic intentions in the world, undertaking a responsibility that is quite novel, quite different from, and, as I see it, not only incompatible with, but destructive of, its primary responsibility. It is pleased to set itself up as the arbiter of profits, to decide that one type of labor is not adequately remunerated, and that another is too much so; it is pleased to play the role of
stabilizer and to make, as M. Billault says, the pendulum of civilization swing to the side opposed to the
liberty of individualism. Consequently, it levies a tax on the entire community in order to make a gift, under the name of subsidies, to the exporters of a particular kind of products. It professes to be promoting industry; it should rather say,
one industry at the expense of
all the others. I shall not stop to demonstrate that it stimulates the sterile branch at the expense of the fruitful branches; but, in entering on this path, does not the government authorize every worker to come clamoring for a subsidy if he can prove that he is not earning as much as his neighbor? Is it the function of the state to hear and evaluate all these requests and to do each one justice? I do not think so, but those who do think so should have the courage to give their thought its proper expression and to say: “The function of the government is not to protect property, but to equalize it. In other words, there is no property.”
I am concerned here only with a question of principle. If I wanted to examine the economic effects of export bounties, I should show them in the most ridiculous light, for they constitute nothing but a gratuitous gift by France to foreigners. It is not the seller who receives it, but the buyer, in virtue of that law which you yourself have stated in regard to taxes: It is the consumer who, in the last analysis, bears all the burdens, as he receives all the advantages, of production. Accordingly, the most mortifying and the most mystifying thing possible has happened to us in regard to these bounties. Some foreign governments have reasoned thus: “If we raise our customs duties by an amount equal to the subsidy paid by the French taxpayers, it is clear that nothing will be changed for our consumers, since the net price will be the same for them. Merchandise reduced by five francs at the French border will pay five francs more at the German border; this is an infallible means of making the French treasury bear the burden of our public expenditures.” But other governments, I am assured, have been still more ingenious. They have said to themselves: “The bounty paid by France is indeed a gift that it makes to us; but if we raise the duty, there is no reason for more of this merchandise to enter our country than in the past; we shall ourselves be setting a limit to the generosity of these excellent Frenchmen. Let us, on the contrary, provisionally abolish these duties; let us thus encourage an extraordinary importation of their cloth, since each yard of cloth brings with it an absolutely gratuitous gift.” In the first case, our bounties go to the foreign treasury; in the second, they profit the individual citizens, but on a much larger scale.
Let us proceed to restrictions on imports.
I am a craftsman—a woodworker, for example. I have a small workshop, tools, and some raw materials. All this is incontestably mine, for I have made these things, or, what comes to the same thing, I have bought them and paid for them. Moreover, I have strong arms, a certain amount of intelligence, and a great deal of determination. It is with these resources that I can provide for my needs and for those of my family. Note that I cannot produce directly anything that I need—neither iron nor wood nor bread nor wine nor meat nor cloth, etc.—but I can produce
what they are worth. In the last analysis, these things must, so to speak, emerge in another form from my saw and my plane. It is to my interest to receive honestly the greatest quantity possible of these necessities for each given quantity of my labor. I say honestly, for I do not desire to encroach upon anyone’s property or liberty. But no more, indeed, do I want anyone to encroach upon mine. The other workers and I, agreed on this point, impose sacrifices on ourselves and turn over a part of our labor to men called
public officials because we entrust to them the special
office of protecting our labor and its fruits from all encroachment, whether from without or from within.
With things arranged thus, I get ready to put my intelligence, my strength, my saw, and my plane to work. Naturally, I always keep my eyes fixed on the things that are necessary to my existence. These are the things that I must produce indirectly by producing
what they are worth. The problem for me is to produce them in the most advantageous way possible. Consequently, I survey the world of
values, as expressed in what are called current prices. I observe, on the basis of information concerning these current prices, that the way for me to obtain the greatest possible quantity of fuel, for example, with the smallest possible quantity of labor, is to make furniture and to sell it to a Belgian, who will give me coal in return.
But there is in France a worker who digs for coal in the bowels of the earth. Now, it has happened that the public officials to whose support both the miner and I have
contributed so that they would protect for each of us our freedom to work and to dispose of our products (i.e., our property) have had another idea entirely and have taken upon themselves quite another function. They have got it into their heads that they must
balance my labor and that of the miner. Consequently, they have forbidden me to warm myself with Belgian fuel, and when I come to the border with my furniture to receive the coal, I find that these public officials prevent the coal from entering, which comes to the same thing as if they prevented my furniture from leaving. I say to myself then: If we had not thought of paying public officials in order to spare ourselves the trouble of defending our property, would the miner have had the right to go to the border to forbid me an advantageous exchange, under the pretext that it was better for him that this transaction should not take place? Certainly not. If he had made such an unjust attempt, we should have come to blows on the spot, he impelled by his unjust claim and I strong in my right to legitimate self-defense. We have designated and paid a public official precisely to avoid such conflicts. How, then, does it happen that I find the miner and the public official agreed to restrict my freedom and my industry, to narrow the scope in which my productive capacities can be exercised? If the public official had sided with me, I should understand his right to do so; it would derive from my own, for legitimate self-defense is indeed a right. But whence does he derive the right to aid the miner in his injustice? I learn, then, that the public official has changed his role. He is no longer a simple mortal, invested with rights delegated to him by other men, who, consequently, possess them. No, he is a being superior to the rest of mankind, deriving his rights from himself; and among these rights, he arrogates that of equalizing profits, of keeping all stations of life and strata of society at an even level. “Very well,” I say. “In that case, I am going to overwhelm him with claims and requests, so long as I see a man richer than I anywhere in the land.”
“He will not listen to you,” is the reply; “for if he did, he would be a communist; and he takes good care not to forget that his function is to
protect property, not to distribute property equally.”
What a disordered and confused policy! Yet what else could you possibly expect to result from disordered and confused ideas? You will get nowhere in your struggle against communism; as long as you are partial to it, pamper it, cherish it in that part of the law which it has invaded, your efforts will be in vain. It is a serpent that, with your approval, by your own solicitude for it, has slid its head into our laws and customs, and now you are indignant that the tail has appeared in its turn.
It is possible, sir, that you may grant me one concession. You will perhaps say to me: “The protectionist system is founded on the principle of communism. It is contrary to justice, to property rights, to liberty. It diverts the government from its proper path and invests it with arbitrary prerogatives that have no rational basis. All this is only too true. But the protectionist system is
useful; without it, the country, succumbing to foreign competition, would be ruined.”
This would lead us to examine restrictions on imports from the economic point of view. Setting aside all considerations of justice, of morality, of equity, of property rights, of freedom, we should have to resolve the question of pure utility, the mercenary question, so to speak, and, as you know, that is not my subject here. Besides, take care lest, in relying on utility to justify your disdain for morality, you seem to be saying: “Communism, or plunder, condemned by justice, can nonetheless be accepted as an expedient.” Surely you will agree that such an avowal is full of danger.
Without my seeking to resolve the economic problem here, permit me one assertion. I affirm that I have made an arithmetical reckoning of the advantages and disadvantages of protectionism solely from the economic point of view, apart from every consideration of a higher order. I affirm, besides, that I have reached the conclusion that every restrictive measure produces one advantage and two disadvantages, or, if you will, one gain and two losses, each of these losses equal to the gain; whence there results a clear, net loss, which serves to confirm in a reassuring way the fact that in this, as in many other things, and I dare say in all, utility and justice are in accord.
This is only an assertion, it is true; but it can be supported by mathematical proofs.
What misleads public opinion on this point is that the gain from protectionist measures is visible to the naked eye, while of the two equal losses that it entails, one is infinitely divided among all the citizens, and the other appears only to the inquiring eye of the mind.
Without pretending to demonstrate this point here, let me indicate its basis.
Two products, A and B, have in France a normal value of 50 and 40. Let us postulate that A is worth only 40 in Belgium. On this hypothesis, if France adopts the protectionist system, it will get possession of A and B by diverting from the whole of its efforts a quantity equal to 90, for it will be forced to produce A directly. Under a system of free trade, this sum of efforts, equal to 90, will suffice for: (1) the production of B, which it will deliver to Belgium in exchange for A; (2) the production of another B for itself; (3) the production of C.
It is this portion of available labor applied to the production of C in the second case, that is, creating new wealth equal to 10, without thereby depriving France of either A or B, that causes all the difficulty. In place of A, put iron; in place of B, wine, silk, Parisian products; in place of C, any form of wealth that is lacking—you will always find that protectionist policies impair the national welfare.
Would you like us to have done with all this tedious algebra? I certainly want to. You will not deny that if the protectionist system has succeeded in doing some good to the coal industry, it has done so only by raising the price of coal, nor will you deny that this increase in price, from 1822 to the present, has resulted in a greater expenditure, for each unit of heat produced, on the part of all those who use this fuel—in other words, that it represents a
loss. Can it be said that the producers of coal have received, as a result of these restrictive measures, an
extra benefit equivalent to this loss, beyond the interest on their capital and the ordinary profits of industry? This would have to be the case for protection, without ceasing to be unjust, odious, spoliative, and communistic, to be at least
neutral from the purely economic point of view, for it to deserve to be likened simply to common plunder, which reallocates wealth without destroying it. But you yourself assert on page 236 “that the mines of Aveyron, Alais, Saint-Étienne, Creusot, and Anzin, the most famous of all, have not produced an income of four per cent on the capital invested”! For capital in France to yield four per cent, there is no need of protection. Where, then, is there the profit to offset the loss here indicated?
Nor is this all. There is another national loss involved. Since all the consumers of coal have suffered a loss as a result of the relative increase in the price of fuel, they have had to restrict their other consumption proportionately, and the whole of our national industry has necessarily been discouraged to that extent. It is this loss that is never taken into account, because it does not attract any attention.
Allow me again to make a point that I am surprised should not have been more widely observed, namely, that the protection of agricultural products shows itself in all its odious iniquity in the effect it has on the so-called proletarians, while ultimately harming the landed proprietors themselves.
Let us imagine an island in the South Seas on which the land has become the private property of a certain number of the inhabitants.
Imagine in this limited and already appropriated area a proletarian population always increasing or tending to increase.
The members of this latter class will not be able to produce
directly the indispensable necessities of life. They will have to sell their labor to men who are in a position to supply them, in exchange, with food and even with raw materials—cereals, fruits, vegetables, meat, wool, flax, leather, wood, etc.
It is obviously in the interest of the proletarians that the market where these things are sold should be as extensive as possible. The greater the abundance of these agricultural products available, the more the workers will receive for each given quantity of their own labor.
Under a system of free trade, a great number of boats will go in search of food and raw materials on the neighboring islands and continents, bringing them manufactured products in exchange. The landowners will enjoy all the prosperity to which they are entitled; a just balance will be maintained between the value of industrial labor and that of agricultural labor.
But in this situation the landowners of the island reckon thus: “If we prevent the proletarians from working for foreigners and from receiving provisions and raw materials from them in exchange, the workers will be forced to apply to us. As their number constantly increases, and as the competition among them becomes ever keener, they will clamor for that part of the food and materials which we have left to sell after we have taken what we need for ourselves, and we cannot fail to sell our products at a very high price. In other words, the balance between the relative value of their labor and of ours would be destroyed. They would devote a greater number of hours of labor to our satisfactions. Let us, then, make a law prohibiting this commerce, which is so obnoxious to us; and for the execution of that law let us create a body of public officials for whose remuneration the proletarians will pay taxes along with us.”
I ask you, would this not be the height of oppression, a flagrant violation of the most precious of all freedoms, of the first and most sacred of all property rights?
However, observe that it would perhaps not be difficult for the landowners to induce the workers to accept this law as beneficial by telling them:
“We have not done this for ourselves, but for you. We are little concerned with our own interests; we think only of yours. Thanks to this wise measure, agriculture is going to prosper; we landowners will become rich, which will put us in a position to give you much more work and to pay you good wages. Without this measure we should be reduced to poverty, and what would become of you? The island would be inundated with provisions and materials coming from abroad. Your boats would always be at sea. What a national calamity! You would, it is true, live in the midst of abundance, but would you share in it? Do not say that your wages would be maintained at their present height or raised because the foreigners would do nothing but increase the number of those bidding for your labor. Who assures you that it will not strike their fancy to give you their products for nothing? In that case, having no more labor or wages, you will perish from inanition in the midst of plenty. Believe us; accept our law with gratitude. Increase and multiply; whatever provisions remain on the island over and above those we ourselves consume will be given to you for your labor, which by this means will always be assured to you. Above all, avoid succumbing to the belief that what is at issue here is a dispute between you and us, in which your freedom and property are at stake. Do not ever listen to those who tell you that. Be assured that the dispute is between you and the foreigner, that barbarous foreigner—God curse him!—who obviously wants to exploit you by making you perfidious offers, which you are free to accept or to reject.”
It is not unlikely that such a discourse, agreeably seasoned with sophisms on legal tender, the balance of trade, our national industry, agriculture as the nurturer of the state, the prospect of a war, etc., etc., would obtain the greatest success and would induce the oppressed themselves, if they were consulted, to sanction the oppressive decrees. This has happened before and will happen again.
But the preconceptions of the landowners and of the proletarians do not change the nature of things. The result will be a poverty-stricken population, famished, ignorant, perverted, cut down by malnutrition, illness, and vice. The further result will be the sad destruction of the ideas of morality, property, freedom, and the true prerogatives of the state.
And what I would like very much to be able to demonstrate here is that the punishment will very soon redound upon the landowners themselves, who will have prepared their own ruin by the ruination of the consuming public; because the people of this island, as their circumstances became increasingly straitened, will be reduced to consuming food of the lowest quality. Here they will live on chestnuts, there on corn, elsewhere on millet, buckwheat, oats, or potatoes. They will no longer know what wheat or meat tastes like. The landowners will be quite dismayed to see agriculture decline. In vain will they bestir themselves, form committees, and repeat eternally the well-known adage: “Let us raise forage; with forage one can have animals; with animals, manure; with manure, wheat.” In vain will they create new taxes to distribute subsidies to the producers of clover and alfalfa. They will always come to grief on this obstacle: a poverty-stricken population unable to pay for meat and, consequently, unable to give the first impetus to this familiar cycle. They will come to learn in the end, at their own expense, that it is better to endure competition for rich customers than to be invested with a monopoly over impoverished customers.
That is why I say: Not only is protection communism, but it is communism of the worst kind. It begins by putting the skills and the labor of the poor, their sole property, at the disposition of the rich; it involves a clear net loss for the entire population and ends by involving the rich themselves in the common ruin. It invests the state with the peculiar right to take from those who have little in order to give to those who have much; and when, invoking the same principle, the disinherited of the world call upon the state to bring about a more equitable distribution by an act of intervention in the opposite direction, I really do not know what reply can be made to them. In any case, the first reply, and the best, would be to renounce oppression.
But I am anxious to have done with these calculations. After all, what is the issue on which the debate turns? What do we say, and what do you say? There is one point, and it is the main point, on which we agree: it is that the intervention of the legislator to distribute property equally by taking from some what he bestows on others, is
communism, which means the end of all labor, of all thrift, of all well-being, of all justice, of all society.
You, for your part, perceive that this harmful doctrine has found its way into newspapers and books of all kinds—in a word, into the domain of pure thought—and there you attack it vigorously.
I, for my part, believe that I have discovered that it had previously penetrated, with your assent and assistance, into our laws and into the domain of policy and action, and it is there that I seek to combat it.
Next, I would have you note the inconsistency into which you would fall if, while opposing communism in theory, you were to spare—and even encourage—communism in practice.
If you reply to me: “I act thus because the kind of communism brought about by means of tariffs, although opposed to freedom, property rights, and justice, is nonetheless in accord with general utility, and this consideration makes me disregard all the others,” do you not feel that you undermine in advance the whole success of your book, that you nullify its message, that you deprive it of its force and side with the communists of all shades, at least in regard to the philosophical and ethical part of the question?
And then, sir, could a mind as enlightened as yours admit the hypothesis of a radical antagonism between the useful and the just? Do you wish me to speak frankly? Rather than risk so subversive, so impious an assertion, I should say: “This is a special question in which, at first glance, it seems to me that utility and justice are in conflict. I am glad that all those who have spent their lives in examining this question judge otherwise. Undoubtedly, I have not studied it enough.” I have not studied it enough! Is this, then, so painful an admission that, in order not to make it, one is prepared to be so far inconsistent as to deny the wisdom of the providential laws that preside over the development of society? For what more arrant denial of divine wisdom can there be than to declare justice and utility to be essentially incompatible? It has always seemed to me that the cruelest agony with which an intelligent and conscientious person can be afflicted is to go astray at this point. What side to take, indeed, how to make up one’s mind in the face of such an alternative? Shall one decide in favor of utility? This is what men who call themselves practical are disposed to do. But unless they are unable to see the connection between one idea and another, they will undoubtedly be frightened at the consequences of systematized plunder and iniquity. Shall one decide to embrace the cause of justice resolutely, whatever the cost, saying: “I will do what is right, come what may”? This is what upright men are inclined to do. But who would want to take the responsibility of plunging his country and the whole of mankind into misery, desolation, and death? I defy anyone, if he is convinced of this antagonism, to make a decision one way or the other.
I am mistaken. The decision will be made, and the human heart is so constituted that self-interest will be put before conscience. This is what the facts demonstrate, since wherever the protectionist system was believed to be favorable to the welfare of the people, it was adopted, in spite of all considerations of justice; but then the inevitable consequences occurred. Respect for property was destroyed. People said, as did M. Billault: Since property rights have been violated by protectionist measures, why should they not be violated as well by the right to employment? Others, following M. Billault, will take a third step, and still others, following these, a fourth, until communism has triumphed completely.
Good, sound thinkers, like you, are horrified by the swiftness of this descent. They try to climb back up; they do indeed climb back, as you have done in your book, as far as the protectionist system, which is the first step and the only step taken by society down the fatal slope. But if, when confronted with this living denial of the right to property, in place of the maxim stated in your book: “Either rights exist, or they do not exist. If they exist, they involve absolute consequences,” you substitute this one: “Here is a special case in which the national welfare requires the sacrifice of a right,” at that moment all the strength and logic that you have tried to put into this work becomes only weakness and inconsistency.
That is why, sir, if you want to complete your work, you must declare your position in regard to the protectionist system, and to do so it is indispensable to begin by solving the economic problem. You must concentrate on the alleged utility of that system. For, even supposing that I obtain from you a judgment of condemnation on it from the point of view of justice, that would not suffice to kill it. I repeat, men are so constituted that, when they think they have to choose between a
concrete good and
abstract justice, the cause of justice runs a great danger. If you want palpable proof of this, consider what happened to me.
When I came to Paris, I found myself confronted with schools of thought that call themselves democratic and socialist, and that, as you know, make great use of the words “principle,” “altruism,” “self-sacrifice,” “fraternity,” “equity,” and “harmony.” They treat wealth with haughty disdain, as something, if not despicable, at least secondary; so much so that, because we hold it of great account, we are treated as cold economists, egoists, individualists, bourgeois, heartless men, grateful to God only for base self-interest.
**55 “Good!” I said to myself; “here are men of noble heart, with whom I do not need to discuss the economic point of view, which is very subtle and requires more application than Parisian political theorists are generally able to give to a study of this kind. But, with these people, the question of self-interest could not be an obstacle; either they believe it, through faith in the divine wisdom, to be in harmony with justice, or they will sacrifice it gladly, for they are anxious to be self-sacrificing. If, then, they once grant me that free trade is an abstract right, they will enroll resolutely under its standard. Accordingly, I shall address my appeal to them.” Do you know what answer they gave me? Here it is:
“Your free trade is a beautiful utopia. It is founded on morality and justice; it establishes liberty; it consecrates property; it would result in international harmony, in peace and fraternity among men. You are right, a thousand times right, in principle, but we shall fight implacably and by all means against you, because foreign competition would be fatal to the industry of the nation.”
I took the liberty of replying to them thus:
“I deny that foreign competition would be fatal to the industry of the nation. In any case, if it were so, you would have to choose between self-interest, which, according to you, is on the side of a policy of protectionism, and justice, which, as you admit, is on the side of freedom! Now, when I, the worshipper of the golden calf, leave the choice to you, how is it that you, who profess to be self-denying, trample principles underfoot in order to hold fast to self-interest? Do not declaim, then, so much against a motive which governs you just as much as it governs ordinary mortals.”
This experience taught me that first of all we must solve this awesome problem: Is there harmony or antagonism between justice and utility?—and, consequently, we must investigate the economic aspect of the protectionist system. For, since the apostles of brotherhood themselves waver when faced with a possible loss of
money, it is clear that it is not enough to safeguard the cause of universal justice; we must also satisfy that unworthy, lowly, despicable and despised, but all-powerful motive, self-interest.
This was what occasioned a little dissertation in two volumes which I take the liberty of sending to you with the present letter,
**56 thoroughly convinced, sir, that if, as the economists do, you judge the protectionist system adversely as far as its morality is concerned, and if we differ only in so far as its utility is concerned, you will not refuse to inquire carefully whether these two great elements of the definitive solution are mutually incompatible or are in harmony.
That harmony exists, or at least it is as evident to me as the light of day. May it be revealed to you as well! Then, applying your eminently persuasive talents to the struggle against communism in its most dangerous manifestation, you will inflict a mortal blow upon it.
Look at what is happening in England. It would seeem that, if communism ought to have found any place in the world favorable to it, that place should have been the soil of Great Britain. Feudal institutions there, placing extreme poverty and extreme luxury side by side, should have rendered men’s minds susceptible to infection by false doctrines. And yet, what do we see? While they throw the Continent into turmoil, such doctrines have not even caused a ripple on the surface of English society. Chartism has not been able to take root there. Do you know why? Because the organization that for ten years has been discussing the protectionist system has succeeded in throwing a clear light on the right to property and on the rational functions of the state.
Undoubtedly, if to unmask protectionism is to injure communism, for the same reason and because of their close connection, both of them can also be struck down by following, as you have done, the opposite procedure. Protectionism could not very long resist a good definition of the right to property. And so, if anything has surprised and gladdened me, it is to see the association for the defense of monopolies devoting its resources to distributing your book. It is a most piquant spectacle, and it consoles me for the futility of my past efforts. This resolution of the Mimerel Committee will undoubtedly oblige you to publish many editions of your work. In that case, permit me to observe that, good as it is, it involves a serious omission. In the name of science, in the name of truth, in the name of the public welfare, I adjure you to supply the deficiency and urge you to reply to these two questions:
1. Is there an incompatibility in principle between the protectionist system and the right to property?
2. Is it the function of government to guarantee to each person the right to use his productive capacities and to dispose of the fruits of his labor as he pleases, that is, the right to property, or rather to take from some to give to others, so as to equalize profits, opportunities, and the standard of living?
Ah, sir, if you were to arrive at the same conclusions as I; if, thanks to your talent, to your fame, to your influence, you were to make these conclusions prevail in public opinion; who can calculate the extent of the service that you would render to French society? We should see the state restricted to its proper role, which is to guarantee to each person the right to use his productive capacities and to dispose of his property as he pleases. We should see it relieved both of its colossal illegitimate prerogatives and of the frightful responsibility that goes with them. It would confine itself to repressing the abuses of liberty, that is, to establishing liberty itself. It would assure justice to all and would no longer promise success to anyone. Citizens would learn to distinguish between what it is reasonable and what it is childish to ask of it. They would no longer overwhelm it with claims and demands; they would no longer blame it for their misfortunes; they would no longer base chimerical hopes upon it; and, in the ardent pursuit of a good of which the state is not the bestower, we should not see them at each disappointment accusing the legislator and the law, replacing men and changing the forms of government, piling institutions on institutions and debris on debris. We should see the abatement of the universal fever for reciprocal plunder through the costly and dangerous intervention of the state. The government, limited in its function and its responsibility, simple in its action, inexpensive, not making the costs of their own chains weigh down upon the governed, supported by the good sense of the public, would have a solidity that it has never had in our country, and we should have finally solved the great problem of
ending forever the threat of revolution.
NOTES TO CHAPTER 8