By Frédéric Bastiat
Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist, statesman, and author. He was the leader of 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. Frédéric Bastiat remains one of the great champions of freedom whose writings retain their relevance as we continue to confront the old adversary.
Arthur Goddard, trans., trans.
First Pub. Date
Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
Introduction by Henry Hazlitt
The text of this edition is under copyright
- About the Author
- Preface to the English-Language Edition, by Arthur Goddard
- Introduction, by Henry Hazlitt
- S.1, Author's Introduction to the French Edition
- S.1, Ch.1, Abundance and Scarcity
- S.1, Ch.2, Obstacle and Cause
- S.1, Ch.3, Effort and Result
- S.1, Ch.4, Equalizing the Conditions of Production
- S.1, Ch.5, Our Products Are Burdened with Taxes
- S.1, Ch.6, The Balance of Trade
- S.1, Ch.7, A Petition
- S.1, Ch.8, Differential Tariffs
- S.1, Ch.9, An Immense Discovery
- S.1, Ch.10, Reciprocity
- S.1, Ch.11, Money Prices
- S.1, Ch.12, Does Protectionism Raise Wage Rates
- S.1, Ch.13, Theory and Practice
- S.1, Ch.14, Conflict of Principles
- S.1, Ch.15, Reciprocity Again
- S.1, Ch.16, Obstructed Rivers as Advocates for the Protectionists
- S.1, Ch.17, A Negative Railroad
- S.1, Ch.18, There Are No Absolute Principles
- S.1, Ch.19, National Independence
- S.1, Ch.20, Human vs. Mechanical Labor and Domestic vs. Foreign Labor
- S.1, Ch.21, Raw Materials
- S.1, Ch.22, Metaphors
- S.1, Ch.23, Conclusion
- S.2, Ch.1, The Physiology of Plunder
- S.2, Ch.2, Two Systems of Ethics
- S.2, Ch.3, The Two Hatchets
- S.2, Ch.4, Subordinate Labor Council
- S.2, Ch.5, High Prices and Low Prices
- S.2, Ch.6, To Artisans and Laborers
- S.2, Ch.7, A Chinese Tale
- S.2, Ch.8, Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc
- S.2, Ch.9, Robbery by Subsidy
- S.2, Ch.10, The Tax Collector
- S.2, Ch.11, The Utopian
- S.2, Ch.12, Salt, the Postal Service, and the Tariff
- S.2, Ch.13, Protectionism, or the Three Aldermen
- S.2, Ch.14, Something Else
- S.2, Ch.15, The Little Arsenal of the Freetrader
- S.2, Ch.16, The Right Hand and the Left
- S.2, Ch.17, Domination through Industrial Superiority
Theory and Practice
First Series, Chapter 13
We advocates of free trade are accused of being theorists, of not taking practice sufficiently into consideration.
“In what a frightfully prejudicial light M. Say
60* is put,” observes M. Ferrier,
61* “by that long line of distinguished administrators and that imposing band of writers who disagreed with his views! And M. Say was not unaware of it. Let us see how he deals with it:
“People have asserted, in support of long-standing errors, that there must really be some truth in ideas so generally accepted in all countries. Should we not mistrust observations and conclusions that run counter to opinions that up to our own day have been held to be well founded, and that have been regarded as certain by so many persons who are esteemed for their knowledge and disinterestedness? This argument, I admit, is very plausible and might well cast doubt even on the most indisputable matters, were it not for the fact that the most erroneous opinions whose falsity is now generally recognized—were successively accepted and propagated by everybody for century after century. It was not very long ago that all nations, from the most barbarous to the most enlightened, and all men, from the lowliest porter to the wisest philosopher, accepted it as true that there are four elements. No one would have dreamed of disputing this doctrine, which, nevertheless, is false; so much so that there is not a naturalist’s assistant who would not bring himself into disrepute if he regarded earth, water, and fire as elements.”
Upon this, M. Ferrier makes the following observation:
If M. Say thinks that this comment constitutes an adequate reply to the very strong objection he raises, he is singularly mistaken. It is understandable that men otherwise very well-informed should have been in error for several centuries concerning some point or other in natural history. This fact, in itself, proves nothing. Whether or not water, air, earth, and fire are elements, they are not less useful to man. Such errors are of no consequence; they do not lead to riots; they do not unsettle men’s minds; above all, they do not have an adverse effect on anyone’s well-being, and that is why they could endure for thousands of years without occasioning the slightest inconvenience. The physical world goes on as if they did not exist. But can the same be said of errors that attack the moral world? Is it to be supposed that an absolutely wrong, and consequently harmful, system of government could be maintained for several centuries and among many nations with the general approval of all educated men? Can it be explained how such a system could be compatible with the constantly increasing prosperity of these nations? M. Say concedes that the argument he is combatting is very plausible. Indeed it is, and it retains its plausibility, for M. Say has increased rather than destroyed it.
Now let us hear what M. de Saint-Chamans has to say on this subject:
It was not until the middle of the eighteenth century—that age in which no subject or principle was exempt from discussion—that these purveyors of
speculative ideas, which were applied to everything without being applicable to anything, began writing on political economy. The system of political economy that existed previously was not put in written form, but was
practiced by governments. Colbert,
62* it is said, was its inventor, and it was the system that prevailed in all the nations of Europe. What is even more extraordinary, it still does so today, in spite of the abuse and the scorn directed against it, and in spite of all the discoveries made by modern economics. This system, which our authors have called the
mercantilist system, consisted in …. banning, whether by outright exclusion or by the imposition of customs duties, foreign products that could destroy our industries by their competition….. Economists of all schools have pronounced this system inept, absurd, and likely to impoverish the whole country;
63* it has been banished from all their books and forced to take refuge in the
practice of every nation; and they cannot conceive why, in what concerns the wealth of nations, governments should not rely upon the advice of learned authors rather than trust to their
long experience with a system, etc….. Above all, they cannot understand why the French government should,…. in matters of political economy, go on obstinately resisting the advance of knowledge and retaining in its
practice those inveterate errors which all our writers on economics have exposed….. But enough of this mercantilist system, which has nothing in its favor
but the facts, and which is not defended by any writers!
Words such as these might lead one to suppose that the economists, in demanding for everyone the
freedom to dispose of his property, have, like the Fourierists, excogitated a new social order, visionary and bizarre—a sort of phalanstery without precedent in the annals of the human race. Yet it seems to me that if anything is contrived or contingent, it is not free trade, but protectionism; it is not the freedom to engage in voluntary exchange, but the use of the tariff to upset artificially the natural order in the pricing process.
However, our concern here is not to compare or evaluate the two systems, but to inquire which of the two is based on experience.
Now, in regard to this question, which is all that interests us for the moment, you advocates of monopoly contend that the
facts are on your side, and that we have only
theories on ours.
You even flatter yourselves that the long series of governmental actions, the
long experience of Europe, which you invoke, has seemed to M. Say to carry a certain weight; and I concede that he has not refuted you protectionists on this point with his customary acumen. But I do not concede your claim that the
facts are in your favor; for the only facts on your side are isolated cases resulting from the exercise of compulsion, whereas on our side we have the universal practice of mankind, the free and voluntary actions of all men.
What do we say, and what do you say?
“It is better to buy from another what it would be more costly to make oneself.”
And you say:
“It is better to make things oneself, even if it would be less expensive to buy them from another.”
Now, gentlemen, setting aside theory, demonstration, and reasoning, all of which seem to fill you protectionists with disgust, which of these two assertions enjoys the sanction of
Visit fields, workshops, mills, and stores; look around you everywhere; examine what is done in your own household; observe your own actions at every moment; and then say which principle it is that guides these farmers, workers, industrialists, and merchants, not to mention your own personal
Does the farmer make his own clothes? Does the tailor raise the wheat that he consumes? Does your housekeeper continue to bake bread at home when she finds she can buy it more cheaply at the bakery? Do you propose to give up the pen for the shoebrush in order to avoid paying
tribute to the bootblack? Does not the whole economy of society depend on the division of labor, i.e., on
exchange? And what is exchange but the calculation that induces us, so far as possible, to discontinue direct production whenever indirect acquisition enables us to effect a saving in time and effort?
It is not you, therefore, who are the
practical men, for you could not point to a single person on the face of the earth who acts according to your principle.
But, you may say, we never intended to make our principle a guide for individual relations. We fully understand that this would be to break the bonds of society and to force men to live like snails, each in his own shell. We mean only that this is the prevailing
practice in the relations that have been established among different groups of men.
Well, this assertion too is erroneous. The family, the commune, the canton,
65* the department, the province, are just so many groups that all, without any exception, reject your principle
in practice and have never even dreamed of acting on it. All procure for themselves by way of exchange whatever it would cost them more to procure by way of direct production. And nations would do the same if you did not prevent them by
It is therefore we who are the practical men; we are the ones who base our principles on experience; for, in order to oppose the restrictions that you have chosen to place upon a certain part of international trade, we base our argument on the practice and experience of every individual and every group of individuals whose acts are voluntary and can therefore be adduced as evidence. You, on the other hand, begin by
coercing or by
impeding, and then you seize upon
prohibited acts to support your case: “See; practice proves us in the right!”
You inveigh against our
theory, and even against
theory in general. But, when you put forward a principle antagonistic to ours, did you perchance imagine that you were not framing a
theory? Disabuse yourselves, gentlemen. You are theorists no less than we; but between your theory and ours there is this difference:
Our theory consists only in observing universal
facts, universal attitudes, calculations, and procedures, and at most in classifying and coordinating them so as to understand them better.
Our theory is so little opposed to practice that it is nothing else than
practice explained. We observe that men are motivated by the instinct for self-preservation and a desire for progress, and what they do freely and voluntarily is precisely what we call
political economy or the economy of society. As we never cease to point out, each man is
in practice an excellent economist, producing or exchanging according as he finds it more advantageous to do the one or the other. Everyone gains a knowledge of this science through experience; or rather, the science itself is only this same experience accurately observed and methodically interpreted.
You, on the other hand, may properly be called
theorists in the pejorative sense of the word. The procedures you invent are not sanctioned by the practice of any man on earth, and so you find it necessary to resort to coercion in order to
compel men to produce what they find it
more advantageous to purchase. What you want is that they should renounce this
advantage and act in accordance with a doctrine that is essentially self-contradictory.
I defy you to extend this doctrine, which you yourselves must admit would be absurd if applied to the relations among individuals, to transactions among families, communities, or provinces. By your own admission, it is applicable only to international relations.
And that is why you are reduced to repeating every day:
“There are no absolute principles. What is
good for an individual, a family, a commune, or a province is
bad for a nation. What is
good on a small scale—to purchase rather than to produce, when purchasing is more advantageous than producing—is
bad on a large scale; the political economy of individuals is not that of nations,” and other nonsense of the same kind.
And what purpose does it all serve? Face up to it frankly. You want to prove that we consumers are your property! That we belong to you, body and soul! That you have an exclusive right over our stomachs and our limbs! That it is your prerogative to feed and clothe us at your price, whatever may be your incapacity, your greed, or the economic disadvantages of your situation!
No, you are not practical men; you are impractical visionaries—and extortionists.
De l’administration commerciale opposée a l’économie politique, page 5.—EDITOR.]*
every school, that is, all the men who have studied the question, have reached the conclusion that, after all, freedom is better than coercion, and the laws of God are wiser than those of Colbert?
First Series, Chapter 14
la méture, a rather rare dialect word. Maslin is a mixture of different kinds of grain, usually wheat and rye, or a bread baked from such a mixture. Biscay and Navarre are provinces of Spain just across the Pyrenees from France.—TRANSLATOR.]
infra, chaps. 18 and 20, and the letter to M. Thiers entitled “Protectionism and Communism,”
Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 7.—EDITOR.]
First Series, Chapter 16
Fourth Epistle of the French poet Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636-1711).—TRANSLATOR.]
First Series, Chapter 17
Gare du chemin de fer de Paris à Bordeaux (Bordeaux: Durand, 1846), and subsequently representative of the Gironde in the Constituent Assembly.—TRANSLATOR.]
First Series, Chapter 18
Economic Harmonies, chap. 1—EDITOR.]*
First Series, Chapter 19
Economic Sophisms was written, and an opponent of France.—TRANSLATOR.]
Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 4. Cf. also the Introduction to “Cobden and the English League,” and the “Second Campaign of the League,” in Vol. II (of the French edition).—EDITOR.]
First Series, Chapter 20
First Series, Chapter 21
labor already performed; secondly, because under the general term
labor I include not only the wages of the workingman but also the legitimate recompense of all factors co-operating in the work of production; and thirdly, and above all, because the production of manufactured goods is, like that of raw materials, burdened with interest charges and costs other than those for
manual labor, so that the objection, in itself absurd, would apply to the most complicated spinning operation just as well as, and even better than, to the most primitive kind of agriculture.
First Series, Chapter 22
Pamphlet des pamphlets.—TRANSLATOR.]
La Recherche de la vérité.—TRANSLATOR.]
First Series, Chapter 23 Conclusion
“j’en passe, et des meilleurs,” a line from the famous and controversial play
Hernani, by Victor Hugo (1801-1885). It was spoken by the Spanish grandee, Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, as he exhibited the portraits of his ancestors.—TRANSLATOR.]
Economic Harmonies. Here again we find on the author’s part, a desire to undertake the writing of this last work at the first suitable opportunity.—EDITOR.]
The Would-Be Gentleman (Le Bourgeois gentilhomme), by J. B. P. Molière (1622-1673), M. Jourdain, a bourgeois being trained in the manners of gentlemen, had never realized that common speech could have the high-sounding name of “prose.”—TRANSLATOR.]
The Would-Be Gentleman, the fencing master assures M. Jourdain that dueling is not at all dangerous, for all M. Jourdain need do is hit his adversary and not be hit in return.—TRANSLATOR.]
Economic Sophisms, was to be taken up again and expanded by the author at the beginning of the second series. The impact of plunder upon the fate of man concerned him deeply. Having touched on this subject several times in
Economic Sophisms and
Selected Essays on Political Economy (cf., in particular, “Property and Plunder,” chap. 6, and “Plunder and Law,” chap. 8), he reserved a place for a lengthy discussion of it in the second part of
Economic Harmonies, among the “Disturbing Factors,” chap. 18. Final testimony of the importance that he attached to it was his statement on the eve of his death: “An important task for political economy is to write the history of plunder. It is a long history involving, from the very beginning, conquests, migrations of peoples, invasions, and all the disastrous excesses of violence at grips with justice. All this has left an aftermath that still continues to plague us and that renders it more difficult to solve the problems of the present day. We shall not solve them so long as we are unaware of the way, and of the extent to which, injustice, present in our very midst, has gained a foothold in our customs and laws.”—EDITOR.]