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
There Are No Absolute Principles
First Series, Chapter 18
We cannot but be astonished at the ease with which men resign themselves to ignorance about what it is most important for them to know; and we may be certain that they are determined to remain invincibly ignorant if they once come to consider it as axiomatic that there are no absolute principles.
Attend a session of the legislature and listen to a debate over the question whether the law should prohibit international exchange or permit free trade.
A deputy rises and says:
“If you permit these exchanges, foreigners will flood you with their goods—the English with textiles, the Belgians with coal, the Spanish with woolens, the Italians with silks, the Swiss with cattle, the Swedes with iron, and the Prussians with wheat, so that no industry will any longer be possible in our country.”
“If you prohibit these exchanges, you will not be able to share in the various bounties that Nature has lavished on different countries. You will not share in the mechanical skill of the English, the wealth of the Belgian mines, the fertility of the Polish soil, the fruitfulness of Swiss pastures, the low cost of Spanish labor, or the warmth of the Italian climate; and you will have to produce for yourselves under adverse conditions what you could have obtained, by exchange, on easier terms.”
One of these deputies must certainly be mistaken. But which one? It is worth the trouble to find out, for this is not a merely academic question. You stand at a crossroads; you must decide which direction to take; and one of them leads inescapably to
To avoid the dilemma, people say that there are no absolute principles.
This axiom, which is so fashionable nowadays, not only encourages indolence, but also ministers to ambition.
Whichever theory, protectionism or the doctrine of free trade, should come to prevail, our entire economic code would, in either case, be comprised in one very brief law. In the first case, it would declare:
All exchanges with foreign countries are prohibited; in the second:
All exchanges with foreign countries are permitted, and many distinguished personages would lose some of their importance.
But if exchange has no peculiar character of its own; if it is governed by no natural law; if it is sometimes beneficial and sometimes injurious; if its incentive is not to be found in the good that it does, and its limit in the good that it ceases to do; if its effects are beyond the comprehension of those who engage in it; in a word, if there are no absolute principles, then we must weigh, balance, and regulate every transaction, we must equalize the conditions of production and strive to keep profits at an average level—a colossal task well calculated to provide those who undertake it with big salaries and to invest them with great authority.
On coming to Paris for a visit, I said to myself: Here are a million human beings who would all die in a few days if supplies of all sorts did not flow into this great metropolis. It staggers the imagination to try to comprehend the vast multiplicity of objects that must pass through its gates tomorrow, if its inhabitants are to be preserved from the horrors of famine, insurrection, and pillage. And yet all are sleeping peacefully at this moment, without being disturbed for a single instant by the idea of so frightful a prospect. On the other hand, eighty departments have worked today, without co-operative planning or mutual arrangements, to keep Paris supplied. How does each succeeding day manage to bring to this gigantic market just what is necessary—neither too much nor too little? What, then, is the resourceful and secret power that governs the amazing regularity of such complicated movements, a regularity in which everyone has such implicit faith, although his prosperity and his very life depend upon it? That power is an
absolute principle, the principle of free exchange. We put our faith in that inner light which Providence has placed in the hearts of all men, and to which has been entrusted the preservation and the unlimited improvement of our species, a light we term
self-interest, which is so illuminating, so constant, and so penetrating, when it is left free of every hindrance. Where would you be, inhabitants of Paris, if some cabinet minister decided to substitute for that power contrivances of his own invention, however superior we might suppose them to be; if he proposed to subject this prodigious mechanism to his supreme direction, to take control of all of it into his own hands, to determine by whom, where, how, and under what conditions everything should be produced, transported, exchanged, and consumed? Although there may be much suffering within your walls, although misery, despair, and perhaps starvation, cause more tears to flow than your warmhearted charity can wipe away, it is probable, I dare say it is certain, that the arbitrary intervention of the government would infinitely multiply this suffering and spread among all of you the ills that now affect only a small number of your fellow citizens.
If we all have faith in this principle where our domestic transactions are concerned, why should we not have faith in the same principle when it affects our international transactions, which are certainly less numerous, less delicate, and less complicated? And if there is no need for the local government of Paris to regulate our industries, to balance our opportunities, our profits, and our losses, to concern itself with the draining off of our currency, or to equalize the conditions of production in our domestic commerce, why should it be necessary for the customhouse to depart from its fiscal duties and to undertake to exercise a protective function over our foreign commerce?
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.]