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
The Physiology of Plunder
Second Series, Chapter 1
modest as that of Diogenes to Alexander:
“Get out of my light.”—Bentham.
Why do I keep dwelling on that dry science, political economy?
Why? The question is a reasonable one. All labor by its very nature is so repugnant that one has the right to ask what purpose it serves.
Let us investigate and see.
I do not address myself to those philosophers who profess to adore poverty, if not in their own name, at least in the name of mankind.
I speak to whoever holds
wealth in some regard; and I understand by this word, not the opulence of the few, but the comfort, the well-being, the security, the independence, the education, the dignity, of all.
There are only two ways of obtaining the means essential to the preservation, the adornment, and the improvement of life:
Some people say:
“Plunder is a fortuitous event, a purely local and transient evil, condemned by moral philosophy, punished by law, and unworthy of the attention of
Yet however well disposed or optimistic one may be, one is compelled to recognize that
plunder is practiced in this world on too vast a scale, that it is too much a part of all great human events, for any social science—political economy least of all—to be able to ignore it.
I go further. What keeps the social order from improving (at least to the extent to which it is capable of improving) is the constant endeavor of its members to live and to prosper at one another’s expense.
plunder did not exist, society would be perfect, and the social sciences would be without an object.
I go still further. When
plunder has become a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.
It suffices to name some of the more obvious forms of
plunder to indicate the position it holds in human affairs.
The first is
war. Among savages, the conqueror kills the conquered in order to acquire hunting rights that, if not incontestable, are at least
slavery. When man learns that labor can make the earth fruitful, he arranges to share with his brother on the following terms: “Yours the toil; mine the harvest.”
theocracy. “According as you give me, or refuse me, what is yours, I will open to you the gates of heaven or of hell.”
monopoly makes its appearance. Its distinguishing characteristic is to permit the continued existence of the great law of society:
service for service, but to introduce force into the negotiations, and, consequently, to upset the just balance between
service received and
Plunder always carries within itself the germ that ultimately kills it. It is rarely that the many plunder the few; for, in such a case, the latter would promptly be so reduced in number as no longer to be capable of satisfying the greed of the former, so that plunder would come to an end from want of sustenance.
Almost always it is the many that are oppressed by the few; yet plunder is none the less doomed to come to an end.
For if it makes use of force, as in war and slavery, in the long run force will naturally pass to the side of the many.
And if fraud is the means, as in theocracy and monopoly, it is natural, unless intelligence is to count for nothing, that the majority should eventually become aware of it.
There is, besides, another providential law whose operation is no less fatal, in the end, to the success of every system of plunder: Plunder not only
redistributes wealth; it always, at the same time,
destroys a part of it. War annihilates many values. Slavery paralyzes many capabilities. Theocracy diverts many energies toward childish or injurious ends. Monopoly too transfers wealth from one pocket to another, but much of it is lost in the process.
This is an admirable law. Without it, provided that there were a balance of power between oppressors and oppressed, plunder would have no end. Thanks to this law, the balance is always tending to be upset; either because the plunderers come to realize that too much wealth is being destroyed, or, in the absence of this realization, because the evil is constantly worsening, and it is in the nature of whatever keeps on worsening to come to an end.
In fact, there comes a time when the progressively accelerating destruction of wealth goes so far that the plunderer is poorer than he would have been if he had remained honest. Such is the case when a war costs a nation more than the booty is worth; when a master pays more for slave labor than for free labor; when a theocracy has so stupefied the people and so sapped their energies that it can no longer exact anything from them; when a monopoly increases its efforts to absorb in proportion as there is less to absorb, just as it takes more effort to milk a cow as the udder becomes empty.
Monopoly is evidently a species of the genus plunder. There are several varieties—among others, sinecures, privileges, and trade restrictions.
Some of the forms it may assume are simple and naive, like feudal rights. Under this system the masses were plundered and knew it. The system involved the abuse of force and fell with it.
Other forms are more complicated. Often the masses are plundered and do not know it. It may even happen that they believe they owe everything to plunder, not only what they are allowed to keep, but also what is taken away from them and what is lost in the operation. Moreover, I assert that, in the course of time, thanks to so ingenious a mechanism as
custom, many people become plunderers without knowing it and without intending it. Monopolies of this kind are engendered by fraud and nourished on error. They flourish in the darkness of ignorance and vanish only in the light of knowledge.
I have said enough to show that political economy has an evident practical utility. It is the torch that, by exposing fraud and dispelling error, destroys that form of social disorder called plunder. Someone—I believe a woman—has rightly defined it as “the safety lock on the savings of the people.”
If this little book were fated to last three or four thousand years, to be read and reread, pondered and studied, sentence by sentence, word by word, and letter by letter, from generation to generation, like a new Koran; if it were to fill all the libraries in the world with avalanches of annotations, explanations, and paraphrases; I might abandon the foregoing remarks to their fate, without misgivings concerning their rather obscure succinctness. But since they need a commentary, I believe the wiser course is to provide it myself.
The true and just rule for mankind is the
voluntary exchange of service for service. Plunder consists in prohibiting, by force or fraud, freedom of exchange, in order to receive a service without rendering one in return.
Forcible plunder is effected by waiting until a man has produced something, and then taking it from him by violence.
It is specifically forbidden by the Commandment:
Thou shalt not steal.
When practiced by one individual on another, it is called
theft and is punishable by imprisonment; when practiced by one nation on another, it is called
conquest and leads to glory.
Why this difference? It is worth while to seek for the cause. It will reveal to us an irresistible power, public opinion, which, like the atmosphere, envelops us so completely that we no longer notice it. Rousseau never spoke more truly than when he said: “It takes a great deal of scientific insight to discern the facts that are closest to us.”
thief, precisely because he acts alone, has public opinion against him. He frightens everyone about him. However, if he has a few comrades, he boasts to them about his exploits, and here one may begin to notice the power of public opinion; for it takes merely the approval of his accomplices to relieve him of the feeling that he is doing anything wrong and even to make him proud of his dishonor.
warrior lives in a different world. The public opinion that vilifies him is elsewhere, in the conquered nations; he does not feel its pressure. But the opinion of those around him approves of him and sustains him. He and his comrades have a strong sense of the common interest that unites them. The fatherland, which has created enemies and dangers for itself, finds it necessary to extol the courage of its children. It bestows honors, fame, and glory on the most intrepid among them, on those who have expanded its frontiers and brought it the most loot. Poets sing their exploits, and women braid garlands for them. And such is the power of public opinion that it separates the idea of injustice from plunder and frees the plunderer of even the consciousness of having done any wrong.
The public opinion that reacts against military plunder, since it arises, not in the plundering nation, but among the plundered, has very little influence. Yet it is not entirely ineffectual, and it gains in importance as nations come into contact with one another and come to understand one another better. In this connection, it is evident that the study of languages and freedom of communication among different nations tend to give the prevailing influence to the opinion that opposes this sort of plunder.
Unfortunately, it often happens that those who live in the vicinity of a plundering nation themselves become plunderers when they can, and thenceforth become imbued with the same prejudices.
When this happens, there is only one remedy: time. People have to learn, through hard experience, the enormous disadvantage there is in plundering one another.
Some may propose another form of restraint: moral influence. But the purpose of moral influence is to encourage virtuous actions. How, then, can it restrain acts of plunder when public opinion ranks these acts among the noblest virtues? Is there a more powerful moral influence than religion? Has there ever been a religion more favorable to peace and more widely accepted than Christianity? And yet what have we witnessed for eighteen centuries? The spectacle of men warring with one another not only in spite of religion, but in the very name of religion.
A conquering nation is not always waging offensive warfare. It, too, falls on evil days when its soldiers find themselves obliged to defend their homes and property, their families, their national independence, and their liberty. At such times war takes on the character of a great crusade. The flag, consecrated by the ministers of the Prince of Peace, symbolizes everything that is holy on earth; people revere it as the living image of the fatherland and of the homage due to it; and martial virtues are extolled above all others. But after the danger has passed, public opinion remains the same; and by a natural reaction of that spirit of revenge which is confused with patriotism, people love to parade their cherished flag from one capital city to another. It seems that Nature has thus prepared its punishment for the aggressor.
It is the fear of this punishment, and not our increased knowledge, that keeps weapons in our arsenals, for it cannot be denied that the most highly civilized nations wage war and concern themselves very little about justice when they do not have to fear any reprisals. The Himalayan, the Atlas, and the Caucasus Mountains attest to this.
If religion has been powerless, if knowledge is powerless, how, then, is war to cease?
Political economy demonstrates that, even in the case of the victors, war is always waged in the interest of the few and at the expense of the many. All that is needed, then, is that the masses should clearly perceive this truth. The weight of public opinion, which is still divided, will then fall entirely on the side of peace.
Forcible plunder also takes another form. Instead of waiting until a man has produced something in order to take it away from him, the plunderer takes possession of the man himself, deprives him of his freedom, and compels him to work. The plunderer does not say to him: “If you do this for me, I shall do that for you”; but: “Yours all the toil, mine all the enjoyment.” This is slavery, which always implies the misuse of power.
Now, it is an important question whether it is not in the very nature of an incontestably dominant power to be misused. For my part, I put no faith in it at all, and I might just as well expect a falling stone to contain the power that will halt its fall as to rely upon force to impose restraints upon itself.
I should like, at least, to be shown a country or an era in which slavery was abolished by the free and voluntary action of the masters.
Slavery furnishes a second and striking example of the impotence of religious and humanitarian sentiments in a conflict with the powerful force of self-interest. This may seem regrettable to certain modern schools of thought that expect self-denial to be the principle that will reform society. Let them begin, then, by reforming the nature of man.
In the Antilles,
4* the masters, from father to son, have been professing the Christian religion ever since slavery was established there. Several times a day they repeat these words: “All men are brothers; to love thy neighbor is to fulfill the whole of the law.” And yet they have slaves, and nothing seems to them more natural or legitimate. Do the modern reformers expect that their ethical principles will ever be as universally accepted, as well-known, as authoritative, or as often on the lips of everyone, as the Gospel? And if the Gospel has been unable to pass from the lips to the heart, over or through the great barrier of self-interest, how do they expect their ethical principles to perform this miracle?
Is slavery, then, indestructible? No.
Self-interest, which created it, will destroy it, provided that the special interests that have inflicted the wound are not protected in such a way as to nullify the general interests that tend to heal it.
Another truth demonstrated by political economy is that free labor is essentially progressive, whereas slave labor is necessarily static. Hence, the triumph of the first over the second is inevitable. What has become of the cultivation of indigo by the Negroes?
Free labor employed in the cultivation of sugar will lead to a continual reduction in its price. The slave will become proportionately less profitable to his master. Slavery would have collapsed of its own weight long ago in America if European laws had not kept the price of sugar artificially high. Therefore we see the masters, their creditors, and their legislative representatives making vigorous efforts to keep these laws in force, for they are today the pillars of the whole edifice of slavery.
Unfortunately, these laws still have the support of people among whom slavery has disappeared; from this it is clear that here, too, public opinion is sovereign.
If it is sovereign even in the domain of force, it is still more so in the domain of fraud. This, in fact, is the domain in which public opinion is most efficacious. Fraud consists in the misuse of the intellect; public opinion becomes progressively more enlightened as men’s intellectual attainments are enlarged. These two forces are at least of the same nature. Imposture on the part of the plunderer implies credulity on the part of the plundered, and the natural antidote for credulity is truth. It follows that by enlightening men’s minds we deprive this kind of plunder of the food that nurtures it.
I shall briefly review some of the kinds of plunder that are carried out by fraud on a grand scale.
The first is plunder by theocratic fraud.
In what does it consist? In inducing men to give one actual services, in the form of food, clothing, luxuries, prestige, influence, and power, in exchange for fictitious services.
If I tell a man, “I am going to render you an immediate service,” I am obliged to keep my word; otherwise this man would soon know what to expect, and my fraud would be quickly unmasked.
But suppose I say to him, “In exchange for services from you, I shall confer immense services upon you, not in this world but in the next. Whether, after this life, you are to be eternally happy or wretched depends entirely upon me; I am an intermediary between God and man, and can, as I see fit, open to you the gates of heaven or of hell.” If this man believes me, he is at my mercy.
This sort of imposture has been widely practiced since the beginning of the world, and the extent of the power which the Egyptian priests attained by such means is well known.
It is easy to understand how impostors operate. It is enough to ask yourself what you would do in their place.
If, with designs of this sort, I were to find myself among an ignorant people, and if, by some extraordinary and apparently miraculous deed, I were to succeed in passing myself off as a supernatural being, I should profess to be a messenger from God, with absolute power to control the future destinies of men.
Next, I should forbid any examination of my claims. I should go further: since reason would be my most dangerous enemy, I should forbid the use of reason itself, at least as applied to this awesome subject. I should render this question, and all questions related to it,
taboo, as the savages say. To answer them, to ask them, even to think of them, would be an unpardonable crime.
It would certainly be the acme of ingenuity thus to set up a
taboo as a barrier to all intellectual avenues that might lead to the discovery of my imposture. What could better guarantee its permanence than to make even doubt an act of sacrilege?
However, to this fundamental guarantee I should add some auxiliary ones. For instance, so that knowledge might never be diffused among the masses, I should confer upon myself, as well as upon my accomplices, a monopoly over all the sciences; I should hide them under the veil of a dead language and a hieroglyphic alphabet; and, in order never to be caught unawares by any danger, I should take care to devise some institution that would allow me to penetrate, by day, into the hidden recesses of every man’s conscience.
It would not be amiss for me to satisfy some of the real needs of my people, especially if, by doing so, I were able to increase my influence and authority. For instance, men have a great need for education and morality, and I should make myself the source of both. In that way I should guide as I wished the minds and hearts of my people. I should establish an indissoluble connection between morality and my authority by representing them as unable to exist without one another, so that if anyone dared to raise a tabooed question, the whole of society, which cannot survive without morality, would feel the earth tremble beneath its feet and would turn its wrath upon this rash innovator.
When things reached such a point, these people would evidently belong to me more than if they were my slaves. The slave curses his chains; my people would bless theirs, and I should have succeeded in stamping the seal of servitude, not on their brows, but on their very hearts and consciences.
Public opinion alone can knock down such an edifice of iniquity; but where is it to begin, if every stone is tabooed? This must be the work of time and the printing press.
God forbid that I should seek here to disturb those comforting beliefs that view this life of sorrows as but a prelude to a future life of happiness! But that the irresistible yearning that impels us to accept such beliefs has been shamefully exploited, no one, not even the Pope, could deny. There is, it seems to me, one sign by which it is possible to determine whether or not people have been victimized in this way. Examine the religion and the priest, and see whether the priest is the instrument of the religion, or the religion is the instrument of the priest.
the priest is the instrument of the religion, if his only thought is to disseminate everywhere its ethical principles and its beneficial influence, he will be gentle, tolerant, humble, charitable, and zealous; his life will resemble that of his divine model; he will preach freedom and equality among men, and peace and brotherhood among nations; he will resist the temptations of temporal power, since he will want no ties with that which, of all things in this world, has the greatest need of restraint; he will be a man of the people, a man of good counsel and tender consolation, a man whose opinion is esteemed, and a man obedient to the Gospel.
If, on the contrary,
the religion is the instrument of the priest, he will treat it as one does an instrument that one modifies, bends, or twists to his own purposes, so as to derive from it the greatest possible advantage for oneself. He will multiply the number of tabooed questions; he will adjust his moral principles to suit changing times, men, and circumstances. He will try to awe the populace with his studied gestures and poses; a hundred times a day he will mumble words that have long since lost all their meaning and have become mere empty
conventionalities. He will traffic in relics, but only just enough not to shake people’s faith in their sanctity; and he will take care that the more perceptive the people become, the less obvious his trafficking will be. He will involve himself in worldly intrigues; and he will always side with those in power on the sole condition that those in power side with him. In brief, from every one of his acts it will be clear that what he is aiming at is, not to advance religion by means of the clergy, but to advance the clergy by means of religion; and since so much effort implies an end, and as this end, according to our hypothesis, can be nothing other than power and wealth, the conclusive proof that the people have been duped is that the priest is rich and powerful.
Quite clearly, one can misuse a true religion as well as a false one. Indeed, the more worthy of respect its authority is, the greater is the danger that it may be improperly employed. But there is a great deal of difference in the consequences. The abuse of such authority always outrages the sound, enlightened, self-reliant members of the population. Their faith cannot but be shaken, and the weakening of a true religion is far more lamentable than the crumbling of a false one.
The extent to which this method of plunder is practiced is always in inverse proportion to the perspicacity of the people, since it is in the nature of abuses to go as far as they can. Not that high-minded and dedicated priests cannot be found in the midst of the most ignorant people; but what is to stop a knave from donning the cassock and seeking to wear the miter? Plunderers conform to the Malthusian law: they multiply with the means of existence; and the means of existence of knaves is the credulity of their dupes. Seek as one will, there is no substitute for an informed and enlightened public opinion. It is the only remedy.
Another sort of plunder is known as
commercial fraud, a term that seems to me much too restricted, for the guilty ones include not only the merchant who adulterates his goods or gives short weight, but also the quack doctor and the pettifogging lawyer. In such cases, one of the two services exchanged consists of debased coin; but since the service received was first voluntarily agreed upon, it is evident that plunder of this kind should diminish as the public becomes better informed.
Next comes the misuse of
government services—an immense field for plunder, so immense that we can only glance at it.
If God had made man a solitary animal, everyone would labor for himself. Individual wealth would be in proportion to the services that each man performed for himself.
since man is a social creature, services are exchanged for services—a proposition whose terms you can transpose, if you are so minded.
The members of society have certain needs that are so general, so universal, that provision is made for them by organizing
government services. Among these requirements is the need for security. People agree to tax themselves in order to pay, in the form of
services of various kinds, those who perform the service of seeing to the common security.
This arrangement in no way conflicts with the principle of exchange as formulated in political economy:
Do this for me, and I will do that for you. The essence of the transaction is the same; only the method of payment is different; but this fact is very important.
In ordinary, private transactions each party remains the sole judge both of the service he receives and of the service he performs. He can always either decline the exchange or make it elsewhere; hence the need of offering in the market only such services as will find voluntary acceptance.
This has not been true of the state, especially prior to the establishment of representative government. Whether or not we need its services, whether they are real or spurious, we are always obliged to accept what it provides and to pay the price that it sets.
Now, it is the tendency of all men to exaggerate the services that they render and to minimize the services they receive; and chaos would reign if we did not have, in private transactions, the assurance of a
This assurance is completely, or almost completely, lacking in our transactions with the government. And yet the state, which, after all, is composed of men (although nowadays this is denied, at least by implication), obeys the universal tendency. It wants to serve us a great deal—more, indeed, than we desire—and to make us accept as
real services what are often far from being such, and all this for the purpose of exacting some
services from us in return in the form of taxes.
The state too is subject to the Malthusian law. It tends to expand in proportion to its means of existence and to live beyond its means, and these are, in the last analysis, nothing but the substance of the people. Woe to the people that cannot limit the sphere of action of the state! Freedom, private enterprise, wealth, happiness, independence, personal dignity, all vanish.
For there is one circumstance that must be noted: Among the services that we demand of the state, the chief is
security. To assure us this, it must have at its command a force capable of overcoming all individual or collective, domestic or foreign forces that might imperil it. In combination with that fatal disposition that we have observed among men to live at the expense of others, this fact makes for a situation that is obviously fraught with danger.
To appreciate this, one has only to consider on what a vast scale, throughout history, plunder has been practiced by way of the abuses and excesses of government. One has only to ask oneself what services were performed for the people, and what services were exacted from them, by the governments of Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Rome, Persia, Turkey, China, Russia, England, Spain, and France. The enormous disparity between the one and the other in each case staggers the imagination.
At last, representative government was established, and one might have supposed, a priori, that all this would come to an end as if by magic.
In fact, such governments are based on the following principle:
“The people themselves, through their representatives, will determine the nature and extent of the functions that they regard as proper to be established as
government services, and the amount they propose to pay in remuneration for these
The tendency to appropriate the property of others was thereby placed in direct confrontation with the tendency to defend one’s own property. There was every reason to expect that the latter would overcome the former.
To be sure, I am convinced that in the long run the system of representative government will succeed. Yet it must be admitted that up to now it has not done so.
Why? For two quite simple reasons: Governments have had too much discernment, and people have had too little.
Governments are very adroit. They act methodically, step by step, according to a well-contrived plan that is constantly being improved by tradition and experience. They study men and their passions. If they perceive, for instance, that the people are inclined to war, they incite and inflame this calamitous propensity. By their diplomacy they surround the nation with dangers, and, as a natural consequence, they demand that it provide soldiers, sailors, arsenals, and fortifications. Often, in fact, they do not need to go to the trouble of making such demands, for everything they want is offered to them. Then they have jobs, pensions, and promotions to distribute. All this requires a great deal of money; hence, they impose taxes and float loans.
If the nation is open-handed, the government offers to cure all the ills of mankind. It promises to restore commerce, make agriculture prosperous, expand industry, encourage arts and letters, wipe out poverty, etc., etc. All that is needed is to create some new government agencies and to pay a few more bureaucrats.
In a word, the tactic consists in initiating, in the guise of actual services, what are nothing but restrictions; thereafter the nation pays, not for being served, but for being disserved. Governments, assuming gigantic proportions, end by absorbing half of the national income. The people are astonished to find that, while they hear of wonderful inventions that are to multiply goods without end, they are working as hard as ever and are still no better off than before.
The trouble is that, while the government has been acting with so much ability, the people have shown practically none. Thus, when called upon to choose those who are to be entrusted with the powers of government, those who are to determine the sphere of and the payment for governmental action, whom do they choose? Government officials. They entrust the executive authority itself with the power to fix the limits of its own activities and requirements. They act like Molière’s would-be gentleman, who, for the selection and the number of his suits, relied upon—his tailor.
In the meanwhile, things go from bad to worse, and at last people open their eyes, not to the remedy (for they have not yet progressed to that point), but to the evil.
Governing is so pleasurable a profession that everyone aspires to engage in it. Hence, the demagogues never cease telling the people: “We are aware of your sufferings, and we deplore them. Things would be different if we were governing you.”
This period, which is ordinarily quite long, is one of rebellions and insurrections. If the people are conquered, the costs of the war are added to their tax burden. If they are the conquerors, the government changes hands, and the abuses continue.
And this goes on until the people learn to recognize and defend their true interests. Thus, we always reach the same conclusion: The only remedy is in the progressive enlightenment of public opinion.
Certain nations seem particularly liable to fall prey to governmental plunder. They are those in which men, lacking faith in their own dignity and capability, would feel themselves lost if they were not
governed and administered every step of the way. Without having traveled a great deal, I have seen countries in which the people think that agriculture can make no progress unless the government supports experimental farms; that soon there will no longer be any horses, if the government does not provide studs; that fathers will not have their children educated, or will have them taught only immorality, if the government does not decide what it is proper to learn; etc., etc. In such countries, revolutions may come in rapid succession, with governments falling one after another; but the governed are none the less governed at the discretion and the mercy of the rulers (for the propensity that I am discussing here is the very stuff of which governments are made), until the people finally come to realize that it is better to leave the greatest possible number of
services to be exchanged by the interested parties
at a freely negotiated price.7*
We have seen that society consists in the
exchange of services. It should be an exchange of only good and honest services. But we have also shown that men have a great interest in, and consequently an irresistible inclination toward, exaggerating the relative value of the services they perform. I cannot, indeed, see any other limit to these pretensions than the voluntary acceptance or rejection of the exchange on the part of those to whom the services are offered.
Hence, certain men have recourse to the law in order to abridge the natural prerogatives of this freedom on the part of other men. This kind of plunder is called privilege or monopoly. Let us be very clear about its origin and character.
Everyone knows that the services that he offers in the general market will be evaluated and remunerated in proportion to their scarcity. Everyone, therefore, will seek the enactment of a law that will keep from the market all those prepared to offer services similar to his own; or, what amounts to the same thing, if the employment of some means of production is indispensable for the performance of the service, he will ask the law for exclusive possession of it.
I shall say little about this variety of plunder here, limiting myself to one comment only.
An isolated case of monopoly never fails to enrich those to whom the law has granted it. It may then happen that each class of producers, instead of seeking to destroy this monopoly, will demand for itself a similar monopoly. This kind of plunder, thus reduced to a system, then becomes the most ridiculous practical joke on everybody, and the ultimate result is that each person thinks he is getting
more out of a general market in which
the supply of everything is being lessened.
It is needless to add that this extraordinary system also sows the seeds of universal discord among all classes, all professions, and all nations; that it requires the constant, but always unpredictable, interference of the government; that it therefore abounds in the type of abuses described in the preceding paragraph; that it renders every industrial enterprise desperately insecure, and accustoms men to making the law, and not themselves, responsible for their livelihood. It would be difficult to imagine a more prolific source of social disturbance.
It may be asked: “Why this ugly word
plunder? Besides being crude, it is offensive and irritating; it only turns calm and temperate men against you and embitters the whole controversy.”
I submit that I do respect individuals; I do believe in the sincerity of practically all the advocates of protectionism; and I do not arrogate to myself the right to question the personal honesty, scrupulosity, or humanitarianism of anyone. I repeat that protectionism is the consequence—the fateful consequence—of a common error of which all men, or at least the great majority of them, are at once victims and accomplices. But, after all, I cannot prevent things from being as they are.
Imagine a sort of Diogenes thrusting his head out of his tub and saying, “Athenians, you force slaves to serve you. Has it never occurred to you that you are practicing upon your brothers the most iniquitous kind of plunder?”
Or imagine a tribune speaking as follows in the Forum: “Romans, you have based your whole way of life on the successive pillaging of all other nations.”
To be sure, they would only have been expressing incontestable truths. Must we therefore conclude that Athens and Rome were inhabited exclusively by dishonest people, and that Socrates and Plato, Cato and Cincinnatus were despicable individuals?
Who could harbor such a thought? After all, these great men lived in an environment that made them unconscious of their injustice. It is well known that Aristotle could not even conceive of the idea of a society that would be capable of existing without slavery.
In modern times, slavery has continued to our own day without causing the plantation owners many qualms of conscience. Armies have served as instruments for large-scale conquests—in other words, for acts of plunder on a large scale. Does this mean that they are not well provided with officers and men as individually scrupulous as, and perhaps more scrupulous than, the ordinary run of men engaged in industrial pursuits—men who would blush at the very thought of theft, and who would face a thousand deaths rather than stoop to a single disgraceful action?
It is not individuals who are to blame, but the general tendency of public opinion that blinds and misleads them—a tendency of which the whole of society is guilty.
The same is true of monopoly. I accuse the system, and not individuals; society as a whole, and not any of its members in particular. If the greatest philosophers were incapable of seeing the iniquity of slavery, how much easier it is for farmers and manufacturers to deceive themselves concerning the nature and effects of protectionism!
Economic Sophisms, several chapters of which had been published in the
Journal des économistes and the newspaper,
Le Libre échange, appeared at the end of January 1848.—EDITOR.]
Second Series, Chapter 1
(Economic Harmonies, chap. 18) affecting the harmony of natural laws.—EDITOR.]
Discourse on Inequality by J. J. Rousseau (1712-1778), a French philosopher. Bastiat was so impressed it that he referred to it five times in his
Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 5, “The State,” and chap. 2, “The Law,” and
Economic Harmonies, chap. 17, “Private and Public Services.”—EDITOR.]
Economic Harmonies, chap. 5, note 2, accompanying the analysis of Adam Smith’s theory of value.—EDITOR.]
Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 5, “The State”; Vol. II (of the French edition), “Disastrous Illusions,” and Vol. VI (of the French edition), the final pages of chap. 4.—EDITOR.]
Second Series, Chapter 2
Familiar Quotations has it: “Had I been present at the Creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe.”—TRANSLATOR.]
Tartuffe, or the Impostor, Tartuffe is the scheming hypocrite, and Orgon his well-meaning dupe.—TRANSLATOR.]
Second Series, Chapter 3
Second Series, Chapter 4
Second Series, Chapter 5
Le Libre échange, issue of July 25, 1847.—EDITOR.]
Considérations d’économie politique sur la bienfaisance (1836). He collaborated with Pierre Leroux and others in editing
Le Globe, a political and literary review, served as a cabinet minister under the July monarchy, and was one of the promoters of the tariff reform of 1834.—TRANSLATOR.]
infra,p. 167) was established in the rue Hauteville.—TRANSLATOR.]
Le Libre échange of August 1, 1847, the author presented an exposition of this topic that we deem worthy of reprinting here.—EDITOR.]
Second Series, Chapter 6