Economic Sophisms/Chapter 22

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Economic Sophisms by Frédéric Bastiat
Chapter 22

shipping, and more largely employ your marine resources. This is what you call a wise economy.

On the same principle, why do you not ask that the pines of Russia should be brought to you with their branches, bark, and roots; the silver of Mexico in its mineral state; the hides of Buenos Ayres sticking to the bones of the diseased carcases from which they have been torn?

I expect that railway shareholders, the moment they are in a majority in the Chambers, will proceed to make a law forbidding the manufacture of the brandy which is consumed in Paris. And why not? Would not a law enforcing the conveyance of ten casks of wine for every cask of brandy afford Parisian industry the indispensable materials of its labour, and give employment to our locomotive resources?

How long will men shut their eyes to this simple truth?

Manufactures, shipping, labour.—all have for end the general, the public good; to create useless industries, to favour superfluous conveyances, to support a greater amount of labour than is necessary, not for the good of the public, but at the expense of the public—is to realize a true petitio principii. It is not labour which is desirable for its own sake; it is consumption. All labour without a commensurate result is a loss. You may as well pay sailors for pitching stones into the sea as pay them for transporting useless refuse. Thus, we arrive at the result to which all economic sophisms, numerous as they are, conduct us, namely, confounding the means with the end, and developing the one at the expense of the other.





A SOPHISM sometimes expands, and runs through the whole texture of a long and elaborate theory. More frequently, it shrinks and contracts, assumes the guise of a principle, and lurks in a word or a phrase.

May God protect us from the devil and from metaphors! was the exclamation of Paul-Louis. And it is difficult to say which of them has done most mischief in this world of ours. The devil, you will say; for he has put the spirit of plunder into all our hearts. True, but he has left free the means of repressing abuses by the resistance of those who suffer from them. It is the sophism which paralyzes this resistance. The sword which malice puts into the hands of assailants would be powerless, did sophistry not break the buckler which should shield the party assailed. It was with reason, therefore, that Malebranche inscribed on the title-page of his work this sentence: L'erreur est la cause de la misère des hommes.

Let us see in what way this takes place. Ambitious men are often actuated by sinister and wicked intentions; their design, for example, may be to implant in the public mind the germ of international hatred. This fatal germ may develop itself, light up a general conflagration, arrest civilization, cause torrents of blood to be shed, and bring upon the country the most terrible of all scourges, invasion. At any rate, and apart from this, such sentiments of hatred lower us in the estimation of other nations, and force Frenchmen who retain any sense of justice to blush for their country. These are undoubtedly most serious evils; and to guard the public against the underhand practices of those who would expose the country to such hazard, it is only necessary to see clearly into their designs. How do they manage to conceal them? By the use of metaphors. They twist, distort, and pervert the meaning of three or four words, and the thing is done.

The word invasion itself is a good illustration of this.

A French ironmaster exclaims: Preserve us from the invasion of English iron. An English landowner exclaims in return: Preserve us from the invasion of French corn. And then they proceed to interpose barriers between the two countries. These barriers create isolation, isolation gives rise to hatred, hatred to war, war to invasion. What does it signify? cry the two sophists; is it not better to expose ourselves to an eventual invasion than accept an invasion which is certain? And the people believe them, and the barriers are kept up.

And yet what analogy is there between an exchange and an invasion? What possible similarity can be imagined between a ship of war which comes to vomit fire and devastation on our towns, and a merchant ship which comes to offer a free voluntary exchange of commodities for commodities?

The same thing holds of the use made of the word inundation. This word is ordinarily used in a bad sense, for we often see our fields injured, and our harvests carried away by floods. If, however, they leave on our soil something of greater value than what they carry away, like the inundations of the Nile, we should be thankful for them, as the Egyptians are. Before we declaim, then, against the inundations of foreign products—before proceeding to restrain them by irksome and costly obstacles—we should inquire to what class they belong, and whether they ravage or fertilize. What should we think of Mehemet Ali, if, instead of raising, at great cost, bars across the Nile, to extend wider its inundations, he were to spend his money in digging a deeper channel to prevent Egypt being soiled by the foreign slime which descends upon her from the Mountains of the Moon? We display exactly the same degree of wisdom and sense, when we desire, at the cost of millions, to defend our country … From what? From the benefits which nature has bestowed on other climates.

Among the metaphors which conceal a pernicious theory, there is no one more in use than that presented by the words tribute and tributary.

These words have now become so common that they are used as synonymous with purchase and purchaser, and are employed indiscriminately.

And yet a tribute is as different from a purchase as a theft is from an exchange; and I should like quite as well to hear it said, Cartouche has broken into my strong-box and purchased a thousand pounds, as to hear one of our deputies repeat, We have paid Germany tribute for a thousand horses which she has sold us.

For what distinguishes the act of Cartouche from a purchase is, that he has not put into my strong-box, and with my consent, a value equivalent to what he has taken out of it.

And what distinguishes our remittance of £20,000 which we have made to Germany from a tribute paid to her is this, that she has not received the money gratuitously, but has given us in exchange a thousand horses, which we have judged to be worth the £20,000.

Is it worth while exposing seriously such an abuse of language? Yes; for these terms are used seriously both in newspapers and in books.

Do not let it be supposed that these are instances of a mere lapsus linguæ on the part of certain ignorant writers! For one writer who abstains from so using them, I will point you out ten who admit them, and amongst the rest, the D'Argouts, the Dupins, the Villeles—peers, deputies, ministers of state,—men, in short, whose words are laws, and whose sophisms, even the most transparent, serve as a basis for the government of the country.

A celebrated modern philosopher has added to the categories of Aristotle the sophism which consists in employing a phrase which includes a petiiio principii. He gives many examples of it; and he should have added the word tributary to his list The business, in fact, is to discover whether purchases made from foreigners are useful or hurtful. They are hurtful, you say. And why? Because they render us tributaries to the foreigner. This is just to use a word which implies the very thing to be proved.

It may be asked how this abuse of words first came to be introduced into the rhetoric of the monopolists?

Money leaves the country to satisfy the rapacity of a victorious enemy. Money also leaves the country to pay for commodities. An analogy is established between the two cases by taking into account only the points in which they resemble each other, and keeping out of view the points in which they differ.

Yet this circumstance—that is to say, the non-reimbursement in the first case, and the reimbursement voluntarily agreed upon in the second—establishes betwixt them such a difference that it is really impossible to class them in the same category. To hand over a hundred pounds by force to a man who has caught you by the throat, or to hand them over voluntarily to a man who furnishes you with what you want, are things as different as light and darkness. You might as well assert that it is a matter of indifference whether you throw your bread into the river, or eat it, for in both cases the bread is destroyed. The vice of this reasoning, like that applied to the word tribute, consists in asserting an entire similitude between two cases, looking only at their points of resemblance, and keeping out of sight the points in which they differ.



ALL the sophisms which I have hitherto exposed have reference to a single question — ^the system of restriction. There are other tempting subjects, such as vested interests, inopportuneness, draining away our money, etc., etc., with which I shall not at present trouble the reader.

Nor does Social Economy confine herself to this limited circle. Fourierisme, Saint-Simonisme, communism, mysticism, sentimentalism, false philanthropy, affected aspirations after a chimerical equality and fraternity; questions relating to luxury, to wages, to machinery, to the pretended tyranny of capital, to colonies, to markets and vents for produce, to conquests, to population, to association, emigration, taxes, and loans,—have encumbered the field of science with a multiplicity of parasitical arguments, of sophisms which afford work to the hoe and the grubber of the diligent economist.

I am quite aware of the inconvenience attending this plan, or rather of this absence of plan. To attack one by one so many incoherent sophisms, which sometimes run foul of each other, and more frequently run into each other, is to enter into an irregular and capricious struggle, and involve ourselves in perpetual repetitions.

How much I should prefer to explain simply the situation in which things are, without occupying myself with the thousand aspects under which ignorance sees them! … To explain the laws under which societies prosper or decay, is to demolish virtually all these sophisms at once. When Laplace described all that was then known of the movements of the heavenly bodies, he dissipated, without even naming them, all the