Economic Sophisms/Chapter 24

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Economic Sophisms by Frédéric Bastiat
Two Principles of Morality






Having reached, if he has reached, the end of the last chapter, I fancy I hear the reader exclaim:

"Well, are we wrong in reproaching economists with being dry and cold? What a picture of human nature! What! Is spoliation, then, to be regarded as an inevitable, almost normal, force, assuming all forms, at work under all pretexts, by law and without law, jobbing and abusing things the most sacred, working on feebleness and credulity by turns, and making progress just in proportion as these are prevalent! Is there in the world a more melancholy picture than this?"

The question is not whether the picture be melancholy, but whether it is true. History will tell us.

It is singular enough that those who decry political economy (or economisme, as they are pleased to call it), because that science studies man and the world as they are, Are themselves much further advanced in pessimism, at least as regards the past and the present, than the economists whom they disparage. Open their books and their journals; and what do you find? Bitterness, hatred of society, carried to such a pitch that the very word civilization is in their eyes the synonym of injustice, disorder, and anarchy. They go the length even of denouncing liberty, so little confidence have they in the development of the human race as the natural result of its organization. Liberty! it is liberty, as they think, which is impelling us nearer and nearer to ruin.

True, these writers are optimists in reference to the future. For if the human race, left to itself, has pursued a wrong road for six thousand years, a discoverer has appeared, who has pointed out the true way of safety ; and however little the flock may regard the pastor's crook, they will be infallibly led towards the promised land, where happiness, without any effort on their part, awaits them, and where order, security, and harmony are the cheap reward of improvidence.

The human race have only to consent to these reformers changing (to use Rousseau's expression) its physical and moral constitution.

It is not the business of political economy to inquire what society might have become had God made man otherwise than He has been pleased to make him. It may perhaps be a subject of regret that in the beginning, Providence should have forgotten to call to its counsels some of our modern organisateurs. And as the celestial mechanism would have been very differently constructed had the Creator consulted Alphonsus the Wise, in the same way had He only taken the advice of Fourrier, the social order would have had no resemblance to that in which we are forced to breathe, live, and move. But since we are here—since in eo vivimus, movemur, et sumus—all we have to do is to study and make ourselves acquainted with the laws of the social order in which we find ourselves, especially if its amelioration depends essentially on our knowledge of these laws.

We cannot prevent the human heart from being the seat of insatiable desires.

We cannot so order it that these desires should be satisfied without labour.

We cannot so order it that man should not have as much repugnance to labour as desire for enjoyment.

We cannot so order it that from this organization there should not result a perpetual effort on the part of certain men to increase their own share of enjoyments at the expense of others; throwing over upon them, by force or cunning, the labour and exertion which are the necessary condition of such enjoyments being obtained.

It is not for us to go in the face of universal history, or stifle the voice of the past, which tells us that such has been the state of things from the beginning. We cannot deny that war, slavery, thraldom, priestcraft, government abuses, privileges, frauds of every kind, and monopolies, have been the incontestable and terrible manifestations of these two sentiments combined in the heart of man—desire of enjoyments, and repugnance to fatigue.

In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread. Yes, but every one desires to have the greatest possible quantity of bread with the least possible amount of sweat. Such is the testimony of history.

But let us be thankful that history also shows us that the diffusion of enjoyments and of efforts has a tendency to become more and more equal among men.

Unless we shut our eyes to the light of the sun, we must admit that society has in this respect made progress.

If this be so, there must be in society a natural and providential force, a law which repels more and more the principle of dishonesty, and realizes more and more the principle of justice.

We maintain that this force exists in society, and that God has placed it there. If it did not exist, we should be reduced, like Utopian dreamers, to seek for it in artificial arrangements, in arrangements which imply a previous alteration in the physical and moral conditution of man; or rather, we should conclude that the search was useless and vain, for the simple reason that we cannot understand the action of a lever without its fulcrum.

Let us try, then, to describe the beneficent force which tends gradually to surmount the mischievous and injurious force to which we have given the name of spoliation, and the presence of which is only too well explained by reasoning, and established by experience.

Every injurious or hurtful act has necessarily two terms: the point whence it comes, and the point to which it tends—the terminus a quo, and the terminus ad quem—the man who acts, and the man acted upon; or, in the language of the schoolmen, the agent and the patient.

We may be protected, then, from an injurious act in two ways: by the voluntary abstention of the agent; or by the resistance of the patient.

These two moral principles, far from running counter to each other, concur in their action, namely, the religious or philosophical moral principle, and the moral principle which I shall venture to term economic.

The religious moral principle, in order to ensure the suppression of an injurious act, addresses its author, addresses man in his capacity of agent, and says to him: "Amend your life; purify your conduct; cease to do evil; learn to do well; subdue your passions; sacrifice self-interest; oppress not your neighbour, whom it is your duty to love and assist; first of all be just, and be charitable afterwards." This species of moral principle will always be esteemed the most beautiful and touching, that which best displays the human race in its native majesty, which will be most extolled by the eloquent, and call forth the greatest amount of admiration and sympathy.

The economic moral principle aspires at attaining the same result; but addresses man more especially in the capacity of patient. It points out to him the effects of human actions, and by that simple explanation, stimulates him to react against those who injure him, and honour those who are useful to him. It strives to disseminate among the oppressed masses enough of good sense, information, and well-founded distrust, to render oppression more and more difficult and dangerous.

We must remark, too, that the economic principle of morality does not fail to act likewise on the oppressor. An injurious act is productive of both good and evil; evil for the man who is subject to it, and good for the man who avails himself of it; without which indeed it would not have been thought of. But the good and the evil are far from compensating each other. The sum total of evil always and necessarily preponderates over the good; because the very fact that oppression is present entails a loss of power, creates dangers, provokes reprisals, and renders costly precautions necessary. The simple explanation of these effects, then, not only provokes reaction on the part of the oppressed, but brings over to the side of justice all whose hearts are not perverted, and disturbs the security of the oppressors themselves.

But it is easy to understand that this economic principle of morality, which is rather virtual than formal; which is only, after all, a scientific demonstration, which would lose its efficacy if it changed its character; which addresses itself not to the heart, but to the intellect; which aims at convincing rather than persuading; which does not give advice, but furnishes proofs; whose mission is not to touch the feelings, but enlighten the judgment, which obtains over vice no other victory than that of depriving it of support; it is easy, I say, to understand why this principle of morality should be accused of being dry and prosaic.

The reproach is well founded in itself, without being just in its application. It just amounts to saying that political economy does not discuss everything, that it does not comprehend everything—that it is not, in short, universal science. But who ever claimed for it this character, or put forward on its behalf so exorbitant a pretension?

The accusation would be well founded only if political economy presented its processes as exclusive, and had the presumption, if we may so speak, to deny to philosophy and religion their own proper and peculiar means of working for the cultivation and improvement of man.

Let us admit, then, the simultaneous action of morality, properly so called, and of political economy; the one branding the injurious act in its motive, and exposing its unseemliness, the other discrediting it in our judgment, by a picture of its effects.

Let us admit even that the triumph of the religions moralist, when achieved, is more beautiful, more consoling, more fundamental. But we must at the same time acknowledge that the triumph of the economist is more easy and more certain. In a few lines, which are worth many large volumes, J. B. Say has said that, to put an end to the disorder introduced into an honourable family by hypocrisy there are only two alternatives: to reform Tartuffe, or sharpen the wits of Orgon. Molière, that great painter of the human heart, appears constantly to have regarded the second of these processes as the more efficacious.

It is the same thing in real life, and on the stage of the world.

Tell me what Cæsar did, and I will tell you what the character was of the Romans of his time.

Tell me what modern diplomacy accomplishes, and I will tell you what is the moral condition of the nations among whom it is exercised.

We should not be paying nearly two milliards [£80,000,000 sterling] of taxes, if we did not empower those who live upon them to vote them.

We should not have been landed in all the difficulties and charges to which the African question has given rise, had we had our eyes open to the fact that two and two make four, in political economy, as well as in arithmetic.

M. Guizot would not have felt himself authorized to say that France is rich enough to pay for her glory, if France had never been smitten with the love of false glory.

The same statesman would never have ventured to say that liberty is too precious a thing for France to stand higgling about its price, had France only reflected that a heavy budget and liberty are incompatible.

It is not by monopolists, but by their victims, that monopolies are maintained.

In the matter of elections, it is not because there are parties who offer bribes that there are parties open to receive them, but the contrary; and the proof of this is, that it is the parties who receive the bribes who, in the long run, defray the cost of corruption. Is it not their business to put an end to the practice? Let the religious principle of morality, if it can, touch the hearts of the Tartuffes, the Cæsars, the planters of colonies, the sinecurists, the monopolists, etc. The clear duty of political economy is to enlighten their dupes.

Of these two processes, which exercises the more efficacious influence on social progress? I feel it almost unnecessary to say, that I believe it is the second; and I fear we can never exempt mankind from the necessity of learning first of all defensive morality.

After all I have heard and read and observed, I have never yet met with an instance of an abuse which had been in operation on a somewhat extensive scale, put an end to by the voluntary renunciation of those who profit by it.

On the other hand, I have seen many abuses put down by the determined resistance of those who suffered from them.

To expose the effects of abuses, then, is the surest means of putting an end to them. And this holds especially true of abuses like the policy of restriction, which, whilst inflicting real evils on the masses, are productive of nothing to those who imagine they profit by them but illusion and deception!

After all, can the kind of morality we are advocating of itself enable us to realize all that social perfection which the sympathetic nature of the soul of man and its noble faculties authorize us to look forward to and hope for? I am far from saying so. Assume the complete diffusion of defensive morality, it resolves itself simply into the conviction that men's interests, rightly understood, are always in accord with justice and general utility. Such a society, although certainly well ordered, would not be very attractive. There would be fewer cheats simply because there would be fewer dupes. Vice always lurking in the background, and starved, so to speak, for want of support, would revive the moment that support was restored to it. The prudence of each would be enforced by the vigilance of all; and reform, confining itself to the regulation of external acts, and never going deeper than the skin, would fail to penetrate men's hearts and consciences. Such a society would remind us of one of those exact, rigorous, and just men, who are ready to resent the slightest invasion of their rights, and to defend themselves on all sides from attacks. You esteem them; you perhaps admire them; you would elect them as deputies; but you would never make them your friends.

But the two principles of morality I have described, instead of running counter to each other, work in concert, attacking vice from opposite directions. Whilst the economists are doing their part, sharpening the wits of the Orgons, eradicating prejudices, exciting just and necessary distrust, studying and explaining the true nature of things and of actions, let the religious moralist accomplish on his side his more attractive, although more difficult, labours. Let him attack dishonesty in a hand-to-hand fight; let him pursue it into the most secret recesses of the heart; let him paint in glowing colours the charms of beneficence, of self-sacrifice, of devotion; let him open up the fountains of virtue, where we can only dry up the fountains of vice. This is his duty, and a noble duty it is. But why should he contest the utility of the duty which has devolved upon us?

In a society which, without being personally and individually virtuous, would nevertheless be well ordered through the action of the economic principle of morality (which means a knowledge of the economy of the social body), would not an opening be made for the work of the religious moralist?

Habit, it is said, is a second nature.

A country might still be unhappy, although for a long time each man may have been unused to injustice through the continued resistance of an enlightened public. But such a country, it seems to me, would be well prepared to receive a system of teaching more pure and elevated. We get a considerable way on the road to good, when we become unused to evil. Men can never remain stationary. Diverted from the path of vice, feeling that it leads only to infamy, they would feel so much the more sensibly the attractions of virtue.

Society must perhaps pass through this prosaic state of transition, in which men practise virtue from motives of prudence, in order to rise afterwards to that fairer and more poetic region where such calculating motives are no longer wanted.