Economic Sophisms/Chapter 3

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Economic Sophisms by Frédéric Bastiat
Effort, Result



WE have just seen that between our wants and the satisfaction of these wants, obstacles are interposed. We succeed in overcoming these obstacles, or in diminishing their force by the employment of our faculties. We may say in a general way, that industry is an effort followed by a result.

But what constitutes the measure of our prosperity, or of our wealth? Is it the result of the effort? or is it the effort itself? A relation always subsists between the effort employed

and the result obtained. Progress consists in the relative enhancement of the second or of the first term of this relation.

Both theses have been maintained; and in political economy they have divided the region of opinion and of thought.

According to the first system, wealth is the result of labour, increasing as the relative proportion of result to effort increases. Absolute perfection, of which God is the type, consists in the infinite distance interposed between the two terms—in this sense, effort is nil, result infinite.

The second system teaches that it is the effort itself which constitutes the measure of wealth. To make progress is to increase the relative proportion which effort bears to result. The ideal of this system may be found in the sterile and eternal efforts of Sisyphus.[1]

The first system naturally welcomes everything which tends to diminish pains and augment products; powerful machinery which increases the forces of man, exchange which allows him to derive greater advantage from natural agents distributed in various proportions over the face of the earth, intelligence which discovers, experience which proves, competition which stimulates, etc.

Logically, the second invokes everything which has the effect of increasing pains and diminishing products; privileges, monopolies, restrictions, prohibitions, suppression of machinery, sterility, etc.

It is well to remark that the universal practice of mankind always points to the principle of the first system. We have never seen, we shall never see, a man who labours in any department, be he agriculturist, manufacturer, merchant, artificer, soldier, author, or philosopher, who does not devote all the powers of his mind to work better, to work with more rapidity, to work more economically—in a word, to effect more with less.

The opposite doctrine is in favour only with theorists, deputies, journalists, statesmen, ministers—men, in short, born to make experiments on the social body.

At the same time, we may observe, that in what concerns themselves personally, they act as every one else does, on the principle of obtaining from labour the greatest possible amount of useful results.

Perhaps I may be thought to exaggerate, and that there are no true sisyphists.

If it be argued that in practice they do not press their principle to its most extreme consequences, I willingly grant it. This is always the case when one sets out with a false principle. Such a principle soon leads to results so absurd and so mischievous that we are obliged to stop short. This is the reason why practical industry never admits sisyphism; punishment would follow error too closely not to expose it. But in matters of speculation, such as theorists and statesmen deal in, one may pursue a false principle a long time before discovering its falsity by the complicated consequences to which men were formerly strangers; and when at last its falsity is found out, the authors take refuge in the opposite principle, turn round, contradict themselves, and seek their justification in a modern maxim of incomparable absurdity: in political economy, there is no inflexible rule, no absolute principle.

Let us see, then, if these two opposite principles which I have just described do not predominate by turns, the one in practical industry, the other in industrial legislation.

I have already noticed the saying of M. Bugeaud (that "when bread is dear, agriculturists become rich"); but in M. Bugeaud are embodied two separate characters, the agriculturist and the legislator.

As an agriculturist, M. Bugeaud directs all his efforts to two ends,—to save labour, and obtain cheap bread. When he prefers a good plough to a bad one; when he improves his pastures; when, in order to pulverize the soil, he substitutes as much as possible the action of the atmosphere for that of the harrow and the hoe; when he calls to his aid all the processes of which science and experiment have proved the efficacy,—he has but one object in view, viz., to diminish the proportion of effort to result. We have indeed no other test of the ability of a cultivator, and the perfection of his processes, than to measure to what extent they have lessened the one and added to the other. And as all the farmers in the world act upon this principle, we may assert that the effort of mankind at large is to obtain, for their own benefit undoubtedly, bread and all other products cheaper, to lessen the labour needed to procure a given quantity of what they want.

This incontestable tendency of mankind once established, should, it would seem, reveal to the legislator the true principle, and point out to him in what way he should aid industry (in as far as it falls within his province to aid it); for it would be absurd to assert that human laws should run counter to the laws of Providence.

And yet we have heard M. Bugeaud, as a deputy, exclaim: "I understand nothing of this theory of cheapness; I should like better to see bread dearer and labour more abundant." And following out this doctrine, the deputy of the Dordogne votes legislative measures, the effect of which is to hamper exchanges, for the very reason that they procure us indirectly what direct production could not procure us but at greater expense.

Now, it is very evident that M. Bugeaud's principle as a deputy is directly opposed to the principle on which he acts as an agriculturist. To act consistently, he should vote against all legislative restriction, or else import into his farming operations the principle which he proclaims from the tribune. We should then see him sow his corn in his most sterile fields, for in this way he would succeed in working much to obtain little. We should see him throwing aside the plough, since hand-culture would satisfy his double wish for dearer bread and more abundant labour.

Restriction has for its avowed object, and its acknowledged effect, to increase labour.

It has also for its avowed object, and its acknowledged effect, to cause dearness, which means simply scarcity of products; so that, carried out to its extreme limits, it is pure sisyphism, such as we have defined it,—labour infinite, product nil.

Baron Charles Dupin, the light of the peerage, it is said, on economic science, accuses railways of injuring navigation; and it is certain that it is of the nature of a more perfect, to restrict the use of a less perfect means of conveyance. But railways cannot hurt navigation except by attracting traffic; and they cannot attract traffic but by conveying goods and passengers more cheaply; and they cannot convey them more cheaply but by diminishing the proportion which the effort employed bears to the result obtained, seeing that that is the very thing which constitutes cheapness. When, then, Baron Dupin deplores this diminution of the labour employed to effect a given result, it is the doctrine of sisyphism which he preaches. Logically, since he prefers the ship to the rail, he should prefer the cart to the ship, the pack-saddle to the cart, and the pannier to all other known means of conveyance, for it is the latter which exacts the most labour with the least result.

"Labour constitutes the wealth of a people," said M. de Saint-Cricq, that Minister of Commerce who has imposed so many restrictions upon trade. We must not suppose that this was an elliptical expression, meaning, "The results of labour constitute the wealth of a people." No, this economist distinctly intended to affirm that it is the intensity of labour which is the measure of wealth, and the proof of it is, that from consequence to consequence, from one restriction to another, he induced France (and in this he thought he was doing her good) to expend double the amount of labour, in order, for example, to provide herself with an equal quantity of iron. In England, iron was then at eight francs, while in France it cost sixteen francs. Taking a day's labour at one franc, it is clear that France could, by means of exchange, procure a quintal of iron by subtracting eight days' work from the aggregate national labour. In consequence of the restrictive measures of M. de Saint-Cricq, France was obliged to expend sixteen days' labour in order to provide herself with a quintal of iron by direct production. Double the labour for the same satisfaction, hence double the wealth. Then it follows that wealth is not measured by the result, but by the intensity of the labour. Is not this sisyphism in all its purity?

And in order that there may be no mistake as to his meaning, the Minister takes care afterwards to explain more fully his ideas; and as he had just before called the intensity of labour wealth, he goes on to call the more abundant results of that labour, or the more abundant supply of things proper to satisfy our wants, poverty. "Everywhere," he says, "machinery has taken the place of manual labour; everywhere production superabounds; everywhere the equilibrium between the faculty of producing, and the means of consuming, is destroyed." We see, then, to what, in M. de Saint-Cricq's estimation, the critical situation of the country was owing—it was to having produced too much, and her labour being too intelligent, and too fruitful. We were too well fed, too well clothed, too well provided with everything; a too rapid production surpassed all our desires. It was necessary, then, to put a stop to the evil, and for that purpose, to force us, by restrictions, to labour more in order to produce less.

I have referred likewise to the opinions of another Minister of Commerce, M. d'Argout. They deserve to be dwelt upon for an instant. Desiring to strike a formidable blow at beet-root culture, he says, "Undoubtedly, the cultivation of beet-root is useful, but this utility is limited. The developments attributed to it are exaggerated. To be convinced of this, it is sufficient to observe that this culture will be necessarily confined within the limits of consumption. Double, triple, if you will, the present consumption of France, you will always find that a very trifling portion of the soil will satisfy the requirements of that consumption." (This is surely rather a singular subject of complaint!) "Do you desire proof of this? How many hectares had we under beet-root in 1828? 3130, which is equivalent to l-10,540th of our arable land. At the present time, when indigenous sugar supplies one-third of our consumption, how much land is devoted to that culture? 16,700 hectares, or 1-1978th of the arable land, or 45 centiares in each commune. Suppose indigenous sugar already supplied our whole consumption, we should have only 48,000 hectares under beet-root, or l-689th of the arable land."[2]

There are two things to be remarked upon in this citation—the facts and the doctrine. The facts tend to prove that little land, little capital, and little labour are required to produce a large quantity of sugar, and that each commune of Franco would be abundantly provided by devoting to beet-root Template:Hyphenated word start

<pagequality level="4" user="Zoeannl" />style="background: #ececec; text-align: left; padding-left: 0.5em; font-weight: bold;" class="table-rh"</noinclude>Template:Hyphenated word end one hectare of its soil. The doctrine consists in regarding this circumstance as adverse, and in seeing in the very power and fertility of the new industry, a limit to its utility.

I do not mean to constitute myself here the defender of beet-root culture, or a judge of the strange facts advanced by M. d'Argout;[3] but it is worth while to scrutinize the doctrine of a statesman, to whom France for a long time entrusted the care of her agriculture and of her commerce.

I remarked in the outset that a variable relation exists between an industrial effort and its result; that absolute imperfection consists in an infinite effort without any result; absolute perfection in an unlimited result without any effort; and perfectibility in the progressive diminution of effort compared with the result.

But M. d'Argout tells us there is death where we think we perceive life, and that the importance of any branch of industry is in direct proportion to its powerlessness. What are we to expect, for instance, from the cultivation of beet-root? Do you not see that 48,000 hectares of land, with capital and manual labour in proportion, are sufficient to supply all France with sugar? Then, this is a branch of industry of limited utility; limited, of course, with reference to the amount of labour which it demands, the only way in which, according to the ex-Minister, any branch of industry can be useful. This utility would be still more limited, if, owing to the fertility of the soil, and the richness of the beet-root, we could reap from 24,000 hectares, what at present we only obtain from 48,000. Oh! were only twenty times, a hundred times, more land, capital, and labour necessary to yield us the same result, so much the better. We might build some hopes on this new branch of industry, and it would be worthy of state protection, for it would offer a vast field to our national industry. But to produce much with little! that is a bad example, and it is time for the law to interfere.

But what is true with regard to sugar, cannot be otherwise with regard to bread. If, then, the utility of any branch of industry is to be estimated not by the amount of satisfactions it is fitted to procure us with a determinate amount of labour, but, on the contrary, by the amount of labour which it exacts in order to yield us a determinate amount of satisfactions, what we ought evidently to desire is, that each acre of land should yield less corn, and each grain of corn less nourishment; in other words, that our land should be comparatively barren; for then the quantity of land, capital, and manual labour that would be required for the maintenance of our population would be much more considerable; we could then say that the demand for human labour would be in direct proportion to this barrenness. The aspirations of MM. Bugeaud, Saint-Cricq, Dupin, and d'Argout, would then be satisfied; bread would be dear, labour abundant, and France rich—rich at least in the sense in which these gentlemen understand the word.

What we should desire also is, that human intelligence should be enfeebled or extinguished; for, as long as it survives, it will be continually endeavouring to augment the proportion which the end bears to the means, and which the product bears to the labour. It is in that precisely that intelligence consists.

Thus, it appears that sisyphism has been the doctrine of all the men who have been intrusted with our industrial destinies. It would be unfair to reproach them with it. This principle guides Ministers only because it is predominant in the Chambers; and it predominates in the Chambers only because it is sent there by the electoral body, and the electoral body is imbued with it only because public opinion is saturated with it.

I think it right to repeat here that I do not accuse men such as MM. Bugeaud, Dupin, Saint-Cricq, and d'Argout of being absolutely and under all circumstances sisyphists. They are certainly not so in their private transactions; for in these they always desire to obtain by way of exchange what would cost them dearer to procure by direct production; but I affirm they are sisyphists when they hinder the country from doing the same thing.[4]

    1. For this reason, and for the sake of conciseness, the reader will pardon us for designating this system in the sequel by the name of sisyphism.
    2. It is fair to M. d'Argout to say that he put this language in the mouth of the adversaries of beet-root culture. But he adopts it formally, and sanctions it besides, by the law which it was employed to justify.
    3. Supposing that 48,000 or 50,000 hectares were sufficient to supply the present consumption, it would require 150,000 for triple that consumption, which M. d'Argout admits as possible. Moreover, if beet-root entered into a six years' rotation of crops, it would occupy successively 900,000 hectares, or l-38th of the arable land.
    4. See on the same subject, Sophismes Économiques, second series, ch. xvi., post, and Harmonies Économiques, ch. vi.