Economic Sophisms/Chapter 39

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Economic Sophisms by Frédéric Bastiat
Domination by Labour





"IN the same way that in time of war we attain the mastery by superiority in arms, do we not, in time of peace, arrive at domination by superiority in labour?"

This is a question of the highest interest at a time when no doubt seems to be entertained that in the field of industry, as in the field of battle, the stronger crushes the weaker.

To arrive at this conclusion, we must have discovered between the labour which is applied to commodities and the violence exercised upon men, a melancholy and discouraging analogy; for why should these two kinds of operations be thought identical in, their effects, if they are essentially different in their own nature?

And if it be true that in industry, as in war, predominance is the necessary result of superiority, what have we to do with progress or with social economy, seeing that we inhabit a world where everything has been so arranged by Providence that one and the same effect—namely, oppression—proceeds necessarily from two opposite principles?

With reference to England's new policy of commercial freedom, many persons make this objection, which has, I am convinced, taken possession of the most candid minds among us: "Is England doing anything else than pursuing the same end by different means. Does she not always aspire at universal supremacy? Assured of her superiority in capital and labour, does she not invite free competition in order to stifle Continental industry, and so put herself in a situation to reign as a sovereign, having conquered the privilege of feeding and clothing the population she has ruined?"

It would not be difficult to demonstrate that these alarms are chimerical; that our alleged inferiority is much exaggerated; that our great branches of industry not only maintain their ground, but are actually developed under the action of external competition, and that tie infallible effect of such competition is to bring about an increase of general consumption, capable of absorbing both home and foreign products.

At present, I desire to make a direct answer to the objection, leaving it all the advantage of the ground chosen by the objectors. Keeping out of view for the present the special case of England and France, I shall inquire in a general way whether, when, by its superiority in one branch of industry, a nation comes to outrival and put down a similar branch of industry existing among another people, the former has advanced one step towards domination, or the latter towards dependence; in other words, whether both nations do not gain by the operation, and whether it is not the nation which is outrivalled that gains the most.

If we saw in a product nothing more than an opportunity of bestowing labour, the alarms of the protectionists would undoubtedly be well-founded. Were we to consider iron, for example, only in its relations with ironmasters, we might be led to fear that the competition of a country where it is the gratuitous gift of nature would extinguish the furnaces of another country where both ore and fuel are scarce.

But is this a complete view of the subject? Has iron relations only with those who make it? Has it no relations with those who use it? Is its sole and ultimate destination to be produced? And if it is useful, not on account of the labour to which it gives employment, but on account of the qualities it possesses, of the numerous purposes to which its durability and malleability adapt it, does it not follow that the foreigner cannot reduce its price, even so far as to render its production at home unprofitable, without doing us more good in this last respect, than harm in the other?

Pray consider how many things there are which foreigners, by reason of the natural advantages by which they are surrounded, prevent our producing directly, and with reference to which we are placed in reality in the hypothetical position we have been examining with reference to iron. We produce at home neither tea, coffee, gold, nor silver. Is our industry en masse diminished in consequence? No; only in order to create the counter-value of these imported commodities, in order to acquire them by means of exchange, we detach from our national labour a portion less great than would be required to produce these things ourselves. More labour thus remains to be devoted to the procuring of other enjoyments. We are so much the richer and so much the stronger. All that external competition can do, even in cases where it puts an end absolutely to a determinate branch of industry, is to economize labour, and increase our productive power. Is this, in the case of the foreigner, the road to domination?

If we should find in France a gold mine, it does not follow that it would be for our interest to work it. Nay, it is certain that the enterprise would be neglected if each ounce of gold absorbed more of our labour than an ounce of gold purchased abroad with cloth. In this case we should do better to find our mines in our workshops. And what is true of gold is true of iron.

The illusion proceeds from our failure to see one thing, which is, that foreign superiority never puts a stop to national industry, except under a determinate form, and under that form only renders it superfluous by placing at our disposal the result of the very labour thus superseded. If men lived in diving-bells under water, and had to provide themselves with air by means of a pump, this would be a great source of employment. To throw obstacles in the way of such employment, as long as men were left in this condition, would be to inflict upon them a frightful injury. But if the labour ceases because the necessity for its exertion no longer exists, because men are placed in a medium where air is introduced into their lungs without effort, then the loss of that labour is not to be regretted, except in the eyes of men who obstinately persist in seeing in labour nothing but labour in the abstract.

It is exactly this kind of labour which machinery, commercial freedom, progress of every kind, gradually supersedes; not useful labour, but labour become superfluous, without object, and without result. On the contrary, protection sets that sort of useless labour to work; it places us again under water, to bring the air-pump into play; it forces us to apply for gold to the inaccessible national mine, rather than to the national workshops. All the effect is expressed by the words, deperdition of forces.

It will be understood that I am speaking here of general effects, not of the temporary inconvenience which is always caused by the transition from a bad system to a good one. A momentary derangement accompanies necessarily all progress. This may be a reason for making the transition gently and gradually. It is no reason for putting a stop systematically to all progress, still less for misunderstanding it.

Industry is often represented as a struggle. That is not a true representation of it, or only true when we confine ourselves to the consideration of each branch of industry in its effects upon similar branches, regarding them both in thought apart from the interests of the rest of mankind. But there is always something else to be considered, namely, the effects upon consumption, and upon general prosperity.

It is an error to apply to trade, as is but too often done, phrases which are applicable to war.

In war the stronger overcomes the weaker.

In industry the stronger imparts force to the weaker. This entirely does away with the analogy.

Let the English be as powerful and skilful as they are represented, let them be possessed of as large an amount of capital, and have as great a command of the two great agents of production, iron and fuel, as they are supposed to have; all this simply means cheapness. And who gains by the cheapness of products? The man who buys them.

It is not in their power to annihilate any part whatever of our national labour. All they can do is to render it superfluous in the production of what is acquired by exchange, to furnish us with air without the aid of the pump, to enlarge in this way our disposable forces, and so render their alleged domination as much more impossible as their superiority becomes more incontestable.

Thus, by a rigorous and consoling demonstration, we arrive at this conclusion, that labour and violence, which are so opposite in their nature, are not less so in their effects.

All we are called upon to do is to distinguish between labour annihilated, and labour economized.

To have less iron because we work less, and to have less iron although we work less, are things not only different, but opposed to each other. The protectionists confound them; we do not. That is all.

We may be very certain of one thing, that if the English employ a large amount of activity, labour, capital, intelligence, and natural forces, it is not done for show. It is done in order to procure a multitude of enjoyments in exchange for their products. They most certainly expect to receive at least as much as they give. What they produce at home is destined to pay for what they purchase abroad. If they inundate us with their products, it is because they expect to be inundated with ours in return. That being so, the best means of having much for ourselves is to be free to choose between these two modes of acquisition, immediate production, and mediate production. British Machiavelism cannot force us to make a wrong choice.

Let us give up, then, the puerility of applying to industrial competition phrases applicable to war,—a way of speaking which is only, specious when applied to competition between two rival trades. The moment we come to take into account the effect produced on the general prosperity, the analogy disappears.

In a battle, every one who is killed diminishes by so much the strength of the army. In industry, a workshop is shut up only when what it produced is obtained by the public from another source and in greater abundance. Figure a state of things where for one man killed on the spot two should rise up full of life and vigour. Were such a state of things possible, war would no longer merit its name.

This, however, is the distinctive character of what is so absurdly called industrial war.

Let the Belgians and the English lower the price of their iron ever so much; let them, if they will, send it to us for nothing; this might extinguish some of our blast-furnaces; but Template:Hws Template:Hyphenated word end, and as a necessary consequence of this very cheapness, there would rise up a thousand other branches of industry more profitable than the one which had been superseded.

We arrive, then, at the conclusion that domination by labour is impossible, and a contradiction in terms, seeing that all superiority which manifests itself among a people means cheapness, and tends only to impart force to all other nations. Let us banish, then, from political economy all terms borrowed from the military vocabulary: to fight with equal weapons, to conquer, to crush, to stifle, to be beaten, invasion, tribute, etc. What do such phrases mean? Squeeze them, and you obtain nothing. … Yes, you do obtain something; for from such words proceed absurd errors, and fatal and pestilent prejudices. Such phrases tend to arrest the fusion of nations, are inimical to their peaceful, universal, and indissoluble alliance, and retard the progress of the human race.