Economic Sophisms/Conclusion

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Economic Sophisms by Frédéric Bastiat

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

reveries of the Egyptian, Greek, and Hindoo astrologers far more effectually than he could have done by refuting them directly in innumerable volumes. Truth is one, and the work which explains it is an edifice at once durable and imposing:


II brave les tyrans avides,
Plus hardi que lee Pyramides
Et plus durable que l'airain.


Error is multifarious and of an ephemeral nature; and the work which combats it does not carry in itself a principle of greatness and duration.

But if the power, and perhaps the occasion, have been wanting to enable me to proceed in the manner of Laplace and of Say, I cannot help thinking that the form I have adopted has also its modest utility. It seems to me well suited to the wants of our day, and the occasional moments which are set aside for

study. A treatise has no doubt unquestionable superiority, but on one condition—namely, that it is read and carefully pondered and thought over. It is addressed to a select class of readers. Its mission is to fix first of all, and afterwards enlarge, the circle of our acquired knowledge.

A refutation of vulgar errors and prejudices cannot occupy this high position. It aspires merely to clear the road before the march of truth, to prepare men's minds for its reception, to rectify public opinion, and disarm dangerous ignorance.

It is, above all, in the department of Social Economy that this hand-to-hand struggle, that these constantly-recurring battles with popular errors, are of true practical utility.

The sciences may be divided into two classes.

One of these classes may be known only to savans. It includes those sciences the application of which constitutes the business of special professions. The vulgar reap the fruit, in spite of their ignorance. A man may find use for a watch, though ignorant of mechanics and astronomy, and he may be carried along by a locomotive or a steamer, trusting to the skill of the engineer and the pilot. We walk according to the laws of equilibrium, although unacquainted with these laws, just as M. Jourdain had talked prose all his life without knowing it

But there are sciences which exercise on the public mind an influence which is only in proportion to public enlightenment, and derive all their efficacy, not from knowledge accumulated in some gifted minds, but from knowledge diffused over the general masses. Among these we include morals, medicine, social economy, and, in countries where men are their own masters, Politics. It is to such sciences that the saying of Bentham specially applies, "To disseminate them is better than to advance them." What signifies it, that some great man, or even that God himself, should have promulgated the laws of morality, as long as men, imbued with false notions, mistake virtues for vices, and vices for virtues? What matters it that Smith, Say, and, according to M. de Saint-Chamans, economists of all schools, have proclaimed, in reference to commercial transactions, the superiority of liberty over constraint, if the men who make our laws, and for whom our laws are made, think differently?

Those sciences, which have been correctly named social, have also this peculiarity, that being of universal and daily application, no one will confess himself ignorant of them. When the business is to resolve a question in chemistry or geometry, no one pretends to have acquired these sciences by intuition, no one is ashamed to consult M. Thénard, or makes any difficulty about referring to the works of Legendre or Bezout. But in the social sciences, authority is scarcely acknowledged. As each man daily takes charge of his morals, whether good or bad, of his health, of his purse, of his politics, whether sound or absurd, so each man believes himself qualified to discuss, comment, and pronounce judgment on social questions. Are you ill? There is no old woman who will not at once tell you the cause of your ailment, and the remedy for it. "Humours," she will say; "you must take physic." But what are humours? and is there any such disease? About this she gives herself no concern. I cannot help thinking of this old woman when I hear social maladies explained by these hackneyed phrases:—"The superabundance of products," "the tyranny of capital," "an industrial plethora," and other such commonplaces, of which we cannot even say. Verba et voces, prætereaque nihil, for they are so many pestilent errors.

From what I have said, two things result—1st, That the social sciences must abound more in sophisms than others, because in them each man takes counsel of his own judgment and instincts; 2d, That it is in these sciences that sophisms are especially mischievous, because they mislead public opinion, and in a matter, too, with reference to which public opinion is force, is law.

In these sciences, then, we have need of two sorts of books, those which explain them, and those which further and advance them—those which establish truth, and those which combat error.

It seems to me that the inherent fault of this little work, repetition, is exactly what will make it useful.

In the question I have treated, each sophism has undoubtedly its own formula, and its special bearing, but all may be traced to a common root, which is, forgetting men's interests as consumers. To point out that a thousand errors may be traced to this prolific sophism, is to teach the public to detect it, to estimate it at its true worth, and to distrust it, under all circumstances.

After all, the design of my present work is not exactly to implant convictions, but rather to awaken doubts.

I have no expectation that the reader, on laying down the book, win exclaim I know; I would much rather that he should say candidly, I am ignorant!

"I am ignorant, for I begin to fear that there is something illusory in the flattering promises of scarcity." (Sophism I.)

"I am not so much charmed with obstacles as I once was. (Sophism II.)

"Effort without result no longer appears to me so desirable as result without effort" (Sophism III.)

"It is very possible that the secret of trade does not consist, like the secret of arms (if we adopt the definition of the bully in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme), in giving and not receiving." (Sophism VI.)

"I can understand that a commodity is worth more in proportion as it has had more labour bestowed upon it; but in exchange, will two equal values cease to be equal values, because the one proceeds from the plough, and the other from the loom?" (Sophism XXI.)

"I confess that I begin to think it singular that the human race should be improved by shackles, and enriched by taxes; and, truth to say, I should be relieved of a troublesome weight, I should experience unmitigated satisfaction, were it proved to me, as the author of the Sophismes asserts, that there is no incompatibility between thriving circumstances and justice, between peace and liberty, between the extension of labour and the progress of intelligence." (Sophisms XIV. and XX.)

"Then, without being quite convinced by his arguments, to which I know not whether to give the name of reasonings or of paradoxes, I shall apply myself to the acknowledged masters of the science."

Let us conclude this monography of sophism with a final and important observation.

The world is not sufficiently alive to the influence exercised over it by sophisms.

If I must speak my mind, when the right of the strongest has been put aside, sophisms have set up in its place the right of the most cunning; and it is difficult to say which of these two tryants has been the more fatal to humanity.

Men have an immoderate love of enjoyment, of influence, of consideration, of power—in a word, of wealth.

At the same time, they are urged on by a strong, an overpowering, inclination to procure the things they so much desire, at the expense of other people.

But these other people—in plain language, the public—have an equally strong desire to keep what they have got, if they can, and if they know it.

Spoliation, which plays so great a part in this world's affairs, has, then, only two agents at command, force and cunning; and two limits, courage and intelligence.

Force employed to effect spoliation forms the groundwork of human annals. To trace back its history, would be to reproduce very nearly the history of all nations—Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Goths, Franks, Huns, Turks, Arabs, Monguls, Tartars; not to speak of Spaniards in America, Englishmen in India, Frenchmen in Africa, Russians in Asia, etc.

But civilized nations, at least, composed of men who produce wealth, have become sufficiently numerous, and sufficiently strong to defend themselves. Does this mean that they are no longer plundered ? Not at all ; they are plundered as much as ever, and, what is more, they plunder one another.

Only, the agent employed has been changed; it is no longer by force, but by cunning, that they seize upon the public wealth.

To rob the public, we must first deceive it. The trick consists in persuading the public that the theft is for its advantage; and by this means inducing it to accept, in exchange for its property, services which are fictitious, and often worse. Hence comes the Sophism,—Sophism theocratic, Sophism economic, Sophism political, Sophism financial. Since, then, force is held in check, the Sophism is not only an evil, but the very genius of evil. It must in its turn be held in check also. And for that end we must render the public more cunning than the cunning, as it has already become stronger than the strong.

Good Public! it is under the influence of this conviction that I dedicate to you this first essay—although the preface is strangely transposed, and the dedication somewhat late.