Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3.: On the Bordeaux to Bayonne Railway Line - The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics
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3.: On the Bordeaux to Bayonne Railway Line - Frédéric Bastiat, The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics 
The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics, translated from the French by Jane and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Jacques de Guenin and Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation editor Dennis O’Keeffe (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2011).
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On the Bordeaux to Bayonne Railway Line
Letter addressed to a commission
[vol. 7, p. 103. Originally published in
It is pointless both for those favoring the direct route and those the winding one to lay any claim to virtue. Each side has only one serious argument. The first says, “Our line is shorter by twenty-nine kilometers.” The second replies, “Ours services four times as many people.” Or, aggressively, one party claims: “Your winding route makes transport more expensive for each end” while the other retorts, “Your direct route goes through uninhabited countryside and sacrifices all the interests of the region.”
When the issue is put this way, we understand how very important it is for the supporters of the direct route to prove first that the uninhabited countryside is not as uninhabited as people suppose and secondly that the valleys are neither as rich nor as populous as is claimed.
This is the line of argument to which the commission of inquiry of the Basses Pyrénées had recourse, and in the candid account of his thinking by the minister of public works, it was reproduced in the following terms:
“It should be noted that, in the districts of the greater Landes, the population has constantly increased by an average of 50 percent in the last forty years, while in the valleys, it has remained stationary and has even decreased in a few locations.”
I have reason to believe that the factual matter quoted was drawn from a memorandum I published on the distribution of taxes in the département of the Landes, one which probably, nay, inevitably, will be put before you. I should therefore be allowed to protest against the strange use people are trying to make of it. I do not presume to plead for or against either of the two rival routes, but I do claim the right to object to the way in which those who would keep the railway out of our valleys have recourse to any and all arguments, even the ones about their suffering.
Anyone who has been involved with the vast subject of population knows that it increases normally much faster in regions that are underpopulated than in those in which it has already become dense. To say that this is a reason to give preference to the former with regard to the railway is like saying that the railway is more useful in Russia than in England and in the Landes than in Normandy.
The argument then generalizes a local fact. It is not true that the population is decreasing in the valleys of the Garonne, the Midouze, and the Adour. It is growing slowly there, it is true, precisely because it is very dense.
What is true, and what I do not withdraw, is that in a small region known as the Chalosse, situated on the left bank of the Adour, and in particular in four or five wine-growing districts in this province, the number of deaths in the last twenty years has regularly exceeded the number of births.
This is a deplorable perturbation, a phenomenon unique to this century, one which is manifested nowhere else, not even in Turkey. To know what we should infer from it, it is not sufficient merely to identify it factually; we have to relate it to its cause.
The population has decreased, say the commissioners of inquiry. This sentence is easily said. Oh! They do not realize the magnitude of what they are implying! They were not present during the painful labor through which a revolution like this was achieved! They do not realize all the moral and physical suffering that it involves. I will tell them. It is a sad story, but one that is full of edification.
The Chalosse is one of the most fertile regions in France.
In former times, wines were produced and shipped down the Adour. Some of the wine was consumed around Bayonne; the rest was exported to northern Europe. This export trade occupied the activity and capital of ten or twelve very well-regarded houses in Bayonne, the names of which one of your colleagues, M. Chégaray, can quote if need be.
At that time, the wines sustained their value well. Prosperity was extensive in the region as was the population. The number of sharecropping farms was naturally restricted and the farms did not cover more than two or three hectares. Each of these small vineyards, worked like a garden, supplied a family with an assured means of existence. Owners’ and sharecroppers’ incomes provided a livelihood for a populous class of artisans, and you can imagine how dense the population became under these economic arrangements.
However, things have changed a great deal!
The commercial policy that prevailed between the nations closed off the external markets of the Chalosse. Exports were, I say, not just reduced but destroyed, indeed completely annihilated.
On the other hand, the system of indirect taxation considerably restricted its internal markets. By freeing the wine produced on his property from consumption tax in favor of the owner, this system altered the division of labor in wine production. It acted as would a law which stated, “Bread shall be subject to a tax, except for that made by individuals in their household.” Obviously, such an arrangement would tend to destroy bakeries.
Finally, the Adour is gradually ceasing to be navigable. Authentic documents show that ships used to go upriver to Aire. Elderly inhabitants of the region have seen them go as far as Grenade and I myself have seen them load at Saint-Sever. Now they stop at Mugron, and in view of the difficulties they have in getting there it is easy to see that shortly they will not go further than the confluence of the Midouze.
I do not have to discuss the causes for all this. They exist, it is clear. What effects have they had?
First of all, they reduce the income of the owners. Secondly, they make the portion of the sharecropper inadequate to provide a living for him and his family. It was therefore necessary for the owner to take a considerable slice out of what was left of his income to provide the sharecropper with what was strictly necessary to keep him alive. One of them had to be ruined. In vain did he combat the attractions of luxury with which the century surrounded him on all sides. In vain did he impose on himself the hardest sacrifices, the most detailed parsimony. He could not escape the bitter suffering that accompanied his inevitable degradation.
The sharecropper was no longer a sharecropper; his payment in kind served only to diminish his debt, and he became a day laborer, given a daily ration of corn in lieu of cash payment.
In other words, it was acknowledged that the acreage of farms, which was adequate in other circumstances, was now too restricted, and at this moment a remarkable revolution is taking place in the agricultural constitution of the region.
Since wine no longer had any markets, two hectares of vines could no longer constitute a working farm. There is a clear tendency to organize property on other bases. Out of two sharecropping farms with vineyards, one is made that encloses a fair proportion of arable land. It can be seen that, under the effect of the causes described, two or three hectares can no longer provide a living for a family of sharecroppers; five or six are needed. Mergers are also being made here, but these mergers change people’s economic conditions.
In the village in which I live, thirty sharecropper houses have been demolished, according to the land register, and more than one hundred and fifty in the district whose legal interests have been entrusted to me, and, mark this well, this means as many families that have been plunged into complete destruction. Their fate is to suffer, decline, and disappear.
Yes, the population has decreased in one part of the Chalosse and if this admission had to be leveled against the region, I would also add that, although this decrease in population is evidence of our distress, it is far from expressing its full measure. If you traveled through my unfortunate homeland, you would see how much men can suffer without dying and understand that one life less on your cold statistics is a symptom of incalculable torture.
And now our sufferings are being used as evidence against us! And in order to refuse us markets mention is being made of suffering that has been inflicted on us by the lack of markets! Once again, I am not voicing an opinion on the route of the railway. I know that the interests of the Chalosse will weigh very little in the balance. But, although I do not expect it to be an argument in favor of the route through the valleys, I do not want it to be used as an argument against, because such an argument is as false as it is cruel. Is it not, in fact, pitiless cruelty to say to us, “You have beautiful sunshine, fertile soil, cool valleys, hill slopes on which the work of your fathers spreads prosperity and happiness? Thanks to these gifts of nature and art, your population was as dense as that in our richest provinces. You lost all your markets suddenly, and distress followed prosperity, and tears, songs of joy. Now, while we have at our disposal an immense outlet, we do not yet know whether we will allocate it to uninhabited areas or put it within your reach. Your sufferings have made our decision for us. They clearly exist; the government itself has noted them in the following laconic phrases: this isnothing, just a falling population. There is no reply to this, and we have now firmly decided to redirect the route through the greater Landes. By casting all your towns into ruin, this decision will accelerate the depopulation that so saddens you, but is not the opportunity of peopling the uninhabited areas worth the certainty of decreasing the population in the valleys?”
Oh! Sirs, give the railway the route which in your wisdom you consider to be in the best general interest, but if you deny it to our valley, do not say in your considerations, as you are committed to doing, that it is its misfortunes and its misfortunes alone that have determined your decision.