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Second Letter - Frédéric Bastiat, Collected Works of Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850 
The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850, Jacques de Guenin, General Editor. Translated from the French by Jane Willems and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Pascal Salin. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation Editor Dennis O’Keeffe. Academic Editor, David M. Hart (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012).
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What inflexible power logic has!
Rough conquerors share an island. They live from rent in leisure and luxury among hard-working and poor vanquished people. According to political economy, there is, therefore, a source of value other than work.
This being so, political economy sets about breaking down rent and floats this theory on the world:
“Rent is partly interest on capital spent. Another part stems from the monopoly of the agents of nature that have been usurped and confiscated.”
This strain of political economy from the English school very rapidly crossed the Channel. Socialist logic caught hold of it and told the workers, “Watch out! There are three elements in the price of the bread you eat. There is the labor of the workers, you owe them for this; there is the work of the landowners, you owe them for this; and there is the work of nature, for which you do not owe anything. What is being taken from you under this heading is a monopoly, as Scrope says; it is a tax imposed on the gift s that God has given you, as Senior says.”
Political economy sees the danger of this distinction. In spite of this, political economy does not withdraw it but explains it: “True, in the social mechanism the role of the landowner is useful and necessary. People work for him and he pays them with the heat of the sun and the coolness of the dew. This has to be the way; otherwise there would be no crops grown.”
“Never mind that,” logic replies; “I have a thousand types of organization in reserve with which to eliminate injustice, which incidentally is never necessary.”
Therefore, because of a false principle gathered from the English school, logic has breached landownership. Will it stop there? Do not be too ready to believe this. It would not be logic if this were so.
As logic said to farmers, “The law governing plant life cannot be property and generate profit”; it will say to manufacturers of woolen cloth, “The law of gravity cannot be property and generate profit.”
To manufacturers of cotton sheeting, “The law of the elasticity of steam cannot be a property and generate profit.”
To ironmasters, “The law of combustion cannot be property and generate profit.”
To seamen, “The laws of hydrostatics cannot be property and generate profit.”
To roofers, carpenters, and lumberjacks, “You use saws, axes, and hammers; you also contribute to your work the hardness of bodies and the resistance of environments. These laws belong to everyone and should not generate profit.”
Yes, logic will go this far at the risk of overturning the entire system of society. Once it has denied landownership, it will deny the productivity of capital, continuing to use as its basis the fact that landowners and capitalists are charging payment for the use of the force of nature. For this reason it is important to prove that logic is starting from a false premise, that it is not true that in any art, trade, or industry the forces of nature are being charged for and that in this respect agriculture is not receiving special treatment.
There are things that are useful without any work intervening, such as the earth, the air, water, the light and heat of the sun, and the materials and forces that nature provides.
There are others, which become useful only because work has been carried out on these materials and has taken over these forces.
Utility is therefore sometimes due to nature alone, sometimes due to work alone, but nearly always due to the combined activity of work and nature.
Let others lose their way in definitions. For my part, I understand utility to be what everyone understands by this word whose etymology shows its meaning exactly, namely, that everything that serves a purpose, whether by its nature, by work, or by both, being useful, constitutes utility.
I call value the only part of utility that is communicated or added by work, so that two things are of equal value when those who have worked on them exchange them freely with each other. The following are my reasons for this:
What makes a man refuse an exchange? It is his knowledge that the item being offered to him would require less work from him than the item demanded from him. It is absurd to say to him, “I have worked less than you, but gravity helped me and I have included it in the calculation.” He will reply, “I can also use gravity with work that is equal to yours.”
When two men are isolated, if they work, it is to provide a service to themselves. Where an exchange is involved, each person is providing a service to the other and receives an equivalent service in return. If one of them is helped by some force of nature that is at the disposal of the other, this force will not be included in the bargain as the right to refuse will oppose this.
Robinson hunts and Friday fishes. It is clear that the quantity of fish exchanged for game will be determined by the work involved. If Robinson said to Friday, “Nature goes to a lot more trouble in making a bird than a fish, so give me more of your work than I will give you of mine since I am trading you in return a greater effort by nature. . . .” Friday would not fail to reply, “It is no more up to you than me to judge the efforts of nature. What should be compared is your work to mine, and if you wish to establish our relationship on the footing that I will work more than you on a regular basis, I will start to hunt and you can fish if you want to.”
You can see that the generosity of nature in this hypothesis cannot become a monopoly unless violence is involved. You can also see that, while it is a significant factor in utility, it is not a factor in value.
I have pointed out in the past that metaphors are an enemy of political economy. Here I accuse metonymy of the same misdeed.9
Are people using language accurately when they say, “Water is worth two sous”?
It is said that a famous astronomer could not bring himself to say, “Ah, what a fine sunset!” Even in the presence of ladies he cried, in a strange form of enthusiasm, “Ah, what a fine sight is the rotation of the earth when the sun’s rays strike it tangentially!”
This astronomer was accurate and ridiculous. An economist would be no less ridiculous if he said, “The work needed to go to fetch water from the spring is worth two sous.”
The strange character of the paraphrase does not prevent its accuracy.
In effect, water is not worth anything. It has no value although it is useful. If we all had a constant spring near our doorstep, obviously water would have no value because it would not give rise to any exchange. But if it is a quarter of a league away and you have to go to fetch it, this is work and here you have the origin of value. If it is half a league away, it is double the work and therefore double the value, although its utility remains the same. In my view, water is a free gift of nature on condition that you go to fetch it. If I do it for myself, I am doing myself a service involving some work. If I entrust this to another, I am giving him the bother and I owe him a payment for service rendered. There are thus two occasions of work and two services that have to be compared and discussed. The gift of nature continues to be free. In fact, I consider that the value lies in the work and not in the water and that metonymy is being used as much when people say, “Water is worth two sous” as when they say, “I have drunk a bottle.”
Air is a free gift of nature and has no value. Economists say, “It has no exchange value, but it has a use value.” What language! Well, sirs, have you made it your work to turn people off science? Why not simply say, “It has no value, but it is useful.” It is useful because it serves a purpose. It has no value because nature has done everything and work nothing. If work has not entered into it, no one has any service to return, receive, or pay for. There is no effort involved nor any exchange to be made. There is nothing to compare; therefore there is no value.
But if you enter a diving bell and entrust a man with transmitting air to you by using a pump for two hours, he will be exerting himself by providing you with a service and you will have to pay for this. Will you be paying for the air? No, you will be paying for the work. Therefore, has the air acquired value? You can say so to abbreviate, if you like, but do not forget that it is metonymy. The air remains free and no human intelligence is capable of attributing value to it. If it has a value, it is that measured by the effort taken compared with the effort required to make the exchange.
A launderer is obliged to dry washing in a large building using the action of fire. Another is content to hang it out in the sun. This launderer takes less trouble; he is not nor can he be as demanding. He therefore does not make me pay for the heat of the sun’s rays and I, as the consumer, benefit from this.
Therefore the major economic law is this:
Services are traded for other services.
Do ut des; do ut facias; facio ut des; facio ut facias (do this for me and I will do that for you). This is very trivial and common but is nonetheless the beginning, the middle, and the end of political economy.10
From these three examples we can draw the following general conclusion: the consumer pays for all the services received by him, all the trouble he is saved, and all the work he generates, but he enjoys free of charge the free gift s from nature and its powers that the producer has put to use.
Here are three men who have placed air, water, and heat at my disposal with only their work being paid for.
What then has been able to make people think that farmers who also make use of the air, water, and heat are making me pay the so-called intrinsic value of these agents of nature? That they are charging me alike for utility created and utility not created? That, for example, the price of wheat sold at 18 francs is broken down as follows:
Why do all the economists in the English school believe that this last element has crept surreptitiously into the value of wheat?
[9. ](Paillottet’s note) See chapter 22 of the first series of Sophisms. (OC, vol. 4, p. 115, “Métaphores.”)
[10. ](Paillottet’s note) “It is not enough for the value not to be in the material or in the forces of nature. It is not enough for it to be exclusively in services. It is also necessary for the services themselves not to have an exaggerated value. For what difference does it make to a poor laborer if the high price he pays for his wheat is because the landowner has himself paid for the productive powers of the soil or has paid excessively for his intervention?