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Fourth 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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The physiocrats used to say, “Only the land is productive.” Certain economists have said, “Only work is productive.”
When you see laborers bent over the furrow that they drench with their sweat, you can scarcely deny their contribution to the work of production. On the other hand, nature never rests. And the ray of sunshine that pierces the clouds and the clouds that the wind chases away and the wind that brings rain and the rain that dissolves fertilizing substances and these substances that develop the mystery that is life in young plants—all the known and unknown powers of nature—prepare the harvest while laborers seek solace from their weariness in sleep.
It is therefore impossible not to recognize that work and nature join forces in accomplishing the phenomenon of production. Utility, which is the basis on which the human race survives, results from this cooperation, and this is as true of almost all forms of industry as it is of agriculture.
However, in the exchanges carried out between men, there is one thing only that is and can be compared, and that is human labor, the services received and rendered. These services alone are mutually commensurable and therefore they alone can elicit payment. In them alone lies value and it is precisely accurate to say that in the final analysis man is the sole owner of his own work.
As for the portion of utility due to the contribution of nature, although this is genuine, although it is immensely greater than anything that man can accomplish, it is free. It is transmitted from hand to hand over and above the market and is properly speaking without value. And who could assess, measure, and determine the value of the natural laws that, since the world began, have acted to produce an effect when work solicits them? With what should they be compared? How should we evaluate them? If they had a value, they would be included in our accounts and inventories; we would have ourselves reimbursed for their use. And how could we manage to do this, since they are at the disposal of all under the same condition, that of work?17
Thus all useful production is the work of nature, which acts free of charge, and of labor, which is paid for.
However, in achieving the production of a given utility, these two elements, human labor and the forces of nature, are not in fixed and immutable proportions. Far from it. Progress consists in ensuring that the proportion of the contribution from nature increases constantly and reduces in the same proportion that of human work by taking its place. In other words, for a given quantity of utility, the free cooperation of nature increasingly tends to replace the burdensome cooperation of work. The common portion grows at the expense of the portion remunerated and appropriated.
If you had to transport a burden weighing one hundred kilograms from Paris to Lille without the intervention of any force of nature, that is to say, on the backs of men, you would need one month of hard labor. If, instead of taking this work on yourself, you gave it to another person, you would have to compensate him for an equal effort; otherwise he would not do it. The sled came on the scene, followed by the cart and then the railway. At each stage of progress part of the work is entrusted to the forces of nature with a corresponding reduction of the labor to be taken or paid for. Well, it is clear that any remuneration eliminated is a victory, not in favor of the person providing the service but of him who receives it, that is to say, the human race.
Before the invention of printing, a scribe could not copy the Bible in less than one year, and that was the measure of the remuneration he was entitled to claim. Today we can procure a Bible for five francs, which is scarcely the reward for one day’s work. The free forces of nature have thus taken the place of paid force in the proportion of 299 parts out of 300. One part still represents human labor and remains personal property; 299 parts represent the contribution of nature, no longer paid for, and consequently are relegated to that which is free and common.
There is no tool, instrument, or machine that does not result in reducing the contribution of human labor, which can be seen either as the value of the product or as the basis of property.
This observation, which I agree is only imperfectly set out here, ought to rally the schools of thought, which so bitterly divide the arena of public opinion today, on the common ground of property and liberty.
Each school can be summarized in one axiom:
I will indicate (for I cannot do otherwise here) that the doctrine set out in the preceding lines meets all these priorities.
Economists. It is scarcely necessary to prove that economists are obliged to welcome a doctrine that comes so obviously from Smith and Say and is only a consequence of the general laws they discovered. Laissez-faire, laissez-passer,18 is summarized by the word freedom, and I ask whether it is possible to conceive the notion of property without freedom. Am I the owner of my work, faculties, or physical powers if I cannot use them to provide services voluntarily undertaken? Do I not need to be free either to exercise my forces in isolation, which involves the need for exchange, or to join them with those of my fellows, which is association or exchange under another form?
And if freedom is hampered, is not property itself assailed? On the other hand, how will mutual services all have their full relative value if they are not exchanged freely and if the law forbids labor from being drawn to those best remunerated? Property, justice, equality, and the proper balance of services can obviously result only from freedom. It is also freedom that causes the contribution made by the forces of nature to become a common benefit, for as long as a legal privilege grants me the exclusive exploitation of one of nature’s powers, I ensure that I am remunerated not only for my work but also for the use of this power. I know how fashionable it is today to curse freedom. The century appears to have taken seriously the ironic refrain of our great songwriter:
For my part, since I have always instinctively loved freedom, I will always defend it through reason.
Egalitarians. The mutuality of services they aspire to is exactly that resulting from a property-owning regime.
In appearance, men are the owners of the whole, the entire thing, of all the utility that this thing holds. In reality, they own only its value, that portion of utility communicated by work, since by selling it they can obtain payment only for the service they are providing. The representative of the egalitarians condemned property from the rostrum recently, restricting this word to what he called usury, the use of the soil, money, houses, credit, etc. But this usury is production and cannot be anything other than production. Receiving a service implies the obligation of reciprocating it. It is in this that the mutuality of services exists. When I lend something I have produced by the sweat of my brow and from which I might draw benefit, I am providing a service to the borrower, who also owes me a service. He will not provide me with one if he limits himself to giving me back the thing one year later. During this interval, he would have benefited from my labor to my detriment. If I obtained payment for something other than my work, the objection of the egalitarians would be specious. But this is not so. Therefore, once they are assured of the truth of the theory set out in these articles, if they are consistent, they will join us to support property and claim what completes or rather what constitutes it, freedom.
Saint-Simonians. To each according to his ability, to each ability according to its works.
This is also what the property-owning regime achieves.
We provide each other with services mutually, but these services are not proportional to the length or intensity of the work. They are not measured using a dynamometer or chronometer. Whether I have been busy for one hour or one day, it is of little concern to the person to whom I provide my service. What he looks at is not the trouble I go to but the trouble I save him.20 To save effort and time, I seek to obtain help from some power in nature. As long as no one except me is capable of taking advantage of this power, I am giving others, for an equal amount of time, more output than they could provide for themselves. I am well paid and grow rich without damaging anyone. The natural power is used for my benefit alone and my ability is remunerated. To each according to his capacity. However, my secret is soon divulged. Imitators take over my process and competition obliges me to reduce my demands. The price of the product is decreased until my work receives only the normal pay for any similar work. The natural power is not thereby lost; it escapes my control but is recuperated by the entire human race which, from now on, will gain equal satisfaction from less work. Whoever exploits this power for his own use will need to take less trouble than in former times, and consequently anyone who exploits it on behalf of others will be entitled to less payment. If he wishes to increase his well-being, he will have no other option than to increase the amount of his work. To each ability according to its works. In the end, it is a question of working better or working more, which is the literal translation of the axiom for followers of Saint-Simon.
Socialists. The equal sharing of capital, talent, and work.
Equitable sharing results from the law: Services are exchanged for other services, provided that these exchanges are free, that is to say, provided that property is acknowledged and respected.
First of all, it is perfectly clear that the person with the most talent provides more services for a given amount of work. From this it follows that he is readily paid more handsomely.
As for capital and labor, this is a subject that, I regret, I cannot discuss in detail here, since no other has been presented to the general public under more false and disastrous colors.
Capital is oft en represented as a devouring monster, as the enemy of labor. In this way, an irrational sort of antagonism has been fostered between two powers that, basically, have the same origin and the same nature and that contribute to and help each other and cannot do without each other. When I see labor growing angry with capital, I seem to be seeing starvation rejecting food.
I define capital thus: materials, instruments, and provisions, whose use is free, let us not forget, to the extent that nature has contributed to producing them and for which only the value, the fruit of work, is paid for.
To execute a useful work, you need materials. If it is at all complicated, you need instruments. If it takes a long time, you need provisions. For example, for a railway line to be built, society must have saved enough means of existence to keep thousands of men alive for several years.
Materials, instruments, and provisions are themselves the fruit of previous work, which has not yet been paid for. Therefore, when previous work and current work are combined for an end, a common work, they pay for each other; there is an exchange of work, an exchange of services in accordance with agreed conditions. Which of the two parties will obtain the better conditions? The one that needs the other less. We are faced here with the inexorable law of supply and demand, and complaining about it is puerile and contradictory. To say that work should be highly paid when there are many workers and a limited level of capital is to say that each person has to be paid all the more when capital resources are smaller.
For work to be in demand and well paid, it is therefore necessary for there to be a great deal of materials, instruments, and provisions in the country, in other words, a great deal of capital.
It follows from this that the basic interest of the workers is that capital should be built up quickly, that as a result of its prompt accumulation, materials, instruments, and provisions should be in active competition. Only this can improve the lot of the workers. And what is the essential condition for the accumulation of capital? It is that each person should be sure of being genuinely the owner, in the fullest sense of the word, of his work and savings. Property, security, freedom, order, peace, and economy are the things that interest everybody—above all and to the greatest extent, the workers.
Communists. In every age, honest and benevolent hearts have been found—Thomas Mores,21 Harringtons,22 and Fénelons—who, distressed by the sight of human suffering and the inequality of living conditions, sought refuge in a communist utopia.
As strange as it may appear, I claim that the regime of property is increasingly achieving this utopia under our very eyes. This is why I said at the start that property is essentially democratic.
On what foundation does humanity live and develop? On everything that serves a purpose, on everything that is useful. Among the useful things, there are those in which there is no human work, air, water, or sunlight. For these, there is a total absence of payment and full communal ownership. There are others that become useful only following a combination of work and nature. Utility can therefore be broken down into parts. One part is provided by labor and only this is to be paid for, has value, and constitutes property. The other part is contributed by the agents of nature, and this remains free of charge and common to all.
Well, of these two forces that contribute to producing utility the second, the part that is free of charge and common to all, is increasingly replacing the first, which requires work and consequently is to be paid for. This is the law of progress. There is no man on earth who does not seek help from the forces of nature, and when he finds it he shares it with the entire human race by proportionally reducing the price of the product.
Thus, in each given product, the portion of utility that is free of charge gradually replaces the other portion which is to be paid for.
The commonly owned base thus tends to surpass the appropriated base in indefinite proportions, and it can be said that within humanity the domain of common ownership is expanding unceasingly.
On the other hand, it is clear that, under the influence of freedom, the portion of utility that remains to be paid for or that can be appropriated tends to be distributed in a way that is, if not rigorously equal, at least in proportion to the services supplied, since these services themselves are the measure of the payment.
It can thus be seen with what irresistible power the principle of property tends to achieve equality between men. First of all, it establishes a common basis that is constantly increased by each stage of progress and with regard to which equality is perfect, since all men are equal in the face of value that has been eliminated, in the face of a utility that has ceased to generate payment. All men are equal in the face of the portion of the price of books that the publisher has eliminated.
Subsequently, with regard to the portion of utility that corresponds to human work, care that must be taken, or skill, competition tends to establish a balance in the flow of payments and all that remains is the inequality that is justified by the actual inequality of the effort, fatigue, work, or skill, in a word, of the services supplied. And apart from the fact that inequality of this sort will always be just, who does not understand that without it all effort would instantly cease?
I can see the objection coming! People will say: “This is an example of economists’ optimism. They live in a world of theory and do not deign to cast a glance at the facts. Where in reality are these egalitarian tendencies? Can we not see all over the world the lamentable sight of opulence side by side with poverty, ostentation with destitution, idleness with fatigue, and satiety with starvation?”
I do not deny this inequality, this destitution, this suffering. Who could deny them? However, I say, “Far from being the result of the principle of property, they can be attributed to the principle of plunder.”
It remains for me to prove this.
[17. ](Paillottet’s note) On the objection drawn from a so-called taking over of the agents of nature, see letter 14 of Free Credit, and, in vol. 4, the last two pages of chapter 14. (OC, vol. 5, p. 312, “Gratuité du crédit,” “Quatorzième lettre”; and vol. 4, p. 86, “Conflit de principes,” pp. 89–90 [last two pages].)
[18. ]Laisser-passer: “Let us go about our affairs.” See also “Bastiat’s Political Writings: Anecdotes and Reflections,” pp. 408–9 in this volume.
[19. ]This verse comes from Pierre-Jean de Béranger’s poem “La Liberté” (“Liberty”), which he wrote in January 1822 when he was imprisoned following the publication of his second volume of satirical songs and poems in 1821. It is ironic that, far from having his spirit broken by short periods of imprisonment, Béranger continued to defy the censors with his poems, which mocked the political and religious establishment. His published songs and poems were bestsellers and went through many editions. They oft en included sheet music to help members of the underground singing and drinking clubs enjoy his political songs.
[20. ](Paillottet’s note) On the effort saved, considered as the most important element of value, see chapter 5 of Economic Harmonies. (OC, vol. 6, p. 140, “De la valeur.”)
[21. ]Sir Thomas More.
[22. ]James Harrington.