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Henry Hazlitt, Introduction - Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Sophisms 
Economic Sophisms, trans. Arthur Goddard, introduction by Henry Hazlitt (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996).
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by Henry Hazlitt
Frédéric Bastiat was born at Bayonne, France, on June 29, 1801. His father was a wholesale merchant, but Frédéric was orphaned at the age of nine and was brought up by his grandfather and his aunt.
He seems to have had a good, though not an extraordinary education, which included languages, music, and literature. He began the study of political economy at nineteen and read principally Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say.
Bastiat's early life, however, was not primarily that of a scholar. At the age of seventeen he went to work in his uncle's counting-house and spent about six years there. Then he inherited his grandfather's farm at Mugron and became a farmer. He was locally active politically, becoming a juge de paix in 1831 and a member of the conseil général of the Landes in 1832.
Bastiat lived in a revolutionary period. He was fourteen when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo and exiled to St. Helena. He lived through the Revolution of 1830. But what first inspired his pamphleteering activity was his interest in the work of Cobden and the English Anti-Corn-Law League against protection. In 1844 he rose to immediate prominence with the publication of his article on "The Influence of French and English Tariffs on the Future of the Two Peoples" in the Journal des économistes.
Then began the outpouring of a brilliant series of articles, pamphlets, and books that did not cease till his premature death in 1850. There came first of all the first series of Sophismes économiques, then the various essays and the second series of Sophismes, and finally, in the last year of his life, the Harmonies économiques.
But the list of Bastiat's writings in this short span of six years does not begin to measure his activities. He was one of the chief organizers of the first French Free Trade Association at Bordeaux; he became secretary of a similar organization formed in Paris; he collected funds, edited a weekly journal, addressed meetings, gave lecture courses—in brief, he poured out his limited energies unsparingly in all directions. He contracted a lung infection. He could breathe and nourish himself only with difficulty. Finally, too late, his ill-health forced him to Italy, and he died at Rome, at the age of forty-nine, on Christmas Eve, 1850.
It is ironic that the work which Bastiat considered his masterpiece, the Harmonies économiques that cost him so much to write, did far more to hurt his posthumous reputation than to help it. It has even become a fashion for some economists to write about Bastiat patronizingly or derisively. This fashion reaches a high point in an almost contemptuous one-page notice of Bastiat in the late Joseph A. Schumpeter's History of Economic Analysis. "It is simply the case," writes the latter, "of the bather who enjoys himself in the shallows and then goes beyond his depth and drowns.... I do not hold that Bastiat was a bad theorist. I hold that he was no theorist."**
It is not my purpose here to discuss the theories of the Economic Harmonies. That is done very competently by Dean Russell in the Introduction to the new translation of the Harmonies published simultaneously with this new translation of the Sophisms. But there is a germ of truth in Schumpeter's comment, and we can acknowledge this candidly and still see the much greater truth about Bastiat that Schumpeter missed. It is true that Bastiat, even in the Sophisms, made no great original contribution to abstract economic theory. His analysis of errors rested in the main on the theory he had acquired from Smith, Say, and Ricardo. The shortcomings of this theory often made his exposures of fallacies less cogent and convincing than they otherwise might have been. The discerning reader of the Sophisms will notice, for example, that Bastiat never shook off the classic cost-of-production theory of value, or even the labor theory of value, though his total argument is often inconsistent with these theories. But, then, no other economist of Bastiat's time (with the exception of the neglected German, von Thünen) had yet discovered marginal or subjective value theory. That was not to be expounded until some twenty years after Bastiat's death.
Schumpeter's judgment of Bastiat is not only ungenerous but unintelligent, and for the same reason that it is unintelligent to deride an apple tree for not bearing bananas. Bastiat was not primarily an original economic theorist. What he was, beyond all other men, was an economic pamphleteer, the greatest exposer of economic fallacies, the most powerful champion of free trade on the European Continent. Even Schumpeter (almost in a slip of the pen) concedes that if Bastiat had not written the Economic Harmonies, "his name might have gone down to posterity as the most brilliant economic journalist who ever lived." What the "might have" is doing here I do not know. It has so gone down.
And this is no mean achievement, nothing to be treated patronizingly. Economics is pre-eminently a practical science. It does no good for its fundamental principles to be discovered unless they are applied, and they will not be applied unless they are widely understood. In spite of the hundreds of economists who have pointed out the advantages of free markets and free trade, the persistence of protectionist illusions has kept protectionist and price-fixing policies alive and flourishing even today in most countries of the world. But anyone who has ever read and understood Bastiat must be immune to the protectionist disease, or the illusions of the Welfare State, except in a very attenuated form. Bastiat killed protectionism and socialism with ridicule.
His chief method of argument was the method of exaggeration. He was the master of the reductio ad absurdum. Someone suggests that the proposed new railroad from Paris to Madrid should have a break at Bordeaux. The argument is that if goods and passengers are forced to stop at that city, it will be profitable for boatmen, porters, hotelkeepers and others there. Good, says Bastiat. But then why not break it also at Angoulême, Poitiers, Tours, Orléans, and, in fact, at all intermediate points? The more breaks there are, the greater the amount paid for storage, porters, extra cartage. We could have a railroad consisting of nothing but such gaps—a negative railroad!
Are there various other proposals to discourage efficiency, in order to create more jobs? Good, says Bastiat. Let's petition the king to forbid people from using their right hands, or maybe even have them chopped off. Then it will require more than twice as many people, and twice as many jobs, to get the same work done (assuming consumption is the same).
But Bastiat's supreme jest was the petition of the candlemakers and their allied industries for protection against the unfair competition of the sun. The Chamber of Deputies is asked to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, outside shutters, inside shutters, and all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures by which the light of the sun can enter houses. The blessings that will result from this, in an increased business for the candlemakers and their associates, are then all solemnly itemized, and the argument conducted according to the recognized principles of all protectionist arguments.
The petition of the candlemakers is devastating. It is a flash of pure genius, a reductio ad absurdum that can never be exceeded, sufficient in itself to assure Bastiat immortal fame among economists.
But Bastiat had more than scintillating wit and felicity of expression. His logic, too, was powerful. Once he had grasped and explained a principle, he could put the argument in so many lights and forms as to leave no one an excuse for missing or evading it. Again and again he shows the fallacies that grow out of exclusive concern with the problems of individual producers. He keeps pointing out that consumption is the end of all economic activity, and production merely the means, and that the sacrifice of the consumer's interest to that of the producer is "the sacrifice of the end to the means."
If at least some of us see some of these truths more clearly today, we owe a large part of our clear-sightedness to Frédéric Bastiat. He was one of the earliest economists to attack the fallacies not only of protection but of socialism. He was answering socialist fallacies, in fact, long before most of his contemporaries or successors thought them even worthy of attention. I have not said much here about his refutations of socialist arguments, because these refutations occur rather in the Essays and in the Harmonies than in the Sophisms; but they constitute a very important part of his contribution.
Bastiat is accused of being a propagandist and a pleader, and he was. It was unfortunate that for so long he stood alone, while other "orthodox" economists refrained from criticizing socialism or defending capitalism for fear of losing their reputations for "scientific impartiality," and so left the field entirely to the socialist and communist agitators who were less timorous in this respect.
We could use more Bastiats today. We have, in fact, desperate need of them. But we have, thank Heaven, Bastiat himself, in a new translation; and the reader of these pages will not only still find them, as Cobden did, "as amusing as a novel," but astonishingly modern, for the sophisms he answers are still making their appearance, in the same form and almost in the same words, in nearly every issue of today's newspapers.
Author's Introduction to the French Edition
In political economy, there
I have attempted, in this brief volume,2 to refute some of the arguments that are raised against the introduction of free trade.
I am not engaging here in controversy with the protectionists. Rather, I am trying to instill a principle into the minds of sincere men who hesitate to take a stand on the issue because they are in doubt.
I am not one of those who say that the advocates of protectionism are motivated by self-interest. Instead, I believe that the opposition to free trade rests upon errors, or, if you prefer, upon half-truths. The mistrust of free trade is quite sincere. Otherwise there would not be so many people who express fear of it.
I am, perhaps, aiming too high, but—I confess—I should like this brief work to become, as it were, the handbook of those who are called upon to judge between the two principles. Unless one has a long-standing familiarity with the doctrines of free trade, his ideas are continually being colored by the sophisms of protectionism in one form or another. To clear his mind of them, he must each time go through a lengthy process of analysis; and not everyone has the time to undertake this task, legislators least of all. That is why I have tried to furnish such an analysis ready-made.
But, it may be asked, are the benefits of freedom so well hidden that they are evident only to professional economists?
Yes, we must admit that our opponents in this argument have a marked advantage over us. They need only a few words to set forth a half-truth; whereas, in order to show that it is a half-truth, we have to resort to long and arid dissertations.
This situation is due to the nature of things. Protection concentrates at a single point the good that it does, while the harm that it inflicts is diffused over a wide area. The good is apparent to the outer eye; the harm reveals itself only to the inner eye of the mind.3 In the case of free trade, it is just the reverse.
The same is true of almost all economic questions.
You may say, "Here is a machine that has put thirty workmen out on the street."
Or, "Here is a spendthrift whose behavior encourages every branch of industry."
Or, again, "The conquest of Algiers has doubled the trade of Marseilles."
Or, finally, "Government expenditures provide a living for a hundred thousand families."
Everyone will understand you, for your propositions are lucid, simple, and self-evident. You may go further, and deduce the following principles from them:
Machinery is an evil.
Extravagance, conquests, and heavy taxes are all good.
And your theory will be all the more widely accepted because you will be able to support it with undeniable facts.
But, for our part, we cannot limit ourselves to the consideration of a single cause and its immediate effect. We know that this effect itself becomes in its turn a cause. In order to pass judgment on a measure, we must, then, trace it through the whole chain of its effects to its final result. In other words, we are reduced, quite frankly, to an appeal to reason.
But at once we find ourselves assailed by the familiar clamor: You are theorists, metaphysicians, ideologists,4 utopians, and doctrinaires; and all the prejudices of the public are roused against us.
What, then, are we to do? We must invoke the patience and good will of the reader, and, if we can, present our conclusions in so clear a light that truth and error show themselves plainly; so that once and for all the victory will go to either protectionism or free trade.
In this connection I have an important observation to make.
Some excerpts from this brief volume have appeared in the Journal des économistes.
In an otherwise favorable criticism that the Vicomte de Romanet5 published (cf. the Moniteur industriel,6 May 15 and 18, 1845), he alleges that I am asking for the abolition of tariffs. M. de Romanet is mistaken. What I am asking for is the abolition of the protectionist system. We do not refuse to pay taxes to the government; but, if it were possible, we should like to dissuade the governed from taxing one another. Napoleon once said: "The tariff should be, not an instrument of taxation, but a means of protecting industry." We maintain the contrary, and say: "The tariff should not be an instrument of reciprocal robbery in the hands of the workers, but it can be a mechanism for taxation as good as any other." We are so far—or, to involve only myself in this struggle, I am so far—from asking for the abolition of tariffs, that I view them as a key element of our future financial stability. I believe them capable of producing immense revenues for the treasury; and, to speak plainly, in view of the slowness with which sound economic doctrines are spreading as compared to the rapidity with which government expenditures are increasing, I rely more upon the needs of the treasury than upon the power of an enlightened public opinion for achieving commercial reform.
"But, after all," I may be asked, "what are your conclusions?"
I have no need to reach conclusions. I am only combatting sophisms; that is all.
"But," people may insist, "it is not enough to tear down; you must offer something constructive." I, for my part, think that to tear down an error is to build up the truth that stands opposed to it.
Beyond that, I have no reluctance to state what my wishes are. I should like to have public opinion persuaded to approve a tariff law framed in something like these terms:
No doubt these distinctions belong to a domain of ideas entirely foreign to political economy properly so called, and I am far from thinking them to be as useful and as just as people commonly suppose them to be. However, that is not my subject here.
[1.][Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), influential English philosopher and jurist. His Book of Fallacies probably suggested to Bastiat the title of the present work.—TRANSLATOR.]
[2.][The brief volume containing the first series of the Economic Sophisms appeared at the end of 1845. Several chapters in it had been published in the Journal des économistes, in the April, July, and October, 1845, issues.—EDITOR.]
[3.][This concept was afterward the basis for the pamphlet, "What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen" (Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 1).—EDITOR.]
[4.][The ideologists referred to here and at this time were the followers of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-1780), who was concerned mainly with psychology but also wrote about politics and economics. Napoleon used the word "ideologist" as a derisory denotation for visionary and impractical thinkers, and Bastiat is using it in the same sense.—TRANSLATOR.]
[5.][Auguste, Vicomte de Romanet, author of Rapport fait au Comité central pour la défense du travail national (1843), publicist, and protectionist.—TRANSLATOR.]
[6.][Newspaper of the Committee for the Defense of Domestic Industry, a protectionist organization founded by P. A. H. Mimerel de Roubaix. See infra, p. 12.—TRANSLATOR.]