Front Page Titles (by Subject) First Series, Chapter 14: Conflict of Principles - Economic Sophisms
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
First Series, Chapter 14: Conflict of Principles - Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Sophisms 
Economic Sophisms, trans. Arthur Goddard, introduction by Henry Hazlitt (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
Published online with the kind permission of the copyright holders, the Foundation for Economic Education.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
First Series, Chapter 14
Conflict of Principles
One thing that confuses me is this:
Sincere political theorists, after studying economic problems solely from the producers' point of view, arrive at the following two conclusions:
"Governments should compel the consumers who are subject to their laws to do what is beneficial for domestic industry.
"Governments should make foreign consumers subject to their laws in order to compel them to do what is beneficial for domestic industry."
The first of these policies is called protectionism; the second, opening up markets for our products.
The premise on which both are based is what is called the balance of trade:
"A nation impoverishes itself when it imports, and enriches itself when it exports."
For, if every purchase from abroad is a tribute paid and a national loss, it is quite natural to restrict, and even to prohibit, imports.
And if every sale to a foreign country is a tribute received and a national profit, it is quite natural to open up markets for our products, even by force.
The protectionist system and the colonial system are, then, simply two aspects of one and the same theory. Preventing our fellow citizens from buying from foreigners and forcing foreigners to buy from our fellow citizens are simply two consequences of one and the same principle.
Now, it is impossible not to recognize that, according to this doctrine—if it is true—the general welfare depends upon monopoly, or domestic plunder, and conquest, or foreign plunder.
I enter one of the cottages that cling to the French side of the Pyrenees.
The head of the family receives only a slender wage for his work. His half-naked children shiver in the icy north wind; the fire is out, and there is nothing on the table. On the other side of the mountain there are wool, firewood, and corn; but these goods are forbidden to the family of the poor day-laborer, for the other side of the mountain is not in France. Foreign spruce will not gladden the cottage hearth; the shepherd's children will not know the taste of Biscayan maslin;67* and wool from Navarre will never warm their numbed limbs. All this is, we are told, in the interest of the general welfare. Very well. But then it must be admitted that in this instance the general welfare is in conflict with justice.
To regulate consumers by law and limit them to the products of domestic industry is to encroach upon their freedom by forbidding them an action—exchange—that in itself is in no way contrary to morality; in short, it is to do them an injustice.
And yet, we are told, this is necessary if production is to be maintained and the prosperity of the country is not to receive a fatal blow.
The writers of the protectionist school thus reach the melancholy conclusion that there is a radical incompatibility between justice and the general welfare.
On the other hand, if it is in the interest of all nations to sell and not to buy, a succession of violent actions and reactions must be the natural state of their relations; for each will strive to impose its products on all, and all will attempt to reject the products of each.
In reality, a sale implies a purchase; and since, according to this doctrine, to sell is to profit, and to buy is to lose, every international transaction is to the advantage of one country and to the detriment of another.
But, on the one hand, men are irresistibly impelled toward what benefits them; on the other hand, they instinctively resist what harms them. Hence, the conclusion is inescapable that each nation contains within itself a natural tendency toward expansion and a no less natural tendency to resist encroachment on its own domain, and that both these tendencies are equally harmful to all other nations; or, in other words, that antagonism and war are the natural state of human society.
Thus, the theory that I am discussing may be summed up in these two axioms:
The general welfare is incompatible with justice at home.
The general welfare is incompatible with peace abroad.
Now, what astonishes me, what amazes me, is that a political theorist or a statesman who sincerely professes an economic doctrine whose basic principle runs so violently counter to other principles that are indisputable, can enjoy a moment's calm or peace of mind.
For my own part, I think that if my study of the science of economics had led me to such conclusions, if I did not clearly perceive that freedom, the general welfare, justice, and peace are not only compatible but also closely connected and, so to speak, identical, I should endeavor to forget all I had learned; and I should ask myself:
"How could God have willed that men should attain prosperity only through injustice and war? How could He have willed that they should renounce war and injustice only at the price of their well-being?
"Is this science not misleading me when it requires me to accept the frightful blasphemy that this dilemma implies? How can I dare take it upon myself to make such a doctrine the basis of the laws of a great nation? And when a long succession of illustrious scholars has drawn more reassuring conclusions from the same science after devoting their entire lives to its study; when they assert that freedom and the general welfare are perfectly compatible with justice and peace, and that all these great principles run parallel to one another and will do so through all eternity without ever coming into conflict, do they not have on their side the presumption that stems from all that we know of the goodness and wisdom of God, as manifested in the sublime harmony of the physical universe? In the face of such a presumption and so many impressive authorities, am I, after a merely cursory investigation, to believe that this same God saw fit to introduce antagonism and discord into the laws of the moral universe? No; before concluding that all the principles of social order run counter to and neutralize one another and are in anarchic, eternal, and irreconcilable conflict; before imposing on my fellow citizens the impious system to which my reasoning has led me; I intend to review every step in the argument and make sure that there is not some point along the route where I have gone astray."
If, after an unprejudiced investigation, repeated twenty times over, I always arrived at the appalling conclusion that one must choose between material goods and the moral good, I should be so disheartened that I should reject this science, I should bury myself in voluntary ignorance, and, above all, I should decline to participate in any way in public affairs, leaving to men of another character the burden of, and the responsibility for, so painful a choice.68*
[67.][In French, la méture, a rather rare dialect word. Maslin is a mixture of different kinds of grain, usually wheat and rye, or a bread baked from such a mixture. Biscay and Navarre are provinces of Spain just across the Pyrenees from France.—TRANSLATOR.]
[68.][Cf., infra, chaps. 18 and 20, and the letter to M. Thiers entitled "Protectionism and Communism," Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 7.—EDITOR.]