Front Page Titles (by Subject) 12: The Two Mottoes - Economic Harmonies (Boyers trans.)
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12: The Two Mottoes - Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Harmonies (Boyers trans.) 
Economic Harmonies, trans by W. Hayden Boyers, ed. George B. de Huszar, introduction by Dean Russell (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996).
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The Two Mottoes
Modern moralists who hold up the axiom: One for all, all for one, against the ancient proverb: Every man for himself, every man by himself, have a very incomplete notion of society, and, for that reason, a quite false one. I shall even add, to their surprise, a very gloomy one.
Let us first eliminate the superfluous elements from these two famous mottoes. All for one is a redundancy, added for the sake of antithesis, since its meaning is necessarily included in one for all. Every man by himself is an idea that has no direct bearing on the other three, but as it is very important for political economy, we shall examine its implications later.
There remains, then, the conflicting sense of these two fragments of proverbs: One for all—every man for himself. The first one, it is said, expresses the principle of altruism; the second, the principle of individualism. The one unites; the other divides.
If we refer solely to the motive that prompts any effort, the conflict is undeniable. But I maintain that this is not the case if we consider the final outcome achieved by all human efforts taken collectively. Examine society as it actually is, obeying the individualistic impulse where remunerable services are concerned, and you will be convinced that every man, while working for himself, is in fact working for all. This cannot, indeed, be contested. If the reader of these lines follows a profession or a trade, I have only to ask him to consider his own case. I ask him whether all his labors do not have satisfactions for other persons as their object, and whether, on the other hand, he does not owe all his own satisfactions to the labor of others.
Obviously those who say that every man for himself and one for all are mutually exclusive believe that individualism and association are incompatible. They think that every man for himself implies isolation or a tendency in that direction; that personal interest divides men instead of uniting them, and results in a situation in which every man is by himself, that is, the absence of all social relations.
In this respect, I repeat, they have a quite false notion of society, because it is an incomplete one. Men, even when moved only by their own self-interest, seek to unite with others, to combine their efforts, to join forces, to work and to perform for one another, to be sociable, or to associate. It would not be correct to say that they act in this way in spite of self-interest; on the contrary, they act in this way because of self-interest. They are sociable because they benefit from association. If they were to lose by it, they would not associate. Individualism, then, accomplishes the task that the sentimentalists of our day would entrust to brotherhood, to self-sacrifice, or to some other motive opposed to self-love. And this fact proves (this is the conclusion we are always reaching) that Providence has known much better how to take care of the organization of society than do its self-styled prophets. For either society is harmful to individuality, or else it is advantageous. If harmful, how and why in all good reason are our socialist friends to introduce something that hurts everyone? If, on the contrary, association is an advantage, it will be achieved by virtue of self-interest, the strongest, the most lasting, the most uniform, the most universal of all motives, whatever may be said.
Let us take a concrete example. A squatter goes and clears some land in the Far West. Not a day goes by that he does not realize how many inconveniences isolation causes him. Soon a second squatter also moves out to the wilderness. Where will he pitch his tent? Does he spontaneously move away from the first squatter? No. He spontaneously moves near him. Why? Because he is aware of the advantages men enjoy, for equal efforts, from the mere fact of being near each other. He knows that in countless instances they can lend and borrow tools, unite their action, overcome obstacles that would be too much for them individually, make exchanges, communicate their ideas and opinions, provide for their common defense. A third, a fourth, a fifth squatter come into the wilderness, and invariably they are attracted by the presence of the firstcomers. Then others with more capital may arrive on the scene, certain that they will find hands waiting to be put to work. A colony is formed. They may vary the crops somewhat; cut a road through to the main highway where the stagecoach passes; begin to trade with the outside world; plan construction of a church, a schoolhouse, etc. In a word, the settlers become stronger, by the very fact of being together, infinitely stronger than would be their total strength if each were living alone. This is the reason that they were drawn together.
But, it will be said, every man for himself is a very gloomy and cold-blooded maxim. All the arguments, all the paradoxes in the world will not keep it from arousing our resentment, from reeking with selfishness; and is not selfishness worse than an evil, is it not the source of all the ills of society?
Let us understand one another, please.
If the motto every man for himself is understood in the sense that it must direct all our thoughts, all our actions, all our relations, that it must underlie all our affections, as fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, wives, friends, and citizens, or rather, that it must stifle these affections, it is frightful, horrible, and I do not believe that there is a single man on earth who, even if he did make it the guiding rule of his life, would dare to proclaim it as such.
But will the socialists always refuse to admit, despite the evidence of the facts everywhere, that there are two kinds of human relations: those springing from altruism, which we leave to the realm of morality; and those that are actuated by self-interest, which exist among people who do not know one another, who owe one another nothing but justice, and which are regulated by agreements voluntarily arrived at after free debate? This is precisely the type of agreements that constitute the domain of political economy. Now, it is no more possible to found transactions of this nature on the principle of altruism than it would be reasonable to base the ties of family and friendship upon self-interest. I shall never cease telling the socialists: You wish to combine two things that cannot be combined. If you are mad enough to try, you will never be strong enough to succeed. The blacksmith, the carpenter, the farmer, who exhaust their strength in rough toil, may be excellent fathers, admirable sons; they may have a high moral sense and affectionate hearts. Nevertheless, you will never persuade them to labor from dawn to dusk, to strain and sweat, to impose upon themselves hard privations, in the name of disinterested devotion to their fellow men. Your sentimental sermonizing is and always will be unavailing. If, unfortunately, a small number of workers should be led astray by your words, they would be just so many dupes. Let a merchant begin to sell his goods on the principle of brotherly love, and I do not give him even a month before his children will be reduced to beggary.
Providence has therefore wisely given our predilection for social relations quite other guarantees than these. Granted man's nature as a being whose feelings are inseparable from his personality, it is impossible to hope, to desire, to imagine that self-interest could be universally eradicated. And yet nothing less than this would be necessary to establish a just balance in human relations; for if you eliminate this motive force only in the case of some superior individuals, you will be creating two classes: the evil ones on the alert for victims, and the virtuous, for whom the role of victim is ready-made.
Since, in matters of labor and exchange, the principle of every man for himself was the motive bound to prevail, what is admirable, what is marvelous is that the Author of all things has made it work within the social order to achieve the ideal of brotherhood expressed in the motto, one for all; that His deft hand has made the obstacle the instrument of His will; that the general interest has been entrusted to self-interest and is eternally safeguarded by the very fact that self-interest is indestructible. It seems to me that, confronted with these facts, the communists and other inventors of artificial social orders might well admit—and without too much sense of humiliation, after all—that when it comes to organization, their divine rival is definitely their superior.
And note well that in the natural order of society, the principle of one for all, which developed from that of every man for himself, is much more complete, much more absolute, much more personal, than would be the case under communism or socialism. Not only do we work for all, but we cannot make any kind of progress whatsoever without sharing its benefits with the entire human community.1 Things are arranged in such a marvelous way that when we have developed a technique or discovered a gift of Nature, some new fertility in the soil, or some new application of the laws of the physical universe, the profit goes to us momentarily, fleetingly, as is our just recompense, useful to spur us on to further efforts. Then our advantage slips through our hands, despite our attempts to retain it; it ceases to be personal, becomes social, and eventually comes to rest for all time within the realm of what is free of charge and common to all. And, even while we contribute to the enjoyment of mankind the progress we have made, we ourselves enjoy the progress that other men have made.
In the last analysis, by the application of the principle of every man for himself, all the efforts of the most intense individualism act in the direction of a situation that could be characterized by the expression, one for all, and everything that represents a step on the road to progress is worth to society in gratuitous utility millions of times more than the profits it brings its inventor.
On the principle of one for all, no one would act even for himself. What producer would consider doubling his labor in order to receive one thirty-millionth more in wages?
Someone may, perhaps, ask me why I go to the trouble to refute this socialist axiom. What harm can it do? Undoubtedly, it will not penetrate into the workshops, the countinghouses, the stores; it will not establish the principle of self-sacrifice in the fairs and the markets. Either it will come to nothing, and you can let it rest in peace; or else it will soften somewhat the unyielding principle of self-interest, which, since it brooks no feeling of sympathy for others, has no claim on ours.
What is false is always dangerous. It is always dangerous to represent as reprehensible and damnable a universal, eternal principle that God has clearly ordained for the preservation and improvement of mankind, a principle, I admit, that as a motive does not appeal to our hearts, but does, by its results, astonish and satisfy our minds. It is a principle, furthermore, that leaves the way completely open for the action of motives of a higher order that God has also implanted in men's hearts.
But what happens is that the socialist public accepts only half of their motto, the second half: All for one. People continue to work, as before, every man for himself, but to demand in addition that all also work for every man.
And this was inevitable. When the dreamers decided to change the great mainspring of human activity in order to replace individualism with brotherhood, what did they think up? A contradiction that is at the same time also pure hypocrisy. They began to cry out to the masses: “Stifle self-interest in your hearts, and follow us; and your reward shall be all the good things and all the pleasures of this world.” When people try thus to parody the tone of the Gospel, they must conclude as the Gospel does. The self-denial of brotherhood implies sacrifice and suffering. “Dedicate yourselves,” means: “Take the humblest place; be ye poor, and gladly endure hardship.” But, under the pretext of self-sacrifice, to promise enjoyment; to exhibit, behind the so-called renunciation, material comforts and wealth; to combat the passion that is scathingly called selfishness by appealing to the crassest materialism—all this was not merely to testify to the indestructible vitality of the very principle that they proposed to overthrow; it meant exalting it to the highest possible point, even while declaiming against it; reinforcing the enemy, instead of vanquishing him; substituting unjust covetousness for legitimate individualism; and, despite the sham of a vague mystic jargon, actually stirring up the grossest kind of sensuality. Greed was bound to respond to this appeal.2
And is not this the point that we have now reached? What is the cry going up everywhere, from all ranks and classes? All for one! When we say the word one, we think of ourselves, and what we demand is to receive an unearned share in the fruits of the labor of all. In other words, we are creating an organized system of plunder. Unquestionably, simple out-and-out plunder is so clearly unjust as to be repugnant to us; but, thanks to the motto, all for one, we can allay our qualms of conscience. We impose on others the duty of working for us. Then, we arrogate to ourselves the right to enjoy the fruits of other men's labor. We call upon the state, the law, to enforce our so-called duty, to protect our so-called right, and we end in the fantastic situation of robbing one another in the name of brotherhood. We live at other men's expense, and then call ourselves heroically self-sacrificing for so doing. Oh, the unaccountable folly of the human mind! Oh, the deviousness of greed! It is not enough that each of us tries to increase our share at the expense of others; it is not enough that we want to profit from labor that we have not performed. We even convince ourselves that in the process we are sublime examples of self-sacrifice; we almost go so far as to call our unselfishness Christlike. We have become so blind that we do not see that the sacrifices that cause us to weep with admiration as we contemplate ourselves are not made by us at all, but are exacted by us of others.3
The manner in which this great hocus-pocus is carried out is worth observing.
“Stealing! For shame! How base! Besides, it can put you in prison; it's against the law.”
“But suppose the law prescribed it and sanctioned it; wouldn't that be nice?”
“What a brilliant idea!”
Forthwith they ask the law for some trifling privilege, just a small monopoly, and since, to give it proper authority will cost somebody a few francs, they ask the state to take over the responsibility. Then the state and the law connive to bring about the very thing that it was their mandate to prevent or to punish. Little by little the taste for monopoly spreads. There is no class that does not demand its own special privilege. All for one, they cry. We too want to show that we are philanthropic and understand what solidarity is.
The result is that the classes granted the privileges steal from one another and lose at least as much by the demands made on them as they gain by the demands they make on others. Furthermore, the great masses of workers, to whom it has been impossible to grant any privileges, suffer until they can endure it no longer. They revolt, they cover the streets with barricades and bloodshed, and now it is they who must be reckoned with.
What will they demand? An end to the abuses, privileges, monopolies, and restrictions by which they have been engulfed? Not at all. The masses, too, have been imbued with the spirit of philanthropy. They have been told that the famous principle of all for one was the solution to the social problem; they have been shown by countless examples that privilege (which is only theft) is nevertheless highly moral if it has the sanction of the law. Therefore, we see the people demand.... What? .... Privileges! They, too, call upon the state to provide them with education, employment, credit, assistance, at the people's expense. Oh, what a strange illusion! How long can it last? We can well understand how all the upper classes, beginning with the highest, can come, one after the other, to demand favors and privileges. Beneath them are the great masses of the people for the burden to fall upon. But how the people, once they have won their battle, can imagine that they too can enter as a body into the ranks of the privileged, create monopolies for themselves and over themselves, extend abuses widely enough to provide for their livelihood; how they can fail to see that there is nobody below them to support these injustices, is one of the most amazing phenomena of this or any age.
What has happened? Society had followed this course to general shipwreck and quite properly grew alarmed. The people soon lost their power, and now the old order of abuses has temporarily regained its footing.∗
Yet the lesson has not been entirely lost on the upper classes. They realize that the workers must be given justice. They are eager to do so, not only because their own security depends upon it, but also, it must be admitted, out of a sense of equity. Yes, I state with great conviction that the wealthy classes ask nothing better than to find the solution to this great problem. I am sure that if they were asked to give up a considerable portion of their wealth in order to assure the future happiness and contentment of the common people, they would gladly make the sacrifice. They therefore earnestly seek to come, to use the time-honored phrase, to the aid of the laboring classes. But to that end what do they propose? Still a communistic system, the communism of privilege, though mitigated and held, they trust, within the bounds of prudence. That is all; they go no further.....
[∗][In this way Bastiat, of course, briefly summarizes the events of the Revolution of 1848.—Translator.]
[1.]See chaps. 10 and 11.
[2.]When the vanguard of the Icarian expedition left Le Havre, I questioned a number of these foolish men in order to find out what was at the back of their minds. An easy life was their hope and their motive. One of them said to me, “I am leaving now, and my brother is to go on the next trip. He has eight children, and you can understand what a help it will be to him not to have to feed and care for them any more.”
[3.][See the pamphlet “Plunder and Law” (Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 8).—Editor.]