Front Page Titles (by Subject) 6. Middlemen - Selected Essays on Political Economy
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
6. Middlemen - Frédéric Bastiat, Selected Essays on Political Economy 
Selected Essays on Political Economy, trans. Seymour Cain, ed. George B. de Huszar, introduction by F.A. Hayek (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1995).
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.
Society is the aggregate of all the services that men perform for one another by compulsion or voluntarily, that is to say, public services and private services.
The first, imposed and regulated by the law, which is not always easy to change when necessary, can long outlive their usefulness and still retain the name of public services, even when they are no longer anything but public nuisances. The second are in the domain of the voluntary, i.e., of individual responsibility. Each gives and receives what he wishes, or what he can, after bargaining. These services are always presumed to have a real utility, exactly measured by their comparative value.
That is why the former are so often static, while the latter obey the law of progress.
While the exaggerated development of public services, with the waste of energies that it entails, tends to create a disastrous parasitism in society, it is rather strange that many modern schools of economic thought, attributing this characteristic to voluntary, private services, seek to transform the functions performed by the various occupations.
These schools of thought are vehement in their attack on those they call middlemen. They would willingly eliminate the capitalist, the banker, the speculator, the entrepreneur, the businessman, and the merchant, accusing them of interposing themselves between producer and consumer in order to fleece them both, without giving them anything of value. Or rather, the reformers would like to transfer to the state the work of the middlemen, for this work cannot be eliminated.
The sophism of the socialists on this point consists in showing the public what it pays to the middlemen for their services and in concealing what would have to be paid to the state. Once again we have the conflict between what strikes the eye and what is evidenced only to the mind, between what is seen and what is not seen.
It was especially in 1847 and on the occasion of the famine* that the socialist schools succeeded in popularizing their disastrous theory. They knew well that the most absurd propaganda always has some chance with men who are suffering; malesuada fames.†
Then, with the aid of those high-sounding words: Exploitation of man by man, speculation in hunger, monopoly, they set themselves to blackening the name of business and throwing a veil over its benefits.
“Why,” they said, “leave to merchants the task of getting foodstuffs from the United States and the Crimea? Why cannot the state, the departments, and the municipalities organize a provisioning service and set up warehouses for stockpiling? They would sell at net cost, and the people, the poor people, would be relieved of the tribute that they pay to free, i.e., selfish, individualistic, anarchical trade.”
The tribute that the people pay to business, is what is seen. The tribute that the people would have to pay to the state or to its agents in the socialist system, is what is not seen.
What is this so-called tribute that people pay to business? It is this: that two men render each other a service in full freedom under the pressure of competition and at a price agreed on after bargaining.
When the stomach that is hungry is in Paris and the wheat that can satisfy it is in Odessa, the suffering will not cease until the wheat reaches the stomach. There are three ways to accomplish this: the hungry men can go themselves to find the wheat; they can put their trust in those who engage in this kind of business; or they can levy an assessment on themselves and charge public officials with the task.
Of these three methods, which is the most advantageous?
In all times, in all countries, the freer, the more enlightened, the more experienced men have been, the oftener have they voluntarily chosen the second. I confess that this is enough in my eyes to give the advantage to it. My mind refuses to admit that mankind at large deceives itself on a point that touches it so closely.4
However, let us examine the question.
For thirty-six million citizens to depart for Odessa to get the wheat that they need is obviously impracticable. The first means is of no avail. The consumers cannot act by themselves; they are compelled to turn to middlemen, whether public officials or merchants.
However, let us observe that the first means would be the most natural. Fundamentally, it is the responsibility of whoever is hungry to get his own wheat. It is a task that concerns him; it is a service that he owes to himself. If someone else, whoever he may be, performs this service for him and takes the task on himself, this other person has a right to compensation. What I am saying here is that the services of middlemen involve a right to remuneration.
However that may be, since we must turn to what the socialists call a parasite, which of the two—the merchant or the public official—is the less demanding parasite?
Business (I assume it to be free, or else what point would there be in my argument?) is forced, by its own self-interest, to study the seasons, to ascertain day by day the condition of the crops, to receive reports from all parts of the world, to foresee needs, to take precautions. It has ships all ready, associates everywhere, and its immediate self-interest is to buy at the lowest possible price, to economize on all details of operation, and to attain the greatest results with the least effort. Not only French merchants, but merchants the whole world over are busy with provisioning France for the day of need; and if self-interest compels them to fulfill their task at the least expense, competition among them no less compels them to let the consumers profit from all the economies realized. Once the wheat has arrived, the businessman has an interest in selling it as soon as possible to cover his risks, realize his profits, and begin all over again, if there is an opportunity. Guided by the comparison of prices, private enterprise distributes food all over the world, always beginning at the point of greatest scarcity, that is, where the need is felt the most. It is thus impossible to imagine an organization better calculated to serve the interests of the hungry, and the beauty of this organization, not perceived by the socialists, comes precisely from the fact that it is free, i.e., voluntary. True, the consumer must pay the businessman for his expenses of cartage, of trans-shipment, of storage, of commissions, etc.; but under what system does the one who consumes the wheat avoid paying the expenses of shipping it to him? There is, besides, the necessity of paying also for service rendered; but, so far as the share of the middleman is concerned, it is reduced to a minimum by competition; and as to its justice, it would be strange for the artisans of Paris not to work for the merchants of Marseilles, when the merchants of Marseilles work for the artisans of Paris.
If, according to the socialist plan, the state takes the place of private businessmen in these transactions, what will happen? Pray, show me where there will be any economy for the public. Will it be in the retail price? But imagine the representatives of forty thousand municipalities arriving at Odessa on a given day, the day when the wheat is needed; imagine the effect on the price. Will the economy be effected in the shipping expenses? But will fewer ships, fewer sailors, fewer trans-shipments, fewer warehouses be needed, or are we to be relieved of the necessity for paying for all these things? Will the saving be effected in the profits of the businessmen? But did your representatives and public officials go to Odessa for nothing? Are they going to make the journey out of brotherly love? Will they not have to live? Will not their time have to be paid for? And do you think that this will not exceed a thousand times the two or three per cent that the merchant earns, a rate that he is prepared to guarantee?
And then, think of the difficulty of levying so many taxes to distribute so much food. Think of the injustices and abuses inseparable from such an enterprise. Think of the burden of responsibility that the government would have to bear.
The socialists who have invented these follies, and who in days of distress plant them in the minds of the masses, generously confer on themselves the title of “forward-looking" men, and there is a real danger that usage, that tyrant of language, will ratify both the word and the judgment it implies. “Forward-looking" assumes that these gentlemen can see ahead much further than ordinary people; that their only fault is to be too much in advance of their century; and that, if the time has not yet arrived when certain private services, allegedly parasitical, can be eliminated, the fault is with the public, which is far behind socialism. To my mind and knowledge, it is the contrary that is true, and I do not know to what barbaric century we should have to return to find on this point a level of understanding comparable to that of the socialists.
The modern socialist factions ceaselessly oppose free association in present-day society. They do not realize that a free society is a true association much superior to any of those that they concoct out of their fertile imaginations.
Let us elucidate this point with an example:
For a man, when he gets up in the morning, to be able to put on a suit of clothes, a piece of land has had to be enclosed, fertilized, drained, cultivated, planted with a certain kind of vegetation; flocks of sheep have had to feed on it; they have had to give their wool; this wool has had to be spun, woven, dyed, and converted into cloth; this cloth has had to be cut, sewn, and fashioned into a garment. And this series of operations implies a host of others; for it presupposes the use of farming implements, of sheepfolds, of factories, of coal, of machines, of carriages, etc.
If society were not a very real association, anyone who wanted a suit of clothes would be reduced to working in isolation, that is, to performing himself the innumerable operations in this series, from the first blow of the pickaxe that initiates it right down to the last thrust of the needle that terminates it.
But thanks to that readiness to associate which is the distinctive characteristic of our species, these operations have been distributed among a multitude of workers, and they keep subdividing themselves more and more for the common good to the point where, as consumption increases, a single specialized operation can support a new industry. Then comes the distribution of the proceeds, according to the portion of value each one has contributed to the total work. If this is not association, I should like to know what is.
Note that, since not one of the workers has produced the smallest particle of raw material from nothing, they are confined to rendering each other mutual services, to aiding each other for a common end; and that all can be considered, each group in relation to the others, as middlemen. If, for example, in the course of the operation, transportation becomes important enough to employ one person; spinning, a second; weaving, a third; why should the first one be considered more of a parasite than the others? Is there no need for transportation? Does not someone devote time and trouble to the task? Does he not spare his associates this time and trouble? Are they doing more than he, or just something different? Are they not all equally subject, in regard to their pay, that is, their share of the proceeds, to the law that restricts it to the price agreed upon after bargaining? Do not this division of labor and these arrangements, decided upon in full liberty, serve the common good? Do we, then, need a socialist, under the pretext of planning, to come and despotically destroy our voluntary arrangements, put an end to the division of labor, substitute isolated efforts for co-operative efforts, and reverse the progress of civilization?
Is association as I describe it here any the less association because everyone enters and leaves it voluntarily, chooses his place in it, judges and bargains for himself, under his own responsibility, and brings to it the force and the assurance of his own self-interest? For association to deserve the name, does a so-called reformer have to come and impose his formula and his will on us and concentrate within himself, so to speak, all of mankind?
The more one examines these “forward-looking" schools of thought, the more one is convinced that at bottom they rest on nothing but ignorance proclaiming itself infallible and demanding despotic power in the name of this infallibility.
I hope that the reader will excuse this digression. It is perhaps not entirely useless at the moment when, coming straight from the books of the Saint-Simonians, of the advocates of phalansteries, and of the admirers of Icaria,* tirades against the middlemen fill the press and the Assembly and seriously menace the freedom of labor and exchange.
[*][Failures in the grain and potato crops in northern and western Europe in 1846 resulted in a rise of food prices in 1847, the year of “dear bread” and of agricultural, industrial, and financial depressions.—Translator.]
[†][“Hunger is an evil counsellor.” Virgil's Aeneid VI, 276.—Translator.]
[*][References to Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), historic founder of French socialism; to the phalanstères, or common buildings, proposed by Francois Marie Charles Fourier in 1832 in his newspaper Le Phalanstère to house “phalanges" of sixteen hundred persons each as part of a socialistic scheme; and to Voyage to Icaria, a utopian book by Étienne Cabet (1788–1856).—Translator.]
[4.][The author has often invoked the presumption of truth which is connected with the universal assent manifested by the practice of all men. See especially chap. 13 of Economic Sophisms, the end of chap. 6 of the Essays (in the French edition), and in Economic Harmonies the appendix to chap. 6 entitled “Morality of Wealth.”—Editor.]