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Yves Guyot accuses all those who seek Protection from foreign competition of being “Socialists” (1893)

The French laissez-faire economist and politician Yves Guyot (1843-1928) accuses all political groups who call for state intervention in the economy, whether from the left with its demand for minimum wages, or from the right with the demand of large land owners for government protection from cheap foreign food stuffs, “Socialists”:

Yes, large and small proprietors alike, those of you are Socialists, who beg for customs duties. For what is it you ask, if not for the intervention of the State to guarantee the revenue of your property? What is it you ask for, tradesmen and manufacturers of every kind, who seek the imposition of import duties, if not for the intervention of the State to guarantee your profits? And what is it the Socialists ask, if not for the intervention of the State to guarantee to the workman a maximum of work, a minimum of wage? In a word, what is it you all ask, if not for the intervention of the State to protect you all against competition? The Protectionist asks for protection from the competition of progress from without—the Socialist asks for protection from the competition of activity within—and in aid of what? To throw political interference into the scale so as to violate the Law of Supply and Demand for the arbitrary benefit of such and such a class of producers or workmen, and to the detriment of all consumers and ratepayers, which means—everybody.

According to the verifications which we have made, the word Socialism may be defined as “the intervention of the State in the economic life of the country.

But, then, are these men who, in the interests of landed proprietors, ask for taxes on corn, on oats, on horses, cattle, wood, and wines, Socialists? those who, in the name of “national industries” and “national work,” ask for duties on cottons, silks, linens, and all kinds of textile fabrics, all kinds of steel, from rails down to pens, medicines, chemical products, and all objects whatsoever, due to human industry?

To this interrogation I answer by the clearest and most positive affirmation.

Yes, large and small proprietors alike, those of you are Socialists, who beg for customs duties. For what is it you ask, if not for the intervention of the State to guarantee the revenue of your property? What is it you ask for, tradesmen and manufacturers of every kind, who seek the imposition of import duties, if not for the intervention of the State to guarantee your profits? And what is it the Socialists ask, if not for the intervention of the State to guarantee to the workman a maximum of work, a minimum of wage? In a word, what is it you all ask, if not for the intervention of the State to protect you all against competition? The Protectionist asks for protection from the competition of progress from without—the Socialist asks for protection from the competition of activity within—and in aid of what? To throw political interference into the scale so as to violate the Law of Supply and Demand for the arbitrary benefit of such and such a class of producers or workmen, and to the detriment of all consumers and ratepayers, which means—everybody.

This conception of the economic duties of the State is the same for the large landowner who calls himself “conservative,” for the large manufacturer who scorns the Socialists, and for the miserable Socialist who flings his scornful invectives against property and manufactures. They all make the same mistake. They are all victims of the same illusion. Those who look upon one another as enemies are brothers in doctrine. Hence it is that every recrudescence of Protection engenders a revival of Socialism. The Socialists of 1848 were the true sons of the Protectionist copyholders of the Restoration and of Louis-Philippe’s Government. If Protectionists deny this intimate relationship, I will introduce them to a Socialist who will say to them:

“You ask for customs duties so that your revenues and profits may be guaranteed. You appeal to the superior interests of agriculture and national labour. So be it. You have even asked me to join you for this purpose.1 But what share will you give to me—to me, the working man? You demand the aid of “society.” I, too, claim a share in it, and with so much the more right that in society I hold, at least in point of numbers, a larger place than yours.”

Before such language as this the Protectionist is obliged to remain dumb, especially as the Socialist might add:

“You protect yourself; you strike at corn, meat, wines, at the things which are necessary for my food. In the custom house, textile fabrics, things of everyday use, and, therefore, the cheapest, those things intended for me, carry the heaviest weight. It is, therefore, upon my needs, and consequently upon my privations, that you ask the Government to guarantee your revenues and your profits. In my turn, I shall retort and tell you to return to me that which you take from me. I claim my share. Guarantee me my wages. Limit my hours of labour. Suppress my competitors, such as women. Suppress piece-work, which may prove an incentive to over-production at too cheap a rate. This for to-day; but to-morrow it will be necessary that property and manufactures shall rest in my hands alone. The State shall be the sole producer, the sole merchant, and all the profits shall be for me.”

About this Quotation:

Yves Guyot is remarkable for a couple of reasons, one for being a radical free trade political economist in the tradition of Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850), and two for holding a quite high office (he was elected in 1885 to the national Chamber of Deputies and in 1889 he was appointed Minister of Public Works). It is quite likely that he was writing this book while he held this government post so it must have made for some interesting and spirited cabinet meetings! One should note that Guyot also applies Herbert Spencer’s notion of the inherent antagonism between the “militant” and “industrial” types of society to his analysis of French society in the late 19th century. The editor of the English translation, J.H. Levy, was part of a group of radical English individualists and a member of the Personal Rights Association.

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