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Guyot on the protectionist tyranny (1906)

The French politician and political economist Yves Guyot (1843-1928) denounces protectionists for cloaking their personal interests behind very dubious claims of advancing the “public interest”:

I could have given this book a grandiose title—“The Protectionist Tyranny,” or “The Protectionist Oligarchy”; or a tragic one in the vein of Book V., which describes the “Work of Death” on which most Protectionists embark. But I preferred a light and humorous title, “The Protectionist Comedy,” because there is much more food for laughter than anger in the behaviour of the Protectionists. Call them Méline or Chamberlain, their behaviour is always the same. They are men with a purpose disguised as something else: in their search for plausible pretexts they shrink from no absurdities, importing the miraculous into the hard facts of science. A long familiarity with deceit prevents their distinguishing truth from error, and though facts persistently give them the lie, they still call them to their aid: like the fairy godmother, they promise the riches of Golconda, and explain their failure to produce them as the influence of the evil genius of Free Trade. While they promote private interests inconsistent with the general good, they dub themselves patriots and benefactors, and declare that their opponents are traitorous robbers who have sold themselves to the foreigner; they devote all their energies to such fatuous tasks as the weighting of the balance of trade and the defence of a depreciated currency. In this they are all alike.

I could have given this book a grandiose title—“The Protectionist Tyranny,” or “The Protectionist Oligarchy”; or a tragic one in the vein of Book V., which describes the “Work of Death” on which most Protectionists embark. But I preferred a light and humorous title, “The Protectionist Comedy,” because there is much more food for laughter than anger in the behaviour of the Protectionists. Call them Méline or Chamberlain, their behaviour is always the same. They are men with a purpose disguised as something else: in their search for plausible pretexts they shrink from no absurdities, importing the miraculous into the hard facts of science. A long familiarity with deceit prevents their distinguishing truth from error, and though facts persistently give them the lie, they still call them to their aid: like the fairy godmother, they promise the riches of Golconda, and explain their failure to produce them as the influence of the evil genius of Free Trade. While they promote private interests inconsistent with the general good, they dub themselves patriots and benefactors, and declare that their opponents are traitorous robbers who have sold themselves to the foreigner; they devote all their energies to such fatuous tasks as the weighting of the balance of trade and the defence of a depreciated currency. In this they are all alike. One sees at a circus clowns giving themselves endless trouble to build up a mass of obstacles for themselves and others to overcome: when Protectionists jeer at such ridiculous labour they only prove their own ignorance, for this is exactly what they do themselves when they regard labour-saving processes carried on abroad as a grievance by which they try to prevent their countrymen from profiting. No doubt each of them has a sound reason for pursuing his end, but he hides it. While they talk about the defence of national labour, they keep their esoteric reasons for the initiate and put off the profane with public pleas. But whatever be the end he has in view, Tartuffe conceives that end by the same intellectual processes and employs the same means to realise it. When he is a Protectionist he says to the electorate, “I will make you rich by imposing a tax on you which brings in a profit to me.” Then the majority applauds lustily and hands over part of what it has to him—and he is almost always much richer than they are. And Tartuffe is so clever in exciting Orgon’s prejudices and using them for his own ends that Orgon actually imagines himself to be gaining.

About this Quotation:

Yves Guyot was one of the few hard core free trade laissez-faire advocates who was also an elected politician (another was Richard Cobden). Guyot was not only the editor of the the Journal des Économistes (1910-1913?) but also the French Minister for Public Works (1889-1892). He wrote devastating critiques of public ownership, protectionism, and socialism. In this quote he returns to an argument used very effectively by Frédéric Bastiat during the 1840s in his campaign against protectionism, namely that the protectionists disguised their arguments for personal benefit behind a series of economic “fallacies” (or sophisms). Bastiat believed that it was the task of economic theorists and journalists to exposed these fallacies in order to help the general public escape from being the “dupes” of the protectionists.

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