Bastiat, Plenty and Dearth

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Source: This article first appeared in the Dictionnaire d'Économie Politique, ed. Guillaumin and Charles Coquelin (Paris: Guillaumin, 1852) and was translated into English and included in Lalor's Cyclopedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and of the Political History of the United States by the best American and European Authors, ed. John J. Lalor (Chicago: M.B. Carey, 1899) in Vol 2 East India Co. - Nullification Chapter: PLENTY AND DEARTH.

Copyright: The text is in the public domain.

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Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) was one of the leading advocates of free markets and free trade in the mid-19 century. He was inspired by the activities of Richard Cobden and the organization of the Anti-Corn Law League in Britain in the 1840s and tried to mimic their success in France. Bastiat was an elected member of various French political bodies and opposed both protection and the rise of socialist ideas in these forums. His writings for a broader audience were very popular and were quickly translated and republished in the U.S. and throughout Europe. His incomplete magnum opus, Economic Harmonies, is full of insights into the operation of the market and is still of great interest to economists. He died at a young age from cancer of the throat. [The image comes from “The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.”]


PLENTY AND DEARTH. Political economy, in so far as it is an exposition of principles and facts, is a vast and noble science, searching into the affairs of the social mechanism and the functions of each of the parts composing those animate and marvelous organizations called human societies. It studies the general laws in accordance with which the human race increases in numbers, wealth, intelligence and morality; and yet, recognizing a social as well as a personal freedom of will, it shows how the laws of Providence may be misunderstood and set at naught, what a terrible responsibility there is on those who tamper with them, and how, as the result of so doing, civilization may be checked, impeded, driven back, and stifled for a long time.

—Incredible as it may seem, this science, so vast and lofty as an exposition of principles and facts, is, when controverted and compelled to become polemical, nearly reduced to the ungrateful task of demonstrating the proposition, almost childish in its simplicity, that "Plenty is better than dearth": because, looked at closely, it will be seen that the greater number of the objections to, and doubts concerning, political economy, involve the principle that dearth or scarcity is preferable to plenty, which is the real meaning to be deduced from the phrases, once and in part still so popular, such as "Production is excessive," "We are being destroyed by plethora," "All the markets are overstocked, and every business and profession is overcrowded." "The capacity to consume can no longer keep pace with the power to produce," etc.

—These ideas, too, are not confined to any class. One man opposes the use of machines on the ground that those triumphs of human ingenuity multiply indefinitely the power of production. What does he fear? Abundance. A second favors protection, lamenting the liberality of nature's gifts to other lands, dreading that through the influence of free trade his own should share it, and thinking that were it to do so it would be afflicted by the scourge of the invasion and inundation of foreign products. What does he fear? Abundance. Statesmen, even, are not free from the hallucination, though they fear abundance for a different reason. Their dread is, that the masses, as the result of being too well off, will become revolutionary and seditious, and as a means of repressing them, they look to heavy taxation, vast armies, a lavish expenditure, and a powerful aristocracy charged with the task of remedying by its pomp and profusion the intrusive abundance of human industry. What do such statesmen fear? Abundance. Finally, we have logicians who, disdaining all by-paths, go straight to the point, and advise periodical destruction of large cities by fire or otherwise, that labor may have the opportunity to rebuild them. What do they fear? Abundance.

—It seems impossible that such ideas should come into the minds of men, and sometimes even prevail, not in the personal practice of men, but in their theories and in their legislation. For, if there be anything evidently true, it is this, that, so far at least as useful articles are concerned, it is better to have than to be without them; and if it is incontestable that plenty is an evil when it exists in things that are mischievous, destructive and troublesome, such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, vermin, vices and malarial vapors, it must be equally true that it is a blessing as regards things which meet wants and satisfy desires; things which man seeks, strives for, with the sweat of his brow; things which he is willing to buy by work or exchange, and which possess a real value, such as food, clothing, shelter, works of art, means of locomotion, of communication, of instruction, and of amusement; in a word, all that political economy busies itself with.

—If it be desired to compare the civilization of two peoples, or of two ages, statistics are appealed to, to inform us which had, in proportion to its population, most means of subsistence, the greatest returns in agricultural products, in industries or art, most roads, most canals, most libraries and museums; and the question is settled in accordance with the comparative activity of consumption, that is to say, by plenty or abundance.

—It may, perhaps, be said that it is not sufficient for products to be abundant; that it is further necessary that they be equitably distributed. There is nothing truer than this, but questions must not be confounded. When we defend abundance, and our opponents decry it, we both take as understood the words cœteris paribus, all else being equal; that is, equity of distribution is presupposed.

—Further, it must be observed, that abundance is in itself the cause of proper distribution. The more abundant anything is, the less value it possesses; the less its value, the more it is within the reach of every one, the more men are on an equality with regard to it. We are all equal in respect to the air, because it exists relatively to our needs and wants in in-exhaustible abundance; we are a little less equal in regard to water, because being less plentiful, it possesses a certain value; still less so with regard to wheat, delicate fruits, early vegetables, rarities, their benefit becoming confined to fewer, in an inverse ratio to their abundance.

—It may be added, to satisfy the sentimental scruples of our times, that plenty is not a merely material good. Wants arise among men in regular order; they are not all equally pressing, and it may be said that their order of priority is not the order of dignity. The coarser wants must first be appeased, because their satisfaction involves our existence, and because, as rhetoricians say, "Before living worthily, we must live somehow." Primo vivere, deinde philosophari.

—Hence it follows, that it is the abundance of the things necessary for the supply of the commonest wants which permits man more and more to spiritualize his enjoyments, and to raise himself into the region of the true and the beautiful. He can only devote to the perfecting of form, to the cultivation of art, or to the investigations of thought, the time and the energies which, as a consequence of progress are no longer absorbed by the demands of his animal existence. Abundance, the result of long labor and patient economy, can not be universal at the first formation of society, nor can it, at the same time, exist as to all possible products, but it follows a regular order, commencing with the material wants, and ending with the spiritual. Unhappy the nations when external forces, such as governments, violently invert this natural sequence, substitute for desires—coarse, it is true, but imperious—others of a loftier nature, prematurely awakened, change the natural direction of labor, and disturb the equilibrium between wants and the means of satisfying them, an equilibrium which is the cause of all social stability.

—Moreover, were abundance a scourge, it would be as strange as unfortunate, for easy as the remedy is (what is easier than to abstain from producing, or to destroy?) no one is willing to adopt it. It is in vain that people inveigh against plenty, superabundance, plethora; it is in vain that they enunciate the theory of restricted supply, that they obtain for it the support of the law, that they proscribe machinery, that they disturb, interfere with and impede commerce; all this keeps no one from working to acquire abundance. On all the earth not a man is to be met with whose practice is not a perpetual protest against these vain theories; not one is to be found whose sole endeavor is not to make the most of his powers, to foster them, to husband them, and to increase their productive capability by the co-operation of natural forces; not one who decries freedom in trade, but who acts on this principle (however eager he may be to deny others the same privilege): to buy in cheapest market, and to sell in the dearest; so much so, that the theory of a restricted supply, which is so common in books, in the newspapers, in conversation, in parliament, and by the way in laws, is negatived and stultified by the actions of every individual without exception, composing the human race, which is the most incontrovertible refutation the mind can well imagine.

—But if abundance is better than scarcity, how does it happen that men, after having virtually decided in favor of abundance by their action, by their labor, and their commerce, constitute themselves theoretically the champions of restriction, to such an extent that they bring popular opinion to that view, and are the originators of all sorts of restrictive and illiberal laws? This it remains for us to explain. At bottom, what we are all aiming at is, that each of our efforts should realize for us the greatest possible amount of benefit. If we were not by nature sociable, if we lived in individual isolation, we could know one rule only for attaining this object, to work more and better, which implies progressive abundance. But, by means of exchange and its consequence, the division of labor, it is not directly to ourselves but to others that we consecrate our labor, our efforts, our productions and our services. Hence it follows, that without losing sight of the rule, produce more, we have another always present to our minds, produce more value; for on that depends the amount of remuneration which we shall receive for our services. Now, to produce more, and to produce more value, are by no means one and the same thing. It is manifest that if by force or stratagem we succeed in making greatly scarcer the special service or product which constitutes our occupation, we would grow richer without adding to our labor either in quantity or quality. Suppose, for example, a shoemaker could, by a mere effort of will, cause the sudden annihilation of all the shoes in the world, excepting only those in his own shop; or strike with paralysis every one who knew how to use the shoemaker's tools, he would become a Crœsus; his lot would be improved, not together with the general lot of mankind, but in an inverse ratio to the prosperity of all. This is the whole secret of the theory of a scarcity as it shows itself in restrictions, monopolies and privileges. It only veils, by the use of scientific language, that selfish sentiment which finds a place deep in the hearts of all: competitors annoy me.

—When any product is brought to market, there are two circumstances which tend equally to enhance its value: first, that there is in the market a great abundance of articles for which it may be exchanged, that is, a great abundance of everything; and second, a great scarcity of articles of the same product. Now, neither of ourselves nor through the intervention of laws and public power, are we able to influence in the least the first of these circumstances. Unfortunately universal plenty can not be produced by act of parliament; it must be obtained in some other way; legislators, customs officials and restriction can do nothing toward it. If, then, we wish artificially to raise the value of any article, we must bring our energies to bear on the other element in its value. Here individual effort is not quite so powerless. With laws ad hoc, an arbitrary use of power, bayonets, chains and fetters, punishment and persecution, it is not impossible to drive out competition, and to create that scarcity and artificial increase in value which is desired. This being the condition of things, it is easy to understand what not only can but must happen in an age of ignorance, of barbarism, and of unrestrained greed. Every one turns to the legislature and through its intervention to public force, demanding of it the artificial creation, by all the means at its disposal, of a scarcity in the article he produces. The farmer demands scarcity of corn, the cattle raiser of cattle, the iron master of iron, the colonist of sugar, the cloth manufacturer of cloth, etc., etc. Each one gives the same reasons for his demand, and the result is a body of doctrine which may be called, the theory of scarcity, and public force employs fire and sword to secure its triumph.

—But, leaving the masses thus forced to undergo the regimen of universal dearth, it is easy to comprehend what a labyrinth the inventors of this scheme get involved in, and what a terrible retribution awaits their unscrupulous rapacity. It has been shown that as regards each special production there are two elements of value: first, the scarcity of similar articles; and, second, the abundance of all which are not similar. Now, we call special attention to this: by the very fact that the government, the slave of individual selfishness, endeavors to realize the first of these elements of value, it destroys the second. It has satisfied in succession the wishes of the farmer, the cattle raiser, the iron master, the manufacturer, the colonist, by artificially producing a scarcity of corn, or meat, of iron, of cloth, or of sugar, but what is that but destroying that general abundance which is the second condition of value in each separate product. Thus, after having submitted the community to actual privation, which scarcity implies, it is discovered that it has not succeeded in catching this shadow, in laying this spectre, in raising this nominal value, because by just so much as the scarcity of the article in question operates in its favor, in the same way the scarcity of others neutralizes it. Is it, then, so hard to understand that the shoemaker, of whom we spoke above, should he succeed in destroying, by a simple wish, all the shoes in existence except those made by himself, would find himself no better off, even from the ridiculous point of view of nominal value, if at the same time, every other thing against which shoes can be exchanged became proportionately scarce? The only change would be, that every man, our shoemaker included, would be worse shod, worse clothed, worse fed, and worse lodged, even if products maintained toward each other the same relative value.

—It is necessarily so. What would become of society, if injustice, oppression, egotism, greed and ignorance brought no punishment with them? Luckily, it is not possible for a few men, without its recoiling on themselves, to turn public force and the apparatus of government to the profit of prohibitive legislation, and to check the universal impulse of humanity toward abundance.