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The Right Hand and the Left

Mises Daily: Wednesday, December 05, 2012 by

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[The Bastiat Collection (2011); originally from the second series of Economic Sophisms (1848), this "Report Addressed to the King" was written in 1847.]

Sire — When we observe these free trade advocates boldly disseminating their doctrines, and maintaining that the right of buying and selling is implied in the right of property (as has been urged by Mr. Billauit in the true style of a special pleader), we may be permitted to feel serious alarm as to the fate of our national labor; for what would Frenchmen make of their heads and their hands were they free?

The administration that you have honored with your confidence has turned its attention to this grave state of things, and has sought in its wisdom to discover a species of protection that may be substituted for that which appears to be getting out of repute. They propose a law to prohibit your faithful subjects from using their right hands.

Sire, we beseech you not to do us the injustice of supposing that we have adopted lightly and without due deliberation a measure that at first sight may appear somewhat whimsical. A profound study of the system of protection has taught us this syllogism, upon which the whole doctrine reposes:

The more men work, the richer they become;

The more difficulties there are to be overcome, the more work:

Ergo, the more difficulties there are to be overcome, the richer they become.

In fact, what is protection, if it is not an ingenious application of this reasoning — reasoning so close and conclusive as to balk the subtlety of Mr. Billauit himself?

Let us personify the country, and regard it as a collective being with thirty million mouths, and, as a natural consequence, with sixty million hands. Here is a man who makes a French clock, which he can exchange in Belgium for ten hundredweights of iron. But we tell him to make the iron himself. He replies, "I cannot, it would occupy too much of my time; I should produce only five hundredweights of iron during the time I am occupied in making a clock." Utopian dreamer, we reply, that is the very reason why we forbid you to make the clock, and order you to make the iron. Don't you see we are providing employment for you?

Sire, it cannot have escaped your sagacity that this is exactly the same thing in effect as if we were to say to the country, "Work with your left hand, and not with the right."

To create obstacles in order to furnish labor with an opportunity of developing itself, was the principle of the old system of restriction, and it is the principle likewise of the new system that is now being inaugurated. Sire, to regulate industry in this way is not to innovate, but to persevere.

As regards the efficiency of the measure, it is incontestable. It is difficult, much more difficult than one would suppose, to do with the left hand what we have been accustomed to do with the right. You will be convinced of this, Sire, if you will condescend to make trial of our system in a process which must be familiar to you; as, for example, in shuffling a deck of cards. For this reason we flatter ourselves that we are opening to labor an unlimited career.

When workmen in all departments of industry are thus confined to the use of the left hand, we may figure to ourselves, Sire, the immense number of people that will be wanted to supply the present consumption, assuming it to continue invariable, as we always do when we compare two different systems of production with one another. So prodigious a demand for manual labor cannot fail to induce a great rise of wages, and poverty will disappear as if by magic.

Sire, your paternal heart will rejoice to think that this new law of ours will extend its benefits to that interesting part of the community whose destinies engage all your solicitude. What is the present destiny of women in France? The bolder and more hardy sex drives them insensibly out of every department of industry.

Formerly, they had the resource of the lottery offices. These offices have been shut up by a pitiless philanthropy, and on what pretext? "To save the money of the poor." Alas! the poor man never obtained for a piece of money enjoyments as sweet and innocent as those afforded by the mysterious turn of fortune. Deprived of all the comforts of life, when he, fortnight after fortnight, risked a day's wages, how many delicious hours did he afford his family! Hope was always present at his fireside. The garret was peopled with illusions. The wife hoped to rival her neighbors in her style of living; the son saw himself the drum-major of a regiment; and the daughter fancied herself led to the altar by her betrothed.

"C'est quelque chose encor que de faire un beau reve!"

The lottery was the poetry of the poor, and we have lost it.

The lottery gone, what means have we of providing for our wards? Tobacco-shops and the post-office.

Tobacco, all right; its use progresses, thanks to distinguished examples.

But the post-office! … We shall say nothing of it, it will be the subject of a special report.

Except, then, the sale of tobacco, what employment remains for your female subjects? Embroidery, lace making, and sewing — melancholy resources, which the barbarous science of mechanics goes on limiting more and more.

But the moment your new law comes into operation, the moment right hands are amputated or tied up, the face of everything will be changed. Twenty times, thirty times, more embroiderers, polishers, laundresses, seamstresses, milliners, shirtmakers, will not be sufficient to supply the wants of the kingdom, always assuming, as before, the consumption to be the same.

This assumption may very likely be disputed by some cold theorists, for dress and everything else will then be dearer. The same thing may be said of the iron we extract from our own mines, compared with the iron we could obtain in exchange for our wines. This argument, therefore, does not tell more against left-handed men than against protection, for this very dearness is the effect and the sign of an excess of work and exertion, which is precisely the basis upon which, in both cases, we contend that the prosperity of the working classes is founded.

Yes, we can make a touching picture of the prosperity of the millinery business. What movement! What activity! What life! Every dress will occupy a hundred fingers, instead of ten. No young woman will be idle, and we have no need, Sire, to indicate to your perspicacity the moral consequences of this great revolution. Not only will there be more young women employed, but each of them will earn more, for they will be unable to supply the demand; and if competition shall again show itself, it will not be among the seamstresses who make the dresses, but among the fine ladies who wear them.

You must see then, Sire, that our proposal is not only in strict conformity with the economic traditions of the government, but is in itself essentially moral and popular.

To appreciate its effects, let us suppose the law passed and in operation — let us transport ourselves in imagination into the future — and assume the new system to have been in operation for twenty years. Idleness is banished from the country; ease and concord, contentment and morality, have, with employment, been introduced into every family — no more poverty, no more vice. The left hand being very awkward at all work, employment will be abundant, and the remuneration adequate. Everything is arranged on this footing, and the workshops in consequence are full. If, in such circumstances, Sire, Utopian dreamers were all at once to agitate for the right hand being again set free, would they not throw the whole country into alarm? Would such a pretended reform not overturn the whole existing state of things? Then our system must be good, since it could not be put an end to without universal suffering.

And yet we confess we have the melancholy presentiment (so great is human perversity) that some day there will be formed an association for right-hand freedom.

We think that already we hear the free right-handers, assembled in the Salle Montesquieu, holding this discourse:

"Good people, you think yourselves richer because the use of one of your hands has been denied you; you take account only of the additional employment that that brings you. But consider also the high prices that result from it, and the forced diminution of consumption. That measure has not made capital more abundant, and capital is the fund from which wages are paid. The streams that flow from that great reservoir are directed toward other channels; but their volume is not enlarged; and the ultimate effect, as far as the nation at large is concerned, is the loss of all that wealth which that of right hands could produce, compared with what is now produced by an equal number of left hands. At the risk of some inevitable derangements, then, let us form an association, and enforce our right to work with both hands."

Fortunately, Sire, an association has been formed in defense of left-hand labor, and the Left-handers will have no difficulty in demolishing all these generalities, suppositions, abstractions, reveries, and Utopias. They have only to exhume the Moniteur Industriel for 1846, and they will find ready-made arguments against freedom of trade, which refute so admirably all that has been urged in favor of right-hand liberty that it is only necessary to substitute one word for the other.

"The Parisian free-trade league has no doubt of securing the concurrence of the workmen. But the workmen are no longer men who can be led by the nose. They have their eyes open, and they know political economy better than our professors. Free trade, they say, will deprive us of employment, and labor is our wealth. With employment, with abundant employment, the price of commodities never places them beyond our reach. Without employment, were bread at a halfpenny a pound, the workman would die of hunger. Now your doctrines instead of increasing the present amount of employment, would diminish it, that is to say, would reduce us to poverty."

"When there are too many commodities in the market, their price falls, no doubt. But as wages always fall when commodities are cheap, the result is that, instead of being in a situation to purchase more, we are no longer able to buy anything. It is when commodities are cheap that the workman is worst off."

It will not be amiss for the Left-handers to intermingle some menaces with their theories. Here is a model for them:

"What! you desire to substitute right-hand for left-hand labor, and thus force down, or perhaps annihilate, wages, the sole resource of the great bulk of the nation!"

"And, at a time when a deficient harvest is imposing painful privations on the workman, you wish to disquiet him as to his future, and render him more accessible to bad advice, and more ready to abandon that wise line of conduct which has hitherto distinguished him."

After such conclusive reasoning as this, we entertain a confident hope, Sire, that if the battle is once begun, the left hand will come off victorious.

Perhaps an association may be formed for the purpose of inquiring whether the right hand and the left are not both wrong, and whether a third hand cannot be found to conciliate everybody.

After having depicted the Right-handers as seduced by the apparent liberality of a principle, the soundness of which experience has not verified, and the Left-handers as maintaining the position they have gained, they go on to say:

"It is denied that there is any third position that it is possible to take up in the midst of the battle! Is it not evident that the workmen have to defend themselves at one and the same time against those who desire to change nothing in the present situation, because they are heavily invested in it, and against those who dream of an economic revolution of which they have calculated neither the direction nor the extent?"

We cannot, however, conceal from your Majesty that our project has a vulnerable side; for it may be said that twenty years hence left hands will be as skilful as right hands are at present, and that then you could no longer trust to left-handedness for an increase of national employment.

To that we reply, that according to the most learned physicians the left side of the body has a natural feebleness, which is quite reassuring as regards the labor of the future.

Should your Majesty consent to pass the measure now proposed, a great principle will be established: All wealth proceeds from the intensity of labor. It will be easy for us to extend and vary the applications of this principle. We may decree, for example, that it shall no longer be permissible to work but with the foot; for this is no more impossible (as we have seen) than to extract iron from the mud of the Seine. You see then, Sire, that the means of increasing national labor can never fail. And after all has been tried, we have still the practically exhaustless resource of amputation.

To conclude, Sire, if this report were not intended for publicity, we should take the liberty of soliciting your attention to the great influence that measures of this kind are calculated to confer on men in power. But that is a matter that we must reserve for a private audience.