Abundance vs. Scarcity
Which is best for man and for society, abundance or scarcity? What! you exclaim, can that be a question? Has anyone ever asserted, or is it possible to maintain, that at the foundation of human well-being?
Yes, this has been asserted, and is maintained every day; and I do not hesitate to affirm that the theory of scarcity is the most popular by far. It is the life of conversation, of the newspapers, of books, and of political oratory; and, strange as it may seem, it is certain that political economy will have fulfilled its practical mission when it has established beyond question, and widely disseminated, this very simple proposition: "The wealth of men consists in the abundance of commodities."
Do we not hear it said every day: "The foreigner is about to inundate us with his products?" Then we fear abundance.
Did not Mr. Saint-Cricq exclaim: "Production is excessive"? Then he feared abundance.
Do workmen break machines? Then they fear an excess of production, or abundance.
Has not Mr. Bugeaud pronounced these words: "Let bread be dear, and agriculturists will get rich"? Now, bread can only be dear because it is scarce. Therefore Mr. Bugeaud extols scarcity.
Does not Mr. d'Argout urge as an argument against sugar-growing the very productiveness of that industry? Does he not say: "Beetroot has no future, and its culture cannot be extended, because a few acres devoted to its culture in each department would supply the whole consumption of France"? Then, in his eyes, good lies in sterility, in dearth, and evil in fertility and abundance.
La Presse, Le Commerce, and the greater part of the daily papers, have one or more articles every morning to demonstrate to the legislative chamber and the government that it is sound policy to raise legislatively the price of all things by means of tariffs. And do the chamber and the government not obey the injunction? Now tariffs can raise prices only by diminishing the supply of commodities in the market! Then the journals, the chamber, and the minister put into practice the theory of scarcity, and I am justified in saying that this theory is by far the most popular.
How does it happen that in the eyes of workmen, of publicists, and statesmen abundance should appear a thing to be dreaded and scarcity advantageous? I propose to trace this illusion to its source.
We remark that a man grows richer in proportion to the return yielded by his exertions, that is to say, in proportion as he sells his commodity at a higher price. He sells at a higher price in proportion to the rarity, to the scarcity, of the article he produces. We conclude from this that, as far as he is concerned at least, scarcity enriches him. Applying successively the same reasoning to all other producers, we construct the theory of scarcity. We next proceed to apply this theory and, in order to favor producers generally, we raise prices artificially, and cause a scarcity of all commodities, by prohibition, by intervention, by the suppression of machinery, and other analogous means.
The same thing holds of abundance. We observe that when a product is plentiful, it sells at a lower price, and the producer gains less. If all producers are in the same situation, they are all poor. Therefore it is abundance that ruins society. And as theories are soon reduced to practice, we see the law struggling against the abundance of commodities.
This fallacy in its more general form may make little impression, but applied to a particular order of facts, to a certain branch of industry, to a given class of producers, it is extremely specious; and this is easily explained. It forms a syllogism that is not false, but incomplete. Now, what is true in a syllogism is always and necessarily present to the mind. But incompleteness is a negative quality, an absent datum, which it is very possible, and indeed very easy, to leave out of account.
Man produces in order to consume. He is at once producer and consumer. The reasoning I have just explained considers him only in the first of these points of view. Had the second been taken into account, it would have led to an opposite conclusion. In effect, may it not be said:
The consumer is richer in proportion as he purchases all things cheaper; and he purchases things cheaper in proportion to their abundance; therefore it is abundance that enriches him. This reasoning, extended to all consumers, leads to the theory of plenty.
It is the notion of exchange imperfectly understood that leads to these illusions. If we consider our personal interest, we recognize distinctly that it is two-sided. As sellers we have an interest in dearness, and consequently in scarcity; as buyers, in cheapness, or what amounts to the same thing, in the abundance of commodities. We cannot, then, found our reasoning on one or the other of these interests before inquiring which of the two coincides and is identified with the general and permanent interest of mankind at large.
If man were a solitary animal, if he labored exclusively for himself, if he consumed directly the fruit of his labor — in a word, if he did not exchange — the theory of scarcity would never have appeared in the world. It is too evident that in that case, abundance would be advantageous, from whatever quarter it came, whether from the result of his industry, from ingenious tools, from powerful machinery of his invention, or whether due to the fertility of the soil, the liberality of nature, or even to a mysterious invasion of products brought by the waves and left by them upon the shore. No solitary man would ever have thought that in order to encourage his labor and render it more productive, it was necessary to break in pieces the instruments that lessened it, to neutralize the fertility of the soil, or give back to the sea the good things it had brought to his door. He would perceive at once that labor is not an end, but a means; and that it would be absurd to reject the result for fear of doing injury to the means by which the result was accomplished. He would perceive that if he devotes two hours a day to providing for his wants, any circumstance (machinery, fertility, gratuitous gift, no matter what) that saves him an hour of that labor, the result remaining the same, puts that hour at his disposal, and that he can devote it to increasing his enjoyments; in short, he would see that to save labor is nothing else than progress.
But exchange disturbs our view of a truth so simple. In the social state, and with the separation of employments to which it leads, the production and consumption of a commodity are not mixed up and confounded in the same individual. Each man comes to see in his labor no longer a means but an end. In relation to each commodity, exchange creates two interests, that of the producer and that of the consumer; and these two interests are always directly opposed to each other.
It is essential to analyze them and examine their nature.
Take the case of any producer whatever, what is his immediate interest? It consists of two things; first, that the fewest possible number of persons should devote themselves to his branch of industry; second, that the greatest possible number of persons should be in quest of the article he produces. Political economy explains it more succinctly in these terms: Supply very limited, demand very extended; or, in other words still, Competition limited, demand unlimited.
What is the immediate interest of the consumer? That the supply of the product in question should be extended, and the demand restrained.
Seeing, then, that these two interests are in opposition to each other, one of them must necessarily coincide with social interests in general, and the other be antagonistic to them.
But which of them should legislation favor, as identical with the public good — if, indeed, it should favor either?
To discover this, we must inquire what would happen if the secret wishes of men were granted.
In as far as we are producers, it must be allowed that the desire of every one of us is antisocial. Are we vinedressers? It would give us no great regret if hail should shower down on all the vines in the world except our own: this is the theory of scarcity. Are we iron-masters? Our wish is that there should be no other iron in the market but our own, however much the public may be in want of it; and for no other reason than this want, keenly felt and imperfectly satisfied, shall ensure us a higher price: this is still the theory of scarcity. Are we farmers? We say with Mr. Bugeaud: Let bread be dear, that is to say, scarce, and agriculturists will thrive: always the same theory, the theory of scarcity.
Are we physicians? We cannot avoid seeing that certain physical ameliorations, improving the sanitary state of the country, the development of certain moral virtues, such as moderation and temperance, the progress of knowledge tending to enable each man to take better care of his own health, the discovery of certain simple remedies of easy application, would be so many blows to our professional success. In so far as we are physicians, then, our secret wishes would be antisocial. I do not say that physicians form these secret wishes. On the contrary, I believe they would hail with joy the discovery of a universal panacea; but they would not do this as physicians, but as men and as Christians. By a noble abnegation of self, the physician places himself in the consumer's point of view. But as practicing a profession, from which he derives his own and his family's subsistence, his desires, or, if you will, his interests, are antisocial.
Are we manufacturers of cotton goods? We desire to sell them at the price most profitable to ourselves. We should consent willingly to an interdict being laid on all rival manufactures; and if we could venture to give this wish public expression, or hope to realize it with some chance of success, we should attain our end, to some extent by indirect means; for example, by excluding foreign fabrics in order to diminish the supply, and thus produce, forcibly and to our profit, a scarcity of clothing.
In the same way, we might pass in review all other branches of industry, and we should always find that the producers, as such, have antisocial views. "The shopkeeper," says Montaigne, "thrives only by the irregularities of youth; the farmer by the high price of corn, the architect by the destruction of houses, the officers of justice by lawsuits and quarrels. Ministers of religion derive their distinction and employment from our vices and our death. No physician rejoices in the health of his friends, nor soldiers in the peace of their country; and so of the rest."
Hence it follows that if the secret wishes of each producer were realized, the world would retrograde rapidly toward barbarism. The sail would supersede steam, the oar would supersede the sail, and general traffic would be carried on by the carrier's wagon; the latter would be superseded by the mule, and the mule by the peddler. Wool would exclude cotton, cotton in its turn would exclude wool, and so on until the dearth of all things had caused man himself to disappear from the face of the earth.
Suppose for a moment that the legislative power and the public force were placed at the disposal of Mineral's committee, and that each member of that association had the privilege of bringing in and sanctioning a favorite law, is it difficult to divine to what sort of industrial code the public would be subjected?
If we now proceed to consider the immediate interest of the consumer, we shall find that it is in perfect harmony with the general interest, with all that the welfare of society calls for. When the purchaser goes to market he desires to find it well stocked. Let the seasons be propitious for all harvests; let inventions, more and more marvellous, bring within reach a greater and greater number of products and enjoyments; let time and labor be saved; let distances be effaced by the perfection and rapidity of transit; let the spirit of justice and of peace allow of a diminished weight of taxation; let barriers of every kind be removed — in all this the interest of the consumer runs parallel with the public interest. The consumer may push his secret wishes to a chimerical and absurd length, without these wishes becoming antagonistic to the public welfare. He may desire that food and shelter, the hearth and the roof, instruction and morality, security and peace, power and health, should be obtained without exertion and without measure, like the dust of the highways, the water of the brook, the air that we breathe; and yet the realization of his desires would not be at variance with the good of society.
It might be said that, if these wishes were granted, the work of the producer would become more and more limited, and would end with being stopped for want of sustenance. But why? Because on this extreme supposition, all imaginable wants and desires would be fully satisfied. Man, like Omnipotence, would create all things by a simple act of volition. Well, on this hypothesis, what reason should we have to regret the stoppage of industrial production?
I made the supposition not long ago of the existence of an assembly composed of workmen, each member of which, in his capacity of producer, should have the power of passing a law embodying his secret wish, and I said that the code that would emanate from that assembly would be monopoly systematized, the theory of scarcity reduced to practice.
In the same way, a chamber in which each should consult exclusively his own immediate interest as a consumer, would tend to systematize liberty, to suppress all restrictive measures, to overthrow all artificial barriers — in a word, to realize the theory of plenty.
Hence it follows:
That to consult exclusively the immediate interest of the producer is to consult an interest that is antisocial;
That to take for basis exclusively the immediate interest of the consumer would be to take for basis the general interest.
Let me enlarge on this view of the subject a little, at the risk of being prolix.
A radical antagonism exists between seller and buyer.
The former desires that the subject of the bargain should be scarce, its supply limited, and its price high.
The latter desires that it should be abundant, its supply large, and its price low.
The laws, which should be at least neutral, take the part of the seller against the buyer, of the producer against the consumer, of dearness against cheapness, of scarcity against abundance.
They proceed, if not intentionally, at least logically, on this datum: a nation is rich when it is in want of everything.
For they say, it is the producer that we must favor by securing him a good market for his product. For this purpose it is necessary to raise the price, and in order to raise the price we must restrict the supply; and to restrict the supply is to create scarcity.
Just let us suppose that at the present moment, when all these laws are in full force, we make a complete inventory, not in value but in weight, measure, volume, quantity, of all the commodities existing in the country, that are fitted to satisfy the wants and tastes of its inhabitants — corn, meat, cloth, fuel, colonial products, etc.
Suppose, again, that next day all the barriers that oppose the introduction of foreign products are removed.
Lastly, suppose that in order to test the result of this reform they proceed three months afterwards to make a new inventory.
Is it not true that there will be found in France more corn, cattle, cloth, linen, iron, coal, sugar, etc., at the date of the second than at the date of the first inventory?
So true is this that our protective tariffs have no other purpose than to hinder all these things from reaching us, to restrict the supply, and prevent low prices and abundance.
Now I would ask, Are the people who live under our laws better fed because there is less bread, meat, and sugar in the country? Are they better clothed because there is less cloth and linen? Better warmed because there is less coal? Better assisted in their labor because there are fewer tools and less iron, copper, and machinery?
But it may be said, If the foreigner inundates us with his products he will carry away our money.
And what does it matter? Men are not fed on money. They do not clothe themselves with gold, or warm themselves with silver. What does it matter whether there is more or less money in the country if there is more bread on our sideboards, more meat in our larders, more linen in our wardrobes, more firewood in our cellars.
Restrictive laws always land us in this dilemma: Either you admit that they produce scarcity, or you do not. If you admit it, you avow by the admission that you inflict on the people all the injury in your power. If you do not admit it, you deny having restricted the supply and raised prices, and consequently you deny having favored the producer.
What you do is either hurtful or profitless, injurious or ineffectual. It never can bring any useful result.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.