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Theory vs. Practice

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October 8, 2012

Tags Free MarketsHistory of the Austrian School of Economics

[Included in The Bastiat Collection (2011), this article appeared in Economic Sophisms (1845).]

As advocates of free trade, we are accused of being theorists, and of not taking practice sufficiently into account. "What fearful prejudices were entertained against Mr. Say," says Mr. Ferrier,

by that long train of distinguished administrators, and that imposing phalanx of authors who dissented from his opinions; and Mr. Say was not unaware of it. Hear what he says: It has been alleged in support of errors of long standing that there must have been some foundation for ideas which have been adopted by all nations. Ought we not to distrust observations and reasonings which run counter to opinions which have been constantly entertained down to our own time, and which have been regarded as sound by so many men remarkable for their enlightenment and their good intentions? This argument, I allow, is calculated to make a profound impression, and it might have cast doubt upon points which we deem the most incontestable, if we had not seen, by turns, opinions the most false, and now generally acknowledged to be false, received and professed by everybody during a long series of ages. Not very long ago all nations, from the rudest to the most enlightened, and all men, from the street-porter to the savant, admitted the existence of four elements. No one thought of contesting that doctrine, which, however, is false; so much so that even the greenest assistant in a naturalist's class-room would be ashamed to say that he regarded earth, water and fire as elements.1

On this Mr. Ferrier remarks,

If Mr. Say thinks to answer thus the very strong objection which he brings forward he is singularly mistaken. That men, otherwise well informed, should have been mistaken for centuries on certain points of natural history is easily understood, and proves nothing. Water, air, earth and fire, whether elements or not, are not the less useful to man.… Such errors are unimportant: they lead to no popular commotions, no uneasiness in the public mind; they run counter to no pecuniary interest; and this is the reason why without any felt inconvenience they may endure for a thousand years. The physical world goes on as if they did not exist. But of errors in the moral world can the same thing be said? Can we conceive that a system of administration, found to be absolutely false and therefore hurtful, should be followed out among many nations for centuries, with the general approval of all well-informed men? Can it be explained how such a system could coexist with the constantly increasing prosperity of nations? Mr. Say admits that the argument which he combats is fitted to make a profound impression. Yes, indeed; and the impression remains; for Mr. Say has rather deepened than done away with it.

Let us hear what Mr. de Saint-Chamans says on the same subject:

It was only in the middle of the last century, of that eighteenth century which handed over all subjects and all principles without exception to free discussion, that these speculative purveyors of ideas, applied by them to all things without being really applicable to anything, began to write upon political economy. There existed previously a system of political economy not to be found in books, but which had been put in practical operation by governments. Colbert, it is said, was the inventor of it, and it was adopted as a rule by all the nations of Europe. The singular thing is that, in spite of contempt and maledictions, in spite of all the discoveries of the modern school, it still remains in practical operation. This system, which our authors have called the mercantile system, was designed to … Impede, by prohibitions or import duties, the entry of foreign products which might ruin our own manufactures by their competition. Economic writers of all schools2 have declared this system untenable, absurd, and calculated to impoverish any country. It has been banished from all their books, and forced to take refuge in the practical legislation of all nations. They cannot conceive why, in measures relating to national wealth, governments should not follow the advice and opinions of learned authors, rather than trust to their experience of the tried working of a system which has been long in operation. Above all, they cannot conceive why the French government should in economic questions obstinately set itself to resist the progress of enlightenment, and maintain in its practice those ancient errors, which all our economic writers have exposed. But enough of this mercantile system, which has nothing in its favor but facts, and is not defended by any speculative writer.3

Such language as this would lead one to suppose that in demanding for everyone the free disposal of his property, economists were propounding some new system, some new, strange and chimerical social order, a sort of phalanstere, coined in the mint of their own brain, and without precedent in the annals of the human race. To me it would seem that if we have here anything factitious or contingent, it is to be found, not in liberty, but in protection; not in the free power of exchanging, but in customs duties employed to overturn artificially the natural course of remuneration.

But our business at present is not to compare, or pronounce between, the two systems — but to inquire which of the two is founded on experience.

The advocates of monopoly maintain that the facts are on their side, and that we have on our side only theory.

They flatter themselves that this long series of public acts, this old experience of Europe, which they invoke, has presented itself as something very formidable to the mind of Mr. Say; and I grant that he has not refuted it with his characteristic sagacity. For my own part, I am not disposed to concede to the monopolists the domain of facts, for they have only in their favor facts that are forced and exceptional; and we oppose to these, facts that are universal, the free and voluntary acts of mankind at large.

What do we say; and what do they say?

We say, "You should buy from others what you cannot make for yourself but at a greater expense."

And they say, "It is better to make things for yourself, although they cost you more than the price at which you could buy them from others."

Now, gentlemen, throwing aside theory, argument, demonstration — all which seem to affect you with nausea — which of these two assertions has on its side the sanction of universal practice?

Visit your fields, your workshops, your forges, your warehouses; look above, below, and around you; look at what takes place in your own houses; note your own everyday acts; and say what is the principle that guides these laborers, artisans, and merchants; say what is your own personal practice.

Does the farmer make his own clothes? Does the tailor produce the corn he consumes? Does your housekeeper continue to have your bread made at home, after she finds she can buy it cheaper from the baker? Do you resign the pen for the brush to save your paying tribute to the shoeblack? Does the entire economy of society not rest upon the separation of employments, the division of labor — in a word, upon exchange? And what is exchange but a calculation which we make with a view to discontinuing direct production in every case in which we find that possible, and in which indirect acquisition enables us to effect a saving in time and in effort?

It is not you, therefore, who are the men of practice, since you cannot point to a single human being who acts upon your principle.

But you will say, we never intended to make our principle a rule for individual relations. We perfectly understand that this would be to break up the bond of society, and would force men to live like snails, each in his own shell. All that we contend is that our principle regulates de facto the relations that obtain between the different agglomerations of the human family.

Well, I affirm that this principle is still erroneous. The family, the commune, the canton, the department, the province, are so many agglomerations, which all, without any exception, reject practically your principle, and have never dreamt of acting on it. All procure themselves, by means of exchange, those things that it would cost them dearer to procure by means of production. And nations would do the same, did you not hinder them by force.

We, then, are the men of practice and of experience; for we oppose to the restriction you have placed exceptionally on certain international exchanges the practice and experience of all individuals and of all agglomerations of individuals, whose acts are voluntary and can consequently be adduced as evidence. But you begin by constraining, by hindering, and then you lay hold of acts that are forced or prohibited, as warranting you to exclaim, "We have practice and experience on our side!"

You inveigh against our theory, and even against theories in general. But when you lay down a principle in opposition to ours you perhaps imagine you are not proceeding on theory. Clear your heads of that idea. You, in fact, form a theory as we do; but between your theory and ours there is this difference:

Our theory consists merely in observing universal facts, universal opinions, calculations, and ways of proceeding that universally prevail; and in classifying these and rendering them coordinate, with a view to their being more easily understood.

Our theory is so little opposed to practice that it is nothing else but practice explained. We observe men acting as they are moved by the instinct of self-preservation and a desire for progress, and what they thus do freely and voluntarily we denominate political or social economy. We can never help repeating that each individual man is practically an excellent economist, producing or exchanging according as he finds it more to his interest to produce or to exchange. Each, by experience, educates himself in this science; or, rather, the science itself is only this same experience accurately observed and methodically explained.

But on your side you construct a theory in the worst sense of the word. You imagine, you invent, a course of proceeding that is not sanctioned by the practice of any living man under the canopy of heaven; and then you invoke the aid of constraint and prohibition. It is quite necessary that you should have recourse to force, for you desire that men should be made to produce those things that they find it more advantageous to buy; you desire that they should renounce this advantage, and act upon a doctrine that implies a contradiction in terms.

I defy you to take the doctrine, which you acknowledge would be absurd in the relations of individuals, and extend it, even in speculation, to transactions between families, communities, or provinces. By your own admission it is only applicable to international relations.

This is the reason why you are forced to keep repeating, "There are no absolute principles, no inflexible rules. What is good for an individual, a family, a province, is bad for a nation. What is good in detail — namely, to purchase rather than produce, when purchasing is more advantageous than producing — that same is bad in the gross. The political economy of individuals is not that of nations" — and other nonsense of the same kind.

And to what does all this tend? Look at it a little closer. The intention is to prove that we, the consumers, are your property! — that we are yours body and soul! — that you have an exclusive right over our stomachs and our limbs! — that it belongs to you to feed and clothe us on your own terms, whatever be your ignorance, incapacity or rapacity!

No, you are not men of practice; you are men of abstraction — and of extortion.

  • 1. De l'Administration Commerciale opposée a l'Economie Politique, p. 5.
  • 2. Might we not say, that it is a "fearful prejudice" against Misters Ferrier and Saint-Chamans, that "economists of all schools," that is to say, everybody who has studied the question, should have arrived at the conclusion, that, after all, liberty is better than constraint, and the laws of God wiser than those of Colbert.
  • 3. Du Systeme de l'Impot, by Mr. Le Vicomte de Saint-Chamans, p. II.


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