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Conflict of Principles

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Tags History of the Austrian School of Economics

10/10/2012Claude Frédéric Bastiat

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

There is one thing that confounds me, and it is this. Sincere publicists, studying the economy of society from the producer's point of view, have laid down this double formula:
  1. "Governments should order the interests of consumers who are subject to their laws, in such a way as to be favorable to national industry."

  2. "They should bring distant consumers under subjection to their laws, for the purpose of ordering their interests in a way favorable to national industry."

The first of these formulas gets the name of protection; the second we call outlets, or the creating of markets, or vents, for our produce.

Both are founded on what we call the balance of trade: "A nation is impoverished when it imports; enriched when it exports."

For if every purchase from a foreign country is a tribute paid and a national loss, it follows, of course, that it is right to restrain, and even prohibit, importations.

And if every sale to a foreign country is a tribute received, and a national profit, it is quite right and natural to create markets for our products even by force.

The system of protection and the colonial system are, then, only two aspects of one and the same theory. To hinder our fellow citizens from buying from foreigners, and to force foreigners to buy from our fellow citizens, are only two consequences of one and the same principle.

Now, it is impossible not to admit that this doctrine, if true, makes general utility to repose on monopoly or internal spoliation, and on conquest or external spoliation.

I enter a cottage on the French side of the Pyrenees.

The father of the family has received but slender wages. His half-naked children shiver in the icy north wind; the fire is extinguished, and there is nothing on the table. There are wool, firewood, and corn on the other side of the mountain; but these good things are forbidden to the poor day-laborer, for the other side of the mountain is not in France. Foreign firewood is not allowed to warm the cottage hearth; and the shepherd's children can never know the taste of Biscayan wheat,1 and the wool of Navarre can never warm their benumbed limbs. General utility has so ordered it. Be it so; but let us agree that all this is in direct opposition to the first principles of justice. To dispose legislatively of the interests of consumers, and postpone them to the supposed interests of national industry, is to encroach upon their liberty — it is to prohibit an act; namely, the act of exchange, that has in it nothing contrary to good morals; in a word, it is to do them an act of injustice.

And yet this is necessary, we are told, unless we wish to see national labor at a standstill, and public prosperity sustain a fatal shock.

Writers of the protectionist school, then, have arrived at the melancholy conclusion that there is a radical incompatibility between justice and utility.

On the other hand, if it be the interest of each nation to sell, and not to buy, the natural state of their relations must consist in a violent action and reaction, for each will seek to impose its products on all, and all will endeavor to repel the products of each.

A sale, in fact, implies a purchase, and since, according to this doctrine, to sell is beneficial, and to buy is the reverse, every international transaction would imply the amelioration of one people and the deterioration of another.

But if men are, on the one hand, irresistibly impelled toward what is for their profit, and if, on the other, they resist instinctively what is hurtful, we are forced to conclude that each nation carries in its bosom a natural force of expansion, and a not less natural force of resistance, which forces are equally injurious to all other nations; or, in other words, that antagonism and war are the natural state of human society.

Thus the theory we are discussing may be summed up in these two axioms:

Utility is incompatible with justice at home.

Utility is incompatible with peace abroad.

Now, what astonishes and confounds me is that a publicist, a statesman, who sincerely holds an economical doctrine that runs so violently counter to other principles that are incontestable, should be able to enjoy one moment of calm or peace of mind.

For my own part, it seems to me that if I had entered the precincts of the science by the same gate, if I had failed to perceive clearly that liberty, utility, justice, peace, are things not only compatible, but strictly allied with each other, and, so to speak, identical, I should have endeavored to forget what I had learned, and I should have asked,

"How God could have willed that men should attain prosperity only through injustice and war? How He could have willed that they should be unable to avoid Injustice and War except by renouncing the possibility of attaining prosperity?"

"Dare I adopt, as the basis of the legislation of a great nation, a science that thus misleads me by false lights, that has conducted me to this horrible blasphemy, and landed me in so dreadful an alternative? And when a long train of illustrious philosophers have been conducted by this science, to which they have devoted their lives, to more consoling results — when they affirm that liberty and utility are perfectly reconcilable with justice and peace — that all these great principles run in infinitely extended parallels, and will do so to all eternity, without running counter to each other — I would ask, Have they not in their favor that presumption which results from all that we know of the goodness and wisdom of God, as manifested in the sublime harmony of the material creation? In the face of such a presumption, and of so many reliable authorities, ought I to believe lightly that God has been pleased to implant antagonism and dissonance in the laws of the moral world? No; before I should venture to conclude that the principles of social order run counter to and neutralize each other, and are in eternal and irreconcilable opposition — before I should venture to impose on my fellow citizens a system so impious as that to which my reasonings would appear to lead — I should set myself to re-examine the whole chain of these reasonings, and assure myself that at this stage of the journey I had not missed my way."

But if, after a candid and searching examination, 20 times repeated, I arrived always at this frightful conclusion, that we must choose between the right and the good, discouraged, I should reject the science, and bury myself in voluntary ignorance; above all, I should decline all participation in public affairs, leaving to men of another temper and constitution the burden and responsibility of a choice so painful.

  • 1. The French word employed is meture, probably a Spanish word Gallicised — mestura, meslin, mixed corn, as wheat and rye. — Translator.

Claude Frédéric Bastiat

Frédéric Bastiat was the great French proto-Austrolibertarian whose polemics and analytics run circles around every statist cliché. His primary desire as a writer was to reach people in the most practical way with the message of the moral and material urgency of freedom.

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