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Industry Is an Effort Followed by a Result

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Tags The EntrepreneurFree MarketsEntrepreneurshipInterventionism

08/20/2012Claude Frédéric Bastiat

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

We have just seen that between our wants and the satisfaction of these wants, obstacles are interposed. We succeed in overcoming these obstacles, or in diminishing their force, by the employment of our faculties. We may say, in a general way, that industry is an effort followed by a result.

But what constitutes the measure of our prosperity, or of our wealth? Is it the result of the effort? Or is it the effort itself? A relation always subsists between the effort employed and the result obtained. Progress consists in the relative enhancement of the second or of the first term of this relation.

Both theses have been maintained; and in political economy they have divided the region of opinion and of thought.

According to the first system, wealth is the result of labor, increasing as the relative proportion of result to effort increases. Absolute perfection, of which God is the type, consists in the infinite distance interposed between the two terms — in this sense, effort is nil, result infinite.

The second system teaches that it is the effort itself that constitutes the measure of wealth. To make progress is to increase the relative proportion which effort bears to result. The ideal of this system may be found in the sterile and eternal efforts of Sisyphus.1

The first system naturally welcomes everything which tends to diminish pains and augment products; powerful machinery that increases the forces of man, exchange that allows him to derive greater advantage from natural resources distributed in various proportions over the face of the earth, intelligence that discovers, experience that proves, competition that stimulates, etc.

Logically, the second invokes everything which has the effect of increasing pains and diminishing products; privileges, monopolies, restrictions, prohibitions, suppression of machinery, barrenness, etc.

It is well to remark that the universal practice of mankind always points to the principle of the first system. We have never seen, we shall never see, a man who labors in any department, be he agriculturist, manufacturer, merchant, artificer, soldier, author, or philosopher, who does not devote all the powers of his mind to work better, to work with more rapidity, to work more economically — in a word, to effect more with less.

The opposite doctrine is in favor only with theorists, legislators, journalists, statesmen, ministers — men, in short, born to make experiments on the social body.

At the same time, we may observe that in what concerns themselves personally they act as everyone else does, on the principle of obtaining from labor the greatest possible amount of useful results.

Perhaps I may be thought to exaggerate, and there are no true sisyphists.

If it be argued that in practice they do not press their principle to its most extreme consequences, I willingly grant it. This is always the case when one sets out with a false principle. Such a principle soon leads to results so absurd and so mischievous that we are obliged to stop short. This is the reason why practical industry never admits sisyphism; punishment would follow error too closely not to expose it. But in matters of speculation, such as theorists and statesmen deal in, one may pursue a false principle a long time before discovering its falsity by the complicated consequences to which men were formerly strangers; and when at last its falsity is found out, the authors take refuge in the opposite principle, turn round, contradict themselves, and seek their justification in a modern maxim of incomparable absurdity: in political economy there is no inflexible rule, no absolute principle.

Let us see, then, if these two opposite principles that I have just described do not predominate by turns, the one in practical industry, the other in industrial legislation.

I have already noticed the saying of Mr. Bugeaud that "when bread is dear agriculturists become rich"; but in Mr. Bugeaud are embodied two separate characters, the agriculturist and the legislator.

As an agriculturist, Mr. Bugeaud directs all his efforts to two ends — to save labor, and obtain cheap bread. When he prefers a good plough to a bad one; when he improves his pastures; when, in order to pulverize the soil, he substitutes as much as possible the action of the weather for that of the harrow and the hoe; when he calls to his aid all the processes of which science and experiment have proved the efficacy — he has but one object in view, viz. to diminish the proportion of effort to result. We have indeed no other test of the ability of a cultivator, and the perfection of his processes, than to measure to what extent they have lessened the one and added to the other. And as all the farmers in the world act upon this principle we may assert that the effort of mankind at large is to obtain, for their own benefit undoubtedly, bread and all other products cheaper, to lessen the labor needed to procure a given quantity of what they want.

This incontestable tendency of mankind once established should, it would seem, reveal to the legislator the true principle, and point out to him in what way he should aid industry (in so far as it falls within his province to aid it); for it would be absurd to assert that human laws should run counter to the laws of Providence.

And yet we have heard Mr. Bugeaud, as a legislator, exclaim: "I understand nothing of this theory of cheapness; I should like better to see bread dearer and labor more abundant." And following out this doctrine, the representative of the Dordogne votes legislative measures, the effect of which is to hamper exchanges, for the very reason that they procure us indirectly what direct production could procure us only at greater expense.

Now, it is very evident that Mr. Bugeaud's principle as a legislator is directly opposed to the principle on which he acts as an agriculturist. To act consistently he should vote against all legislative restriction, or else import into his farming operations the principle that he proclaims from the tribune. We should then see him sow his corn in his most barren fields, for in this way he would succeed in working much to obtain little. We should see him throwing aside the plough, since hand-culture would satisfy his double wish for dearer bread and more abundant labor.

Intervention has for its avowed object, and its acknowledged effect, to increase labor.

It has also for its avowed object, and its acknowledged effect, to cause dearness, which means simply scarcity of products; so that, carried out to its extreme limits, it is pure sisyphism, such as we have defined it — labor infinite, product nil.

Baron Charles Dupin, the light of the peerage, it is said, on economic science, accuses railways of injuring navigation; and it is certain that it is of the nature of a better means of conveyance to reduce the use of a worse means of conveyance. But railways cannot hurt navigation except by attracting traffic; and they cannot attract traffic but by conveying goods and passengers more cheaply; and they cannot convey them more cheaply but by diminishing the proportion that the effort employed bears to the result obtained, seeing that that is the very thing that constitutes cheapness. When, then, Baron Dupin deplores this diminution of the labor employed to effect a given result, it is the doctrine of sisyphism he preaches. Logically, since he prefers the ship to the rail, he should prefer the cart to the ship, the pack-saddle to the cart, and the pannier to all other known means of conveyance, for it is the latter that exacts the most labor with the least result.

"Work constitutes the wealth of a people," said Mr. de Saint-Cricq, that minister of commerce who has imposed so many restrictions upon trade. We must not suppose that this was an elliptical expression, meaning, "The results of work constitute the wealth of a people." No, this economist distinctly intended to affirm that it is the intensity of labor that is the measure of wealth, and the proof of it is that, from consequence to consequence, from one restriction to another, he induced France (and in this he thought he was doing her good) to expend double the amount of labor, in order, for example, to provide herself with an equal quantity of iron. In England iron was then at 8 francs, while in France it cost 16 francs. Taking a day's labor at one franc, it is clear that France could, by means of exchange, procure a quintal of iron by subtracting eight days' work from the aggregate national labor. In consequence of the restrictive measures of Mr. de Saint-Cricq, France was obliged to expend 16 days' labor in order to provide herself with a quintal of iron by direct production. Double the labor for the same satisfaction, hence double the wealth. Then it follows that wealth is not measured by the result, but by the intensity of the labor. Is not this sisyphism in all its purity?

And in order that there may be no mistake as to his meaning, the minister takes care afterwards to explain more fully his ideas; and as he had just before called the intensity of labor wealth, he goes on to call the more abundant results of that labor, or the more abundant supply of things proper to satisfy our wants, poverty. "Everywhere," he says, "machinery has taken the place of manual labor; everywhere production superabounds; everywhere the equilibrium between the faculty of producing and the means of consuming is destroyed." We see, then, to what, in Mr. de Saint-Cricq's estimation, the critical situation of the country was owing: it was to having produced too much, and her labor being too intelligent, and too fruitful. We were too well fed, too well clothed, too well provided with everything; a too rapid production surpassed all our desires. It was necessary, then, to put a stop to the evil, and for that purpose to force us, by restrictions, to labor more in order to produce less.

I have referred likewise to the opinions of another minister of commerce, Mr. d'Argout. They deserve to be dwelt upon for an instant. Desiring to strike a formidable blow at beet-root culture, he says, "Undoubtedly, the cultivation of beet-root is useful, but this utility is limited. The developments attributed to it are exaggerated. To be convinced of this it is sufficient to observe that this culture will be necessarily confined within the limits of consumption. Double, triple, if you will, the present consumption of France, you will always find that a very trifling portion of the soil will satisfy the requirements of that consumption." (This is surely rather a singular subject of complaint!) "Do you desire proof of this? How many hectares had we under beet-root in 1828? — 3,130, which is equivalent to 1/10,540th of our arable land. At the present time, when indigenous sugar supplies one-third of our consumption, how much land is devoted to that culture? — 16,700 hectares, or 1/1,978th of the arable land, or 45 centiares in each commune. Suppose indigenous sugar already supplied our whole consumption we should have only 48,000 hectares under beetroot, or 1/689th of the arable land."2

There are two things to be remarked upon in this quotation — the facts and the doctrine. The facts tend to prove that little land, little capital, and little labor are required to produce a large quantity of sugar, and that each commune of France would be abundantly provided by devoting to beet-root cultivation one hectare of its soil. The doctrine consists in regarding this circumstance as adverse, and in seeing in the very power and fertility of the new industry, a limit to its utility.

I do not mean to constitute myself here the defender of beetroot culture, or a judge of the strange facts advanced by Mr. d'Argout; but it is worthwhile to scrutinize the doctrine of a statesman to whom France for a long time entrusted the care of her agriculture and of her commerce.

I remarked at the outset that a variable relation exists between an industrial effort and its result; that absolute imperfection consists in an infinite effort without any result; absolute perfection in an unlimited result without any effort; and perfectibility in the progressive diminution of effort compared with the result.

But Mr. d'Argout tells us there is death where we think we perceive life, and that the importance of any branch of industry is in direct proportion to its powerlessness. What are we to expect, for instance, from the cultivation of beet-root? Do you not see that 48,000 hectares of land, with capital and manual labor in proportion, are sufficient to supply all France with sugar? Then, this is a branch of industry of limited utility; limited, of course, with reference to the amount of labor it demands, the only way in which, according to the ex-minister, any branch of industry can be useful. This utility would be still more limited if, owing to the fertility of the soil and the richness of the beet-root, we could reap from 24,000 hectares what at present we only obtain from 48,000. Oh! Were only 20 times, 100 times, more land, capital and labor necessary to yield us the same result, so much the better. We might build some hopes on this new branch of industry, and it would be worthy of state protection, for it would offer a vast field to our national industry. But to produce much with little! That is a bad example, and it is time for the law to interfere.

But what is true with regard to sugar cannot be otherwise with regard to bread. If, then, the utility of any branch of industry is to be estimated not by the amount of satisfaction it is fitted to procure us with a determinate amount of labor, but, on the contrary, by the amount of labor it exacts in order to yield us a determinate amount of satisfactions, what we ought evidently to desire is, that each acre of land should yield less corn, and each grain of corn less nourishment; in other words, that our land should be comparatively barren; for then the quantity of land, capital, and manual labor that would be required for the maintenance of our population would be much more considerable; we could then say that the demand for human labor would be in direct proportion to this barrenness. The aspirations of Misters Bugeaud, Saint-Cricq, Dupin, and d'Argout would then be satisfied; bread would be dear, labor abundant, and France rich — rich at least in the sense in which these gentlemen understand the word.

What we should desire also is that human intelligence should be enfeebled or extinguished; for as long as it survives, it will be continually endeavoring to augment the proportion that the end bears to the means, and that the product bears to the labor. It is in that precisely that intelligence consists.

Thus, it appears that sisyphism has been the doctrine of all the men who have been entrusted with our industrial destinies. It would be unfair to reproach them with it. This principle guides ministers only because it is predominant in the Chambers; and it predominates in the Chambers only because it is sent there by the electoral body, and the electoral body is imbued with it only because public opinion is saturated with it.

I think it right to repeat here that I do not accuse men such as Misters Bugeaud, Dupin, Saint-Cricq, and d'Argout of being absolutely and under all circumstances sisyphists. They are certainly not so in their private transactions; for in these they always desire to obtain by way of exchange what would cost them dearer to procure by direct production; but I affirm they are sisyphists when they hinder the country from doing the same thing.

  • 1. For this reason, and for the sake of conciseness, the reader will pardon us for designating this system in the sequel by the name of sisyphism. (Sisyphus in Greek mythology was condemned, as a punishment for his wickedness in this life, to roll a large stone from the bottom to the top of a high hill, which, whenever it reached the top, rolled down again, and thus made his task unending.)
  • 2. 1 hectare = 2 acres, 1 rood, 35 perches.
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