The Economic Sophism that There Are No Absolute Principles
This is chapter 18 of the first series of Frederic Bastiat’s Economic Sophisms, trans. Arthur Goddard (New York: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996), pp. 96-98.
We cannot but be astonished at the ease with which men resign themselves to ignorance about what it is most important for them to know; and we may be certain that they are determined to remain invincibly ignorant if they once come to consider it as axiomatic that there are no absolute principles.
Attend a session of the legislature and listen to a debate over the question whether the law should prohibit international exchange or permit free trade.
A deputy rises and says:
If you permit these exchanges, foreigners will flood you with their goods – the English with textiles, the Belgians with coal, the Spanish with woolens, the Italians with silks, the Swiss with cattle, the Swedes with iron, and the Prussians with wheat, so that no industry will any longer be possible in our country.
If you prohibit these exchanges, you will not be able to share in the various bounties that Nature has lavished on different countries. You will not share in the mechanical skill of the English, the wealth of the Belgian mines, the fertility of the Polish soil, the fruitfulness of Swiss pastures, the low cost of Spanish labor, or the warmth of the Italian climate; and you will have to produce for yourselves under adverse conditions what you could have obtained, by exchange, on easier terms.
One of these deputies must certainly be mistaken. But which one? It is worth the trouble to find out, for this is not a merely academic question. You stand at a crossroads; you must decide which direction to take; and one of them leads inescapably to poverty.
To avoid the dilemma, people say that there are no absolute principles.
This axiom, which is so fashionable nowadays, not only encourages indolence, but also ministers to ambition.
Whichever theory, protectionism or the doctrine of free trade, should come to prevail, our entire economic code would, in either case, be comprised in one very brief law. In the first case, it would declare: All exchanges with foreign countries are prohibited; in the second: All exchanges with foreign countries are permitted, and many distinguished personages would lose some of their importance.
But if exchange has no peculiar character of its own; if it is governed by no natural law; if it is sometimes beneficial and sometimes injurious; if its incentive is not to be found in the good that it does, and its limit in the good that it ceases to do; if its effects are beyond the comprehension of those who engage in it; in a word, if there are no absolute principles, then we must weigh, balance, and regulate every transaction, we must equalize the conditions of production and strive to keep profits at an average level — a colossal task well calculated to provide those who undertake it with big salaries and to invest them with great authority.
On coming to Paris for a visit, I said to myself:
Here are a million human beings who would all die in a few days if supplies of all sorts did not flow into this great metropolis. It staggers the imagination to try to comprehend the vast multiplicity of objects that must pass through its gates tomorrow, if its inhabitants are to be preserved from the horrors of famine, insurrection, and pillage. And yet all are sleeping peacefully at this moment, without being disturbed for a single instant by the idea of so frightful a prospect. On the other hand, eighty departments have worked today, without co-operative planning or mutual arrangements, to keep Paris supplied. How does each succeeding day manage to bring to this gigantic market just what is necessary — neither too much nor too little?
What, then, is the resourceful and secret power that governs the amazing regularity of such complicated movements, a regularity in which everyone has such implicit faith, although his prosperity and his very life depend upon it?
That power is an absolute principle, the principle of free exchange. We put our faith in that inner light which Providence has placed in the hearts of all men, and to which has been entrusted the preservation and the unlimited improvement of our species, a light we term self-interest, which is so illuminating, so constant, and so penetrating, when it is left free of every hindrance.
Where would you be, inhabitants of Paris, if some cabinet minister decided to substitute for that power contrivances of his own invention, however superior we might suppose them to be; if he proposed to subject this prodigious mechanism to his supreme direction, to take control of all of it into his own hands, to determine by whom, where, how, and under what conditions everything should be produced, transported, exchanged, and consumed?
Although there may be much suffering within your walls, although misery, despair, and perhaps starvation, cause more tears to flow than your warmhearted charity can wipe away, it is probable, I dare say it is certain, that the arbitrary intervention of the government would infinitely multiply this suffering and spread among all of you the ills that now affect only a small number of your fellow citizens.
If we all have faith in this principle where our domestic transactions are concerned, why should we not have faith in the same principle when it affects our international transactions, which are certainly less numerous, less delicate, and less complicated? And if there is no need for the local government of Paris to regulate our industries, to balance our opportunities, our profits, and our losses, to concern itself with the draining off of our currency, or to equalize the conditions of production in our domestic commerce, why should it be necessary for the customhouse to depart from its fiscal duties and to undertake to exercise a protective function over our foreign commerce?