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   Chapter 3 EFFORT—RESULT.

What Is Free Trade? By Frédérick Bastiat Characters: 10931

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


We have seen that between our wants and their gratification many obstacles are interposed. We conquer or weaken these by the employment of our faculties. It may be said, in general terms, that industry is an effort followed by a result.

But by what do we measure our well-being? By our riches? By the result of our effort, or by the effort itself? There exists always a proportion between the effort employed and the result obtained. Does progress consist in the relative increase of the second or of the first term of this proportion-between effort or result?

Both propositions have been sustained, and in political economy opinions are divided between them.

According to the first system, riches are the result of labor. They increase in the same ratio as the result does to the effort. Absolute perfection, of which God is the type, consists in the infinite distance between these two terms in this relation, viz., effort none, result infinite.

The second system maintains that it is the effort itself which forms the measure of, and constitutes, our riches. Progression is the increase of the proportion of the effect to the result. Its ideal extreme may be represented by the eternal and fruitless efforts of Sisyphus.[A]

[A] We will therefore beg the reader to allow us in future, for the sake of conciseness, to designate this system under the term of Sisyphism, from Sisyphus, who, in punishment of his crimes, was compelled to roll a stone up hill, which fell to the bottom as fast as he rolled it to the top, so that his labor was interminable as well as fruitless.

The first system tends naturally to the encouragement of everything which diminishes difficulties, and augments production-as powerful machinery, which adds to the strength of man; the exchange of produce, which allows us to profit by the various natural agents distributed in different degrees over the surface of our globe; the intellect which discovers, the experience which proves, and the emulation which excites.

The second as logically inclines to everything which can augment the difficulty and diminish the product; as, privileges, monopolies, restrictions, prohibition, suppression of machinery, sterility, &c.

It is well to mark here that the universal practice of men is always guided by the principle of the first system. Every workman, whether agriculturist, manufacturer, merchant, soldier, writer or philosopher, devotes the strength of his intellect to do better, to do more quickly, more economically-in a word, to do more with less.

The opposite doctrine is in use with theorists, essayists, statesmen, ministers, men whose business is to make experiments upon society. And even of these we may observe, that in what personally concerns themselves, they act, like everybody else, upon the principle of obtaining from their labor the greatest possible quantity of useful results.

It may be supposed that I exaggerate, and that there are no true Sisyphists.

I grant that in practice the principle is not pushed to its extreme consequences. And this must always be the case when one starts upon a wrong principle, because the absurd and injurious results to which it leads, cannot but check it in its progress. For this reason, practical industry never can admit of Sisyphism. The error is too quickly followed by its punishment to remain concealed. But in the speculative industry of theorists and statesmen, a false principle may be for a long time followed up, before the complication of its consequences, only half understood, can prove its falsity; and even when all is revealed, the opposite principle is acted upon, self is contradicted, and justification sought, in the incomparably absurd modern axiom, that in political economy there is no principle universally true.

Let us see, then, if the two opposite principles I have laid down do not predominate, each in its turn; the one in practical industry, the other in industrial legislation. When a man prefers a good plough to a bad one; when he improves the quality of his manures; when, to loosen his soil, he substitutes as much as possible the action of the atmosphere for that of the hoe or the harrow; when he calls to his aid every improvement that science and experience have revealed, he has, and can have, but one object, viz., to diminish the proportion of the effort to the result. We have indeed no other means of judging of the success of an agriculturist or of the merits of his system, but by observing how far he has succeeded in lessening the one, while he increases the other; and as all the farmers in the world act upon this principle, we may say that all mankind are seeking, no doubt for their own advantage, to obtain at the lowest price, bread, or whatever other article of produce they may need, always diminishing the effort necessary for obtaining any given quantity thereof.

This incontestable tendency of human nature, once proved, would, one might suppose, be sufficient to point out the true principle to the legislator, and to show him how he ought to assist industry (if indeed it is any part of his business to assist it at all), for it would be absurd to say that the laws of men should operate in an inverse ratio from those of Providence.

Yet we have heard members of Congress exclaim, "I do not understand this theory of cheapness; I would rather see bread dear, and work more abundant." And consequently these gentlemen vote in favor

of legislative measures whose effect is to shackle and impede commerce, precisely because by so doing we are prevented from procuring indirectly, and at low price, what direct production can only furnish more expensively.

Now it is very evident that the system of Mr. So-and-so, the Congressman, is directly opposed to that of Mr. So-and-so, the agriculturist. Were he consistent with himself, he would as legislator vote against all restriction; or else as farmer, he would practise in his fields the same principle which he proclaims in the public councils. We would then see him sowing his grain in his most sterile fields, because he would thus succeed in laboring much, to obtain little. We would see him forbidding the use of the plough, because he could, by scratching up the soil with his nails, fully gratify his double wish of "dear bread and abundant labor."

Restriction has for its avowed object and acknowledged effect, the augmentation of labor. And again, equally avowed and acknowledged, its object and effect are, the increase of prices-a synonymous term for scarcity of produce. Pushed then to its greatest extreme, it is pure Sisyphism as we have defined it; labor infinite; result nothing.

There have been men who accused railways of injuring shipping; and it is certainly true that the most perfect means of attaining an object must always limit the use of a less perfect means. But railways can only injure shipping by drawing from it articles of transportation; this they can only do by transporting more cheaply; and they can only transport more cheaply, by diminishing the proportion of the effort employed to the result obtained-for it is in this that cheapness consists. When, therefore, these men lament the suppression of labor in attaining a given result, they maintain the doctrine of Sisyphism. Logically, if they prefer the vessel to the railway, they should also prefer the wagon to the vessel, the pack-saddle to the wagon, and the sack to the pack-saddle: for this is, of all known means of transportation, the one which requires the greatest amount of labor, in proportion to the result obtained.

"Labor constitutes the riches of the people," say some theorists. This was no elliptical expression, meaning that the "results of labor constitute the riches of the people." No; these theorists intended to say, that it is the intensity of labor which measures riches; and the proof of this is that from step to step, from restriction to restriction, they forced on the United States (and in so doing believed that they were doing well) to give to the procuring of, for instance, a certain quantity of iron, double the necessary labor. In England, iron was then at $20; in the United States it cost $40. Supposing the day's work to be worth $2.50, it is evident that the United States could, by barter, procure a ton of iron by eight days' labor taken from the labor of the nation. Thanks to the restrictive measures of these gentlemen, sixteen days' work were necessary to procure it, by direct production. Here then we have double labor for an identical result; therefore double riches; and riches, measured not by the result, but by the intensity of labor. Is not this pure and unadulterated Sisyphism?

That there may be nothing equivocal, these gentlemen carry their idea still farther, and on the same principle that we have heard them call the intensity of labor riches, we will find them calling the abundant results of labor and the plenty of everything proper to the satisfying of our wants, poverty. "Everywhere," they remark, "machinery has pushed aside manual labor; everywhere production is superabundant; everywhere the equilibrium is destroyed between the power of production and that of consumption." Here then we see that, according to these gentlemen, if the United States was in a critical situation it was because her productions were too abundant; there was too much intelligence, too much efficiency in her national labor. We were too well fed, too well clothed, too well supplied with everything; the rapid production was more than sufficient for our wants. It was necessary to put an end to this calamity, and therefore it became needful to force us, by restrictions, to work more in order to produce less.

All that we could have further to hope for, would be, that human intellect might sink and become extinct; for, while intellect exists, it cannot but seek continually to increase the proportion of the end to the means; of the product to the labor. Indeed it is in this continuous effort, and in this alone, that intellect consists.

Sisyphism has been the doctrine of all those who have been intrusted with the regulation of the industry of our country. It would not be just to reproach them with this; for this principle becomes that of our administration only because it prevails in Congress; it prevails in Congress only because it is sent there by the voters; and the voters are imbued with it only because public opinion is filled with it to repletion.

Let me repeat here, that I do not accuse the protectionists in Congress of being absolutely and always Sisyphists. Very certainly they are not such in their personal transactions; very certainly each of them will procure for himself by barter, what by direct production would be attainable only at a higher price. But I maintain that they are Sisyphists when they prevent the country from acting upon the same principle.

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