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What Is Free Trade? By Frédérick Bastiat Characters: 33708

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The protectionists often use the following argument:

"It is our belief that protection should correspond to, should be the representation of, the difference which exists between the price of an article of home production and a similar article of foreign production. A protective duty calculated upon such a basis does nothing more than secure free competition; free competition can only exist where there is an equality in the facilities of production. In a horse-race the load which each horse carries is weighed and all advantages equalized; otherwise there could be no competition. In commerce, if one producer can undersell all others, he ceases to be a competitor and becomes a monopolist. Suppress the protection which represents the difference of price according to each, and foreign produce must immediately inundate and obtain the monopoly of our market. Every one ought to wish, for his own sake and for that of the community, that the productions of the country should be protected against foreign competition, whenever the latter may be able to undersell the former."

This argument is constantly recurring in all writings of the protectionist school. It is my intention to make a careful investigation of its merits, and I must begin by soliciting the attention and the patience of the reader. I will first examine into the inequalities which depend upon natural causes, and afterwards into those which are caused by diversity of taxes.

Here, as elsewhere, we find the theorists who favor protection taking part with the producer. Let us consider the case of the unfortunate consumer, who seems to have entirely escaped their attention. They compare the field of protection to the turf. But on the turf, the race is at once a means and an end. The public has no interest in the struggle, independent of the struggle itself. When your horses are started in the course with the single object of determining which is the best runner, nothing is more natural than that their burdens should be equalized. But if your object were to send an important and critical piece of intelligence, could you without incongruity place obstacles to the speed of that one whose fleetness would secure you the best means of attaining your end? And yet this is your course in relation to industry. You forget the end aimed at, which is the well-being of the community; you set it aside; more, you sacrifice it by a perfect petitio principii.

But we cannot lead our opponents to look at things from our point of view; let us now take theirs: let us examine the question as producers.

I will seek to prove:

1. That equalizing the facilities of production is to attack the foundations of mutual exchange.

2. That it is not true that the labor of one country can be crushed by the competition of more favored climates.

3. That, even were this the case, protective duties cannot equalize the facilities of production.

4. That freedom of trade equalizes these conditions as much as possible; and

5. That the countries which are the least favored by nature are those which profit most by mutual exchange.

1. Equalizing the facilities of production is to attack the foundations of mutual exchange. The equalizing of the facilities of production, is not only the shackling of certain articles of commerce, but it is the attacking of the system of mutual exchange in its very foundation principle. For this system is based precisely upon the very diversities, or, if the expression be preferred, upon the inequalities of fertility, climate, temperature, capabilities, which the protectionists seek to render null. If New England sends its manufactures to the West, and the West sends corn to New England, it is because these two sections are, from different circumstances, induced to turn their attention to the production of different articles. Is there any other rule for international exchanges?

Again, to bring against such exchanges the very inequalities of condition which excite and explain them, is to attack them in their very cause of being. The protective system, closely followed up, would bring men to live like snails, in a state of complete isolation. In short, there is not one of its sophisms, which, if carried through by vigorous deductions, would not end in destruction and annihilation.

2. It is not true that the labor of one country can be crushed by the competition of more favored climates. The statement is not true that the unequal facility of production, between two similar branches of industry, should necessarily cause the destruction of the one which is the least fortunate. On the turf, if one horse gains the prize, the other loses it; but when two horses work to produce any useful article, each produces in proportion to his strength; and because the stronger is the more useful it does not follow that the weaker is good for nothing. Wheat is cultivated in every section of the United States, although there are great differences in the degree of fertility existing among them. If it happens that there be one which does not cultivate it, it is because, even to itself, such cultivation is not useful. Analogy will show us, that under the influences of an unshackled trade, notwithstanding similar differences, wheat would be produced in every portion of the world; and if any nation were induced to entirely abandon the cultivation of it, this would only be because it would be her interest to otherwise employ her lands, her capital, and her labor. And why does not the fertility of one department paralyze the agriculture of a neighboring and less favored one? Because the phenomena of political economy have a suppleness, an elasticity, and, so to speak, a self-levelling power, which seems to escape the attention of the school of protectionists. They accuse us of being theoretic, but it is themselves who are so to a supreme degree, if the being theoretic consists in building up systems upon the experience of a single fact, instead of profiting by the experience of a series of facts. In the above example, it is the difference in the value of lands which compensates for the difference in their fertility. Your field produces three times as much as mine. Yes. But it has cost you ten times as much, and therefore I can still compete with you: this is the sole mystery. And observe how the advantage on one point leads to disadvantage on the other. Precisely because your soil is more fruitful it is more dear. It is not accidentally but necessarily that the equilibrium is established, or at least inclines to establish itself: and can it be denied that perfect freedom in exchanges is of all systems the one which favors this tendency?

I have cited an agricultural example; I might as easily have taken one from any trade. There are tailors at Barnegat, but that does not prevent tailors from being in New York also, although the latter have to pay a much higher rent, as well as higher price for furniture, workmen, and food. But their customers are sufficiently numerous not only to re?stablish the balance, but also to make it lean on their side.

When, therefore, the question is about equalizing the advantages of labor, it would be well to consider whether the natural freedom of exchange is not the best umpire.

This self-levelling faculty of political phenomena is so important, and at the same time so well calculated to cause us to admire the providential wisdom which presides over the equalizing government of society, that I must ask permission a little longer to turn to it the attention of the reader.

The protectionists say, Such a nation has the advantage over us, in being able to procure cheaply, coal, iron, machinery, capital; it is impossible for us to compete with it.

We must examine this proposition under other aspects. For the present, I stop at the question, whether, when an advantage and a disadvantage are placed in juxtaposition, they do not bear in themselves, the former a descending, the latter an ascending power, which must end by placing them in a just equilibrium?

Let us suppose the countries A and B. A has every advantage over B; you thence conclude that labor will be concentrated upon A, while B must be abandoned. A, you say, sells much more than it buys; B buys much more than it sells. I might dispute this, but I will meet you upon your own ground.

In the hypothesis, labor being in great demand in A, soon rises in value; while labor, iron, coal, lands, food, capital, all being little sought after in B, soon fall in price.

Again: A being always selling and B always buying, cash passes from B to A. It is abundant in A, very scarce in B.

But where there is abundance of cash, it follows that in all purchases a large proportion of it will be needed. Then in A, real dearness, which proceeds from a very active demand, is added to nominal dearness, the consequence of a superabundance of the precious metals.

Scarcity of money implies that little is necessary for each purchase. Then in B, a nominal cheapness is combined with real cheapness.

Under these circumstances, industry will have the strongest possible motives for deserting A to establish itself in B.

Now, to return to what would be the true course of things. As the progress of such events is always gradual, industry from its nature being opposed to sudden transits, let us suppose that, without waiting the extreme point, it will have gradually divided itself between A and B, according to the laws of supply and demand; that is to say, according to the laws of justice and usefulness.

I do not advance an empty hypothesis when I say, that were it possible that industry should concentrate itself upon a single point, there must, from its nature, arise spontaneously, and in its midst, AN IRRESISTIBLE POWER OF DECENTRALIZATION.

We will quote the words of a manufacturer to the Chamber of Commerce at Manchester (the figures brought into his demonstration being suppressed):

"Formerly we exported goods; this exportation gave way to that of thread for the manufacture of goods; later, instead of thread, we exported machinery for the making of thread; then capital for the construction of machinery; and lastly, workmen and talent, which are the source of capital. All these elements of labor have, one after the other, transferred themselves to other points, where their profits were increased, and where the means of subsistence being less difficult to obtain, life is maintained at less cost. There are at present to be seen in Prussia, Austria, Saxony, Switzerland, and Italy, immense manufacturing establishments, founded entirely by English capital, worked by English labor, and directed by English talent."

We may here perceive that Nature, with more wisdom and foresight than the narrow and rigid system of the protectionists can suppose, does not permit the concentration of labor, and the monopoly of advantages, from which they draw their arguments as from an absolute and irremediable fact. It has, by means as simple as they are infallible, provided for dispersion, diffusion, mutual dependence, and simultaneous progress; all of which, your restrictive laws paralyze as much as is in their power, by their tendency towards the isolation of nations. By this means they render much more decided the differences existing in the conditions of production; they check the self-levelling power of industry, prevent fusion of interests, neutralize the counterpoise, and fence in each nation within its own peculiar advantages and disadvantages.

3. Even were the labor of one country crushed by the competition of more favored climates (which is denied), protective duties cannot equalize the facilities of production. To say that by a protective law the conditions of production are equalized, is to disguise an error under false terms. It is not true that an import duty equalizes the conditions of production. These remain after the imposition of the duty just as they were before. The most that law can do is to equalize the conditions of sale. If it should be said that I am playing upon words, I retort the accusation upon my adversaries. It is for them to prove that production and sale are synonymous terms, which if they cannot do, I have a right to accuse them, if not of playing upon words, at least of confounding them.

Let me be permitted to exemplify my idea.

Suppose that several New York speculators should determine to devote themselves to the production of oranges. They know that the oranges of Portugal can be sold in New York at one cent each, whilst on account of the boxes, hot-houses, &c., which are necessary to ward against the severity of our climate, it is impossible to raise them at less than a dollar apiece. They accordingly demand a duty of ninety-nine cents upon Portugal oranges. With the help of this duty, say they, the conditions of production will be equalized. Congress, yielding as usual to this argument, imposes a duty of ninety-nine cents on each foreign orange.

Now I say that the relative conditions of production are in no wise changed. The law can take nothing from the heat of the sun in Lisbon, nor from the severity of the frosts in New York. Oranges continuing to mature themselves naturally on the banks of the Tagus, and artificially upon those of the Hudson, must continue to require for their production much more labor on the latter than the former. The law can only equalize the conditions of sale. It is evident that while the Portuguese sell their oranges here at a dollar apiece, the ninety-nine cents which go to pay the tax are taken from the American consumer. Now look at the whimsicality of the result. Upon each Portuguese orange, the country loses nothing; for the ninety-nine cents which the consumer pays to satisfy the impost tax, enter into the treasury. There is improper distribution; but no loss. But upon each American orange consumed, there will be about ninety-nine cents lost; for while the buyer very certainly loses them, the seller just as certainly does not gain them; for, even according to the hypothesis, he will receive only the price of production, I will leave it to the protectionists to draw their conclusion.

4. But freedom of trade equalizes these conditions as much as is possible. I have laid some stress upon this distinction between the conditions of production and those of sale, which perhaps the prohibitionists may consider as paradoxical, because it leads me on to what they will consider as a still stranger paradox. This is: If you really wish to equalize the facilities of production, leave trade free.

This may surprise the protectionists; but let me entreat them to listen, if it be only through curiosity, to the end of my argument. It shall not be long. I will now take it up where we left off.

If we suppose for the moment, that the common and daily profits of each American amount to one dollar, it will indisputably follow that to produce an orange by direct labor in America, one day's work, or its equivalent, will be requisite; whilst to produce the cost of a Portuguese orange, only one-hundredth of this day's labor is required; which means simply this, that the sun does at Lisbon what labor does at New York. Now is it not evident, that if I can produce an orange, or, what is the same thing, the means of buying it, with one-hundredth of a day's labor, I am placed exactly in the same condition as the Portuguese producer himself, excepting the expense of the transportation? It therefore follows that freedom of commerce equalizes the conditions of production direct or indirect, as much as it is possible to equalize them; for it leaves but the one inevitable difference, that of transportation.

I will add that free trade equalizes also the facilities for attaining enjoyments, comforts, and general consumption; the last, an object which is, it would seem, quite forgotten, and which is nevertheless all-important; since, in fine, consumption is the main object of all our industrial efforts. Thanks to freedom of trade, we would enjoy here the results of the Portuguese sun, as well as Portugal itself; and the inhabitants of New York would have in their reach, as well as those of London, and with the same facilities, the advantages which nature has in a mineralogical point of view conferred upon Cornwall.

5. Countries least favored by nature (countries not yet cleared of forests, for example) are those which profit most by mutual exchange. The protectionists may suppose me in a paradoxical humor, for I go further still. I say, and I sincerely believe, that if any two countries are placed in unequal circumstances as to advantages of production, the one of the two which is the less favored by nature, will gain more by freedom of commerce. To prove this, I wi

ll be obliged to turn somewhat aside from the form of reasoning which belongs to this work. I will do so, however; first, because the question in discussion turns upon this point; and again, because it will give me the opportunity of exhibiting a law of political economy of the highest importance, and which, well understood, seems to me to be destined to lead back to this science all those sects which, in our days, are seeking in the land of chimeras that social harmony which they have been unable to discover in nature. I speak of the law of consumption, which the majority of political economists may well be reproached with having too much neglected.

Consumption is the end, the final cause of all the phenomena of political economy, and, consequently, in it is found their final solution.

No effect, whether favorable or unfavorable, can be vested permanently in the producer. His advantages and disadvantages, derived from his relations to nature and to society, both pass gradually from him; and by an almost insensible tendency are absorbed and fused into the community at large-the community considered as consumers. This is an admirable law, alike in its cause and its effects; and he who shall succeed in making it well understood, will have a right to say, "I have not, in my passage through the world, forgotten to pay my tribute to society."

Every circumstance which favors the work of production is of course hailed with joy by the producer, for its immediate effect is to enable him to render greater services to the community, and to exact from it a greater remuneration. Every circumstance which injures production, must equally be the source of uneasiness to him; for its immediate effect is to diminish his services, and consequently his remuneration. This is a fortunate and necessary law of nature. The immediate good or evil of favorable or unfavorable circumstances must fall upon the producer, in order to influence him invisibly to seek the one and to avoid the other.

Again: when an inventor succeeds in his labor-saving machine, the immediate benefit of this success is received by him. This again is necessary, to determine him to devote his attention to it. It is also just; because it is just that an effort crowned with success should bring its own reward.

But these effects, good and bad, although permanent in themselves, are not so as regards the producer. If they had been so, a principle of progressive and consequently infinite inequality would have been introduced among men. This good, and this evil, both therefore pass on, to become absorbed in the general destinies of humanity.

How does this come about? I will try to make it understood by some examples.

Let us go back to the thirteenth century. Men who gave themselves up to the business of copying, received for this service a remuneration regulated by the general rate of the profits. Among them is found one, who seeks and finds the means of rapidly multiplying copies of the same work. He invents printing. The first effect of this is, that the individual is enriched, while many more are impoverished. At the first view, wonderful as the discovery is, one hesitates in deciding whether it is not more injurious than useful. It seems to have introduced into the world, as I said above, an element of infinite inequality. Guttenberg makes large profits by this invention, and perfects the invention by the profits, until all other copyists are ruined. As for the public-the consumer-it gains but little, for Guttenberg takes care to lower the price of books only just so much as is necessary to undersell all rivals.

But the great Mind which put harmony into the movements of celestial bodies, could also give it to the internal mechanism of society. We will see the advantages of this invention escaping from the individual, to become for ever the common patrimony of mankind.

The process finally becomes known. Guttenberg is no longer alone in his art; others imitate him. Their profits are at first considerable. They are recompensed for being the first who made the effort to imitate the processes of the newly-invented art. This again was necessary, in order that they might be induced to the effort, and thus forward the great and final result to which we approach. They gain largely; but they gain less than the inventor, for competition has commenced its work. The price of books now continually decreases. The gains of the imitators diminish in proportion as the invention becomes older; and in the same proportion imitation becomes less meritorious. Soon the new object of industry attains its normal condition; in other words, the remuneration of printers is no longer an exception to the general rules of remuneration, and, like that of copyists formerly, it is only regulated by the general rate of profits. Here then the producer, as such, holds only the old position. The discovery, however, has been made; the saving of time, labor, effort, for a fixed result, for a certain number of volumes, is realized. But in what is this manifested? In the cheap price of books. For the good of whom? For the good of the consumer-of society-of humanity. Printers, having no longer any peculiar merit, receive no longer a peculiar remuneration. As men-as consumers-they no doubt participate in the advantages which the invention confers upon the community; but that is all. As printers, as producers, they are placed upon the ordinary footing of all other producers. Society pays them for their labor, and not for the usefulness of the invention. That has become a gratuitous benefit, a common heritage to mankind.

The wisdom and beauty of these laws strike me with admiration and reverence.

What has been said of printing, can be extended to every agent for the advancement of labor-from the nail and the mallet, up to the locomotive and the electric telegraph. Society enjoys all, by the abundance of its use, its consumption; and it enjoys all gratuitously. For as their effect is to diminish prices, it is evident that just so much of the price as is taken off by their intervention, renders the production in so far gratuitous. There only remains the actual labor of man to be paid for; and the remainder, which is the result of the invention, is subtracted; at least after the invention has run through the cycle which I have just described as its destined course. I send for a workman; he brings a saw with him; I pay him two dollars for his day's labor, and he saws me twenty-five boards. If the saw had not been invented, he would perhaps not have been able to make one board, and I would none the less have paid him for his day's labor. The usefulness, then, of the saw, is for me a gratuitous gift of nature, or rather, is a portion of the inheritance which, in common with my brother men, I have received from the genius of my ancestors. I have two workmen in my field; the one directs the handle of a plough, the other that of a spade. The result of their day's labor is very different, but the price is the same, because the remuneration is proportioned, not to the usefulness of the result, but to the effort, the [time, and] labor given to attain it.

I invoke the patience of the reader, and beg him to believe, that I have not lost sight of free trade: I entreat him only to remember the conclusion at which I have arrived: Remuneration is not proportioned to the usefulness of the articles brought by the producer into the market, but to the [time and] labor required for their production.[B]

[B] It is true that [time and] labor do not receive a uniform remuneration; because labor is more or less intense, dangerous, skilful, &c., [and time more or less valuable.] Competition establishes for each category a price current: and it is of this variable price that I speak.

I have so far taken my examples from human inventions, but will now go on to speak of natural advantages.

In every article of production, nature and man must concur. But the portion of nature is always gratuitous. Only so much of the usefulness of an article as is the result of human labor becomes the object of mutual exchange, and consequently of remuneration. The remuneration varies much, no doubt, in proportion to the intensity of the labor, of the skill, which it requires, of its being à-propos to the demand of the day, of the need which exists for it, of the momentary absence of competition, &c. But it is not the less true in principle, that the assistance received from natural laws, which belongs to all, counts for nothing in the price.

We do not pay for the air we breathe, although so useful to us, that we could not live two minutes without it. We do not pay for it, because nature furnishes it without the intervention of man's labor. But if we wish to separate one of the gases which compose it for instance, to fill a balloon, we must take some [time and] labor; or if another takes it for us, we must give him an equivalent in something which will have cost us the trouble of production. From which we see that the exchange is between efforts, [time and] labor. It is certainly not for hydrogen gas that I pay, for this is everywhere at my disposal, but for the work that it has been necessary to accomplish in order to disengage it; work which I have been spared, and which I must refund. If I am told that there are other things to pay for, as expense, materials, apparatus, I answer, that still in these things it is the work that I pay for. The price of the coal employed is only the representation of the [time and] labor necessary to dig and transport it.

We do not pay for the light of the sun, because nature alone gives it to us. But we pay for the light of gas, tallow, oil, wax, because here is labor to be remunerated;-and remark, that it is so entirely [time and] labor and not utility to which remuneration is proportioned, that it may well happen that one of these means of lighting, while it may be much more effective than another, may still cost less. To cause this, it is only necessary that less [time and] human labor should be required to furnish it.

When the water-boat comes to supply my ship, were I to pay in proportion to the absolute utility of the water, my whole fortune would not be sufficient. But I pay only for the trouble taken. If more is required, I can get another boat to furnish it, or finally go and get it myself. The water itself is not the subject of the bargain, but the labor required to obtain the water. This point of view is so important, and the consequences that I am going to draw from it so clear, as regards the freedom of international exchanges, that I will still elucidate my idea by a few more examples.

The alimentary substance contained in potatoes does not cost us very dear, because a great deal of it is attainable with little work. We pay more for wheat, because, to produce it, Nature requires more labor from man. It is evident that if Nature did for the latter what she does for the former, their prices would tend to the same level. It is impossible that the producer of wheat should permanently gain more than the producer of potatoes. The law of competition cannot allow it.

Again, if by a happy miracle the fertility of all arable lands were to be increased, it would not be the agriculturist, but the consumer, who would profit by this phenomenon; for the result of it would be abundance and cheapness. There would be less labor incorporated into an acre of grain, and the agriculturist would be therefore obliged to exchange it for less labor incorporated into some other article. If, on the contrary, the fertility of the soil were suddenly to deteriorate, the share of nature in production would be less, that of labor greater, and the result would be higher prices.

I am right then in saying that it is in consumption, in mankind, that at length all political phenomena find their solution. As long as we fail to follow their effects to this point, and look only at immediate effects, which act but upon individual men or classes of men as producers, we know nothing more of political economy than the quack does of medicine, when instead of following the effects of a prescription in its action upon the whole system, he satisfies himself with knowing how it affects the palate and the throat.

The tropical regions are very favorable to the production of sugar and coffee; that is to say, Nature does most of the business and leaves but little for labor to accomplish. But who reaps the advantage of this liberality of Nature? Not these regions, for they are forced by competition to receive remuneration simply for their labor. It is mankind who is the gainer; for the result of this liberality is cheapness, and cheapness belongs to the world.

Here in the temperate zone, we find coal and iron ore on the surface of the soil; we have but to stoop and take them. At first, I grant, the immediate inhabitants profit by this fortunate circumstance. But soon comes competition, and the price of coal and iron falls, until this gift of nature becomes gratuitous to all, and human labor is only paid according to the general rate of profits.

Thus, natural advantages, like improvements in the process of production, are, or have, a constant tendency to become, under the law of competition, the common and gratuitous patrimony of consumers, of society, of mankind. Countries, therefore, which do not enjoy these advantages, must gain by commerce with those which do; because the exchanges of commerce are between labor and labor, subtraction being made of all the natural advantages which are combined with these labors; and it is evidently the most favored countries which can incorporate into a given labor the largest proportion of these natural advantages. Their produce representing less labor, receives less recompense; in other words, is cheaper. If then all the liberality of Nature results in cheapness, it is evidently not the producing, but the consuming country, which profits by her benefits.

Hence we may see the enormous absurdity of the consuming country, which rejects produce precisely because it is cheap. It is as though we should say: "We will have nothing of that which Nature gives you. You ask of us an effort equal to two, in order to furnish ourselves with produce only attainable at home by an effort equal to four. You can do it because with you Nature does half the work. But we will have nothing to do with it; we will wait till your climate, becoming more inclement, forces you to ask of us a labor equal to four, and then we can treat with you upon an equal footing!"

A is a favored country; B is maltreated by Nature. Mutual traffic then is advantageous to both, but principally to B, because the exchange is not between utility and utility, but between value and value. Now A furnishes a greater utility in a similar value, because the utility of any article includes at once what Nature and what labor have done; whereas the value of it only corresponds to the portion accomplished by labor. B then makes an entirely advantageous bargain; for by simply paying the producer from A for his labor, it receives in return not only the results of that labor, but in addition there is thrown in whatever may have accrued from the superior bounty of Nature.

We will lay down the general rule.

Traffic is an exchange of values; and as value is reduced by competition to the simple representation of labor, traffic is the exchange of equal labors. Whatever Nature has done towards the production of the articles exchanged, is given on both sides gratuitously; from whence it necessarily follows, that the most advantageous commerce is transacted with those countries which are the least favored by Nature.

The theory of which I have attempted in this chapter to trace the outlines, deserves a much greater elaboration. But perhaps the attentive reader will have perceived in it the fruitful seed which is destined in its future growth to smother Protectionism, at once with the various other isms whose object is to exclude the law of Competition from the government of the world. Competition, no doubt, considering man as producer, must often interfere with his individual and immediate interests. But if we consider the great object of all labor, the universal good, in a word, Consumption, we cannot fail to find that Competition is to the moral world what the law of equilibrium is to the material one. It is the foundation of true gratification, of true Liberty and Equality, of the equality of comforts and condition, so much sought after in our day; and if so many sincere reformers, so many earnest friends to public right, seek to reach their end by commercial legislation, it is only because they do not yet understand commercial freedom.

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