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Bastiat’s Brilliance

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Frederic Bastiat [2] possessed an unsurpassed, and seldom matched, talent for seeing to the heart, the fallacious essence, of protectionist arguments.  Consider this passage from Chapter Four of his book Economic Harmonies [3]:

We can give the general name of obstacle to everything that, coming between our wants and our satisfactions, calls forth our efforts.

The interrelations of these four elements—want, obstacle, effort, satisfaction—are perfectly evident and understandable in the case of man in a state of isolation. Never, never in the world, would it occur to us to say:

“It is too bad that Robinson Crusoe does not encounter more obstacles; for, in that case, he would have more outlets for his efforts; he would be richer.

“It is too bad that the sea has cast up on the shore of the Isle of Despair useful articles, boards, provisions, arms, books; for it deprives Robinson Crusoe of an outlet for his efforts; he is poorer.

“It is too bad that Robinson Crusoe has invented nets to catch fish or game; for it lessens by that much the efforts he exerts for a given result; he is less rich.

“It is too bad that Robinson Crusoe is not sick oftener. It would give him the chance to practice medicine on himself, which is a form of labor; and, since all wealth comes from labor, he would be richer.

“It is too bad that Robinson Crusoe succeeded in putting out the fire that endangered his cabin. He has lost an invaluable opportunity for labor; he is less rich.

“It is too bad that the land on the Isle of Despair is not more barren, the spring not farther away, the sun not below the horizon more of the time. Robinson Crusoe would have more trouble providing himself with food, drink, light; he would be richer.”

Never, I say, would people advance such absurd propositions as oracles of truth. It would be too completely evident that wealth does not consist in the amount of effort required for each satisfaction obtained, but that the exact opposite is true. We should understand that value does not consist in the want or the obstacle or the effort, but in the satisfaction; and we should readily admit that although Robinson Crusoe is both producer and consumer, in order to gauge his progress, we must look, not at his labor, but at its results. In brief, in stating the axiom that the paramount interest is that of the consumer, we should feel that we were simply stating a veritable truism.

How happy will nations be when they see clearly how and why what we find false and what we find true of man in isolation continue to be false or true of man in society!

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