Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on February 8, 2019

in Myths and Fallacies, Seen and Unseen, Trade

… is the entirety of Frédéric Bastiat’s very brief and brilliant essay, first published in 1846, “A Negative Railway” (“Un chemin de fer négatif”) as it appears in Liberty Fund’s 2017 expanded English-language edition, expertly edited by David Hart, of Bastiat’s great work Economic Sophisms and “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen” (original emphases):

I have said that when, unfortunately, we took the point of view of the producers’ interest, we could not fail to clash with the general interest, since producers, as such, demand only effort, needs, and obstacles.

I have found a remarkable example of this in a Bordeaux journal.

M. Simiot asks himself this question:

Should the Paris-to-Spain railway be offered to Bordeaux with a complete fracture in the line?

He answered it in the positive with a host of reasons that it is not my place to examine but which include the following:

The railway between Paris and Bayonne should be completely broken in two at Bordeaux so that goods and passengers forced to stop in the town would contribute revenue to boatmen, packmen, commission agents, shippers, hoteliers, etc.

It is clear that this is once again a case of the interest of producers being put ahead of the interest of consumers.

But if Bordeaux can be allowed to profit from this break in the line, and if this is in keeping with the public interest, Angoulême, Poitiers, Tours, Orleans, and more, all intermediary points, Ruffec, Châtellerault, etc., etc., must also demand breaks in the line in the general interest, that is of course in the interest of national production, since the more breaks there are, the more consignments, commissions, and transshipping there will be all along the line. With this system, we will have created a railway made up of consecutive segments, a negative railway.

Whether the protectionists want this or not, it is no less certain that the principle of trade restriction is the same as the principle of breaks in the line: the sacrifice of the consumer to the producer and of the end to the means.

DBx: Bastiat is correct. The ‘logic’ of protectionism is that prosperity arises from paucity. Protectionists see not only the incomes earned by workers who satisfy consumers’ needs, but see also the fact that the more pressing the need, the higher are the incomes earned by those who satisfy it. Protectionists then plunge headlong to the conclusion that the government of a country can make the people of that country more prosperous by arranging for them to have more and more-pressing needs.

This protectionist conclusion, of course, is preposterous. And when its ‘logic’ is laid bare protectionists strenuously deny that they believe any such thing. (One reason why those protectionists who know of Bastiat’s work so dislike this work is that Bastiat is unmatched in his ability to lay bare the absurdities of protectionists’ ‘logic.’) But this ‘logic’ is indeed the beating heart of nearly all protectionist proposals.

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