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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Protectionism’s (il)logic”

In my column for the July 13th, 2011, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I abridge Bastiat’s ‘Petition of the Candlemakers.’. You can read my abridgment beneath the fold.

Protectionism’s (il)logic

No one ranks higher in my pantheon of heroes than does Frederic Bastiat (1801-50). From southwestern France, Bastiat became in his short lifetime what he remains today: history’s greatest communicator of basic economics.

Many have challenged Bastiat for this distinction. Thomas Sowell, Steven Landsburg, my colleagues Walter Williams and Russell Roberts, and the late Milton Friedman and Henry Hazlitt come very close. But none quite has the perfect mix of brilliance, creativity and humor found in every tract that Bastiat penned.

Bastiat’s most famous essay is his 1845 satire “A Petition.” He sought to expose the idiocy of the notion that government makes a nation’s people wealthier by preventing the importation of low-cost goods and services that compete with the outputs of domestic producers. Realizing that great quantities of free sunlight are shipped daily to Earth, Bastiat penned a petition that might have been written by French candle-makers and submitted to the French government as a plea for protection from sunlight.

Here’s an abridged version of Bastiat’s enlightening “Petition.” Enjoy!

“From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, Candlesticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers, and Extinguishers, and from the Producers of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol, and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting.

“To the Honorable Members of the Chamber of Deputies.


“You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition.

“We suffer from the ruinous competition of a foreign rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he floods the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; from the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on us so mercilessly that we suspect he is being stirred up against us by perfidious Albion (England).

“We ask you to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights, and blinds — in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country, a country that cannot, without betraying ingratitude, abandon us today to so unequal a combat.

“Be good enough, honorable deputies, to take our request seriously, and do not reject it without at least hearing the reasons we advance in its support.

“First, if you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light, and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged?

“If France consumes more tallow, there will have to be more cattle and sheep, and, consequently, we shall see an increase in cleared fields, meat, wool, leather, and especially manure, the basis of all agricultural wealth.

“If France consumes more oil, we shall see an expansion in the cultivation of the poppy, the olive, and rapeseed. These rich yet soil-exhausting plants will come at just the right time to enable us to put to profitable use the increased fertility that the breeding of cattle will impart to the land.

“Thousands of vessels will engage in whaling, and in a short time we shall have a fleet capable of upholding the honor of France and of gratifying the patriotic aspirations of the undersigned petitioners, chandlers, etc.

“But what shall we say of the specialties of Parisian manufacture• Henceforth you will behold gilding, bronze, and crystal in candlesticks, in lamps, in chandeliers, in candelabra sparkling in spacious emporia compared with which those of today are but stalls.

“Will you tell us that, though we may gain by this protection, France will not gain at all, because the consumer will bear the expense?

“We have our answer ready:

“You no longer have the right to invoke the interests of the consumer. You have sacrificed him whenever you have found his interests opposed to those of the producer. You have done so in order to encourage industry and to increase employment. For the same reason you ought to do so this time too.

“The question is whether what you desire for France is the benefit of consumption free of charge or the alleged advantages of onerous production. Make your choice, but be logical; for as long as you ban, as you do, foreign coal, iron, wheat, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to admit the light of the sun, whose price is zero all day long!”

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