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Bastiat Exposes the Idiocy of Protectionism

History has yet to produce a foe of protectionism who is at once as skilled, as sharp, as logical, as consistent, as gripping, as unrelenting, as informed, as indomitable, as astute, and as entertaining as was Frédéric Bastiat. And while it’s folly to try to single out any one essay of Bastiat’s that is most effective at exposing the idiocy of protectionism, at least it’s possible – and worthwhile – to highlight a few of his essays that deserve special attention. Today I highlight Bastiat’s December 1847 essay “L’indiscret,” translated into English by David Hart as “The Man who asked Embarrassing Questions,” which is ES3-12, pp. 309-318, of Liberty Fund’s 2017 expanded English-language edition, brilliantly edited by David Hart, of Frédéric Bastiat’s indispensable work Economic Sophisms and “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.”

Pasted below is the first part of the essay, but do read the entire thing. It offers against protectionism an argument that is unanswerable.

Protection for national industry! Protection for national employment! You have to have a very warped mind and a heart that is truly perverse to decry a notion that is so fine and good.

Yes, certainly, if we were fully convinced that protection, as decreed by the Chamber with its double vote, had increased the well-being of all Frenchmen, including ourselves, if we thought that the ballot-box of the Chamber with its double vote that is more miraculous than the urn in Cana, had operated the miracle of the multiplication of foodstuffs, clothing, the means of work, transport and education, in a word, everything that composes the wealth of the country, we would be both foolish and perverse to demand free trade.

And why, in this case, would we not want protection? Well, Sirs, demonstrate to us that the favors it accords to some are not given at the expense of others; prove to us that it does good to everyone, to landowners, farmers, traders, manufacturers, artisans, workers, doctors, lawyers, civil servants, priests, writers or artists. Prove this to us and we promise you that we will align ourselves under its banner for, whatever you say, we are not yet mad.

And, as far as I am concerned, to show you that it is not through caprice or thoughtlessness that I have engaged myself in the struggle, I will tell you my story.

Having read widely, meditated deeply, gathered a host of observations, followed the fluctuations in the market in my village from week to week and carried out a lively correspondence with a number of traders, I finally arrived at the knowledge of this phenomenon:


From which I considered I might, without excessive boldness, draw the following conclusion:


With this discovery in my pocket, which ought to bring me as much fame as Mr. Proudhon expects from his famous formula: Property is theft, I mounted my humble steed like a new Don Quixote and went off to campaign.

First of all, I introduced myself to a wealthy landowner and asked him:

“Sir, be so good as to tell me why you are so attached to the measure taken in 1822 by the Chamber with its double vote with regard to cereals?”

“Heavens, it is obvious! It is because it enables me to sell my wheat better.”

“Therefore you think that, between 1822 and 1847, the price of wheat has on average been higher in France thanks to this law than it would have been without it?”

“Yes, certainly I think so; if not, I would not support it.”

“And if the price of wheat has been higher, it must have been because there has not been as much wheat in France under this law as without it, for if it had not affected quantity it would not have affected the price.”

“That goes without saying.”

I then drew from my pocket a notebook on which I wrote these words:

“On the admission of the landowner, for the last twenty-nine years in which the law has existed there has, in the end, been LESS WHEAT in France than there would have been without the law.”

I then went to a cattle farmer.

“Sir, would you be so good as to tell me why do you support the restriction placed on the entry of foreign steers by the Chamber with its double vote?”

“It is because, through these means, I sell my steers for a higher price.”

“But if the price of steers is higher because of this restriction, this is a certain sign that fewer steers have been sold, killed and eaten in the country in the last twenty-seven years than would have been the case without the restriction?”

“What a question! We voted for the restriction solely for this reason.”

I wrote the following words in my notebook:

“On the admission of the cattle-breeder, for the last twenty-seven years in which the restriction has existed, there have been FEWER STEERS in France than there would have been without the restriction.”

I then hurried off to an ironmaster.

“Sir, would you be so good as to tell me why you defend the protection that the Chamber with its double vote has accorded to iron so valiantly?”

“Because, thanks to it, I sell my iron for a higher price.”

“But then, also thanks to it, there is less iron in France than if it had not meddled in this, for if the quantity of iron on offer had been equal or greater, how would the price have been higher?”

“It is quite straightforward that the quantity is less, since the precise aim of this law was to prevent an invasion.”

And I wrote on my tablets:

“On the admission of the ironmaster, for twenty-seven years, France has had LESS IRON through protection than it would have had through freed trade.”

“It is all starting to become clear”, I said to myself, and I hurried off to a woolen cloth merchant.

“Sir, would you allow me a small item of information? Twenty-seven years ago, the Chamber with its double vote, of which you were a member, voted for the exclusion of foreign woolen cloth. What was its and your reason for doing this?”

“Do you not understand that it is so that I can make more profit from my woolen cloth and become rich more quickly?”

“That was my guess. But are you sure that you have succeeded? Is it certain that the price of woolen cloth has been higher during this period than if the law had been rejected?”

“There can be no doubt of this. Without the law, France would have been swamped with woolen cloth and the price would have become very low; this would have been a major disaster.”

“I don’t yet see that it would have been a disaster, but be that as it may, you must agree that the result of the law has been to ensure that there has been less woolen cloth in France?”

“This has not been not only the result of the law but its aim.”

“Very well”, said I and I wrote in my notebook:

“On the admission of the manufacturer, for the last twenty-seven years there has been LESS WOOLEN CLOTH in France because of prohibition.”

It would take too long and be too monotonous to go into further detail on this curious voyage of economic exploration.

Suffice it to say that I visited in succession a shepherd who sold wool, a colonial plantation owner who sold sugar, a salt manufacturer, a potter, a shareholder in coalmines, a manufacturer of machines, farm implements and tools, and everywhere I obtained the same reply.

I returned home to review my notes and put them into order. I can do no better than to publish them here.

“For the last twenty-seven years, thanks to the laws imposed on the country by the Chamber with its double vote, there has been in France:

Less wheat,

Less meat,

Less wool,

Less coal,

Fewer candles,

Less iron,

Less steel,

Fewer machines,

Fewer ploughs,

Fewer tools,

Less woolen cloth,

Less canvas,

Less yarn,

Less calico,

Less salt,

Less sugar,

And less of all the things that are used to feed, clothe and house men, to furnish, heat and light their dwellings, and to fortify their lives.

By the Good Lord in Heaven, I cried, since this is the case, FRANCE HAS BEEN LESS WEALTHY.

In my soul and conscience, before God and men, on the memory of my father, mother and sisters, on my eternal salvation, by all that is dear, precious, sacred and holy on this earth and in the next, I believed that my conclusion was accurate.

And if anyone proves the contrary to me, not only will I abandon any argument on these subjects but I will abandon any argument on anything at all, for what trust might I place in any argument if I was unable to have confidence in this?