Economic Sophisms *

Frédéric Bastiat was born in Bayonne, France on June 29, 1801, the son of a wholesale merchant. However, Frédéric was orphaned at the age of nine and was brought up by his grandfather and his aunt.

Bastiat lived in a revolutionary period. He was fourteen when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo and exiled to St. Helena. Frédéric Bastiat rose to prominence with the publication of an article favoring free trade. Bastiat was, beyond all other men, an economic pamphleteer, the greatest exposer of economic fallacies, the most powerful champion of free trade on the European Continent.

Bastiat's chief method of argument was the method of exaggeration. He was the master of the redutio ad absurdum. He used exaggeration to ridicule political ideas that reduced economic efficiency. If local farmers need to be protected against foreigners, why not protect candle-makers from the superior competition of the sun? Why not petition the Chamber of Deputies to outlaw windows to increase the production of candles?

If politicians wanted to prevent free trade by forcing trains to stop and transfer their cargo to increase jobs, why not force all trains to reload every ten miles? every two miles? The following essay demonstrates the use of Bastiat's wit to illustrate the negative consequences of protecting favored groups from direct competition.

Bastiat had more than scintillating wit and felicity of expressions. His logic, too, was powerful. Once he had grasped and explained a principle, he could put the argument in so many forms as to leave no one an excuse for missing or evading it.

Bastiat is accused of being something of a polemicist and he was. It was unfortunate that for so long he stood alone, while other "orthodox" economists refrained from criticizing socialism or defending capitalism for fear of losing their reputations for "scientific impartiality," and so left the field entirely to the socialist and communist agitators who were less timorous in this respect. We could use more Bastiats today.

Protectionism, or the Three Aldermen

A Demonstration in Four Scenes

Scene 1.

The scene takes place in the mansion of Peter, an alderman. The window looks out upon a beautiful grove of trees; three gentlemen are seated at a table near a blazing fire.

Peter: I must say, there is nothing like a good fire after a satisfying meal. You have to admit that it is very agreeable indeed. But, alas, how many good people, like the Roi d'Yvetot

Are blowing on their fingers
From lack of firewood!1

Unfortunate creatures! A charitable idea that must be an inspiration from Heaven has just occurred to me. You see those fine trees? I want them cut down and the wood distributed among the poor.

Paul and John: What! Free of charge?
Peter: Not exactly. My good deeds would soon be at an end if I dissipated my estate that way. I estimate my grove of trees to be worth a thousand livres;2 by chopping them down, I shall get a good deal more for them.

Paul: Not so. Your wood as it stands is worth more than that of the neighboring forests, because it performs services that the latter cannot perform. Once your trees are chopped down, they will be good only for firewood, like the rest, and not be worth a denier3 more per load.

Peter: Ho, ho! Mr. Theorist, you are forgetting that I am a practical man. I should think my reputation as a speculator well enough established to prevent me from being taken for a fool. Do you think I am going to amuse myself by selling my wood at the same price as floated wood?4

Paul: You will simply have to.

Peter: How naive you are! And suppose I stop floated wood from reaching Paris?

Paul: That would change matters. But how would you go about it?

Peter: Here is the whole secret. You know that floated wood pays ten sous a load on entering the city. Tomorrow I persuade the alderman to raise the duty to 100, 200, 300 livres -- in short, high enough to keep even a single log from getting in. Now do you understand? If the good people do not want to die of cold, they will have no alternative but to come to my woodyard. They will scramble for my wood, I shall sell it for its weight in gold, and this well-organized charitable undertaking will put me in a position to conduct others.

Paul: What a wonderful project! It gives me the idea for another just as efficacious.

John: Tell us what it is. Does it also involve philanthropy?

Paul: What do you think of this butter from Normandy?

John: Excellent.

Paul: Well, maybe! It seemed tolerable to me a moment ago. But do you not find that it bums your throat? I intend to produce a better quality in Paris. I shall have four or five hundred cows and arrange to distribute milk, butter, and cheese among the poor.

Peter and John: What! As charity?

Paul: Nonsense! Let us always maintain an appearance of charity. It has so fair a face that even its mask is an excellent passport. I shall give my butter to the people, and the people will give me their money. Do you call that selling?

John: Not according to Le Bourgeois gentilhomme;5 but whatever you may choose to call it, you will ruin yourself. Can Paris compete with Normandy in the raising of cows?

Paul: I shall gain the advantage by saving the costs of transportation.

John: All right. But even after paying these costs, the Normans can still bear the Parisians.6
Paul: Do you call it beating someone to let him have things at low prices?

John: That is the customary term. The fact remains that you will be the one who is beaten.

Paul: Yes, like Don Quixote. The blows will fall on Sancho. John, my friend, you forget the octroi.

John: The octroi! What connection does it have with our butter?

Paul: From tomorrow on, I shall demand protection; I shall persuade the commune to keep butter from Normandy and Brittany from entering Paris. Then the people will either have to get along without it or buy mine, and at my price, too.

John: I must say, gentlemen, I feel myself quite caught up in the wave of your humanitarianism.

"One learns to howl," says the proverb, "by living with the wolves."

My mind is made up. No one shall say that I am an unworthy alderman. Peter, this crackling fire has set your soul aflame; Paul, this butter has activated your intellectual faculties; and now I feel that this piece of salt pork is likewise sharpening my wits. Tomorrow I shall vote, and have others vote, for the exclusion of pigs, living or dead; that done, I shall build superb pens in the head of Paris

For the unclean animal forbidden to the Hebrews.

I shall become a swineherd and pork butcher. Let us see how the good people of Paris will avoid coming to provision themselves at my shop.

Peter: Not so fast, gentlemen. If you increase the price of butter and salt pork in this way, you will cut beforehand the profit I was expecting from my wood.

Paul: Well, my project will no longer be so wonderful either, if you levy tribute on me for your logs and your hams.

John: And what shall I gain by overcharging you for my sausages, if you overcharge me for faggots and for the butter on my bread?

Peter: Well, there is no reason why we should quarrel this. Let us rather co-operate with one another and make reciprocal concessions. Besides, it is not good to consult only one's own self-interest; one should consider mankind as well. Must we not make sure the people are warm?

Paul: Quite true. And the people must have butter to spread on their bread.

John: Undoubtedly. And a bit a bacon for their stew.

All: Hurrah for charity! Long live humanitarianism! Tomorrow we shall take the City Hall by storm.

Peter: Ah! I forgot. One more word; it is essential. My friends, in this age of selfishness, the world is distrustful; and the purest intentions are often misinterpreted. Paul, you plead the case for local wood; John, you defend local butter; and I, for my part, shall devote myself to the protection of the local hog. It is well to forestall evil-minded suspicions.

Paul and John
Upon my word, there's a clever man!

Economic Sophisms

Scene 2.

Meeting of the Board of Aldermen

Paul: My dear colleagues, every day large quantities of wood enter Paris, and as a result large sums of money leave the city. At this rate we shall all be ruined in three years, and then what will become of the poor? [Cheers.] Let us ban all foreign wood. It is not on my behalf that I am speaking, because all the wood I own would not make one toothpick. Hence, I am completely free from any personal interests in regard to this question. [Hear! Hear!] But Peter here has a grove of trees and will guarantee to supply fuel for our fellow citizens, who will no longer be dependent upon charcoal sellers of the Yonne.7 Has it ever occurred to you that we run the danger of dying of cold if the owners of the foreign forests took it into their heads not to deliver wood to Paris any longer? Therefore, let us ban their wood. By this means we shall prevent the draining away of our money, create a domestic woodcutting industry and open to our workers a new source of employment and income. [Applause]

John: I support this proposal by the distinguished previous speaker, who is so humanitarian, and, as he himself said, so completely disinterested. It is high time we put a stop to this brazen laissez passer, which has brought unbridled competition into our market, so that there is not one province whose situation is at all advantageous for the production of any commodity whatsoever that does not flood us with it, undersell us, and destroy Parisian industry. It is the duty of the government to equalize the conditions of production by the imposition of judiciously selected duties, to admit only goods that cost more outside Paris than they do within the city, and in this way to extricate us from an unequal contest. How, for instance, can we be expected to produce milk and butter in Paris in competition with Brittany and Normandy? Just remember, gentlemen, that it costs the Bretons less for their land, their fodder, and their labor. Is it not only common sense to equalize opportunities by a protective town tariff: I demand that the duty on milk and butter be raised to 1000%, and higher if need be. Breakfast may cost the people a little more on that account, but how their wages will go up as well! We shall see barns and dairies rising, creameries multiply, new industries established. It is not that I stand to profit in the least from the adoption of my proposal. I am not a cowherd, nor do I wish to be one. My only desire is to be helpful to the toiling masses. [Cheers and applause.]

Peter: I am delighted to find that this assembly includes statesmen so pure in heart, so enlightened, so dedicated to the best interests of the people. [Cheers.] I admire their disinterestedness, and I can do no better than imitate their noble example. I second their motion, and I add to it a motion of my own to prohibit the entry of pigs from Poitou.8 It is not that I have any desire to become a swineherd or a pork butcher; in that case, my conscience would make it my duty to remain silent. But is it not disgraceful, gentlemen, that we should be forced to pay tribute to these Poitou peasants, who have the audacity to come right into our own market and seize possession of an industry that we ourselves could carry on; and who, after flooding us with their sausages and hams, take perhaps nothing from us in return? In any case, who will tell us that the balance of trade is not in their favor and that we are not obliged to pay them the balance due in hard cash? Is it not clear that if this industry were transplanted from Poitou to Paris, it would create jobs for Parisian workingmen? And then, gentlemen, is it not quite possible, as M. Lestiboudois so well observed, that we may be buying salt pork from Poitou, not with what we sell them in return, but with our capital? How long can we go on doing that? Let us not, then, allow a pack of greedy, grasping, false-hearted competitors to come here and undersell us and make it impossible for us to produce the same commodities ourselves. Aldermen, Paris has put her trust in us; it is for us to justify that trust. The people are without jobs; it is for us to create jobs for them; and if salt pork costs them a little more, we shall at least have the consciousness of having sacrificed our personal interests to those of the masses, as every right-thinking alderman should do. [Thunderous applause.]

A Voice: I hear a great deal of talk about the poor; but, under the pretext of giving them jobs, you begin by depriving them of what is worth more than the job itself-wood, butter, and soup.

Peter, Paul
and John:
Put our motions to a vote! Put them to a vote! Away with utopians, theorists, abstract thinkers! Put them to a vote! Put them to a vote! [The three motions are carried.]

Scene 3.

Twenty Years Later: Jacques Bonhomme and His Son

The Son: Father, make up your mind to it; we must leave Paris. We cannot live here any longer. There is no work to be had, and everything is frightfully expensive.

The Father: My son, you do not know what a wrench it is for one to leave the place where one was born.

The Son: It is even worse to starve to death.

The Father: Go, my son, seek a more hospitable land. As for myself, I shall not leave this place, where your mother, your brothers, and your sisters are buried. I long to find at last by their side the rest that has been denied me in this city of desolation.

The Son: Take heart, dear father; we shall find work somewhere else-in Poitou, in Normandy, or in Brittany. It is said that all the industries of Paris are gradually moving to these distant provinces.

The Father: That is quite understandable. Being unable any longer to sell us wood and provisions, the people of these provinces have ceased to produce beyond their own needs; whatever time and capital they have available they devote to making for themselves what we once used to furnish them with.

The Son: Just as at Paris they have stopped making fine furniture and beautiful clothing, and have turned to planting trees and raising pigs and cows. Although still young, I have lived to see great stores, elegant neighborhoods, and busy docks along the banks of the Seine overgrown with weeds and underbrush.

The Father: While the hinterland is being covered with cities, Paris is becoming a bare field. What an appalling reversal! And it took just three misguided aldermen, helped by public ignorance, to bring this frightful calamity upon US.

The Son: Tell me its history, Father.

The Father: It is really quite simple. Under the pretext of establishing three new branches of industry in Paris and of thereby increasing job opportunities for the working classes, these men had the importation of wood, butter, and meat prohibited. They arrogated to themselves the right to provide their fellow citizens with these commodities. First, their prices rose to exorbitant heights. No one was earning enough to afford them, and the small number of those who could obtain some, by spending all their earnings on them, were no longer able to buy anything else. This at once spelled the doom of all the industries in Paris, and the end came all the more quickly as the provinces no longer provided our city with a market for its products. Poverty, death, and emigration began to depopulate Paris.

The Son: And when is this going to stop?

The Father: When Paris has become a forest and a prairie.

The Son: The three aldermen must have made a great deal of money.

The Father: At first they realized enormous profits; but in the long run they were engulfed in the general misery.

The Son: How is that possible?

The Father: This ruin you are looking at was once a splendid mansion encircled by a beautiful grove of trees. If Paris had continued to expand, Squire Peter would get more in rent from it than he could sell it for today.

The Son: How can that be, since he no longer has any competition?

The Father: Competition among sellers has disappeared, but competition among buyers is disappearing every day and will continue to disappear until Paris has become an open country and the brushwood of Squire Peter has no more value than an equal area of brushwood in the forest of Bondy.9 It is thus that monopoly, like every injustice, carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.

The Son: That does not seem altogether clear to me, but what is incontestable is the decadence of Paris. Is there, then, no way of repealing this iniquitous law that Peter and his colleagues had the town council adopt twenty years ago?

The Father: I am going to tell you a secret. I am staying in Paris to do just that. I shall call the people to my assistance. It depends upon them to restore the town tariff duties to their former basis, to rid them of the deadly principle that was grafted onto them and that has continued to vegetate there like a parasitical fungus.

The Son: You are sure to succeed in this from the very first.

The Father: Oh, on the contrary, the task is difficult and toilsome. Peter, Paul, and John understand one another wonderfully well. They are ready to do anything rather than permit wood, butter, and meat to enter Paris. They have on their side the people themselves, who see clearly the jobs that these three protected industries give them, who know how many wood cutters and cowherds they give employment to, but who cannot have as clear an idea of how much employment would develop in the spacious atmosphere of free trade.

The Son: If that is all they need, you will enlighten them.

The Father: My child, at your age one never lacks confidence. If I write, the people will not read what I have to say; for with all the hours they must work to eke out their miserable existence, they have no time left for reading. If I speak, the aldermen will shut my mouth. Thus, the people will long continue in their disastrously mistaken ways, and the political parties that place their trust in arousing popular passions will concern themselves far less with dispelling error than with exploiting the prevailing prejudices. Therefore, I shall have on my hands at one and the same time the two most powerful forces of our age-the people and the political parties. Oh! I see a frightful storm ready to burst over the head of anyone bold enough to venture a protest against an iniquity so deeply rooted in this country.

The Son: You will have justice and truth on your side.

The Father: And they will have force and calumny on theirs. If only I were young again! But age and suffering have exhausted my strength.

The Son: Well, father, dedicate what strength you still have to the service of your country. Begin this work of liberation and leave me as my legacy the task of completing it.

Scene 4.

Popular Uprising

Parisians, let us demand the reform of the town tariff duties; let us insist that they be restored to their original purpose. Let every citizen be free to buy wood, butter, and meat wherever he sees fit.

The People: Long live freedom!

Peter: Parisians, do not let yourselves be misled by that word. What difference does the freedom to buy make to you, if you do not have the means? And how can you have the means, if you do not have a job? Can Paris produce wood as cheaply as the forest of Bondy, meat as inexpensively as Poitou, butter as easily as Normandy? If you open your gates freely to these competitive products, what will become of the cowherds, the woodcutters, and the pork butchers? They cannot do without protection.

The People: Long live protection!

Protection! But is it you, the workers, who are being protected? Do you not compete with one another? Then let the wood dealers experience competition in their turn. They have no right to raise the price of their wood by law unless they also raise wage rates by law. Are you no longer in love with equality?

The People: Long live equality!

Peter: Do not listen to this agitator. We have, it is true, raised the price of wood, of meat, and of butter; but we have done so in order to be able to give good wages to the workers. We are prompted by motives of charity.

The People: Long live charity!

Use the town tariff duties, if you can, to raise wages, or else do not use them to raise commodity prices. What the people of Paris demand is not charity, but justice.

The People: Long live justice!

Peter: It is precisely high commodity prices that make for high wages.

The People: Long live high prices!

If butter is dear, it is not because you are paying high wages to the workers; it is not even because you are making big profits; it is solely because Paris is ill-situated for that industry, because you insisted that people produce in the city what they should be producing in the country, and in the county what used to be produced in the city. It is not that there are more jobs for the people, but only jobs of a different kind. It is not that their wages are higher, but that the prices at which they buy things are no longer as low.

The People: Long live low prices!

Peter: This man is seducing you with his honeyed words. Let us put the question in all its simplicity. Is it not true that if we grant entry to butter, wood, and meat, we shall be flooded with them? Shall we not perish of the surfeit? There is, thus, no other way of saving ourselves from this new species of invasion than by slamming the gates in its face, and no other way of maintaining commodity prices than by producing an artificial scarcity.

Some Few Scattered Voices: Long live scarcity!

Let us put the question to the test of truth. One can divide among all the people in Paris only what there is in Paris; if there is less meat, less wood, less butter, each person's share will be smaller. Now, there will be less of these commodities if we ban them than if we admit them. Parisians, there can be abundance for everyone only in so far as there is general abundance.

The People: Long live abundance!

Peter: This man can talk all he wants; he will never be able to show you that it is in your interest to be subjected to unbridled competition.

The People: Down with competition!

This man can declaim all he wants; he cannot make it possible for you to taste the sweets of restriction.

The People: Down with restriction!

Peter: And I, for my part, declare that if the poor cowherds and swineherds are to be deprived of their daily bread, if they are to be sacrificed to theories, I can no longer be answerable for public order. Workingmen, put no faith in that man. He is an agent of perfidious Normandy; he goes there to get his orders. He is a traitor; he must be hanged. (The people remain silent.)

Parisians, everything I am saying today, I was saying twenty years ago, when Peter took it into his head to exploit the town tariff duties for his own advantage and to your disadvantage. I am not, then, an agent of the Normans. Hang me if you will, but that will not make oppression any the less oppressive. Friends, it is neither Jacques Bonhomme nor Peter who must be killed, but free trade if it frightens you, or restriction if it does you harm.

The People: Let us hang no one, and set everybody free.


1 [Reference to the most famous of all the popular songs of Pierre-Jean de Beranger (1780-1857).-- Translator.]

2 [An old French monetary unit, originally equal to the value of a pound of silver, but gradually reduced and finally replaced by the franc. -- Translator.]

3 [A coin of minor denomination, worth about three-fifths of a sou, deriving from the Roman denaritus, in use up to the French Revolution. -- Translator.]

4 [Wood for fuel used to be floated down the Seine into Paris. -- Translator.]

5 [In Moliere's The Would-Be Gentleman, a flatterer assures M. Jourdain that this father did not "sell" dry goods; he merely "gave them away for money," thus "proving" that he was a noble and not a bourgeois. -- Translator.]

6 [There is a pun here almost impossible to render into English. The French word battre, which means "beat," also means "churn." -- Translator.]

7 [A French department southeast of Paris, situated on the Yonne River, a tributary of the Seine. -- Translator.]

8 [A province of France, southwest of Paris. -- Translator.]

9 [A forest just north of Paris, notorious as a resort of thieves. -- Translator.]

Note: From the Economic Sophisms by Frédéric Bastiat. Reprinted by special permission of The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 10533.

Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850)

Unknown translator (someone from the FEE).

Downloaded from the Joint Economic Committee site at the US Senate.

Slightly edited by Faré Rideau for See also the original french text "Les trois échevins", or the whole of Bastiat's Economic Sophisms.