Frédéric Bastiat’s Economic Sophism: A Book Review
Claude Frédéric Bastiat is one of the most important figures in the history of classical liberalism. While Bastiat was only productive in liberal causes only for a few years, he became one of France’s most excellent proponents of liberal thinking during a crucial stage of history. Bastiat’s thoughts on and initiatives for free trade are linked to major changes in France’s legislation, which happened after his untimely death (Institute for Liberal Values, 2007). Bastiat first published an article in 1844, commenting on the hypocrisy of a group of merchants who had lobbied the government to get rid of tariffs on agricultural products but who wanted tariffs maintained on manufactured goods. His basic premise is that: “You demand privilege for a few, I demand liberty for all.”
In 1845, Bastiat’s first series of essays aimed at exposing economic fallacies appeared on his influential book, Economic Sophism; the second series of essays followed in 1848. The essays contained in the book are considered as among the most well-argued and influential refutations of the major fallacies of protectionism, such as the following, among others: “Free trade places us at the mercy of our enemies in case of war”; “The introduction of machinery means fewer jobs”; “We need colonies to provide markets for the products of our industry”; “Imports must be restricted to restore the balance of trade”; “There are no economic laws or absolute principles”, and so on.
Bastiat’s thesis in his series of essays in Economic Sophism is that the common good lies in the interest of the consumer, thus, what he is trying to convey to the readers is the need of always looking at economic questions from the perspective of the consumer, rather than that of the producer. According to him, advocates of protectionism are taking the point of view of producers, refusing to take into consideration the consumers. Moreover, Bastiat states that the common root of all the economic sophisms is that they disregard the interests of men in their capacity as consumers.
Overall, Bastiat’s arguments in Economic Sophisms lend support to the thesis.
One of Bastiat’s major arguments is that it will always be as has always been the interest of producers to have high and/or guaranteed revenues, which is achieved by creating scarcity (increasing demand and decreasing supply). In this fashion, it will always be as has always been the interest of consumers as such to have low and/or guaranteed prices, which is achieved by creating abundance (decreasing demand and increasing supply). Producers will continually try to impose protectionist schemes; consumers, on the other hand, will continually push for freedom. As mentioned earlier, Bastiat argues that the common good lies in the interest of the consumer.
Moreover, according to Bastiat, there is a constant endeavor among members of the society to live and to prosper at one another’s expense. For him: “Men have an immoderate love of pleasure, influence, prestige, power – in a word, wealth. And, at the same time, they are driven by a powerful impulse to obtain these things for themselves at the expense of others.” Plunder – a purely local and transient evil, condemned by moral philosophy, punished by law, and unworthy of the attention of political economy – prevents the social from improving. However, Bastiat is not blaming the individuals; rather, he puts the blame on the general tendency of public opinion that blinds and misleads these individuals, a tendency of which, according to Bastiat, the whole of society is guilty. Bastiat further states: “If the greatest philosophers were incapable of seeing the iniquity of slavery, how much easier it is for farmers and manufacturers to deceive themselves concerning the nature and effects of protectionism!”
One can remark about Bastiat’s clarity of thought and the persuasiveness the arguments and evidence he presents in each of his essays in Economic Sophism. His work marshals high-spirited wit and logic in the cause of understanding society, liberty, and prosperity. Certainly, many readers are one with Bastiat in calling for liberty for all, not only for a privileged few. Bastiat’s aim in his writing “is not to inspire convictions, but to raise doubts”. After reading the essays, I began questioning whether protective tariffs really keep domestic wages high, or whether high prices really reflect a high standard of living.
However, I do not think that Bastiat’s work is likely to persuade his intended audience, those people who are oppressed by the protectionist system. This is because of their strong belief to the half-truths made by advocates of protectionism. As Bastiat admits, “our opponents in this argument have a marked advantage over us. They need only a few words to set forth a half-truth; whereas, in order to show that it is a half-truth, we have to resort to long and arid dissertations”. As to the proponents of protectionism, as well as politicians, they are unlikely to be persuaded by Bastiat’s arguments because of the incompatibility between ideas and interest and because of rational ignorance (Lemennicier, 2001).
Bastiat attacked some persistent fallacies in economics which were frequently used in his time. Still, more than 150 years after the writings of essays in Economic Sophism, it seems as if nothing much has changed. Nobody seems to learn from them. This is disappointing as similar sophisms proliferate today by academic economists; in Bastiat’s time, he was at least attacking these sophisms alongside economists against popular beliefs.
Bastiat, F. C. (1996). Economic Sophisms. The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc. 1996. Trans. and ed. A. Goddard. Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education
Institute for liberal Values (2007). Frédéric Bastiat. Retrieved July 7, 2007 from http://www.liberalvalues.org.nz/index.php?action=view_author;author_id=18.
Lemennicier, B. (2001). Why Sophisms Die-hard: The Power of Ideas over Interests. An international conference organized by Le Cercle Frédéric Bastiat, and sponsored by The International Society for Individual Liberty and Libertarian International, July 1-5.