Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wants, Efforts, Satisfactions - Frédéric Bastiat - 1

What a profoundly appalling spectacle France presents! It would be difficult to say whether anarchy has passed from a theory to a fact or from a fact to a theory, but it is certain that it has spread everywhere.
The poor have risen against the rich; the proletariat against the capitalists; agriculture against industry; the country against the city; the provinces against the capital; the native-born against the foreigners.
And now the theorists who seek to build a system out of all this division and conflict step forward. “It is theinevitable result,” they say, “of the nature of things, that is, of freedom. Man is possessed of self-love, and this is the cause of all the evil; for, since he is possessed of self-love, he strives for his own well-being and can find it only at the expense of his brothers' misfortune. Let us, then, prevent him from following his impulses; let us stifle liberty; let us change the human heart; let us find another motivating force to replace the one that God gave him; let us invent an artificial society and direct it as it should go!”
When the theorist reaches this point, he sees an endless vista arising to challenge his logic or his imagination. If his mind runs to dialectics and his temperament to melancholy, he devotes himself wholly to the analysis of evil; he dissects it, he puts it in the test tube, he probes it, he goes back to its very beginnings, he follows it forward to its ultimate consequences; and since, in view of our innate imperfection, there is nothing in which evil is not present, there is nothing at which he fails to carp bitterly. He presents only one side of the question when he examines property, the family, capital, industry, competition, freedom, self-interest—the damaging and destructive side. He reduces human biology, so to speak, to a clinical post-mortem. He defies God to reconcile what has been said of His infinite goodness with the existence of evil. He defiles everything, he makes everything distasteful, he denies everything; nevertheless, he does succeed in winning a certain sullen and dangerous following among those classes whose suffering has made them only too vulnerable to despair.
If, on the other hand, our theorist has a heart open to benevolence and a mind that delights in illusions, he takes off for the happy land of dreams. He dreams of Oceanas, Atlantises, Salentes, Spensones, Icarias, Utopias, and Phalansteries; he peoples them with docile, loving, devoted beings who would never impede the dreamer's flights of fancy. He complacently sets himself up in his role of Providence. He arranges, he disposes, he creates men to his own taste. Nothing stops him; no disappointment overtakes him. He is like the Roman preacher who, pretending that his square cap was Rousseau, refuted vigorously the Social Contract and then triumphantly declared that he had reduced his adversary to silence. In just this way the reformer dangles before the eyes of people in misery a seductive picture of ideal bliss well fitted to make them lose their taste for the harsh necessities of real life.
But the utopian is rarely content to stop at these innocent dreams. As soon as he tries to win mankind over to them, he discovers that people do not readily lend themselves to transformation. Men resist; they grow bitter. In order to win them over, he speaks not merely of the good things that they are rejecting; he speaks especially of the evils from which he proposes to deliver them. He cannot paint these too strikingly. He grows accustomed to increasing the intensity of the colors on his palette. He seeks out the evil in present-day society as passionately as another would seek out the good. He sees only suffering, rags, emaciated bodies, starvation, pain, oppression. He is amazed, he is exasperated, by the fact that society is not sufficiently aware of all its misery. He neglects nothing as he tries to make it shake off its apathy, and, after beginning with benevolence, he, too, ends with misanthropy.2
God forbid that I should question any man's sincerity! But I really cannot understand how those political theorists who see a fundamental antagonism at the foundation of the natural order of society can enjoy a moment's calm and repose. It seems to me that discouragement and despair must be their unhappy lot. For if nature erred in making self-interest the mainspring of human society (and her error is evident as soon as we admit that men's interests are inherently antagonistic), how can they fail to see that the evil is beyond repair? Not being able to go beyond men, for we are men ourselves, where shall we find a fulcrum for our lever with which to change human tendencies? Shall we call upon law and order, the magistrates, the state, the legislator? But to do so is to appeal to men, that is, to beings subject to the common infirmity. Shall we resort to universal suffrage? But this is only giving the freest rein of all to the universal tendency.
Only one recourse, then, remains open to these social planners. They must pass themselves off as the possessors of a special revelation, as prophets, molded from a different clay, drawing their inspiration from a different source from that of the rest of mankind; and this is doubtless the reason that we often see them enveloping their systems and their admonitions in mystical phraseology. But if they are sent from God, let them prove their high calling. In the last analysis, what they desire is supreme authority, the most absolute, despotic power that ever existed. They not only desire to control our actions; they even go so far as to propose to alter the very nature of our feelings. The least that can be asked is that they show their credentials. Do they expect that humanity will take them at their word, especially when they can come to no agreement among themselves?
But, before we examine their blueprints for artificial societies, is there not something we should make sure of, namely: Are they not on the wrong track from the very outset? Is it, indeed, certain that men's interests are inherently antagonistic, that inequality develops inevitably and irremediably in the natural order of human society, under the influence of self-interest, and that God, therefore, was obviously wrong when He told man to pursue his own happiness?
This is what I propose to investigate.
Taking man as God saw fit to make him, capable of anticipating the future and of learning from the past, hence perfectible, given to self-love admittedly, but kindly disposed toward others and invariably quick to respond to their kindly affections, I seek to learn what social order necessarily results from the combination of these elements if their free play is not interfered with.
If we find that the resulting order leads progressively toward the general welfare, improvement and equality; toward the physical, intellectual, and moral leveling of all classes, and that this level is constantly raised; then God's ways will be vindicated. We shall learn to our joy that there are no gaps in the creation, and that the social order, like all the others, bears witness to the existence of the harmonious laws before which Newton bowed in reverence, and which moved the psalmist to cry out: Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei.
Rousseau said: “If I were a prince or a lawgiver, I should not waste my time saying what must be done; I should do it, or hold my tongue.”
I am not a prince, but the confidence of my fellow citizens in me has made me a lawgiver. Perhaps they will tell me that it is time for me to act and not to write.
I ask their pardon. Whether it is the truth itself that urges me on, or whether I am the victim of an illusion, the fact remains that I feel the need of putting together into a single volume ideas for which, to date, I have failed to win acceptance because I have presented them separately, as scattered fragments. It seems to me that I perceive in the interplay of the natural laws of society sublime and reassuring harmonies. What I see, or think I see, must I not try to show to others, in order to rally together around an ideal of peace and brotherhood men whose minds have been misled, whose hearts have become embittered? If, when our beloved ship of state is tossed by the storm, I appear sometimes to withdraw, in order to get my bearings, from the post to which I have been called, the reason is that my feeble hands are unavailing at the helm. And besides, am I betraying my trust when I reflect on the causes of the storm and strive to act accordingly? And who knows whether it would be granted to me to do tomorrow what I should fail to do today?
I shall begin by setting down a few general ideas about economics. Using the works of my predecessors, I shall try to sum up the science of political economy in a single, simple, true, and constructive principle, one that political economists from the very beginning have been dimly aware of and have come closer and closer to comprehending. Perhaps the time has now come to give it expression in a definitive formula. Then, in the light of this clear knowledge, I shall try to resolve a few of the problems still controversial, such as competition, the role of the machine, foreign trade, luxury, capital, income from investments, etc. I shall point out some of the relationships, or rather, the harmonies, that exist between political economy and the other moral and social sciences, with a glance at the important topics designated by the words “self-interest,” “property,” “public ownership,” “liberty,” “equality,” “responsibility,” “solidarity,” “brotherhood,” “unity.” Finally, I shall call the reader's attention to the artificial obstacles that beset the peaceful, orderly, and progressive development of human society. From these two ideas—natural, harmonious laws, on the one hand, and artificial, disruptive elements on the other—will be deduced the solution of the social problem.
It would be difficult to fail to see the pitfalls that threaten this undertaking from two sides. In the midst of the hurricane that is sweeping us along, if our book is too abstruse, it will not be read; if it succeeds in winning readers, it will be because the questions it poses have been touched upon only lightly. How can we reconcile scientific integrity with the demands of the reader? To satisfy all the requirements of form and content, we should have to weigh each word and study its context. It is thus that the crystal is formed drop by drop in silence and obscurity. Silence, retirement, time, peace of mind—I have none of these: and I am compelled to appeal to the good sense of the public and to beg its indulgence.
The subject of political economy is man.
But it does not embrace the whole man. Religious sentiment, paternal and maternal affection, filial devotion, love, friendship, patriotism, charity, politeness—these belong to the moral realm, which embraces all the appealing regions of human sympathy, leaving for the sister science of political economy only the cold domain of self-interest. This fact is unfairly forgotten when we reproach political economy with lacking the charm and grace of moral philosophy. How could it be otherwise? Let us challenge the right of political economy to exist as a science, but let us not force it to pretend to be what it is not. If human transactions whose object is wealth are vast enough and complicated enough to constitute a special science, let us grant it its own special appeal, and not reduce it to talking of self-interest in the language of sentiment. I am personally convinced that recently we have done it no service by demanding from it a tone of enthusiastic sentimentality that from its lips can sound only like hollow declamation. What does it deal with? With transactions carried on between people who do not know each other, who owe each other nothing beyond simple justice, who are defending and seeking to advance their own self-interest. It deals with claims that are restricted and limited by other claims, where self-sacrifice and unselfish dedication have no place. Take up the poet's lyre, then, to speak of these things. I would as soon see Lamartine consult a table of logarithms to sing his odes.3
This is not to say that political economy does not have its own special poetry. Whenever there is order and harmony, there is poetry. But it is to be found in the results, not in the demonstrations. It is revealed; it is not created by the demonstrator. Kepler did not set himself up as a poet; yet certainly the laws he discovered are the true poetry of the mind.
Thus, political economy regards man from one side only, and our first concern must be to study him from this point of view. For this reason we cannot avoid going back to the primary phenomena of human sensation and activity. Let me reassure the reader, however. Our stay in the cloudy regions of metaphysics will not be a long one, and we shall borrow from this science only a few simple, clear, and, if possible, incontestable ideas.
The soul (or, not to become involved in spiritual questions, man) is endowed with the faculty of sense perception. Whether sense perception resides in the body or in the soul, the fact remains that as a passive being he experiences sensations that are painful or pleasurable. As an active being he strives to banish the former and multiply the latter. The result, which affects him again as a passive being, can be called satisfaction.
From the general idea of sensation come the more definite ideas of pain, wants, desires, tastes, appetites, on the one hand; and, on the other, of pleasure, enjoyment, fulfillment, and well-being.
Between these extremes is interposed a mean, and from the general idea of activity come the more definite ideas of pain, effort, fatigue, labor, and production.
An analysis of sensation and activity shows one word common to both domains, the word pain. It is painful to experience certain sensations, and we can stop them only by an effort that we call taking pains. Thus, we are apprised that here below we have little else than the choice of two evils.
Everything in this complex of phenomena is on the personal level, the sensation that precedes the effort as well as the satisfaction that follows it.

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