The great economist Frédéric Bastiat would have turned 214 today.
His contributions to liberty have been many, but while so many advocates of free markets focus on The Law, there is another book that represents his legacy even better: Economic Sophisms. This short work of essays epitomizes perhaps his most important contribution: using taut logic and compelling prose to bring the dry field of economics to hundreds of thousands of laymen.
Bastiat did not, generally, clear new ground in the field of economics. He read Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say and found little to add to these giants of economic thought. But Bastiat possessed a keen wit and a clear, pithy writing style. His writings have become immensely popular. One-hundred-and-fifty years after his death, essays like “A Petition” are still circulated as an effective counter to progressive economics.
Bastiat makes three central contributions in Economic Sophisms. First, he reminds us that we should care about the consumer, not just the producer. Second, he dismantles the argument that there are no economic laws. Third, and more generally, he is one of the few politicians and writers who thought with his head, not with his heart. Bastiat used logic to clearly lay out the consequences of political actions instead of hiding behind good intentions.
Surplus, Not Scarcity
Economic Sophisms expresses a common theme over and over again: we should craft policies that focus on consumers, not on producers.
When Bastiat uses these phrases, it can be easy to misinterpret him. Keynes, writing 100 years after Bastiat, hijacked the terms. But Bastiat wasn’t a Keynesian. When he discusses how consumption is the end goal of the economy, what he means is: having goods (which benefits consumers) is more important than making goods (which benefits producers). Put another way, producers prefer scarcity, because it drives up prices. Consumers prefer surplus for the opposite reason.
Producers advocate all sorts of methods for reducing the total quantity of goods (theirs excepted, of course). Producers seek to tax goods from other countries that compete with their own. They outlaw machines that would replace them. Producers even favor policies like burning food to drive up food prices, a policy that caused much starvation when it was enacted in the United States during the Great Depression. Consumers, by contrast, prefer abundance. They are happiest when they have a plethora of goods to choose from at a low price.
Bastiat points out that we are all consumers, including the producers. The man who produces railroads also uses his wages to buy goods. One can imagine a world with no producers, a paradise in which man’s every need is fulfilled by nature or a benevolent God. But one cannot imagine a world with no consumption. In such a world, man would not eat or drink, have clothing or buy luxuries. Consumption, and quality of life, is the essential yardstick to measure a society’s economic prosperity.
When we enact producer-backed measures like tariffs, Bastiat argues, we favor producers’ interests over consumers’. We show that we’d rather have scarcity than surplus. Taken to its logical extreme, such a policy is absurd. Would anyone truly argue that total scarcity is preferable to having plenty?
The Principle of No Principles
In Bastiat’s day, it was fashionable to claim that no real principles exist. X may cause Y, but a smaller X needn’t cause a smaller Y; it could cause Z instead, or A. Today, we see the same logic: people who claim, for instance, that a minimum wage hike to $100 would kill jobs but that a hike to $10.10 would somehow create them.
In essay after essay, Bastiat destroys this myth. Economics is not a foggy morass where up is sometimes down, left can be right, and there are no absolute truths. Economics is not like nutrition, where a glass of wine can heal while two gallons can kill.
In economics, a cause will produce a correlational effect, regardless of how large the cause is. If small X causes small Y, large X causes large Y. A minimum wage hike to $100 will kill many jobs; a minimum wage hike to $10.10 will still kill some. The effect does not vary, only the size of it.
Indeed, one of Bastiat’s most common argumentative tools is reductio ad absurdum, or carrying a concept to its logical conclusion. Opponents of mechanization want to force railroads to stop at one city and unload goods, thereby generating work for the porters? Very well, says Bastiat. Why not have them stop at three cities instead? Surely that would generate even more work for the porters. Why not stop at twenty cities? Why not have a railroad composed of nothing but stops that will make work for the porters?
By carrying concepts to their logical conclusion, Bastiat provides a firm antidote to the fuzzy thinking of protectionist advocates.
Think with Your Head
In Bastiat’s time, just as today, it was popular to think with one’s heart. “We must do something!” went the rallying cry; never mind the consequences. Good intentions were enough.
Make-work, for instance, has always been a favorite policy of those who think with their hearts. They see men and women unemployed and demand government take action. Often, this action takes the form of impeding human progress: using porters instead of railroads, for instance. The initial consequence, for the porters, is positive: more end up employed. But Bastiat recognizes that such policies, while they may protect the porters, harm the economy as a whole. They raise prices and create scarcity.
Bastiat looked at more than just the direct consequence of an action. He examined all the outcomes, using taut chains of logic to demonstrate how each policy would impact those whom he was most focused on — the consumer.
Bastiat did not invent any new economic tools or schools of thought. But the clear logic with which he thought through economic ideas, and the clear and witty prose with which he lambasted those who did not do so, have made him one of the most popular economic figures of all time.
Bastiat’s ideas in this text have been borrowed, rehashed, and republished for over 150 years. His insights have been appropriated by dozens of prominent thinkers. Most famously, Henry Hazlitt based Economics in One Lesson largely on the essays in Economic Sophisms. As we make note of his 214th birthday, perhaps we should raise a toast to the man whose ideas — in all their adopted formats — have done so much for the cause of liberty.