We advocates of free trade are accused of being theorists, of not taking practice sufficiently into consideration.

“In what a frightfully prejudicial light M. Say is put,” observes M. Ferrier, “by that long line of distinguished administrators and that imposing band of writers who disagreed with his views! And M. Say was not unaware of it. Let us see how he deals with it:

“People have asserted, in support of long-standing errors, that there must really be some truth in ideas so generally accepted in all countries. Should we not mistrust observations and conclusions that run counter to opinions that up to our own day have been held to be well founded, and that have been regarded as certain by so many persons who are esteemed for their knowledge and disinterestedness? This argument, I admit, is very plausible and might well cast doubt even on the most indisputable matters, were it not for the fact that the most erroneous opinions whose falsity is now generally recognized—were successively accepted and propagated by everybody for century after century. It was not very long ago that all nations, from the most barbarous to the most enlightened, and all men, from the lowliest porter to the wisest philosopher, accepted it as true that there are four elements. No one would have dreamed of disputing this doctrine, which, nevertheless, is false; so much so that there is not a naturalist’s assistant who would not bring himself into disrepute if he regarded earth, water, and fire as elements.”

Upon this, M. Ferrier makes the following observation:

If M. Say thinks that this comment constitutes an adequate reply to the very strong objection he raises, he is singularly mistaken. It is understandable that men otherwise very well-informed should have been in error for several centuries concerning some point or other in natural history. This fact, in itself, proves nothing. Whether or not water, air, earth, and fire are elements, they are not less useful to man. Such errors are of no consequence; they do not lead to riots; they do not unsettle men’s minds; above all, they do not have an adverse effect on anyone’s well-being, and that is why they could endure for thousands of years without occasioning the slightest inconvenience. The physical world goes on as if they did not exist. But can the same be said of errors that attack the moral world? Is it to be supposed that an absolutely wrong, and consequently harmful, system of government could be maintained for several centuries and among many nations with the general approval of all educated men? Can it be explained how such a system could be compatible with the constantly increasing prosperity of these nations? M. Say concedes that the argument he is combatting is very plausible. Indeed it is, and it retains its plausibility, for M. Say has increased rather than destroyed it.

Now let us hear what M. de Saint-Chamans has to say on this subject:

It was not until the middle of the eighteenth century—that age in which no subject or principle was exempt from discussion—that these purveyors of speculative ideas, which were applied to everything without being applicable to anything, began writing on political economy. The system of political economy that existed previously was not put in written form, but was practiced by governments. Colbert, it is said, was its inventor, and it was the system that prevailed in all the nations of Europe. What is even more extraordinary, it still does so today, in spite of the abuse and the scorn directed against it, and in spite of all the discoveries made by modern economics. This system, which our authors have called the mercantilist system, consisted in …. banning, whether by outright exclusion or by the imposition of customs duties, foreign products that could destroy our industries by their competition….. Economists of all schools have pronounced this system inept, absurd, and likely to impoverish the whole country; it has been banished from all their books and forced to take refuge in the practice of every nation; and they cannot conceive why, in what concerns the wealth of nations, governments should not rely upon the advice of learned authors rather than trust to their long experience with a system, etc….. Above all, they cannot understand why the French government should,…. in matters of political economy, go on obstinately resisting the advance of knowledge and retaining in its practice those inveterate errors which all our writers on economics have exposed….. But enough of this mercantilist system, which has nothing in its favor but the facts, and which is not defended by any writers!

Words such as these might lead one to suppose that the economists, in demanding for everyone the freedom to dispose of his property, have, like the Fourierists, excogitated a new social order, visionary and bizarre—a sort of phalanstery without precedent in the annals of the human race. Yet it seems to me that if anything is contrived or contingent, it is not free trade, but protectionism; it is not the freedom to engage in voluntary exchange, but the use of the tariff to upset artificially the natural order in the pricing process.

However, our concern here is not to compare or evaluate the two systems, but to inquire which of the two is based on experience.

Now, in regard to this question, which is all that interests us for the moment, you advocates of monopoly contend that the facts are on your side, and that we have only theories on ours.

You even flatter yourselves that the long series of governmental actions, the long experience of Europe, which you invoke, has seemed to M. Say to carry a certain weight; and I concede that he has not refuted you protectionists on this point with his customary acumen. But I do not concede your claim that the facts are in your favor; for the only facts on your side are isolated cases resulting from the exercise of compulsion, whereas on our side we have the universal practice of mankind, the free and voluntary actions of all men.

What do we say, and what do you say?

We say:

“It is better to buy from another what it would be more costly to make oneself.”

And you say:

“It is better to make things oneself, even if it would be less expensive to buy them from another.”

Now, gentlemen, setting aside theory, demonstration, and reasoning, all of which seem to fill you protectionists with disgust, which of these two assertions enjoys the sanction of universal practice?

Visit fields, workshops, mills, and stores; look around you everywhere; examine what is done in your own household; observe your own actions at every moment; and then say which principle it is that guides these farmers, workers, industrialists, and merchants, not to mention your own personal practice.

Does the farmer make his own clothes? Does the tailor raise the wheat that he consumes? Does your housekeeper continue to bake bread at home when she finds she can buy it more cheaply at the bakery? Do you propose to give up the pen for the shoebrush in order to avoid paying tribute to the bootblack? Does not the whole economy of society depend on the division of labor, i.e., on exchange? And what is exchange but the calculation that induces us, so far as possible, to discontinue direct production whenever indirect acquisition enables us to effect a saving in time and effort?

It is not you, therefore, who are the practical men, for you could not point to a single person on the face of the earth who acts according to your principle.

But, you may say, we never intended to make our principle a guide for individual relations. We fully understand that this would be to break the bonds of society and to force men to live like snails, each in his own shell. We mean only that this is the prevailing practice in the relations that have been established among different groups of men.

Well, this assertion too is erroneous. The family, the commune, the canton, the department, the province, are just so many groups that all, without any exception, reject your principle in practice and have never even dreamed of acting on it. All procure for themselves by way of exchange whatever it would cost them more to procure by way of direct production. And nations would do the same if you did not prevent them by force.

It is therefore we who are the practical men; we are the ones who base our principles on experience; for, in order to oppose the restrictions that you have chosen to place upon a certain part of international trade, we base our argument on the practice and experience of every individual and every group of individuals whose acts are voluntary and can therefore be adduced as evidence. You, on the other hand, begin by coercing or by impeding, and then you seize upon forced or prohibited acts to support your case: “See; practice proves us in the right!”

You inveigh against our theory, and even against theory in general. But, when you put forward a principle antagonistic to ours, did you perchance imagine that you were not framing a theory? Disabuse yourselves, gentlemen. You are theorists no less than we; but between your theory and ours there is this difference:

Our theory consists only in observing universal facts, universal attitudes, calculations, and procedures, and at most in classifying and coordinating them so as to understand them better.

Our theory is so little opposed to practice that it is nothing else than practice explained. We observe that men are motivated by the instinct for self-preservation and a desire for progress, and what they do freely and voluntarily is precisely what we call political economy or the economy of society. As we never cease to point out, each man is in practice an excellent economist, producing or exchanging according as he finds it more advantageous to do the one or the other. Everyone gains a knowledge of this science through experience; or rather, the science itself is only this same experience accurately observed and methodically interpreted.

You, on the other hand, may properly be called theorists in the pejorative sense of the word. The procedures you invent are not sanctioned by the practice of any man on earth, and so you find it necessary to resort to coercion in order to compel men to produce what they find it more advantageous to purchase. What you want is that they should renounce this advantage and act in accordance with a doctrine that is essentially self-contradictory.

I defy you to extend this doctrine, which you yourselves must admit would be absurd if applied to the relations among individuals, to transactions among families, communities, or provinces. By your own admission, it is applicable only to international relations.

And that is why you are reduced to repeating every day:

“There are no absolute principles. What is good for an individual, a family, a commune, or a province is bad for a nation. What is good on a small scale—to purchase rather than to produce, when purchasing is more advantageous than producing—is bad on a large scale; the political economy of individuals is not that of nations,” and other nonsense of the same kind.

And what purpose does it all serve? Face up to it frankly. You want to prove that we consumers are your property! That we belong to you, body and soul! That you have an exclusive right over our stomachs and our limbs! That it is your prerogative to feed and clothe us at your price, whatever may be your incapacity, your greed, or the economic disadvantages of your situation!

No, you are not practical men; you are impractical visionaries—and extortionists.


This segment of Economic Sophisms is found at the Library of Economics and Liberty.
The original image used to make the cover is in public domain (CC0 1.0).
If you would like to download your very own copy, or join in on the discussion, please click the book! ☞