Among the arguments that have been advanced in favor of the protectionist system, we must not forget the one that is founded on the idea of national independence.

“What shall we do in case of war,” people ask, “if we have put ourselves at the mercy of England for iron and coal?”

The English monopolists for their part do not fail to exclaim:

“What will happen to Great Britain in time of war if she makes herself dependent on France for food?”

The one thing that people overlook is that the sort of dependence that results from exchange, i.e., from commercial transactions, is a reciprocal dependence. We cannot be dependent upon a foreigner without his being dependent upon us. Now, this is what constitutes the very essence of society. To sever natural interrelations is not to make oneself independent, but to isolate oneself completely.

And observe, too, that one isolates oneself in anticipation of war, but that the very act of isolating oneself is a beginning of war. It makes war easier to wage, less burdensome, and consequently less unpopular. If nations remain permanently in the world market; if their interrelations cannot be broken without their peoples’ suffering the double discomfort of privation and glut; they will no longer need the mighty navies that bankrupt them or the vast armies that weigh them down; the peace of the world will not be jeopardized by the caprice of a Thiers or a Palmerston; and war will disappear for lack of materials, resources, motives, pretexts, and popular support.

I am well aware that I shall be reproached (it is the fashion nowadays) for basing the brotherhood of nations on anything so mean and prosaic as self-interest. There are those who would prefer it to have its roots in charity, in love, even in a little self-denial, and, by impairing somewhat men’s material wellbeing, to have the merit of a generous sacrifice.

When shall we ever have done with these childish declamations? When shall we finally rid science of cant? When shall we cease interposing this nauseating inconsistency between what we preach and what we practice? We deride and revile self-interest—that is to say, we execrate what is useful and good (for to say that something is in the interest of all nations is to say that it is good in itself), as if self-interest were not the necessary, eternal, and indestructible motive force to which Providence has entrusted the improvement of mankind. Are we not all being represented as angels of disinterestedness? And is not the public surely beginning to see with disgust that this affected language disfigures the pages of the very writers that are most highly paid? Oh, affectation, thou art truly the canker of our times!

What! Because well-being and peace are correlative, because it has pleased God to establish this beautiful harmony in the moral sphere, am I not to admire and adore His decrees and to accept gratefully laws that make justice the necessary condition of happiness? You want peace only in so far as it conflicts with well-being, and free trade is burdensome to you because, you say, it imposes no sacrifices on you. But if you find self-sacrifice so attractive, what prevents you from practicing it in your private affairs? Society will be grateful to you for it, since at least someone will reap its fruits; but to seek to impose it upon mankind as a principle is the height of absurdity, because self-sacrifice by everyone means the sacrifice of everyone; it is evil elevated to the dignity of a moral theory.

But, thank heaven, a great deal of this bombast can be written and read without the world’s ceasing on that account to be impelled by its natural motive force, which is, whether one likes it or not, self-interest.

It is, after all, rather strange to see sentiments of the most lofty self-denial invoked in support of plunder itself. For that, in the end, is what all this ostentatious disinterestedness comes to. These men, so delicately fastidious that they do not want peace itself if it is based on the mean self-interest of mankind, are not averse to putting their hands into someone else’s pocket, especially that of the poor; for what article in the tariff law protects the poor? Gentlemen, do as you like with your own property, but allow us to do likewise with the fruits of our toil, to use them or to exchange them as we wish. Declaim as much as you like on the virtue of self-renunciation; that is all very fine and noble; but at the same time, at least be honest.


This segment of Economic Sophisms is found at the Library of Economics and Liberty.
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