Destroying machinery and interdicting the entry of foreign goods are alike in being both founded on the same doctrine.

Those who at the same time applaud the appearance of a great invention and nevertheless advocate protectionism are most inconsistent.

What is their objection to free trade? They charge it with encouraging foreigners who are more skillful than we are, or who live under more advantageous economic conditions than we do, to produce things that, in the absence of free trade, we should produce ourselves. In short, they accuse it of injuring domestic labor.

But then, should they not, for the same reason object to machinery of every kind, since, in enabling us to accomplish, by means of physical instruments, what, in their absence, we should have to do with our bare hands, it necessarily hurts human labor?

In effect, is not the foreign worker who lives under more advantageous economic conditions than the French worker a veritable economic machine that crushes him by its competition? And, in like manner, is not a machine that performs a particular operation at lower cost than a certain number of workers a veritable foreign competitor that hamstrings them by its rivalry?

If, therefore, it is expedient to protect domestic labor from the competition of foreign labor, it is no less expedient to protect human labor from the competition of mechanical labor.

Therefore, whoever supports the protectionist system, should, in all consistency, not stop at interdicting the entry of foreign products; he should also outlaw the products of the shuttle and the plow.

And that is why I much prefer the logic of those who, in denouncing the invasion of foreign goods, have at least the courage to denounce also the overproduction due to the inventive power of the human mind.

Such a one is M. de Saint-Chamans. “One of the strongest arguments against free trade and the excessive use of machinery,” he says, “is that many workingmen are deprived of employment, either by foreign competition, which depresses manufacturing, or by the machines that take the place of men in the workshops.”

M. de Saint-Chamans has grasped perfectly the analogy—or, rather, the identity—that exists between imports and machines; that is why he outlaws both of them. It is indeed a pleasure to deal with those who are consistent in their reasoning, for even when they are in error, they boldly carry their argument to its logical conclusion.

But just see the difficulty that is waiting for them!

If it is true, a priori, that the domain of invention and that of labor cannot expand save at each other’s expense, then it must be in the places where there are the most machines—in Lancashire, for example—that one should expect to find the fewest workers. And if, on the contrary, it is proved that in fact machinery and manual labor coexist to a greater degree among rich nations than among savages, the conclusion is inevitable that these two types of production are not mutually exclusive.

I cannot understand how any thinking being can enjoy a moment’s rest in the face of the following dilemma:

Either man’s inventions do not lessen his opportunities for employment, as the facts in general attest, since there are more of both among the English and the French than among the Hurons and the Cherokees; and, in that case, I am on the wrong track, though I know neither where nor when I lost my way. I should be committing the crime of treason to humanity if I were to introduce my mistake into the legislation of my country.

Or else, the discoveries of the human mind do limit the opportunities for the employment of manual labor, as certain facts would seem to indicate, since every day I see some machine replacing twenty or a hundred workers; and then I am obliged to acknowledge the existence of a flagrant, eternal, and irremediable antithesis between man’s intellectual and his physical capacities—between his progress and his well-being—and I am forced to conclude that the Creator should have endowed man either with reason or with physical strength, either with force of character or with brute force, but that He mocked him by endowing him at the same time with faculties that are mutually destructive.

The problem is an urgent one. But do you know how we extricate ourselves from the dilemma? By means of this remarkable maxim:

In political economy, there are no absolute principles.

In plain and simple language, this means:

“I do not know which is true and which is false; I have no idea what constitutes general good or evil. I do not trouble myself about such questions. The immediate effect of each law on my personal well-being is the only principle that I consent to recognize.”

There are no absolute principles! You might as well say there are no facts; for principles are only formulas that summarize a whole array of facts that have been fully established.

Machines and imports certainly do have some effects. These effects may be either good or bad. On this point there may well be differences of opinion. But, whichever position one adopts, it is expressed by one of these two principles: Machinery is a good; or, machinery is an evil. Imports are beneficial; or, imports are injurious. But to say that there are no principles, is certainly to exhibit the lowest depth to which the human mind can descend; and I confess that I blush for my country when I hear so monstrous a heresy expressed in the presence of the members of the French legislature, with their approval, that is, in the presence and with the approval of the elite of our fellow citizens; and this in order to justify their imposing laws upon us in utter ignorance of their consequences.

But, I may be reminded, all this does not constitute a refutation of the sophism. It still has to be proved that machines do not injure human labor, and that imports do not injure domestic labor.

In a work of this kind, such demonstrations cannot be really exhaustive. My purpose is rather to state difficulties than to resolve them, and to stimulate reflection rather than to satisfy the thirst for knowledge. The mind never fully accepts any convictions that it does not owe to its own efforts. I shall try, nevertheless, to put the reader on the right track.

The mistake made by the opponents of imports and machinery is in evaluating them according to their immediate and temporary effects instead of following them out to their general and ultimate consequences.

The immediate effect of an ingenious machine is to make a certain quantity of manual labor superfluous for the attainment of a given result. But its action does not stop there. Precisely because this result is obtained with less effort, its product is made available to the public at a lower price; and the total savings thus realized by all purchasers enables them to satisfy other wants, that is, to encourage manual labor in general to exactly the same extent that it was saved in the particular branch of industry that was recently mechanized. The result is that the level of employment does not fall, even though the quantity of consumers’ goods has increased.

Let us give a concrete example of this whole chain of effects.

Suppose that the French people buy ten million hats at fifteen francs each; this gives the hatmaking industry an income of 150 million francs. Someone invents a machine that permits the sale of hats at ten francs. The income of this industry is reduced to 100 million francs, provided that the demand for hats does not increase. But the other fifty million francs are certainly not for that reason withdrawn from the support of human labor. Since this sum has been saved by the purchasers of hats, it will enable them to satisfy other wants and consequently to spend an equivalent amount for goods and services of every kind. With these five francs saved, John will buy a pair of shoes; James, a book; Jerome, a piece of furniture, etc. Human labor, taken as a whole, will thus continue to be supported to the extent of 150 million francs; but this sum will provide the same number of hats as before, and, in addition, satisfy other needs and wants to the extent of the fifty million francs that the machine will have saved. These additional goods are the net gain that France will have derived from the invention. It is a gratuitous gift, a tribute that man’s genius will have exacted from Nature. We do not deny that in the course of the transformation a certain amount of labor will have been displaced; but we cannot agree that it will have been destroyed or even lessened.

The same is true of imports. Let us revert to our hypothesis.

Let us say that France has been making ten million hats whose sales price was fifteen francs. Foreigners invade our market by supplying us with hats at ten francs. I maintain that opportunities for domestic labor will in no way be thereby lessened.

For it will have to produce only to the extent of 100 million francs in order to pay for ten million hats at ten francs apiece.

And then, each buyer will have available the five francs saved per hat, or, in all, fifty millions, which will pay for other commodities, that is to say, other kinds of labor.

Therefore, the total of employment will remain what it was, and the additional commodities produced by the fifty millions saved on the hats will comprise the net profit from imports under a system of free trade.

And people should not try to frighten us with a picture of the sufferings that, on this hypothesis, the displacement of labor would involve.

For, if the restrictive measures had never been imposed, labor on its own initiative would have allocated itself in accordance with the law of supply and demand so as to achieve the highest ratio of result to effort, and no displacement would have occurred.

If, on the contrary, restrictive measures have led to an artificial and unproductive allocation of labor, then they, and not free trade, are responsible for the inevitable displacement during the transition from a poor to a good allocation.

At least let no one argue that, because an abuse cannot be suppressed without injuring those who profit from it, the fact that it has existed for a time gives it the right to last forever.

 


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