Sometimes a sophism expands until it permeates the whole fabric of a long and elaborate theory. More often it contracts and shrinks, assumes the form of a principle, and takes cover behind a word or a phrase.

Paul-Louis used to pray, “May the good Lord deliver us from the snares of the devil—and of the metaphor!” And indeed, it would be hard to say which does more mischief in this world. It is the devil, you say; he puts the spirit of plunder into the hearts of all of us, frail creatures that we are. Yes, but he leaves the repression of abuses entirely to the counteraction of those who suffer from them. What paralyzes this counteraction is sophistry. The sword that malice puts into the hand of the assailant would be powerless if sophistry did not shatter the shield on the arm of the man who is assailed; and Malebranche was right when he wrote on the frontispiece of his book: Error is the cause of man’s misery.

Let us see how this takes place. Ambitious hypocrites may have some evil objective, such as, for instance, planting the seeds of international discord in the mind of the public. These fateful seeds may germinate, lead to general warfare, arrest the progress of civilization, cause torrents of blood to be shed, and inflict on the country that most dreadful of all catastrophes—invasion. In any case, and aside from this, these feelings of hostility lower us in the estimation of other nations and compel Frenchmen who have retained any sense of justice to blush for their country. These are undoubtedly great evils; and for the public to protect itself against the machinations of those who would expose it to such risks, it needs no more than a clear insight into their nature. How has it been deprived of this insight? By the use of metaphors. Twist, stretch, or pervert the meaning of three or four words, and the whole job is done.

The word invasion itself is a good example of this.

A French ironmaster says: “We must protect ourselves from the invasion of English iron!” An English landlord cries: “We must repel the invasion of French wheat!” And they urge the erection of barriers between the two nations. Barriers result in isolation; isolation gives rise to hatred; hatred, to war; war, to invasion. “What difference does it make?” say the two sophists. “Is it not better to risk the possibility of invasion than to accept the certainty of invasion?” And the people believe them, and the barriers remain standing.

And yet, what analogy is there between an exchange and an invasion? What possible similarity can there be between a warship that comes to vomit missiles, fire, and devastation on our cities, and a merchant vessel that comes to offer us a voluntary exchange of goods for goods?

The same is true of the word flood. This word is customarily used in a pejorative sense, for floods often ravage fields and crops. If, however, what they deposited on our soil was of greater value than what they washed away, like the floods of the Nile, we should deify and worship them, as the Egyptians did. Before crying out against the floods of foreign goods, before putting up onerous and costly obstacles in their way, do people ask themselves whether these are floods that ravage or floods that fertilize? What should we think of Mohammed Ali if, instead of spending great sums to raise dams across the Nile so as to extend the area covered by its floods, he used his piastres to dredge out a deeper channel for it, so that Egypt would not be soiled by this foreign slime brought down from the Mountains of the Moon? We display exactly the same degree of wisdom and judgment when we try, by spending millions of francs, to protect our country—from what? From being flooded by the blessings that Nature has bestowed upon other lands.

Among the metaphors that conceal an altogether pernicious theory, none is more widespread than that which is contained in the words tribute and tributary.

These words have become so common that people treat them as synonymous with purchase and purchaser, and use either the one pair or the other indiscriminately.

However, a tribute is as different from a purchase as a theft is from an exchange; and I should as lief hear it said that Cartouche broke into my strongbox and purchased a thousand crowns from it, as hear it reiterated in our legislative chambers that we have paid Germany tribute for the thousand horses she sold us.

For what differentiates the action of Cartouche from a purchase is that he has not put into my strongbox, and with my consent, a value equivalent to that which he took out of it.

And what differentiates the payment of 500,000 francs that we have made to Germany from a tribute is precisely the fact that she has not received the money for nothing, but has delivered to us in exchange a thousand horses that we ourselves have judged to be worth over 500,000 francs.

Is it really necessary to subject such linguistic abuses to serious criticism? Why not, since they figure seriously in newspapers and books?

And it should not be supposed that these are mere slips of the pen on the part of certain ignorant writers. For every writer that refrains from using such expressions I can name you ten that employ them, including the cleverest—the D’Argouts, the Dupins, the Villèles, peers, deputies, cabinet ministers—men, in short, whose word is law, and whose most glaring sophisms serve as the basis on which the country is governed.

A celebrated modern philosopher has added to the categories of Aristotle the sophism that consists in begging the question by the use of a single word. He cites several examples of it. He could have added the word tributary to his list. The question actually at issue here is whether purchases made abroad are advantageous or harmful. They are harmful, you say. Why? Because they make us tributaries of foreigners. But this is simply to use a word that already presupposes the fact in question.

How did this deceptive figure of speech come to be introduced into the rhetoric of the monopolists?

Money leaves the country to satisfy the greed of a victorious enemy. Money also leaves the country to pay for imports. The two events are treated as analogous by taking into account only the respects in which they resemble each other and disregarding those in which they differ.

However, the latter, that is, the nonreimbursement in the first case, and the reimbursement voluntarily agreed to in the second, establishes between these two events such a difference that it is not really possible to put them in the same category. It is one thing to be forced to hand over a hundred francs to one who has you by the throat, and quite another to do so willingly to one who supplies you with what you want. You might as well say that it makes no difference whether you throw bread into the river or eat it, because the bread is destroyed in either case. What is wrong with this reasoning, as with that involving the word tribute, is that it treats two events as alike in every respect simply because of their resemblance in one respect and disregards the respects in which they differ.


This segment of Economic Sophisms is found at the Library of Economics and Liberty.
The original image used to make the cover was taken by Igor (CC BY 2.0).
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