We have just seen that there are obstacles between our wants and their satisfaction. We succeed in eliminating these obstacles or in lessening them by employing our productive capacities to overcome them. Thus, it may be said, in a very general way, that industry is an effort followed by a result.

But what constitutes the measure of our well-being, that is, of our wealth? Is it the result of the effort? Or is it the effort itself? There is always a ratio between the effort applied and the result obtained. Does progress consist in the relative increase in the first or in the second term of this ratio?

Both theses have had their defenders, and political economists are divided in their opinions about them.

According to the first thesis, wealth is the result of labor. It increases proportionately to the increase to the ratio of result to effort. Absolute perfection, whose archetype is God, consists in the widest possible distance between the two terms, that is, a situation in which no effort at all yields infinite results.

The second contends that effort itself constitutes and measures wealth. To progress is to increase the ratio of effort to result. Its ideal may be represented by the toil of Sisyphus—at once barren and eternal.

Naturally, the proponents of the first doctrine welcome everything that tends to diminish exertion and to increase output: the powerful machines that add to the strength of man; exchange, which permits him to get a better share of the natural resources that are distributed in varying amounts on the face of the earth; intelligence, which makes discoveries; experience, which confirms hypotheses; competition, which stimulates production; etc.

Just as logically, the proponents of the second doctrine welcome everything that has the effect of increasing exertion and of diminishing output: privileges, monopolies, restrictions, interdictions, the suppression of machinery, infertility, etc.

It is well to note that the universal practice of mankind is always guided by the principle on which the first doctrine is founded. No one has ever seen, and no one ever will see, any person who works, whether he be farmer, manufacturer, merchant, artisan, soldier, writer, or scholar, who does not devote all the powers of his mind to working better, more quickly, and more economically—in short, to doing more with less.

The opposite doctrine is the stock in trade of theorists, legislators, journalists, statesmen, and cabinet ministers—men, in brief, whose role in this world is to conduct experiments on the body of society.

Yet it is notable that, with respect to their personal concerns, they act on the same principle as everyone else; that is, they seek to obtain from their labor the greatest possible quantity of useful results.

People will perhaps think I am exaggerating, and that there are no real Sisyphists.

If this means that in practice no one carries the principle to its logical extreme, I willingly agree. This is always the case when one starts from a false premise. It soon leads to such absurd and injurious consequences that one is obliged to stop short. That is why it is never the practice of industry to permit Sisyphism; the penalty would follow the mistake too closely not to expose it. But in the realm of speculation, such as theorists and statesmen engage in, one can cling to a false principle for a long time before being made aware of its falsity by its complex practical consequences, especially in areas with which one is unfamiliar; and when these finally do reveal their origin, one adopts the opposite principle, thereby contradicting oneself, and seeks justification in that incomparably absurd modern axiom: In political economy there are no absolute principles.

Let us see, then, whether the two conflicting principles that I have just described do not prevail, by turns, the one in the practice of industry, the other in industrial legislation.

I have already repeated a saying of M. Bugeaud; but M. Bugeaud is actually two persons, a farmer and a legislator.

As a farmer, M. Bugeaud directs all his efforts toward the twofold end of saving labor and of obtaining bread cheaply. When he prefers a good plow to a poor one; when he improves his pastures; when, in order to turn over his soil, he substitutes as far as possible the action of the wind for that of the harrow or the hoe; when he summons to his aid all the processes whose power and efficacy science and experience have shown him; he has and can have only one goal: to diminish the ratio of effort to result. Indeed, we have no other way of judging the skill of the farmer and the extent of the improvement effected by his operations than to measure what they have subtracted from the effort and added to the result; and, as all the farmers in the world act in accordance with this principle, one can say that all men strive, undoubtedly to their advantage, to obtain bread and all other commodities more cheaply—that is, to lessen the effort needed to have a given quantity at their disposal.

This indisputable tendency of mankind, once its existence is verified, should suffice, it would seem, to make the correct principle clear to the legislator and show him in what way he ought to help industry (in so far as it is within his province to do so); for it would be absurd to say that the laws of man should run counter to the laws of Providence.

However, M. Bugeaud, the legislator, has been heard to exclaim: “I understand nothing of the theory of cheapness; I should prefer to see bread more expensive and work more abundant.” And, in consequence, the deputy from the Dordogne votes for legislative measures whose effect is to hinder trade, precisely because trade procures for us indirectly what direct production can furnish us only at a higher cost.

Now, it is quite evident that the principle of M. Bugeaud, the legislator, is diametrically opposed to that of M. Bugeaud, the farmer. To be consistent, either he would have to vote against every restrictive measure, or he would have to put into practice on his own farm the principle that he proclaims from the rostrum. He would, in the latter case, have to sow his seed in the most barren field, for in that way he would succeed in working a great deal in order to obtain little result. He would have to eschew the use of the plow, since tilling the soil by hand would satisfy his twofold desire for dearer bread and more abundant toil.

The avowed object and acknowledged effect of restrictive measures is to increase the amount of labor necessary for a given result.

Another of its avowed objects and acknowledged effects is to raise prices, which means nothing more nor less than a scarcity of goods. Thus, carried to its extreme, the policy of restriction is pure Sisyphism, as we have defined it: infinite labor, without any result.

Baron Charles Dupin, said to be the torch of learning among the peerage in the science of economics, accuses the railroads of injuring navigation; and it is certainly natural for a swifter conveyance to lessen the use of a comparatively less efficient one. But railroads can harm shipping only by taking away its business; they can take away its business only by doing the job of transportation more cheaply; and they can transport goods more cheaply only by lowering the ratio of the effort applied to the result obtained, since this is precisely what constitutes low cost. Thus, when Baron Dupin deplores this diminution in the labor employed to obtain a given result, he is following the doctrine of Sisyphism. Logically, since he prefers the ship to the train, he ought to prefer the wagon to the ship, the packsaddle to the wagon, and the basket to every other known means of transport, for it is the one that demands the most labor for the least result.

“Labor constitutes the wealth of a nation,” was the saying of M. de Saint-Cricq, the Minister of Commerce who has imposed so many fetters on commerce. It should not be supposed that this was merely an elliptical proposition meaning: “The results of labor constitute the wealth of a nation.” No, this economist definitely meant to say that the intensity of labor is the measure of wealth; and the proof is that, step by step, from one restriction to another (and always with the best of intentions), he managed to get France to double the amount of labor expended in order to provide itself, for example, with the same quantity of iron. In England iron then cost eight francs; in France it cost sixteen. Assuming that one day of labor costs one franc, it is clear that France could, by way of exchange, obtain for itself a quintal of iron for eight days’ labor. Thanks to the restrictive measures of M. de Saint-Cricq, France came to need sixteen days’ labor in order to obtain a quintal of iron by direct production. Twice the labor to satisfy an identical need, hence twice the wealth; hence too, wealth is measured, not by the result, but by the intensity, of labor. Is this not Sisyphism in its purest form?

And so that there might be no mistaking his meaning, His Excellency has taken the trouble to explain his ideas more fully; and just as he has called the intensity of labor wealth, so he can be heard calling the abundance of the results of labor, or of things suitable for satisfying our wants, poverty. “Everywhere,” he says, “machinery has replaced manual labor; everywhere there is overproduction; everywhere the balance between productive capacity and consumer purchasing power has been upset.” It is clear, according to M. de Saint-Cricq, that if France was in a critical situation, it was because it was producing too much; its labor was too intelligent, too fruitful. We were too well fed, too well clothed, too well provided with all things; production became too rapid and outran our demands. It was necessary to put an end to this calamitous situation, and for that purpose to compel us, by restrictive measures, to work more so as to produce less.

I have also cited the opinion of another Minister of Commerce, M. d’Argout. It deserves our attention for a moment. In an effort to strike a blow at the sugar-beet industry, he said:

Doubtless the cultivation of the sugar beet is useful, but its usefulness is limited. Its potentialities fall far short of the gigantic developments that people are fond of predicting for it. To be convinced of this, one need only note that its cultivation will of necessity be confined to the limits set by the demands of the consumers. Double, triple if you will, the present consumption of sugar in France; you will still find that a very small portion of the land will be enough to satisfy the needs of the consumers. [Now, there’s a remarkable complaint!] Do you desire proof of this? How many hectares were planted in sugar beets in 1828? A total of 3,130, or 1/10,540 of the arable land. How many are there today, when native sugar supplies one third of our consumption? A total of 16,700 hectares, or 1/1,978 of the arable land, or forty-five centiares per commune. Even if we assume that native sugar were to supply the whole of our consumption, we should still have only 48,000 hectares cultivated in sugar beets, or 1/689 of the arable land.

There are two elements to be noted in this quotation: the facts and the doctrine. The facts tend to establish that it takes little land, capital, and manual labor to produce a great deal of sugar, and that every commune in France would provide itself with an abundant supply by devoting one hectare of its area to cultivating the sugar beet. The doctrine consists in regarding this circumstance as harmful, and in seeing in the very efficiency and productiveness of the new industry a limit to its usefulness.

I am not going to set myself up here as the defender of the sugar beet, nor do I mean to pass judgment on the strange facts advanced by M. d’Argout; but it is worth while to examine the doctrine of a statesman to whom France for along time entrusted the fate of its agriculture and its commerce.

I said at the beginning that there is a variable ratio between the intensity of labor and its result; that absolute imperfection consists in an infinite effort without any result; absolute perfection, in an unlimited result without any effort; and perfectibility, in the progressive diminution of effort by comparison with the result.

But M. d’Argout teaches us that what we view as life is actually death, and that the importance of an industry is in direct proportion to its unproductiveness. What is to be expected, for example, from the cultivation of the sugar beet? Do you rest see that 48,000 hectares of land, with capital and labor in proportion, would be enough to supply all France with sugar? Hence, this is an industry with a limited usefulness—limited, of course, with respect to the labor it demands, for, according to the former Minister of Commerce, demanding a large quantity of labor is the only manner in which an industry can be useful. This usefulness would be still more limited if, thanks to the fertility of the soil or the vigor of the sugar beet, we were to harvest from 24,000 hectares what we can now obtain from only 48,000. Oh, how much better if it only took twenty times, one hundred times, the land, capital, and labor to achieve the same result! We might build some hopes on the new industry, and it would be worthy of the full protection of the state, for it would offer a vast field for our domestic labor force. But to produce much with little! That sets a bad example, and it is time for the law to set things to rights.

But what holds true for sugar cannot be false in regard to bread. If, therefore, the usefulness of an industry is to be judged, not by the number of needs that it is capable of satisfying with a definite amount of labor, but, on the contrary, by the increase in labor that it demands in order to satisfy a given quantity of needs, what we should wish for, clearly, is that each hectare of land produce little wheat, and that each kernel of wheat contain little sustenance—in other words, that our land should be unfruitful; for then the amount of land, capital, and labor that would be required to feed the people would be comparatively much greater; one could even say that job opportunities would be in direct proportion to this unfruitfulness. The prayers of Messrs. Bugeaud, Saint-Cricq, Dupin, and d’Argout would be answered: bread would he expensive; work, abundant; and France, rich, at least in the sense that these gentlemen give to the word.

What we should desire still more is that human intelligence should be enfeebled or extinguished; for, so long as it survives, it ceaselessly endeavors to increase the ratio of the end to the means and of the product to the effort. It is in this, and in this alone, that intelligence consists.

Thus, Sisyphism has been the doctrine of all those who have been entrusted with the rate of our country’s industry. It would not be fair to reproach them for that. This principle guides our cabinet ministers only because it prevails among our legislators; it prevails among our legislators only because they are representative of the electorate; and the electorate is imbued with it only because public opinion is saturated with it.

I feel it my duty to repeat here that I am not accusing such men as Messrs. Bugeaud, Dupin, Saint-Cricq, or d’Argout, of being Sisyphists absolutely and under all circumstances. They are certainly not so in their private business activities; certainly each one of them obtains for himself, by way of exchange, what it would cost him much more to procure for himself by direct production. But I do say that they are Sisyphists when they keep the country from doing the same thing.

 


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! ☞