In political economy, there is much to learn and little to do.

— Bentham.


I have attempted, in this brief volume, to refute some of the arguments that are raised against the introduction of free trade.

I am not engaging here in controversy with the protectionists. Rather, I am trying to instill a principle into the minds of sincere men who hesitate to take a stand on the issue because they are in doubt.

I am not one of those who say that the advocates of protectionism are motivated by self-interest. Instead, I believe that the opposition to free trade rests upon errors, or, if you prefer, upon half-truths. The mistrust of free trade is quite sincere. Otherwise there would not be so many people who express fear of it.

I am, perhaps, aiming too high, but—I confess—I should like this brief work to become, as it were, the handbook of those who are called upon to judge between the two principles. Unless one has a long-standing familiarity with the doctrines of free trade, his ideas are continually being colored by the sophisms of protectionism in one form or another. To clear his mind of them, he must each time go through a lengthy process of analysis; and not everyone has the time to undertake this task, legislators least of all. That is why I have tried to furnish such an analysis ready-made.

But, it may be asked, are the benefits of freedom so well hidden that they are evident only to professional economists?

Yes, we must admit that our opponents in this argument have a marked advantage over us. They need only a few words to set forth a half-truth; whereas, in order to show that it is a half-truth, we have to resort to long and arid dissertations.

This situation is due to the nature of things. Protection concentrates at a single point the good that it does, while the harm that it inflicts is diffused over a wide area. The good is apparent to the outer eye; the harm reveals itself only to the inner eye of the mind. In the case of free trade, it is just the reverse.

The same is true of almost all economic questions.

You may say, “Here is a machine that has put thirty workmen out on the street.”

Or, “Here is a spendthrift whose behavior encourages every branch of industry.”

Or, again, “The conquest of Algiers has doubled the trade of Marseilles.”

Or, finally, “Government expenditures provide a living for a hundred thousand families.”

Everyone will understand you, for your propositions are lucid, simple, and self-evident. You may go further, and deduce the following principles from them:

Machinery is an evil.

Extravagance, conquests, and heavy taxes are all good.

And your theory will be all the more widely accepted because you will be able to support it with undeniable facts.

But, for our part, we cannot limit ourselves to the consideration of a single cause and its immediate effect. We know that this effect itself becomes in its turn a cause. In order to pass judgment on a measure, we must, then, trace it through the whole chain of its effects to its final result. In other words, we are reduced, quite frankly, to an appeal to reason.

But at once we find ourselves assailed by the familiar clamor: You are theorists, metaphysicians, ideologists, utopians, and doctrinaires; and all the prejudices of the public are roused against us.

What, then, are we to do? We must invoke the patience and good will of the reader, and, if we can, present our conclusions in so clear a light that truth and error show themselves plainly; so that once and for all the victory will go to either protectionism or free trade.

In this connection I have an important observation to make.

Some excerpts from this brief volume have appeared in the Journal des économistes.

In an otherwise favorable criticism that the Vicomte de Romanet published (cf. the Moniteur industriel, May 15 and 18, 1845), he alleges that I am asking for the abolition of tariffs. M. de Romanet is mistaken. What I am asking for is the abolition of the protectionist system. We do not refuse to pay taxes to the government; but, if it were possible, we should like to dissuade the governed from taxing one another. Napoleon once said: “The tariff should be, not an instrument of taxation, but a means of protecting industry.” We maintain the contrary, and say: “The tariff should not be an instrument of reciprocal robbery in the hands of the workers, but it can be a mechanism for taxation as good as any other.” We are so far—or, to involve only myself in this struggle, I am so far—from asking for the abolition of tariffs, that I view them as a key element of our future financial stability. I believe them capable of producing immense revenues for the treasury; and, to speak plainly, in view of the slowness with which sound economic doctrines are spreading as compared to the rapidity with which government expenditures are increasing, I rely more upon the needs of the treasury than upon the power of an enlightened public opinion for achieving commercial reform.

“But, after all,” I may be asked, “what are your conclusions?”

I have no need to reach conclusions. I am only combatting sophisms; that is all.

“But,” people may insist, “it is not enough to tear down; you must offer something constructive.” I, for my part, think that to tear down an error is to build up the truth that stands opposed to it.

Beyond that, I have no reluctance to state what my wishes are. I should like to have public opinion persuaded to approve a tariff law framed in something like these terms:


The following ad valorem rates shall be imposed:

Goods of prime necessity            . . . . . . . . . . . . . .                5%

Goods of secondary necessity    . . . . . . . . . . . . . .                10%

Luxury goods                               . . . . . . . . . . . . . .                15% or 20%


No doubt these distinctions belong to a domain of ideas entirely foreign to political economy properly so called, and I am far from thinking them to be as useful and as just as people commonly suppose them to be. However, that is not my subject here.


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! ☞