All the sophisms that I have so far attacked concern only the question of the policy of protectionism; and even of those, out of pity for the reader, “I pass over some of the best”: acquired rights, practical difficulties in the way, depletion of the currency, etc., etc.

But political economy is not confined within this narrow circle. Fourierism, Saint-Simonianism, communism, mysticism, sentimentalism, false humanitarianism, affected aspirations for an imaginary equality and fraternity; questions relating to luxury, wages, machinery; to the so-called tyranny of capital; to colonies, outlets, conquests, population, emigration, association, taxes, and loans, have crowded the field of the science with a host of parasitic arguments, of sophisms, that call for the hoe and the mattock of the diligent economist.

It is not that I fail to see the defect in my plan, or rather in my absence of plan. To attack, one by one, so many incoherent sophisms, which sometimes are in conflict with one another and more often are included in one another, is to condemn oneself to a disorderly and capricious struggle and to expose oneself to perpetual repetitions.

I should so much prefer simply to state how things are, without concerning myself about the thousand aspects under which ignorance sees them! To set forth the laws under which society prospers or perishes is virtually to destroy all sophisms at once. When Laplace described all that could be known up to his time about the movements of the heavenly bodies, he dispelled—even without naming them—all the astrological fantasies of the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Hindus, much more surely than he could have done by refuting them directly in innumerable volume. Truth is one; the book that sets it forth is an imposing and durable structure:

Bolder than the pyramids
And more durable than brass,
It defies greedy tyrants.

Error is manifold and ephemeral: the work that combats it cannot in itself be either great or permanent.

But if I have lacked the strength and perhaps the opportunity to proceed in the manner of Laplace and of Say, I cannot but believe that the form I have here adopted also has its modest usefulness. It seems to me particularly well adapted to the needs of the age, which is able to devote only occasional fleeting moments to study.

A treatise doubtless has an incontestable superiority, but on the one condition that it be read, pondered, and thoroughly examined. It is addressed only to a select few. Its mission is first to establish, and then to expand, the domain of acquired knowledge.

The refutation of commonplace prejudices cannot have such a lofty function. It aims only at clearing the way for truth, at preparing men’s minds to understand it, at correcting public opinion, at breaking dangerous weapons in the hands of those who misuse them.

It is above all in political economy that this hand-to-hand struggle, this ever reviving combat with popular error, has real practical value.

The sciences can be arranged in two categories.

Some can be known, in a strict sense, only by scholars. These are the ones whose practical application is confined to particular professions. Despite his ignorance, the common man benefits from them. Although he knows nothing of mechanics or astronomy, he nonetheless enjoys the utility of a watch; with nothing but his faith in the engineer or the pilot, he is nonetheless transported by the locomotive or the steamship. We walk according to the laws of equilibrium without our being aware of them, just as M. Jourdain produced prose without knowing it.

But there are, on the other hand, sciences that influence the public only in proportion to the understanding of them that the public itself has, and that derive all their efficacy, not from the knowledge accumulated by a few exceptionally learned men, but from that diffused among mankind in general. These include ethics, hygiene, political economy, and, in countries where men are their own masters, politics. It is probably above all these sciences of which Bentham could say: “It is better to disseminate them than to advance them.” What difference does it make that a great man, or even God Himself, has promulgated the rules of ethics, so long as men, imbued with wrong ideas, mistake virtue for vice and vice for virtue? What difference does it make that Smith, Say, and—according to M. de Saint-Chamans—the economists of every school have proclaimed, with respect to business transactions, the superiority of freedom over coercion, if those who make the laws and those for whom they are made are convinced of the contrary?

These sciences, which have been rightly called social, also have this peculiarity: precisely because their practical application concerns everyone, no one admits ignorance of them. If someone needs to solve a problem in chemistry or geometry, he does not pretend to have an innate knowledge of the science, nor is he ashamed to consult M. Thénard or to seek for information in the pages of Legendre or Bezout. But in the social sciences, people acknowledge scarcely any authorities. Since each person every day acts upon his own ideas, whether good or bad, reasonable or absurd, of ethical conduct, of hygiene, of economics, and of politics, each one feels himself competent to expound, discuss, decide, and settle these matters. Are you ill? There is not a good old lady in the country who is not prepared to tell you at once both the cause and the cure for your ills: “These are humors,” she asserts; “what you need is a cathartic.” But what are humors? And are there such things as humors at all? These are questions she does not trouble herself about. I immediately think of this good old lady whenever I hear all the ailments of society explained in such banal phrases as: overproduction, the tyranny of capital, excessive industrial capacity, and other nonsense of which one cannot even say Verba et votes, praetereaque nihil, for these are just so many fateful errors.

From what precedes, two conclusions can be drawn: (1) Sophisms must be more abundant in the social sciences than in any others, for they are the ones in which each person consults only his own opinion or his own instinctive feelings; and (2) it is in these sciences that sophisms are especially harmful, because they mislead public opinion in a field in which public opinion is authoritative—is, indeed, law.

Thus, these sciences require two kinds of books: those that expound them and those that propagate them, those that set forth the truth and those that combat error.

It seems to me that the inherent shortcoming in the form of this brief work, repetition, is what gives it its chief utility.

In regard to the question that I have been dealing with, each sophism doubtless has its own phraseology and its particular meaning, but all have a common root: the disregard of men’s interests in their capacity as consumers. To show that this sophism is the starting point for a thousand roads to error is to teach the public to recognize it, to understand it, and to mistrust it under all circumstances.

After all, my aim is not to inspire convictions, but to raise doubts.

It is not my expectation that when the reader puts down this book he will cry out, “I know!” Would to heaven that he might honestly say to himself, “I don’t know!”

“I don’t know, for I am beginning to fear that there may be something illusory about the alleged blessings of scarcity.” (Sophism I.)

“I am no longer so enthusiastic about the wonderfully beneficial effects of obstacles.” (Sophism II.)

“Effort without result no longer seems to me so desirable as result without effort.” (Sophism III.)

“It may well be that the key to success in business is not, as in dueling (according to the definition of it given by the fencing master in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme), to give and not to receive.” (Sophism VI.)

“I understand that an article gains in value in proportion to the amount of work that is done upon it; but, for the purposes of an exchange, do two equal values cease to be equal because one comes from the plow and the other from a Jacquard loom?”

“I confess I am beginning to find it odd that man improves by being fettered and becomes rich by being taxed; and frankly, I should be relieved of a great anxiety, I should experience a sense of pure elation, if it were proved to me, as the author of the Sophisms asserts, that there is no incompatibility between prosperity and justice, between peace and freedom, between the expansion of job opportunities and the advancement of knowledge.” (Sophisms XIV and XX.)

“Therefore, without considering myself altogether satisfied by his arguments, which I am not sure whether to regard as well reasoned or as paradoxical, I shall consult the experts in this science.”

Let us conclude this monograph with one last and important observation.

The world is not sufficiently aware of the influence that sophistry exerts over it.

When the rule of the stronger was overthrown, sophistry transferred the empire to the more subtle, and it would be hard to say which of these two tyrants has been the more disastrous for mankind.

Men have an immoderate love of pleasure, influence, prestige, power—in a word, wealth.

And, at the same time, they are driven by a powerful impulse to obtain these things for themselves at the expense of others.

But these others, who constitute the public, are impelled no less powerfully to keep what they have acquired, provided that they can and that they know how.

Plunder, which plays such an important role in the affairs of the world, has but two instruments: force and fraud, and two impediments: courage and knowledge.

The annals of mankind are replete with instances of force employed for plunder. To retrace its history would be to reproduce almost entirely the history of all nations: Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Goths, Franks, Huns, Turks, Arabs, Mongols, Tartars, not to speak of that of the Spaniards in America, the English in India, the French in Africa, the Russians in Asia, etc., etc.

But, at least among civilized nations, the men that produce wealth have become numerous and strong enough to defend it. Does this mean that they are no longer being plundered? Not at all; they are being plundered just as much as ever, and, what is more, they are plundering one another.

The only difference is that the instrument of plunder has changed; it is no longer by force, it is by fraud, that the public is being despoiled of its wealth.

To rob the public, it is necessary to deceive it. To deceive it is to persuade it that it is being robbed for its own benefit, and to induce it to accept, in exchange for its property, services that are fictitious or often even worse. This is the purpose of sophistry, whether it be theocratic, economic, political, or monetary. Thus, ever since brute force has been held in check, the sophism has been not merely a species of evil, but the very essence of evil. It must, in its turn, be held in check. And, to this end, the public must be made more subtle than the subtle, just as it has already become stronger than the strong.

Good people, it is with this idea in mind that I address this first essay to you—although the Preface is strangely misplaced and the Dedication somewhat delayed.


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 Joshua Holden (CC0 1.0).
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