“What! You have the effrontery to demand for all citizens the right to buy, sell, barter, and exchange, to render and receive service for service, and settle on the price among themselves, on the sole condition that they carry on these transactions honestly and pay their taxes? What are you trying to do—deprive workingmen of their jobs, their wages, and their bread?”

This is what people say to us. I know what to think of it myself, but I wanted to know what the workers themselves think of it.

I had at hand an excellent instrument of inquiry.

It was not one of those supreme industrial councils, where big landlords who call themselves farmers, influential shipowners who think of themselves as sailors, and wealthy stockholders who pretend to be laborers, practice their well-known form of humanitarianism.

No; it was bona fide workingmen, real workingmen, as they say today—joiners, carpenters, masons, tailors, shoemakers, dyers, blacksmiths, innkeepers, grocers, etc., etc.—who in my village have established a mutual-aid society.

I transformed it, by my own personal authority, into a subordinate labor council, and I obtained from it a report that is worth quite as much as any other, though it is not crammed with figures and inflated to the dimensions of a quarto volume printed at government expense.

My aim was to interrogate these good people in regard to the way in which they are, or think they are, affected by the policy of protectionism. The president pointed out to me that this would violate to some extent the principles on which the association was founded. For, in France, in this land of freedom, people who associate give up their right to discuss politics—that is, to take counsel together concerning their common interests. However, after a great deal of hesitation, he agreed to put the question on the agenda.

The council was divided into as many committees as there were groups representing different trades. Each was given a form to be filled out after fifteen days of discussion.

On the designated day, the venerable president took the chair (we are adopting the official style, for in fact it was nothing more than an ordinary kitchen chair), and took from the table (official style again, for it was a table of poplar wood) about fifteen reports, which he read one after another.

The first one submitted was that of the tailors. Here is an exact and authentic copy of its text:

EFFECTS OF PROTECTION—REPORT OF THE TAILORS
Disadvantages Advantages
  1. As a result of the policy of protectionism, we are paying more for bread, meat, sugar, wood, needles, thread, etc., which is equivalent in our case to a considerable loss of income.
None.*
  1. As a result of the policy of protectionism, our customers also pay more for everything, which leaves them less to spend on clothing. This means less business for us, and therefore smaller profits.
  2. As a result of the policy of protectionism, cloth is expensive, so that people put off buying clothes for a longer time and make do with what they have. This again means less business for us and compels us to offer our services at a lower price.
* In spite of all our efforts, we found it impossible to discover any respect whatsoever in which the policy of protectionism is of advantage to our business.

 

Here is another report:

EFFECTS OF PROTECTION—REPORT OF THE BLACKSMITHS
Disadvantages Advantages
  1. Every time we eat, drink, heat our homes, and buy clothing, the policy of protectionism imposes on us a tax that never reaches the treasury.
None.
  1. It imposes a similar tax on all our fellow citizens who are not blacksmiths; and since they have that much less money, most of them use wooden pegs for nails and a piece of string for a latch, which deprives us of employment.
  2. It keeps iron at such a high price that it is not used on farms for plows, gates, or balconies; and our craft, which could provide employment for so many people who need it, does not provide us even with enough for ourselves.
  3. The revenue that the tax collector fails to realize from duties on foreign goods that are not imported into the country is added to the tax we pay on salt and postage.

 
As the same refrain recurs in all the other reports, I spare the reader their perusal. Gardeners, carpenters, shoemakers, clogmakers, boatmen, millers—all gave vent to the same grievances.

I regret that there were no farmers in our association. Their report would certainly have been very instructive.

But alas, in our section—the Landes—the poor farmers, well protected though they are, do not have a sou, and after they have insured their livestock, they themselves lack the means of joining a mutual-aid society. The alleged benefits of protection do not prevent them from being the pariahs of our social order. What shall I say of the vineyardists?

What I find particularly noteworthy is the good sense which our villagers showed in perceiving not only the direct injury that the policy of protectionism inflicts on them, but also the indirect injury that, after first affecting their customers, rebounds upon them.

This, I said to myself, is what the economists of the Moniteur industriel apparently do not understand.

And perhaps those—the farmers in particular—whose eyes are dazzled by a little protection would be willing to give it up if they could see this side of the question.

Perhaps they would say to themselves: “It is better to support oneself by one’s own efforts and have customers who are well off than to be protected and have customers who are impoverished.”

For to seek to enrich each industry in turn by creating a void around one after another is as futile an endeavor as trying to leap over one’s own shadow.

 


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 Cliff (CC BY 2.0 — photoshopped).
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