Several newspapers have attacked me in your presence. Won’t you please read my defense?

I am not a distrustful person. When a man writes or speaks, I take it for granted that he believes what he is saying.

And yet, as I read and reread the newspapers that have attacked me, I seem to find in them unfortunate evidence to the contrary.

What is the question at issue? It is that of determining which is more advantageous for you, protectionism or free trade.

I believe that it is free trade, and they believe that it is protectionism; it is incumbent upon each of us to prove his contention.

Was it necessary to insinuate that we are the agents of England, of the south of France, of the government?

Just see how easy it would be for us to retaliate in the same vein.

We are, they say, agents of the English, because some of us have used the words “meeting” and “freetrader”!

But do they not use the words “drawback” and “budget”?

We are, it is said, imitating Cobden and English democracy!

And are they not parodying Bentinck and the British aristocracy?

We are accused of borrowing from perfidious as Albion the doctrine of free trade!

And are they not borrowing from her the quibbles of protectionism?

We are alleged to be yielding to pressure from Bordeaux and the South!

And do they not serve the greed of Lille and the North?

We are charged with abetting the secret designs of the ministry, which is trying to divert public attention from its policy!

And are they not favoring the views of the civil service, which benefits more than anyone else in the world from the policy of protectionism?

You see very well that, if we were willing to stoop to character assassination of this kind, we should have no shortage of weapons.

But that is not what is in question.

The question, and I shall not lose sight of it, is this:

Which is better for the working classes—to be, or not to be, free to buy from abroad?

You workers are told: “If you are free to buy from abroad what you now produce yourselves, you will no longer produce it; you will be without employment, without wages, and without bread; it is therefore for your own good that we are limiting your freedom.”

This argument takes all kinds of forms. For instance, it is said: “If we clothe ourselves in English fabrics, if we make our plows with English iron, if we cut our bread with English knives, if we dry our hands with English towels, what will become of French workingmen? What will become of our domestic industry?”

Tell me, workers, suppose a man were to stand on the dock at the port of Boulogne and say to each Englishman who landed, “If you will give me those English shoes, I will give you this French hat”; or “If you will give me that English horse, I will give you this French tilbury”; or, “Would you like to exchange that Birmingham machine for this French clock?” or, again, “Would it suit you to trade that Newcastle coal for this champagne?” and assuming that our man used good judgment in making his proposals, can it be said that our domestic industry, taken as a whole, would be injured as a result?

Would it be any more so if there were twenty men offering exchanges at Boulogne instead of one, if there were a million such transactions instead of four, or if merchants and money were introduced in order to facilitate the whole process and indefinitely multiply the number of individual acts of exchange?

Now, whether one country buys wholesale from another in order to sell at retail, or buys at retail in order to resell wholesale, if we follow the transaction to its ultimate conclusion, we shall always find that commerce is nothing but a complex of barter transactions involving the exchange of goods for goods and services for services. If, then, a single barter transaction does no harm to domestic industry, since it involves just as much domestic labor given as foreign labor received, a hundred billion barter transactions will not harm it any the more.

But, you may ask, in what will the profit consist? The profit comes from making the best use of the resources of each country, so that the same amount of labor yields greater satisfaction and well-being everywhere.

There are some who resort to an unusual stratagem in dealing with you. They begin by conceding that free trade is superior to a policy of protectionism, doubtless in order to avoid having to defend themselves on that ground.

Then, they remark that, in the transition from one system to the other, there will be some displacement of labor.

Next, they expatiate on the sufferings that this displacement must, according to them, necessarily entail. They exaggerate these sufferings, enlarge upon them, make them the chief subject of discussion, representing them as the sole and final consequence of the proposed reform, and strive in this way to enlist you under the banner of monopoly.

This is, in fact, the very same stratagem that has been used to defend every kind of abuse; and I must frankly acknowledge that it always disconcerts the proponents of reforms, even of those most desirable for the people.

The reason for this is easily understood.

Once an abuse exists, everything is arranged on the assumption that it will last indefinitely; and, as more and more people come to depend upon it for their livelihood, and still others depend upon them, a superstructure is erected that soon comprises a formidable edifice.

The moment you try to tear it down, everybody protests; and the point to which I wish to call particular attention here is that those who protest always appear at first glance to be in the right, because it is easier to show the disorder that must accompany reform than the order that should follow it.

The supporters of the abuse are able to cite specific facts; they can name the particular persons, as well as their suppliers and workers, who will be injured by the reform—while the reformer, poor devil, can refer only to the general good that is to be gradually diffused among the masses. This does not produce nearly so great an effect.

Thus, if the question is that of abolishing slavery, “You poor men,” they say to the Negroes, “who is going to feed you now? Your master may have you beaten, but he also provides you with cassava.”

And the slaves miss their fetters, for they ask: “Where are we to get our cassava?”

They do not see that it is not the master who feeds them, but their own labor, which also feeds the master.

When the monasteries were being reformed in Spain, people would ask the beggars, “Where will you get your food and clothing? The prior is your good angel. Is it not convenient to be able to turn to him?”

And the beggars would say: “It’s true. If the prior goes away, we see quite clearly what we stand to lose, but we do not see who will come to take his place in our lives.”

What they failed to see was that if the monasteries were bestowing alms, they were also living on them; so that the monks received more than they gave.

In the same way, workers, monopoly imperceptibly lays taxes on the shoulders of all of you, and then, out of the income derived from these taxes, it gives you jobs.

And your false friends ask you, “If there were no monopolies, who would give you work?”

And you reply, “That’s right. We can count on the jobs the monopolists obtain for us. But whether we can count on the promises of free trade is uncertain.”

What you fail to see is that the monopolists first worm the money out of you, and then give you back a part of it for your labor.

You ask who will give you work? Good heavens! Do you not see that you give one another work? With the money that will no longer be taken away from you, the shoemaker will dress better and give work to the tailor. The tailor will buy new shoes more often and give work to the shoemaker. And the same thing will happen in all other branches of business.

It is said that under a system of free trade there will be fewer workers in the mines and textile mills.

I do not think so. But, if this does happen, it will be necessarily because a greater number of workers will be voluntarily employed at home or working above ground.

For if these mines and textile mills can support themselves, as is alleged, only with the help of taxes levied for their benefit on everyone, once these taxes are abolished, everyone will be more prosperous, and it is the prosperity of all that supports the labor of each.

Excuse me if I dwell a little longer on this point. I should so much like to see all of you on the side of free trade!

Suppose that the capital invested in French industry yields a profit of five per cent. But here is M. Mondor, who has put 100,000 francs into a mill that leaves him with a loss of five per cent. Between profit and loss, the difference is 10,000 francs. What is to be done? Quite stealthily, a small tax of 10,000 francs is imposed on you, and the proceeds are turned over to Mondor. You do not notice it, because the whole affair is very cleverly disguised. It is not the tax collector who comes to demand from you your share of the tax; instead you pay it to Mondor, the ironmaster, every time you buy your hatchets, your trowels, and your planes. Then you are told: “If you do not pay this tax, Mondor will go out of business; his workers, Jack and Jim, will be out of work.” Good heavens! If the tax were restored to you, would you not put one another to work, and for your own benefit too?

After that, rest assured, once this soft cushion of price-supports maintained by taxation is removed, Mondor will spare no effort to convert his loss into a profit, and Jack and Jim will not be discharged. Then everyone will profit.

Perhaps you will rejoin: “We quite understand that after the reform there will, on the whole, be more jobs than before; but meanwhile Jack and Jim will be out on the street.”

To this, I reply:

  1. When labor is displaced only so that jobs can multiply, any man who has a head and hands is not left long on the street.
  2. There is nothing to hinder the state from earmarking certain funds to provide, during the transition, for the relief of unemployment, which I, for my part, do not think will occur.
  3. Finally, if I know the workers, they are quite ready to endure some temporary hardships necessitated by a shift from one job to another if this means getting out of a rut and entering upon a life that will be better and, above all, fairer for everyone. Would that the same were true of their employers!

After all, just because you are workers, are you not intelligent and responsible? Your pretended friends seem to forget this. Is it not surprising that they should discuss such a question in your presence and talk of wages and profits, without even once uttering the word justice? Yet they are well aware that trade restrictions are unjust. Why, then, do they not have the courage to admit it and to tell you: “Workers, an injustice prevails in this country, but it is profitable for you, and it must be maintained.” Why? Because they know that you would reply: “No.”

But it is not true that this injustice is profitable to you. Give me your attention for a few more moments, and judge for yourselves.

What is being protected in France? Things made by big business—iron, coal, cloth, and textiles—and you are told that this is done, not in the interests of the entrepreneurs, but in yours, in order to guarantee you employment.

Yet every time foreign labor appears on our market in such a form that it could be harmful to you, but useful to the big businessmen, do they not let it enter?

Are there not twenty thousand Germans in Paris making clothes and shoes? Why are they permitted to establish themselves alongside of you, when cloth from abroad is barred from France? Because cloth is made in large mills belonging to manufacturers who are also legislators, whereas clothing is made by workers in their own homes. In the processing of wool into cloth, these gentlemen want no competition, because that is what they do for a living; but in the processing of cloth into clothing, they readily allow it, for that is what you do for a living.

When they built railroads, they prohibited the importation of English rails, but they brought over English workmen. Why? Well, it’s quite simple: because English rails compete with those produced by our own big mills, whereas English labor competes only with your labor.

We ourselves do not ask that German tailors and English navvies be kept out of France. What we ask is that cloth and rails be free to enter. We demand justice for all, equality before the law for everyone!

It is ridiculous to tell us that tariff restrictions are imposed for your benefit. Tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, joiners, masons, blacksmiths, shopkeepers, grocers, clockmakers, butchers, bakers, upholsterers, milliners—I defy you all to cite me a single respect in which protectionism benefits you, and, any time you wish, I shall cite you four in which it harms you.

Let us see, after all, just how much truth there is in your journalists’ accounts of the “self-sacrifice” practiced by the monopolists.

I think one may call the natural rate of wages that which would be established naturally under a system of free trade. When, therefore, you were told that protectionism is to your advantage, this was as good as being told that it adds a surplus to your natural wages. Now, a surplus over and above the natural rate of wages must come from somewhere; it does not fall from the moon, and it must come from those who pay it.

You are therefore led to the conclusion that, according to your self-styled friends, the policy of protectionism has been introduced and adopted so that the interests of the capitalists may be sacrificed to those of the workers.

Now, tell me, is that likely?

Where, then, is your seat in the Chamber of Peers? When have you had a voice at the Palais-Bourbon? Who has ever asked your advice? Where did you get this idea of instituting a policy of protectionism?

I can hear you answer: “It was not we who instituted it. Alas, we are neither peers nor deputies nor councillors of state! It was the capitalists who did it.”

Great God in heaven! They must have been in very good humor that day! What! The capitalists made the law; they instituted the policy of protectionism, and they did it so that you workers might profit at their expense!

But here is what is even more extraordinary.

How does it happen that your self-styled friends, who talk to you so much about the goodness, the generosity, and the self-sacrifice of the capitalists, never cease to commiserate with you on the fact that you are deprived of your political rights? From their point of view, what could you do with them even if you enjoyed them? The capitalists have a monopoly on legislation; that is true. Thanks to this monopoly, they have conferred upon themselves a monopoly on iron, cloth, textiles, coal, wood, and meat—that is also true. But your self-styled friends tell you that by doing this the capitalists have impoverished themselves, without being under any obligation to do so, in order to enrich you, without your having any right to be rich! Surely, if you were voters and deputies, you could not manage your affairs better; indeed, you could not manage them so well.

If the currently prevailing industrial organization has been designed with your interests in view, then it is perfidious to demand political rights on your behalf; for these new-fangled democrats will never escape the following dilemma: the law, as made by the middle classes, either gives you more, or it gives you less, than your natural wages. If it gives you less, they are deceiving you by inviting you to support it. If it gives you more, they are still deceiving you by urging you to demand political rights, when the middle classes are making sacrifices for you that you, in all honesty, would not dare to vote for yourselves.

Workers, God forbid that this tract should have the effect of sowing in your hearts any seeds of resentment against the wealthy classes! If self-interest, whether badly understood or genuinely alarmed, is still the mainstay of monopoly, let us not forget that it has its roots in errors common to both capitalists and workers. Thus, rather than incite them against one another, let us strive to draw them together. And what do we need to do to achieve this end? If it is true that natural social tendencies are conducive to the elimination of inequalities among men, we need only allow these tendencies to operate, remove the artificial obstacles that interfere with their effectiveness, and let the relations among the various classes be based upon justice, which is indistinguishable, at least in my mind, from the principle of freedom.

This segment of Economic Sophisms is found at the Library of Economics and Liberty.
The photo used to make the cover was taken by Derek Key (CC BY 2.0 — resized).
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