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Fun Bastiat Passage

I started reading the French economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850). So far it's enjoyable – he's good at economics and has a fun writing style (even though it's a translation and he wrote a long time ago). This part struck me as particularly fun: The Bastiat Collection, Part 1, "That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen", Chapter 7, "Protectionism" begins:
Mr. Protectionist (it was not I who gave him this name, but Mr. Charles Dupin) devoted his time and capital to converting the ore found on his land into iron. As nature had been more lavish toward the Belgians, they furnished the French with iron cheaper than Mr. Protectionist; which means, that all the French, or France, could obtain a given quantity of iron with less labor by buying it of the honest Flemings. Therefore, guided by their own interest, they did not fail to do so; and every day there might be seen a multitude of nail-smiths, blacksmiths, cartwrights, machinists, farriers, and laborers, going themselves, or sending intermediaries, to supply themselves in Belgium. This displeased Mr. Protectionist exceedingly.

At first, it occurred to him to put an end to this abuse by his own efforts: it was the least he could do, for he was the only sufferer. “I will take my carbine,” said he; “ I will put four pistols into my belt; I will fill my cartridge box; I will gird on my sword, and go thus equipped to the frontier. There, the first blacksmith, nail-smith, farrier, machinist, or locksmith, who presents himself to do his own business and not mine, I will kill, to teach him how to live.” At the moment of starting, Mr. Protectionist made a few reflections which calmed down his warlike ardor a little. He said to himself, “In the first place, it is not absolutely impossible that the purchasers of iron, my countrymen and enemies, should take the thing ill, and, instead of letting me kill them, should kill me instead; and then, even were I to call out all my servants, we should not be able to defend the passages. In short, this proceeding would cost me very dear, much more so than the result would be worth.”

Mr. Protectionist was on the point of resigning himself to his sad fate, that of being only as free as the rest of the world, when a ray of light darted across his brain. He recollected that at Paris there is a great factory of laws. “What is a law?” said he to himself. “It is a measure to which, when once it is decreed, be it good or bad, everybody is bound to conform. For the execution of the same a public force is organized, and to constitute the said public force, men and money are drawn from the whole nation. If, then, I could only get the great Parisian manufactory to pass a little law, ‘Belgian iron is prohibited,’ I should obtain the following results: The Government would replace the few valets that I was going to send to the frontier by 20,000 of the sons of those refractory blacksmiths, farriers, artisans, machinists, locksmiths, nail-smiths, and laborers. Then to keep these 20,000 custom-house officers in health and good humor, it would distribute among them 25,000,000 francs taken from these blacksmiths, nail-smiths, artisans, and laborers. They would guard the frontier much better; would cost me nothing; I should not be exposed to the brutality of the brokers; should sell the iron at my own price, and have the sweet satisfaction of seeing our great people shamefully mystified. That would teach them to proclaim themselves perpetually the harbingers and promoters of progress in Europe. Oh! it would be a capital joke, and deserves to be tried.”

So Mr. Protectionist went to the law factory. Another time, perhaps, I shall relate the story of his underhanded dealings, but now I shall merely mention his visible proceedings. He brought the following consideration before the view of the legislating gentlemen.
And the proposal was a variation of the broken window fallacy. Or as Bastiat usually talks about it, the issue of the seen and the unseen. All the commerce in the French iron industry resulting from protectionism is seen when evaluating the proposal. The lost commerce in other industries, due to people having to pay more for iron – and therefore buying less of other things – is not seen.

If you're interested, read the rest of the chapter, and perhaps more, in the free book.

Elliot Temple on February 11, 2015


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