Monday, October 22, 2012

Bastiat on the Twin Doctrines of Luddism and Mercantilism

The great French proto-Austro libertarian Frédéric Bastiat exposes the fallacies of the twin doctrines of Luddism (opposed to modern technology) and mercantilism, which the great Dean of the Austrian school of economics, Murray Rothbard, defines as a system of statism which employed economic fallacy to build up a structure of imperial state power, as well as special subsidy and monopolistic privilege to individuals or groups favored by the state

The following incisive excerpt, published by the Mises Institute, has been culled from an essay entitled “Human Labor and National Labor” which appeared in Economic Sophisms and in the Bastiat Collection (bold mine)
What misleads the adversaries of machinery and foreign importations is that they judge of them by their immediate and transitory effects, instead of following them out to their general and definite consequences.

The immediate effect of the invention and employment of an ingenious machine is to render superfluous, for the attainment of a given result, a certain amount of manual labor. But its action does not stop there. For the very reason that the desired result is obtained with fewer efforts, the product is handed over to the public at a lower price; and the aggregate of savings thus realized by all purchasers enables them to procure other satisfactions; that is to say, to encourage manual labor in general to exactly the extent of the manual labor which has been saved in the special branch of industry which has been recently improved. So that the level of labor has not fallen, while that of enjoyments has risen.

Let us render this evident by an example.

Suppose there are used annually in this country 10 million hats at 15 shillings each; this makes the sum which goes to the support of this branch of industry £7,500,000 sterling. A machine is invented that allows these hats to be manufactured and sold at 10 shillings. The sum now wanted for the support of this industry is reduced to £5,000,000, provided the demand is not augmented by the change. But the remaining sum of £2,500,000 is not by this change withdrawn from the support of human labor. That sum, economized by the purchasers of hats, will enable them to satisfy other wants, and consequently, to that extent will go to remunerate the aggregate industry of the country. With the five shillings saved, John will purchase a pair of shoes, James a book, Jerome a piece of furniture, etc. Human labor, taken in the aggregate, will continue, then, to be supported and encouraged to the extent of £7,500,000; but this sum will yield the same number of hats, plus all the satisfactions and enjoyments corresponding to £2,500,000 that the employment of the machine has enabled the consumers of hats to save. These additional enjoyments constitute the clear profit that the country will have derived from the invention. This is a free gift, a tribute that human genius will have derived from nature. We do not at all dispute that in the course of the transformation a certain amount of labor will have been displaced; but we cannot allow that it has been destroyed or diminished.

The same thing holds of the importation of foreign commodities. Let us revert to our former hypothesis.

The country manufactures 10 million hats, of which the cost price was 15 shillings. The foreigner sends similar hats to our market, and furnishes them at 10 shillings each. I maintain that the national labor will not be thereby diminished.

For it must produce to the extent of £5,000,000 to enable it to pay for 10 million hats at 10 shillings.

And then there remains to each purchaser five shillings saved on each hat, or in all, £2,500,000, which will be spent on other enjoyments — that is to say, which will go to support labor in other departments of industry.

Then the aggregate labor of the country will remain what it was, and the additional enjoyments represented by £2,500,000 saved upon hats will form the clear profit accruing from imports under the system of free trade.

It is of no use to try to frighten us by a picture of the sufferings that, on this hypothesis, the displacement of labor will entail.

For, if the prohibition had never been imposed, the labor would have found its natural place under the ordinary law of exchange, and no displacement would have taken place.

If, on the other hand, prohibition has led to an artificial and unproductive employment of labor, it is prohibition, and not liberty, that is to blame for a displacement that is inevitable in the transition from what is detrimental to what is beneficial.

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