Bastiat on subsidies

Meaghan Beattie in a playground

Anyone who spends time thinking about public policy might benefit from reading Frédéric Bastiat‘s final essay: “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” published in 1850. Many of the sections – such as those concerning people employed by the armed forces, and those on state subsidies for the arts – are surely as valid now as 150 years ago.

Bastiat also provides a concise rebuttal of the kind of ‘job creation’ argument frequently employed by governments:

Let us get to the bottom of things. Money creates an illusion for us. To ask for co-operation, in the form of money, from all the citizens in a common enterprise is, in reality, to ask of them actual physical co-operation, for each one of them procures for himself by his labor the amount he is taxed. Now, if we were to gather together all the citizens and exact their services from them in order to have a piece of work performed that is useful to all, this would be understandable; their recompense would consist in the results of the work itself. But if, after being brought together, they were forced to build roads on which no one would travel, or palaces that no one would live in, all under the pretext of providing work for them, it would seem absurd, and they would certainly be justified in objecting: We will have none of that kind of work. We would rather work for ourselves.

That is, indeed, an excellent mental test of public worth. If we were all brought together to build a museum that will be widely admired and universally enjoyed, we will not feel cheated of our labour. If we were brought together to build some white elephant – an international airport for a tiny town, a bridge to nowhere, and anti-ballistic missile shield – we would feel duly resentful for not having employed our labour for better purposes.

The essay features a spirited defence of middlemen, which is well worth reading. The story told about rent seeking and protectionism is also admirably clear and engaging:

Mr. Protectionist was going to resign himself sadly just to being free like everyone else, when suddenly he had a brilliant idea.

He remembered that there is a great law factory in Paris. What is a law? he asked himself. It is a measure to which, when once promulgated, whether it is good or bad, everyone has to conform. For the execution of this law, a public police force is organized, and to make up the said public police force, men and money are taken from the nation.

If, then, I manage to get from that great Parisian factory a nice little law saying: “Belgian iron is prohibited,” I shall attain the following results: The government will replace the few servants that I wanted to send to the frontier with twenty thousand sons of my recalcitrant metalworkers, locksmiths, nailmakers, blacksmiths, artisans, mechanics, and plowmen. Then, to keep these twenty thousand customs officers in good spirits and health, there will be distributed to them twenty-five million francs taken from these same blacksmiths, nailmakers, artisans, and plowmen. Organized in this way, the protection will be better accomplished; it will cost me nothing; I shall not be exposed to the brutality of brokers; I shall sell the iron at my price; and I shall enjoy the sweet pleasure of seeing our great people shamefully hoaxed.

It is a point especially well made as the American electoral season continues to encourage less and less sensible statements from leading candidates, when it comes to trade.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

7 thoughts on “Bastiat on subsidies”

  1. “Is there not something shameful in the role that the protectionist makes society play?

    He says to society:

    “You must give me work, and, what is more, lucrative work. I have foolishly chosen an industry that leaves me with a loss of ten per cent. If you slap a tax of twenty francs on my fellow citizens and excuse me from paying it, my loss will be converted into a profit. Now, profit is a right; you owe it to me.”

    The society that listens to this sophist, that will levy taxes on itself to satisfy him, that does not perceive that the loss wiped out in one industry is no less a loss because others are forced to shoulder it—this society, I say, deserves the burden placed upon it.

    Thus, we see, from the many subjects I have dealt with, that not to know political economy is to allow oneself to be dazzled by the immediate effect of a phenomenon; to know political economy is to take into account the sum total of all effects, both immediate and future.””

  2. If only the American public were capable of being persauded by reason and evidence…at least their leaders are often (or at least sometimes) more sensible.

  3. This is a great essay – something all students of politics and economics should read. It elegantly debunks a number of myths that people continue to believe, such as broken windows being a good thing because of the jobs they create. It is also written in an entertaining way.

  4. You might imagine that Americans would be up in arms about all this. After all, the Licence Raj embodies the two things that Americans are supposed to be furious about: the rise of big government and the stalling of America’s job-creating machine. You would be wrong. Florida’s legislature recently debated a bill to remove licensing requirements from 20 occupations, including hair-braiding, interior design and teaching ballroom-dancing. For a while it looked as if the bill would sail through: Florida has been a centre of tea-party agitation and both chambers have Republican majorities. But the people who care most about this issue—the cartels of incumbents—lobbied the loudest. One predicted that unlicensed designers would use fabrics that might spread disease and cause 88,000 deaths a year. Another suggested, even more alarmingly, that clashing colour schemes might adversely affect “salivation”. In the early hours of May 7th the bill was defeated. If Republican majorities cannot pluck up the courage to challenge a cartel of interior designers when Florida’s unemployment rate is more than 10%, what hope has America? The Licence Raj may be here to stay.

  5. A storm over Sandy

    SIR – The argument that rebuilding after a natural disaster is a form of stimulus (“Wild is the wind”, November 3rd) reminded me of Frédéric Bastiat’s 1850 parable of the broken window. If repairing destroyed property is a benefit to society, why don’t people (especially glaziers) purposefully smash windows?

    The dilemma is that there are hidden opportunity costs to public works: the money we will spend on rebuilding after Sandy might have been better spent on other goods and services, such as constructing defences against future storms. You can be sure that the cost of repairing buildings after Sandy’s destruction will be borne by other bits of the economy. Although glaziers will be happy.

    Simon Gardener

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