Protection and Communism

Protection and Communism

Frédéric Bastiat
Frédéric Bastiat

Author: Bastiat, Frédéric, 1801-1850
Free trade
Protection and Communism


From The French

By Frederic Bastiat.

With a Preface, by The Translator

John W. Parker And Son, West Strand




This translation will not, it is hoped, be unacceptable to the English reader, particularly at the present moment, when it is not improbable that, under certain circumstances, a great effort may be made in this country to restore Protection—or, should that wild attempt be considered impossible, to shift the public burdens in such a manner as to effect, as far as possible, the same purpose in favour of what is called the ‘agricultural interest.’ M. Bastiat’s spirited little work is in the form of a letter, addressed to M. Thiers—the archenemy of free-trade, as he was of most propositions which had for their object the true happiness of France. The present was only one of a series of efforts made by M. Bastiat in favour of the cause of freedom of commerce; and the English reader has already had an opportunity of admiring the force of his arguments and the clearness of his style, in Mr. Porter’s* admirable translation of Popular Fallacies, which is, indeed, a perfect armory of arguments for those ‘who, although they may have a general impression favourable to Free-trade, have yet some fears as to the consequences that may follow its adoption.’ What impression M. Bastiat may have produced on the public mind of France it is not easy to conjecture, or how far the recent violent changes in that country, presuming them to be at all permanent, may prove favourable to Free-trade or otherwise. But it is to be feared that there is an amount of prejudice and ignorance in France, among the mass of her people, more inveterate and more difficult to remove and enlighten than was the case in this country. However, seed thus sown cannot remain altogether without fruit, and the rapidity with which correct principles spread through a great community, under apparently most unfavourable circumstances, is such as frequently to astonish even those most convinced of the vast power of truth.
     * Secretary of the Board of Trade, and author of the
     Progress of the Nation.
The real object of M. Bastiat is to expose the unsoundness and injustice of the system of Protection. He does this partly by a dexterous reference to the theory of Communism, and shows, with logical force and neat application, that the principles of the two are in truth the same. The parallel thus drawn, so far from being fanciful or strained, is capable of easy demonstration. But, in drawing it, M. Bastiat rather assumes than proves that Communism is itself wholly indefensible—that its establishment would be destructive of security and property, and, consequently, of society—in a word, that it is another term for robbery.
This is true, and obviously so, of Communism, in its more extravagant form; and it is to this, of course, that M. Bastiat refers. But it cannot be denied that there are many modifications of the principle which embrace more or less truth, and which appear to offer a corrective to that excessive competition or pressure of numbers, the evils of which are patent, admitted, and deplored. That the specific remedy proposed is vicious, that it would quickly make matters much worse than they are, that it is, in fact, a fraud and a mockery, does not prevent it from being, and naturally, captivating to many who at present see no other way out of the difficulties and the struggles by which they are surrounded: and who are tempted to embrace it, not only as a relief to their present wants and anxieties, but because it would, in their opinion, entail other consequences, as connected with their social condition, particularly grateful to their feelings. We further admit that such sentiments—not in themselves irrational—founded on a legitimate desire for improvement, and entertained by large and important classes—are entitled to the most respectful consideration.
Whether some considerable melioration in the condition of our labourers and artisans may not by degrees be effected by means of combined labour, or co-operation, and the principle of partnership, is no doubt one of the great questions to be solved by modern society, but it is much too wide a one to be entered upon, however cursorily, in this place. It is understood, however, that one of the most original and powerful thinkers within the domain of statistics is at the present moment engaged on this subject; and, if this be so, we shall no doubt, before long, be in the possession of views of extreme importance and interest.
We have, with deep regret, to add that M. Bastiat died during the autumn of last year, after a long illness, in the south of Italy. By his death, not only France, but the world also, has sustained a loss.



Do not be ungrateful to the revolution of February. It may have surprised, perhaps disturbed you, but it has also afforded you, whether as an author, an orator, or a practised statesman, some unexpected triumphs. Amidst these successes, there is one certainly of no usual character. We not long ago read in La Presse, ‘The Association for the Protection of National Labour (the ancient Mimerel Club)* is about to address a circular to all its correspondents, to announce that a subscription is opened for the purpose of promoting in manufactories the circulation of M. Thiers’s book upon Property. The association itself subscribes for 5000 copies.’ Would that I had been present when this flattering announcement met your eyes. It should have made them sparkle with joy. We have good reason to say that the ways of Providence are as infallible as they are impenetrable. For if you will bear with me for a moment I will endeavour to prove that Protection, when fully developed, and pushed to its legitimate consequences, becomes Communism. It is sufficiently singular that a champion of Protection should discover that he is a promoter of Communism; but what is more extraordinary and more consoling still, is the fact that we find a powerful association, that was formed for the purpose of propagating theoretically and practically the principles of Communism (in the manner deemed most profitable to its members) now devoting the half of its resources to destroy the evil which it has done with the other half.
     * An association, Mr. Porter informs us, composed like that
     assembling (or that did assemble, for we are not quite sure
     whether it still exists,) at No. 17, New Bond Street,
     exclusively of producers, at least of the article sought to
     be protected, and therefore of persons who believe
     themselves to be interested in excluding from the home
     market the productions of others.
I repeat it,—this is consoling. It assures us of the inevitable triumph of truth, since it shows us the real and first propagators of subversive doctrines, startled at their success, industriously correcting with the proper antidote the poison they had spread.
This supposes, it is true, the identity of the principles of Communism and of Protection, and perhaps you do not admit this identity, though, to speak the truth, it seems to me impossible that you could have written four hundred pages upon Property without being struck by it. Perhaps you imagine that some efforts made in favour of commercial freedom, or rather of free trade, the impatience of a discussion without results, the ardour of the contest, and the keenness of the struggle, have made me view (what happens too often to all of us) the errors of my adversaries in exaggerated colours. But, beyond question, according to my idea, it requires but little effort to develop the principles you have been advocating into those of Communism. How can it be that our great manufacturers, landed proprietors, rich bankers, able statesmen, have become, without knowing or wishing it, the introducers, the very apostles of Communism in France? And why not, I would ask? There are numerous workmen fully convinced of the right of labour, and consequently Communists also without knowing or wishing it, and who would not acknowledge the title. The reason of this is, that amongst all classes interest biases the will, and the will, as Pascal says, is the chief element of our faith. Under another name, many of our working classes, very honest people be it observed, use Communism as they have always used it, namely, on the condition that the wealth of others should alone be liable to the law. But as soon as the principle, extending itself, would apply the same rule to their own property—oh! then Communism is held in detestation, and their former principles are rejected with loathing. To express surprise at this, is simply to confess ignorance of the human heart, its secret workings, and how strong its inclination is to practise self-deception.*
     * The truth of this is found on all occasions where the
     interests or the passions of men are concerned, and was
     rather amusingly shown in many ways when the free-trade
     measures of Sir R. Peel were being carried through. Then
     every interest desired free-trade, except with reference to
     the articles produced by itself.
No, Sir; it is not the heat of controversy, which has betrayed me in seeing the doctrine of Protection in this light, for, on the contrary, it was because I saw it in this point of view before the struggle commenced that I am thus engaged. Believe me that to extend somewhat our foreign commerce—a consequential result which, however, is far from despicable—was never my governing motive; I believed, and I still believe, that property itself was concerned in the question; I believed, and I still believe, that our tariff of customs, owing to the principle which has given it birth, and the arguments by which it is defended, has made a breach in the very principle of property itself, through which all the rest of our legislation threatens to force itself. In considering this state of things, it seems to me that a Communism, the true effect and range of which, (I must say this to be just,) was not contemplated by its supporters, was on the point of overwhelming us. It seems to me that this particular species of Communism (for there are several kinds of it) flows logically from the arguments of the protectionists, and is involved when those arguments are pressed to their legitimate conclusion. It is upon this ground, therefore, that it seems to me of the utmost importance to meet the evil, for, fortified as it is by sophistical statements, and sanctioned by high authority, there is no hope of eradicating the error while such statements are permitted to take possession of and to distract the mind of the public. It is thus that we view the matter at Bordeaux, Paris, Marseilles, Lyons, and elsewhere, where we have organized the free-trade association. Commercial freedom, considered by itself, is without doubt a great blessing to the people; but if we had only this object in view, our body should have been named the Association for Commercial Freedom, or, more accurately, for the Gradual Reform of the Tariffs. But the word ‘free-trade’ implies the free disposal of the produce of labour, in other terms ‘property‘ and it is for this reason that we have preferred it. We knew, indeed, that the term would give rise to many difficulties. It affirmed a principle, and from that moment all the supporters of the opposite one ranged themselves against us. More than this, it was extremely objectionable, even to some of those who were the most disposed to second us, that is to say, to merchants and traders more engaged in reforming the Customs than in overthrowing Communism. Havre, while sympathizing with our views, refused to enlist under our banner. On all sides I was told, ‘Let us obtain without loss of time some modification of our tariff, without publishing to the world our extreme pretensions.’ I replied, ‘If you have only that in view, exert your influence through your chambers of commerce.’ To this they answered, ‘The word free-trade frightens people, and retards our success.’ Nothing is more true; but I would derive even from the terror inspired by this word my strongest arguments for its adoption. The more disliked it is, say I, the more it proves that the true notion of property is obscured. The doctrine of Protection has clouded ideas, and confused and false ideas have in their turn supported Protection. To obtain by surprise, or with the consent of the Government, an accidental amelioration of the tariff may modify an effect, but cannot destroy a cause. I retain, then, the word Free-trade, not in the mere spirit of opposition, but still, I admit, because of the obstacles it creates or encounters—obstacles which, while they betray the mischief at work, bear along with them the certain proof, that the very foundation of social order was threatened.
It is not sufficient to indicate our views by a word; they should be defined. This has been done, and I here transcribe, as a programme, the first announcement or manifesto of this association.
‘When uniting for the defence of a great cause, the undersigned feel the necessity of declaring their creed: of proclaiming the design, the province, the means and the principles of their association.
‘Exchange is a natural right, like property. Every one who has made or acquired any article should have the option either to apply it immediately to his own use, or to transfer it to any one, whomsoever he may be, who may consent to give him something he may prefer to it in exchange. To deprive him of this power when he makes no use of it contrary to public order or morality, and solely to gratify the convenience of another, is to legalise a robbery—to violate the principle of justice.
‘Again, it is to violate the conditions of social order—for what true social order can exist in the midst of a community, in which each individual interest, aided in this by law and public opinion, aims at success by the depression of all the others?
‘It is to disown that providential superintendence which presides over human affairs, and made manifest by the infinite variety of climates, seasons, natural advantages and resources, benefits which God has so unequally distributed among men to unite them by commercial intercourse in the ties of a common brotherhood.
‘It is to retard or counteract the development of public prosperity, since he who is not free to barter as he pleases, is not free to select his occupation, and is compelled to give an unnatural direction to his efforts, to his faculties, to his capital, and to those agents which nature has placed at his disposal.
‘In short, it is to imperil the peace of nations, for it disturbs the relations which unite them, and which render wars improbable in proportion as they would be burdensome.
‘The association has, then, for its object Free-trade.
‘The undersigned do not contest that society has the right to impose on merchandise, which crosses the frontier, custom dues to meet national expenses, provided they are determined by the consideration of the wants of the Treasury alone.
‘But as soon as a tax, losing its fiscal character, aims at the exclusion of foreign produce, to the detriment of the Treasury itself, in order to raise artificially the price of similar national products, and thus to levy contributions on the community for the advantage of a class, from that instant Protection, or rather robbery, displays itself, and this is the principle which the association proposes to eradicate from the public mind, and to expunge from our laws, independently of all reciprocity, and of the systems which prevail elsewhere.
‘Though this association has for its object the complete destruction of the system of protection, it does not follow that it requires or expects such a reformation to be accomplished in a day, as by the stroke of a wand. To return even from evil to good, from an artificial state of things to one more natural, calls for the exercise of much prudence and precaution. To carry out the details belongs to the supreme power—the province of the association is to propagate the principle, and to make it popular.
‘As to the means which the association may employ to accomplish its ends, it will never seek for any but what are legal and constitutional.
‘Finally, the association has nothing to do with party politics. It does not advocate any particular interest, class or section of the country. It embraces the cause of eternal justice, of peace, of union, of free intercourse, of brotherhood among all men—the cause of public weal, which is identical in every respect with that of the public consumer.’
Is there a word in this programme which does not show an ardent wish to confirm and strengthen, or rather perhaps to re-establish, in the minds of men the idea of property, perverted, as it is, by the system of Protection? Is it not evident that the interest of commerce is made secondary to the interest of society generally? Remark that the tariff, in itself good or evil in the financial point of view, engages little of our attention. But, as soon as it acts intentionally with a view to Protection, that is to say, as soon as it develops the principle of spoliation, and ignores, in fact, the right of property, we combat it, not as a tariff, but as a system. It is there, we say, that we must eradicate the principle from the public mind, in order to blot it from our laws.*
     * As Mr. Porter says, in one of his excellent notes on M.
     Bastiat’s work on Popular Fallacies, ‘The true history of
     all progress in regard to great questions, involving change
     in social policy, is here indicated by M. Bastiat. It is in
     vain that we look for such change through the enlightenment
     of what should be the governing bodies. In this respect, all
     legislative assemblies, whether called a Chamber of Deputies
     or a House of Commons, are truly representatives of the
     public mind, never placing themselves in advance, nor
     lagging much behind the general conviction. This is not,
     indeed, a new discovery, but we are much indebted to Mr.
     Cobden and the leading members of the Anti-Corn-Law League
     for having placed it in a point of view so prominent that it
     can no longer be mistaken. Hereafter, the course of action
     is perfectly clear upon all questions that require
     legislative sanction. This can only be obtained through the
     enlightenment of the constituency; but when such
     enlightenment has been accomplished—when those mainly
     interested in bringing about the change have once formed
     their opinion in its favour, the task is achieved.’
It will be asked, no doubt, why, having in view a general principle of this importance, we have confined the struggle to the merits of a particular question.
The reason of this, is simple. It is necessary to oppose association to association, to engage the interests of men, and thus draw volunteers into our ranks. We know well that the contest between the Protectionists and Free-traders cannot be prolonged without raising and finally settling all questions, moral, political, philosophical, and economical, connected with property. And since the Mimerel Club, in directing its efforts to one end, had weakened the principle of property, so we aimed at inspiring it with renewed vigour, in pursuing a course diametrically opposite.
But what matters it what I may have said or thought at other times? What matters it that I have perceived, or thought that I have perceived, a certain connexion between Protection and Communism? The essential thing is to prove that this connexion exists, and I proceed to ascertain whether this be so.
You no doubt remember the tim

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