Which is best for man, and for society, abundance or scarcity?
What! you exclaim, can that be a question? Has any one ever asserted, or is it possible to maintain, that scarcity is at the foundation of human wellbeing?
Yes, this has been asserted, and is maintained every day; and I hesitate not to affirm that the theory of scarcity is much the most popular. It is the life of conversation, of the journals, of books, and of the tribune; and strange as it may seem, it is certain that Political Economy will have fulfilled its practical mission when it has established beyond question, and widely disseminated, this very simple proposition: “The wealth of men consists in the abundance of commodities.”
Do we not hear it said every day, “The foreigner is about to inundate us with his products?” Then we fear abundance.
Did not M. Saint Cricq exclaim, “Production is excessive?” Then he feared abundance.
Do workmen break machines? Then they fear excess of production, or abundance.
Has not M. Bugeaud pronounced these words, “Let bread be dear, and agriculturists will get rich?” Now, bread cannot be dear but because it is scarce. Therefore M. Bugeaud extols scarcity.
Does not M. d’Argout urge as an argument against sugar-growing the very productiveness of that industry? Does he not say, “Beetroot has no future, and its culture cannot be extended, because a few acres devoted to its culture in each department would supply the whole consumption of France?” Then, in his eyes, good lies in sterility, in dearth, and evil in fertility and abundance.
The Presse, the Commerce, and the greater part of the daily papers, have one or more articles every morning to demonstrate to the Chambers and the Government, that it is sound policy to raise legislatively the price of all things by means of tariffs. And do the Chambers and the Government not obey the injunction? Now tariffs can raise prices only by diminishing the supply of commodities in the market! Then the journals, the Chambers, and the Minister, put in practice the theory of scarcity, and I am justified in saying that this theory is by far the most popular.
How does it happen that in the eyes of workmen, of publicists, and statesmen, abundance should appear a thing to be dreaded, and scarcity advantageous? I propose to trace this illusion to its source.
We remark that a man grows richer in proportion to the return yielded by his exertions, that is to say, in proportion as he sells his commodity at a higher price. He sells at a higher price in proportion to the rarity, to the scarcity, of the article he produces. We conclude from this, that, as far as he is concerned at least, scarcity enriches him. Applying successively the same reasoning to all other producers, we construct the theory of scarcity. We next proceed to apply this theory, and, in order to favour producers generally, we raise prices artificially, and cause a scarcity of all commodities, by prohibition, by restriction, by the suppression of machinery, and other analogous means.
The same thing holds of abundance. We observe that when a product is plentiful, it sells at a lower price, and the producer gains less. If all producers are in the same situation, they are all poor. Therefore it is abundance that ruins society. And as theories are soon reduced to practice, we see the law struggling against the abundance of commodities.
This sophism in its more general form may make little impression, but applied to a particular order of facts, to a certain branch of industry, to a given class, of producers, it is extremely specious; and this is easily explained. It forms a syllogism which is not false, but incomplete. Now, what is true in a syllogism is always and necessarily present to the mind. But incompleteness is a negative quality, an absent datum, which it is very possible, and indeed very easy, to leave out of account.
Man produces in order to consume. He is at once producer and consumer. The reasoning which I have just explained considers him only in the first of these points of view. Had the second been taken into account, it would have led to an opposite conclusion. In effect, may it not be said: —
The consumer is richer in proportion as he purchases all things cheaper; and he purchases things cheaper in proportion to their abundance; therefore it is abundance which enriches him. This reasoning, extended to all consumers, leads to the theory of plenty.