Protection and Communism, Frederic Bastiat
Protection and Communism
Frederic Bastiat
1:43 h Ideas Lvl 9.68
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 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.

Protection and Communism

From the French

Frederic Bastiat

Translator’s Preface

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.

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.

Protection and Communism

To M. Thiers.


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.

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.

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.

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