Sophisms of the Protectionists, Frederic Bastiat
Sophisms of the Protectionists
Frederic Bastiat
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Claude-Frédéric Bastiat was a French economist, writer and a prominent member of the French Liberal School. A member of the French National Assembly, Bastiat developed the economic concept of opportunity cost and introduced the parable of the broken window. He was described as “the most brilliant economic journalist who ever lived” by economic theorist Joseph Schumpeter. "Sophisms of the Protectionists" is "the most effective and most popular work on political economy that has as yet been written. M. Bastiat not only enlivens a dull subject with his wit, but also reduces the propositions of the Protectionists to absurdities."

of the

M. Frederic Bastiat


A previous edition of this work has been published under the title of “Essays on Political Economy, by the late M. Frederic Bastiat.” When it became necessary to issue a second edition, the Free-Trade League offered to buy the stereotype plates and the copyright, with a view to the publication of the book on a large scale and at a very low price. The primary object of the League is to educate public opinion; to convince the people of the United States of the folly and wrongfulness of the Protective system. The methods adopted by the League for the purpose have been the holding of public meetings and the publication of books, pamphlets, and tracts, some of which are for sale at the cost of publication, and others given away gratuitously.

In publishing this book the League feels that it is offering the most effective and most popular work on political economy that has as yet been written. M. Bastiat not only enlivens a dull subject with his wit, but also reduces the propositions of the Protectionists to absurdities.

Free-Traders can do no better service in the cause of truth, justice, and humanity, than by circulating this little book among their friends. It is offered you at what it costs to print it. Will not every Free-Trader put a copy of the book into the hands of his Protectionist friends?

It would not be proper to close this short preface without an expression on the part of the League of its obligation to the able translator of the work from the French, Mr. Horace White, of Chicago.

Office of The American Free-Trade League,
9 Nassau Street, New-York, June, 1870.

Preface to First Edition

This compilation, from the works of the late M. Bastiat, is given to the public in the belief that the time has now come when the people, relieved from the absorbing anxieties of the war, and the subsequent strife on reconstruction, are prepared to give a more earnest and thoughtful attention to economical questions than was possible during the previous ten years. That we have retrograded in economical science during this period, while making great strides in moral and political advancement by the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of the freedmen, seems to me incontestable. Professor Perry has described very concisely the steps taken by the manufacturers in 1861, after the Southern members had left their seats in Congress, to reverse the policy of the government in reference to foreign trade. He has noticed but has not laid so much stress as he might on the fact that while there was no considerable public opinion to favor them, there was none at all to oppose them. Not only was the attention of the people diverted from the tariff by the dangers then impending, but the Republican party, which then came into power, had, in its National Convention, offered a bribe to the State of Pennsylvania for its vote in the Presidential election, which bribe was set forth in the following words:

Resolved, That while providing revenue for the support of the General Government by duties upon imports, sound policy requires such an adjustment of these imposts as to encourage the development of the industrial interests of the whole country; and we commend that policy of national exchanges which secures to the workingmen liberal wages, to agriculture remunerative prices, to mechanics and manufacturers an adequate reward for their skill, labor and enterprise, and to the nation commercial prosperity and independence.” — Chicago Convention Platform, 1860.

It is true that this resolution did not commit anybody to the doctrine that the industrial interests of the whole country are promoted by taxes levied upon imported property, however “adjusted,” but it was understood, by the Pennsylvanians at least, to be a promise that if the Republican party were successful in the coming election, the doctrine of protection, which had been overthrown in 1846, and had been in an extremely languishing state ever since, should be put upon its legs again. I am far from asserting that this overture was needed to secure the vote of Pennsylvania for Mr. Lincoln in 1860, or that that State was governed by less worthy motives in her political action than other States. I only remark that her delegates in the convention thought such a resolution would be extremely useful, and such was the anxiety to secure her vote in the election that a much stronger resolution might have been conceded if it had been required. I affirm, however, that there was no agitation on the tariff question in any other quarter. New England had united in passing the tariff of 1857, which lowered the duties imposed by the act of 1846 about fifty per cent., i.e., one-half of the previously existing scale. The Western States had not petitioned Congress or the convention to disturb the tariff; nor had New York done so, although Mr. Greeley, then as now, was invoking, more or less frequently, the shade of Henry Clay to help re-establish what is deftly styled the “American System.”

The protective policy was restored, after its fifteen years’ sleep, under the auspices of Mr. Morrill, a Representative (now a Senator) from Vermont. Latterly I have noticed in the speeches and votes of this gentleman (who is, I think, one of the most conscientious, as he is one of the most amiable, men in public life), a reluctance to follow to their logical conclusion the principles embodied in the “Morrill tariff” of 1861. His remarks upon the copper bill, during the recent session of Congress, indicate that, in his opinion, those branches of American industry which are engaged in producing articles sent abroad in exchange for the products of foreign nations, are entitled to some consideration. This is an important admission, but not so important as another, which he made in his speech on the national finances, January 24, 1867, in which, referring to the bank note circulation existing in the year 1860, he said: “And that was a year of as large production and as much general prosperity as any, perhaps, in our history.” If the year immediately preceding the enactment of the Morrill tariff was a year of as large production and as much general prosperity as any in our history, of what use has the Morrill tariff been? We have seen that it was not demanded by any public agitation. We now see that it has been of no public utility.

In combating, by arguments and illustrations adapted to the comprehension of the mass of mankind, the errors and sophisms with which protectionists deceive themselves and others, M. Bastiat is the most lucid and pointed of all writers on economical science with whose works I have any acquaintance. It is not necessary to accord to him a place among the architects of the science of political economy, although some of his admirers rank him among the highest. It is enough to count him among the greatest of its expounders and demonstrators. His death, which occurred at Pisa, Italy, on the 24th December, 1850, at the age of 49, was a serious loss to France and to the world. His works, though for the most part fragmentary, and given to the public from time to time through the columns of the Journal des Economistes, the Journal des Debats, and the Libre Echange, remain a monument of a noble intellect guided by a noble soul. They have been collected and published (including the Harmonies Economiques, which the author left in manuscript) by Guillaumin & Co., the proprietors of the Journal des Economistes, in two editions of six volumes each, 8vo. and 12mo. When we reflect that these six volumes were produced between April, 1844, and December, 1850, by a young man of feeble constitution, who commenced life as a clerk in a mercantile establishment, and who spent much of his time during these six years in delivering public lectures, and laboring in the National Assembly, to which he was chosen in 1848, our admiration for such industry is only modified by the thought that if he had been more saving of his strength, he might have rendered even greater services to his country and to mankind.

The Sophismes Economiques, which fill the larger portion of this volume, were not expected by their author to outlast the fallacies which they sought to overthrow. But these fallacies have lived longer and have spread over more of the earth’s surface than any one a priori could have believed possible. It is sometimes useful, in opposing doctrines which people have been taught to believe are peculiar to their own country and time, to show that the same doctrines have been maintained in other countries and times, and have been exploded in other languages. By what misuse of words the doctrine of Protection came to be denominated the “American System,” I could never understand. It prevailed in England nearly two hundred years before our separation from the mother country. Adam Smith directed the first formidable attack against it in the very year that our independence was declared. It held its ground in England until it had starved and ruined almost every branch of industry — agriculture, manufactures, and commerce alike. It was not wholly overthrown until 1846, the same year that witnessed its discomfiture in the United States, as already shown. It still exists in a subdued and declining way in France, despite the powerful and brilliant attacks of Say, Bastiat, and Chevalier, but its end cannot be far distant in that country. The Cobden-Chevalier treaty with England has been attended by consequences so totally at variance with the theories and prophecies of the protectionists that it must soon succumb.

As these pages are going through the press, a telegram announces that the French Government has abolished the discriminating duties levied upon goods imported in foreign bottoms, and has asked our government to abolish the like discrimination which our laws have created. Commercial freedom is making rapid progress in Prussia, Austria, Italy, and even in Spain. The United States alone, among civilized nations, hold to the opposite principle. Our anomalous position in this respect is due, as I think, to our anomalous condition during the past eight or nine years, already adverted to — a condition in which the protected classes have been restrained by no public opinion — public opinion being too intensely preoccupied with the means of preserving the national existence to notice what was doing with the tariff. But evidences of a reawakening are not wanting.

There is scarcely an argument current among the protectionists of the United States that was not current in France at the time Bastiat wrote the Sophismes Economiques. Nor was there one current in his time that is not performing its bad office among us. Hence his demonstrations of their absurdity and falsity are equally applicable to our time and country as to his. They may have even greater force among us if they thoroughly dispel the notion that Protection is an “American system.” Surely they cannot do less than this.

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