Economics

The obstacle mistaken for the cause

This classic essay by Frédéric Bastiat was recently featured at Mises.org. It was first published in 1845, as the second chapter of Bastiat’s Economic Sophisms.

The obstacle mistaken for the cause — scarcity mistaken for abundance — this is the same fallacy under another aspect; and it is well to study it in all its phases.

Man is originally destitute of everything.

Between this destitution and the satisfaction of his wants there exist a multitude of obstacles that labor enables us to surmount. It is of interest to inquire how and why these very obstacles to his material prosperity have come to be mistaken for the cause of that prosperity.

I want to travel a hundred miles. But between the starting-point and the place of my destination, mountains, rivers, marshes, impenetrable forests, brigands — in a word, obstacles — interpose themselves; and to overcome these obstacles it is necessary for me to employ many efforts, or, what comes to the same thing, that others should employ many efforts for me, the price of which I must pay them. It is clear that I should have been in a better situation if these obstacles had not existed.

On his long journey through life, from the cradle to the grave, man has need to assimilate to himself a prodigious quantity of alimentary substances, to protect himself against the inclemency of the weather, to preserve himself from a number of ailments, or cure himself of them. Hunger, thirst, disease, heat, cold, are so many obstacles strewn along his path. In a state of isolation he must overcome them all by hunting, fishing, tillage, spinning, weaving, building; and it is clear that it would be better for him that these obstacles were less numerous and formidable, or, better still, that they did not exist at all. In society he does not combat these obstacles personally, but others do it for him; and in return he employs himself in removing one of those obstacles that are encountered by his fellow men.

It is clear also, considering things in the gross, that it would be better for men in the aggregate, or for society, that these obstacles should be as few and feeble as possible.

But when we come to scrutinize the social phenomena in detail, and men’s sentiments as modified by the introduction of exchange, we soon perceive how men have come to confound wants with wealth, the obstacle with the cause.

The separation of employments, the division of labor, which results from the faculty of exchanging, causes each man, instead of struggling on his own account to overcome all the obstacles that surround him, to combat only one of them; he overcomes that one not for himself but for his fellow men, who in turn render him the same service.

The consequence is that this man, in combating this obstacle that it is his special business to overcome for the sake of others, sees in it the immediate source of his own wealth. The greater, the more formidable, the more keenly felt this obstacle is, the greater will be the remuneration that his fellow men will be disposed to accord him; that is to say, the more ready will they be to remove the obstacles that stand in his way.

The physician, for example, does not bake his own bread, or manufacture his own instruments, or weave or make his own coat. Others do these things for him, and in return he treats the diseases with which his patients are afflicted. The more numerous, severe, and frequent these diseases are, the more others consent, and are obliged, to do for his personal comfort. Regarding it from this point of view, disease, that general obstacle to human happiness, becomes a cause of material prosperity to the individual physician. The same argument applies to all producers in their several departments. The ship owner derives his profits from the obstacle called distance; the agriculturist from that called hunger; the manufacturer of cloth from that called cold; the schoolmaster lives upon ignorance; the lapidary upon vanity; the attorney on cupidity; the notary upon possible bad faith — just as the physician lives upon the diseases of men. It is quite true, therefore, that each profession has an immediate interest in the continuation, nay, in the extension, of the special obstacle which it is its business to combat.

Observing this, theorists make their appearance, and, founding a system on their individual sentiments, tell us: Want is wealth, labor is wealth, obstacles to material prosperity are prosperity. To multiply obstacles is to support industry.

Then statesmen intervene. They have the disposal of the public force; and what more natural than to make it available for developing and multiplying obstacles, since this is developing and multiplying wealth? They say, for example: If we prevent the importation of iron from places where it is abundant, we place an obstacle in the way of its being procured. This obstacle, keenly felt at home, will induce men to pay in order to be set free from it. A certain number of our fellow citizens will devote themselves to combating it, and this obstacle will make their fortune. The greater the obstacle is — that is, the scarcer, the more inaccessible, the more difficult to transport, the more distant from the place where it is to be used, the mineral sought for becomes — the more hands will be engaged in the various ramifications of this branch of industry. Exclude, then, foreign iron, create an obstacle, for you thereby create the work that is to overcome it.

The same reasoning leads to the proscription of machinery.

Here, for instance, are men who are in want of casks for the storage of their wine. This is an obstacle; and here are other men whose business it is to remove that obstacle by making the casks that are wanted. It is fortunate, then, that this obstacle should exist, since it gives employment to a branch of national industry, and enriches a certain number of our fellow citizens. But then we have ingenious machinery invented for felling the oak, cutting it up into staves, and forming them into the wine-casks that are wanted. By this means the obstacle is lessened, and so are the gains of the cooper. Let us maintain both at their former elevation by a law, and ban the machinery.

To get at the root of this sophism it is necessary only to reflect that human labor is not the end, but the means. It never remains unemployed. If one obstacle is removed, it does battle with another; and society is freed from two obstacles by the same amount of labor that was formerly required for the removal of one. If the labor of the cooper is rendered unnecessary in one department, it will soon take another direction. But how and from what source will it be remunerated? From the same source exactly from which it is remunerated at present; for when a certain amount of labor becomes disposable by the removal of an obstacle, a corresponding amount of remuneration becomes disposable also. To maintain that human labor will ever come to want employment, would be to maintain that the human race will cease to encounter obstacles. In that case labor would not only be impossible; it would be superfluous. We should no longer have anything to do, because we should be omnipotent; and we should only have to pronounce our fiat in order to ensure the satisfaction of all our desires and the supply of all our wants.

1 comment to The obstacle mistaken for the cause

  • Paul Marks Paul Marks

    Correct.

    Poverty is not unnatural – it is natural.

    Poverty is not the fault of rich people – it is the natural condition of the world.

    People drag themselves out of a hand-to-mouth existence – or (rather) work so that their children do not have such a terrible existence.

    Yet poverty (starvation) is always just a few days away.

    All it takes is collectivists trying to “help”.

    “Look these people have a comfortable life – so everyone can, if we….” various regulations and tax-and-spend schemes.

    That is all it takes (over time).

    To drag civil society (civilization) back towards the level of the hunter-gatherer pack (with a fraction of the existing population and life span).

    Especially as each failure of statism tends to be responded with by MORE statism.