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Sophism: n. a deliberately invalid argument displaying ingenuity in reasoning in the hope of deceiving someone.

By that definition, many modern Progressives, liberals, protectionists, and other obstructionists probably believe that they are not, in fact, sophists. Though invalid their arguments may be, many have probably persuaded themselves that they are not deliberately trying to mislead. In fact, many go so far as to paint those of us who espouse liberty, responsibility and prudence as being quaint cave-dwellers rather than addressing the economic criticisms head on. Such personal attack seems to me, to validate the fact that ideas of the sophists are dead, defunct, wrong, unpopular and unpersuasive. Why else would you have to accuse people like me of advocating for the end of civilization when it is in fact the very classical liberal ideas we teach that we attribute the rise of civilization to?

Don’t get me wrong, I would trade some prosperity for more freedom – but fortunately the real liberal world view does not force me to have to make that choice. It is only the ideas of the leftists sophists that force us to trade prosperity for less freedom – a bad deal indeed.

In any case, here is the online version of Bastiat’s classic.  Here is a glimpse of what you would find in there. In his final chapter on “The Domination by Labor” he writes:

Let us, then, cease this childish practice of comparing industrial competition to war;

In a battle, he who is killed is utterly destroyed, and the army is so much the weaker. In industry, a factory closes only when what it produced is replaced, with a surplus besides, by the whole of domestic industry. Imagine a state of affairs in which, for each man killed in action, two spring from the ground full of strength and energy. If there is a planet where such things happen, war, it must be admitted, is conducted there under conditions so different from those we see down here that it no longer deserves even to be called by the same name.

Now, this is the distinguishing characteristic of what has been so inappropriately called industrial warfare.

Let the English and the Belgians lower the price of their iron, if they can; let them keep on lowering it until they send it to us for nothing. They may quite possibly, by this means, extinguish the fire in one of our blast furnaces, i.e., in military parlance, kill one of our soldiers; but I defy them to prevent a thousand other branches of industry from springing up at once, as a necessary consequence of this very cheapness, and becoming more profitable than the one that has been killed.

Our conclusion must be, then, that domination through industrial superiority is impossible and self-contradictory, since every superiority that manifests itself in a nation is transformed into low-cost goods and in the end only imparts strength to all other nations. Let us banish from political economy all expressions borrowed from the military vocabulary: to fight on equal terms, conquer, crush, choke off, be defeated, invasion, tribute. What do these terms signify? Squeeze them, and nothing comes out. Or rather, what comes out is absurd errors and harmful preconceptions. Such expressions are inimical to international co-operation, hinder the formation of a peaceful, ecumenical, and indissoluble union of the peoples of the world, and retard the progress of mankind.109*

The entire volume is choc-full of wit, humor and shockingly simple economics. Its thrust can be boiled down to this: abundance is preferred to scarcity; and the interests of the consumers should matter too. Read it, though I’ll be posting a few of my favorite passages in the coming weeks.

One Response to “Bastiat’s Economic Sophisms – Trade as a Hydra”

  1. Harry says:

    Thank you for the link, Wintercow!

    I had searched your site, because my volume is AWOL, having been moved around my house, and no doubt will turn up. I do have “Selected Essays on Political Economy” at hand, in the bookshelf by my desk.

    I recommend Bastiat to all your readers, especially to your students, but also to all those who follow these pages. When Bastiat writes, one can feel the blood coming from his fingers and his clear vision of the world.

    I happened today upon Hegel’s Philosophy of History as we were reorganizing our home office, and I told Linda, “Too bad Hegel got it backwards by not writing, ” The History of Philosophy.” Copelston would do it later.

    For your students, let them know there is wisdom written before thinkers in the 20th century, Paul Krugman and Peter Singer notwithstanding.

    Abundance is preferred to scarcity. That is a great summary.

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