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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Bastiat, the Left-Libertarian?

Here are some quotes from Economic Sophisms (with bold emphasis by me) that I think have a direct bearing on left-libertarian thought:
In the same way, we could make a survey of all industries, and we should always find that producers, as such, have antisocial attitudes. "The merchant," says Montaigne, "prospers only by the extravagance of youth; the farmer, by the high cost of grain; the architect, by the decay of houses; officers of justice, by men's lawsuits and quarrels, Even the ministers of religion owe the honor and practice of their high calling to our death and our vices. No physician takes pleasure in the good health of even his friends; no soldier, in the peace of his country; and so it goes for the rest."
It follows that, if the secret wishes of each producer were realized, the world would speedily retrogress toward barbarism. The sail would take the place of steam, the oar would replace the sail, and it in turn would have to yield to the wagon, the latter to the mule, and the mule to the packman. Wool would ban cotton, cotton would ban wool, and so on, until the scarcity of all things made man himself disappear from the face of the earth.
Suppose for a moment that legislative power and executive authority were put at the disposal of the Mimerel Committee, and that each of the members of that association had the right to introduce and enact a favorite law. Is it very hard to imagine what sort of industrial code the public would be subjected to?
If we now turn to consider the immediate self-interest of the consumer, we shall find that it is in perfect harmony with the general interest, i.e., with what the well-being of mankind requires. When the buyer goes to the market, he wants to find it abundantly supplied. He wants the seasons to be propitious for all the crops; more and more wonderful inventions to bring a greater number of products and satisfactions within his reach; time and labor to be saved; distances to be wiped out; the spirit of peace and justice to permit lessening the burden of taxes; and tariff walls of every sort to fall. In all these respects, the immediate self-interest of the consumer follows a line parallel to that of the public interest. He may extend his secret wishes to fantastic or absurd lengths; yet they will not cease to be in conformity with the interests of his fellow man. He may wish that food and shelter, roof and hearth, education and morality, security and peace, strength and health, all be his without effort, without toil, and without limit, like the dust of the roads, the water of the stream, the air that surrounds us, and the sunlight that bathes us; and yet the realization of these wishes would in no way conflict with the good of society.
Perhaps people will say that, if these wishes were granted, the producer's labor would be more and more limited, and finally would cease for want of anything to occupy it. But why? Because, in this extreme hypothetical case, all imaginable wants and desires world be fully satisfied. Man, like the Almighty, would create all things by a simple act of volition. Will someone tell me what reason there would be, on this hypothesis, to deplore the end of industrial production?
I referred just now to an imaginary legislative assembly composed of businessmen, in which each member world have the power to enact a law expressing his secret wish in his capacity as a producer; and I said that the laws emanating from such an assembly would create a system of monopoly and put into practice the theory of scarcity.
In the same way, a Chamber of Deputies in which each member considered solely his immediate self-interest as a consumer would end by creating a system of free trade, repealing all restrictive laws, and removing all man-made commercial barriers—in short, by putting into practice the theory of abundance.
Hence, it follows that to consult solely the immediate self-interest of the producer is to have regard for an antisocial interest; whereas to consider as fundamental solely the immediate self-interest of the consumer is to take the general interest as the foundation of social policy.

Now, the result is that each man sees the immediate cause of his prosperity in the obstacle that he makes it his business to struggle against for the benefit of others. The larger the obstacle, the more important and more intensely felt it is, then the more his fellow men are disposed to pay him for having overcome it, that is, the readier they are to remove on his behalf the obstacles that stand in his way.
A physician, for instance, does not occupy himself with baking his own bread, making ins own instruments, or weaving or tailoring his own clothes. Others do these things for him, and, in return, he treats the diseases that afflict his patients. The more frequent, severe, and numerous these diseases are, the more willing people are—indeed, the more they are obliged—to work for his personal benefit. From his point of view, illness—which is a general obstacle to human well-being—is a cause of his individual well-being. All producers, with respect to their particular field of operation, reason in the same manner. The shipowner derives his profits from the obstacle called distance; the farmer, from that called hunger; the textile manufacturer, from that called cold; the teacher lives on ignorance; the jeweler, on vanity; the lawyer, on greed; the notary, on possible bad faith, just as the physician lives on the illnesses of mankind. It is therefore quite true that each profession has an immediate interest in the continuation, even the extension, of the particular obstacle that is the object of its efforts.

Let its go back to the thirteenth century. The men who then practiced the art of copying received for the service they performed a remuneration determined by the average rate of wages. Among these copyists, there was one who sought and discovered the means of multiplying rapidly copies of the same work. He invented printing.
At first, one man became rich, while many others were being impoverished. However marvelous this discovery was, one might, at first sight, have hesitated to decide whether it was harmful or beneficial. Apparently it was introducing into the world, as I have said, an element of limitless inequality. Gutenberg profited by his invention and employed his profits to extend its use indefinitely, until he had ruined all the copyists. As for the public, the consumers, they gained little, for Gutenberg was careful to lower the price of his books only just enough to undersell his rivals.
But God had the wisdom to introduce harmony not only into the movement of the spheres but also into the internal machinery of society. Hence, the economic advantages of this invention did not remain the exclusive possession of one individual, but instead became for all eternity the common inheritance of all mankind.
In time, the process became known. Gutenberg was no longer the only printer; others imitated him. Their profits at first were considerable. They were compensated very well for being in the vanguard of the imitators, and this extra compensation was necessary to attract them and to induce them to contribute to the great, approaching, final result. They earned a great deal, but they earned less than the inventor, for competition was beginning to operate. The price of books kept falling lower and lower, and the profits of imitators kept diminishing as the invention became less novel, that is, as imitation became less deserving of especial reward. Soon the new industry reached its normal state: the remuneration of printers no longer was exceptionally large, and, like that of scribes in earlier days, it was determined only by the average rate of wages. Thus, production itself became once more the measure of compensation. Yet the invention nonetheless constituted an advance; the saving of time, of labor, of effort to produce a given result, for a fixed number of copies, had nonetheless been realized. But how was this saving manifested? In the cheapness of books. And to whose profit? To the profit of the consumer, of society, of mankind. Printers, who henceforth had no exceptional merit, no longer received an exceptional remuneration. As men, as consumers, they doubtless shared in the advantages that the invention had conferred upon the community. But that was all. In so far as they were printers, in so far as they were producers, they had returned to the conditions that were customary for all the producers to the country. Society paid them for their labor, and not for the usefulness of the invention. That had become the common and freely available heritage of all mankind.

I confess that the wisdom and the beauty of these laws evoke my admiration and respect. In them I see Saint-Simonianism: To each according to his capacity; to each capacity according to its production. In them I see communism, that is to say, the tendency of goods to become the common heritage of men; but a Saint-Simonianism, a communism, regulated by infinite foresight, and in no way abandoned to the frailty, the passions, and the tyranny of men.
What I have said of printing can be said of all the tools of production, from the nail and the hammer to the locomotive and the electric telegraph. Society possesses all of them in having an abundance of consumers' goods; and it possesses them as gratuitous gifts, since their effect is to reduce the price of commodities; and all that part of the price that has been eliminated as a result of the contribution of inventions to production clearly makes the product to that extent free of charge.

In a temperate zone where coal and iron ore are at the surface, one need only stoop down to get them. At first, I readily agree, it is the inhabitants of the favored region who will profit from this lucky circumstance. But soon, as competition develops, the price of coal and iron ore will continue to fall until the gift of Nature is available free of charge to everyone, and human labor alone is remunerated in accordance with the average rate of wages.
Thus, as a result of the operation of the law of supply and demand, the gifts of Nature, like improvements in the processes of production, are—or continually tend to become—the common and gratuitous heritage of the consumers, the masses, mankind in general.

The theory whose outlines I have attempted to sketch in this chapter still stands in need of a great deal of development. I have considered it only in its bearing on the subject of free trade. But perhaps the attentive reader may have perceived in it the fertile seed that is destined, when it matures, to eradicate not only protectionism, but, along with it, Fourierism, Saint-Simonianism, communism, and all those schools of thought that aim at excluding the law of supply and demand from the governance of the world. From the point of view of the producer, competition doubtless often clashes with our immediate self-interest; but, if one considers the general aim of all labor, i.e., universal well-being—in a word, if one adopts the point of view of the consumer—one will find that competition plays the same role in the moral world as equilibrium does in the physical world. It is the basis of true communism, of true socialism, and of that equality of wealth and position so much desired in our day; and if so many sincere publicists and well-intentioned reformers demand arbitrary controls, it is because they do not understand free exchange.


Blogger Lorraine said...

Bastiat, as you have quoted him[?] here,
would appear not to be a left libertarian.
But no matter.
The reality of the Equimarginal Principle is not lost on me.
This doesn't mean I have to think of it as a good thing.
I remain unconvinced that equality of wealth
and position are a by-product of free exchange.
Trade is a meritocracy of salesmanship,
or basic horse-trading skills.
'Free trade' is simply a slogan used
to market trade by associating it with freedom.
'Fair trade,' of course, is an oxymoron.
Intellectually (when wearing my 'empirical' hat),
I'm inclined to believe
that this is because the Universe itself
opposes fairness in principle.
In my more emotional (or optimistic, if you will)
moods I am more inclined to think of
social phenomena such as trade and markets
as problems which can be at least
partially ameliorated by technological
development (not to be confused with
economic development or the even more
problematic economic growth) or even
what RAW called 'group cleverness.'

The text included here seems to develop a theory that
post-scarcity society can result from everyone[?]
simply framing their economic roles (or their attitudes
about them) as consumptive rather than productive.
Perhaps I can benefit from this apparent insight
of Bastiat by throwing overboard certain
Calvinoid precepts which I have internalized,
such as equating employed status with
being a contributing member of society.
Back when the Internet was young and the
"web" was either just, or not yet, invented,
I tended to argue incessantly on Usenet for
the notion of leftism as a lesser evil
than rightism on the grounds that in capitalist
societies people compete over opportunities
to produce, while in nominally communist
societies, people compete over opportunities
to consume. Remember, this was in the early
nineties, back when the post-Communist Eurasia
was still in its honeymoon phase
(as was the Internet, at the time).
Competition over production opportunities under the so-called
free market is perhaps most dramatically exemplified
by masses of migrant (or other) workers competing
(perhaps in public view at a street corner near you) over enough
jobs to feed perhaps 20% of them, in which the
competition over a trial hire consists of a mixture
of shameless self-promotion and dignity-less begging.
(Pick me! pick me! pick me! pick me!)
Competition over consumption opportunities under so-called
communism was of course exemplified by long lines
to buy groceries, under conditions of
(ahem) "uncertain reward."

I figured back then that the indignities of
communist life would probably be a lesser evil
for someone with my particular mixture of
skill set and temperament. (can't/won't sell worth shit)
I'm good enough
(well, used to be, anyway) at
mental arithmetic to hold my own in capitalist
society in my role as consumer, but nowadays we're
living in the age of 'customer relationship management,'
so I'm now as informationally intimidated
by the consumer market
as I used to be by the labor market.
Getting one's money's worth
in a nominally communist society, for all I
know, may require even more jockeying for
position that landing a J.O.B. with bennies
in a capitalist society.

Nevertheless, I can't find it in myself to
regard incentive and authority as anything
other than two words for the same concept.
The most direct statement of what the word
incentive means to me is B.F. Skinner's
Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and I figure
anyone who can garner absolutely searing
critiques from as divergent a pair of libertarians
(if you will) as Noam Chomsky and Ayn Rand,
is someone whose teachings (even if they
are based on the Laws of Science) I cannot
tolerate even for the purpose of peaceful

Simply re-framing ones concept of oneself
from 'worker-consumer' to simply 'consumer'
reeks of Wal-Mart's argument that it's
raising people's standard of living by
'offering' its 'customers' low prices.
Low prices don't help first-world laborers
when the business community
is boycotting 'first-world' 'labor'
in the name of efficiency or competition
or rubbing our noses in how
spoiled rotten we are by our (admittedly)
unearned privilege of first-world birth.

Bastiat uses the word 'producer'
in an economics-textbook-y way,
apparently framing the concept of
a producer as something which could
equivalently be an individual or
an institution (under capitalism,
a for-profit business). This is something
I find at best naïve. The impression
it makes on me concerning Bastiat
is that we're talking about an
anti-leftist anti-libertarian, using
basically the same stock cliches to
promote that worldview as the
modern-day ideologues-for-hire
such as Tom Friedman and all the
other Friedmans of the free market fundamentalist persuasion.
(how many are there, anyway?).

The role of equilibrium
in the physical world is to make
sure the force vectors all add up to zero.
The zero-sum-game is far more consistent with
the objectively observed physical universe
than the 'win-win' concept of the Zig Ziglar ideology.

The role of competition
in the moral world is to categorize moral actors as winners
or losers.
Example (though not the most austere by a long shot)
being the fact that dressing for success equates
to dressing conservatively.
The market (whether you want to advertise it as 'free' or not)
is an inherently conservative,
anti-egalitarian, pro-scarcity
and authoritarian human-invented institution.

I'm not ready to jump on the post-left bandwagon,
or any of the other lame attempts to candy-coat
or otherwise slip the market-as-benign concept under the rug.

The law of supply and demand has never had a high opinion of me.
Unless and until that changes in a tangible way, I shall
continue to regard it with udder contempt.

12:43 PM  

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