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Freedom in Transactions

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On entering Paris, which I had come to visit, I said to myself — Here are a million of human beings who would all die in a short time if provisions of every kind ceased to flow towards this great metropolis. Imagination is baffled when it tries to appreciate the vast multiplicity of commodities which must enter tomorrow through the barriers in order to preserve the inhabitants from falling a prey to the convulsions of famine, rebellion, and pillage. And yet all sleep at this moment, and their peaceful slumbers are not disturbed for a single instant by the prospect of such a frightful catastrophe.

On the other hand, 80 departments have been laboring today, without concert, without any mutual understanding, for the provisioning of Paris. How does each succeeding day bring what is wanted, nothing more, nothing less, to so gigantic a market? What, then, is the ingenious and secret power which governs the astonishing regularity of movements so complicated, a regularity in which everybody has implicit faith, although happiness and life itself are at stake?

That power is an absolute principle, the principle of freedom in transactions. We have faith in that inward light which Providence has placed in the heart of all men, and to which he has confided the preservation and indefinite amelioration of our species, namely, a regard to personal interest — since we must give it its right name — a principle so active, so vigilant, so foreseeing, when it is free in its action.

In what situation, I would ask, would the inhabitants of Paris be if a minister should take it into his head to substitute for this power the combinations of his own genius, however superior we might suppose them to be — if he thought to subject to his supreme direction this prodigious mechanism, to hold the springs of it in his hands, to decide by whom, or in what manner, or on what conditions, everything needed should be produced, transported, exchanged, and consumed? Truly, there may be much suffering within the walls of Paris — poverty, despair, perhaps starvation, causing more tears to flow than ardent charity is able to dry up; but I affirm that it is probable, nay, that it is certain, that the arbitrary intervention of government would multiply infinitely those sufferings, and spread over all our fellow citizens those evils which at present affect only a small number of them.

This piece was written in 1848 and appeared in Volume 3 of Essays on Liberty , published in 1958 by The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

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    Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) was a leader of the free-trade movement in France and a member of the French legislature. His most famous essay is "The Law."