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Restriction and Free Trade

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Two opposite doctrines oppose each other: The one, which is dominant in legislation and opinions, sees the way of progress in the surplus of sales over purchases, of exports over imports — in a word, what is called balance of trade.

The other, which we try to propagate, is the exact opposite. It presents the exports of a nation as the obvious payment of their imports. We deem that the essential goal is that each payment should be as small as possible for the largest possible amount of imports. Hence, our motto is, Let everybody be free to go and purchase goods wherever they are cheapest, and sell where they are dearest. Is not that the way to give least and get most?

This latter principle is, naturally and spontaneously, applied by people, when laws do not prevent them from doing so. The former principle resorts to restrictive laws. It commits military forces called customs officers to reject foreign wares. But the complement of that system — exporting much — is not so easy.

As each government intends to hinder imports, how is it possible for anyone to export much? At the bottom of that antagonism lies a well-known and sad maxim: the profit of the one is the loss of the other. Now, exporting being the condition of progress, there remains the need to conquer customers. It means the rule of the strongest or the slyest. Each group of people will do as much as they can; if a nation obeys the tenets of the restrictive system, those people are logically invaders; if they stop conquering, their moderation is nothing more than impotence.

It is important to notice that, if the restrictive system were true, the spirit of hatred, envy, antagonism, and domination would be unquenchable, as being rooted in truth itself. But if the opposite doctrine were to succeed in winning the assent of minds, if each nation were to follow the same reasoning as the individual and say, “My advantage is in the quantity of what I receive and not in what I give out. My advantage is to buy cheap and sell dear. My advantage is therefore to let merchants be, and liberate all exchanges” — then things would change radically. The nations would refrain from menacing one another, not out of generosity, but out of minding their own interest.

This piece is an excerpt from Providence and Liberty , a selection of essays by Bastiat compiled by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, 161 Ottawa St. N.W., Suite 405K, Grand Rapids, MI 49503.

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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."