Frederic Bastiat and the Use of Satire in Economics
Fredric Bastiat was one of the last of the great French Classical Liberals. His famous book on political theory, “The Law”, is a fantastic summation of those classical liberal ideals. He was, however, an accomplished economist as well. He is one of the best economic writers of all time, in the opinion of the present author, and much of his career was dedicated to relaying sound economic ideas to the French people, who had traditionally embraced mercantilist policies.
He was an intellectual, but wrote for and to the public. He was masterful at breaking down economic ideas and making plain sense out of complex economic theories. The best example of this talent is the “Candlemaker’s Petition.” As mentioned above, France had been a traditionally mercantilist country. This economic system views protectionism, a country enacting tariffs to make imported goods more expensive, as a good and necessary thing to make a country stronger. The effective implications of this were that competition from abroad would be lessened, forcing people to instead turn to French industry for their goods and services. Mercantilism had first been conceived and implemented in France, and had been popular for centuries by Bastiat’s day.
Bastiat, a proponent of laissez-faire, was staunchly against tariffs and protectionism. It was in his “Candlemakers Petition” that he constructed a strong argument against it using the powerful tool of satire.
(While the main points of the paper will be explained and quoted below, I recommend you read it for yourself first. It is really a marvelous work of economic literature, and you would be doing yourself a disservice by not reading the paper in its entirety.)
Bastiat starts the paper posing himself as the spokesman for a guild of candlemakers, who have a grievance to bring before the parliament of France:
“We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun..”
“We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights, and blinds — in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country, a country that cannot, without betraying ingratitude, abandon us today to so unequal a combat.”
In order to protect candlemakers against the competition of the sun, they recommend that all blinds and shutters be covered at all times! The sun, whose sunlight harms their business, is not to harm their sales in any way! Bastiat goes on to explain the benefits of this proposed policy from the candlemakers:
“Be good enough, honourable deputies, to take our request seriously, and do not reject it without at least hearing the reasons that we have to advance in its support.
First, if you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light, and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged?”
Bastiat then goes on to write about how many different industries will be met with increased demand if the demand for candles is raised. Increased demand for candles means increased demand for string and wax. All industries that go into the production of these materials will see increased demand, as well as the industries that feed into those industries!
Bastiat goes on to close the paper by asking the French parliament to not treat the competition of the sun, who gives his goods away for free, as being anything different from competition abroad from other nations:
“Make your choice, but be logical; for as long as you ban, as you do, foreign coal, iron, wheat, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to admit the light of the sun, whose price is zero all day long!”
I am sure that the reader has detected that there must be something wrong with the argument Bastiat satirically puts forth when writing this petition. After all, it can’t possibly be a good thing for everyone if we are compelled to live like hermits, forgoing any and all sunlight for the sake of economic efficiency. What is wrong with the argument from the candlemakers?
Bastiat can answer his own argument. Bastiat is famous for his concept in economics usually referred to as the “seen and the unseen”. This concept is that there are clear economic effects that we do see. When someone is forced to repair a broken window, we see the economic benefits that produces. Window makers have work, glass makers have more demand, etc. However, there are effects from this that are unseen. What is unseen in this example is the other uses the money would have gone to if there had been no broken window. Instead of buying a new window, a new TV may have been bought. A new bookshelf, perhaps. These purchases that did not occur are the unseen effects of the broken window.
If we take this concept of the “ seen and the unseen “ to the candlemakers argument, we see that there are many unseen effects of their proposed policy. It may very well be that many industries in France will be vitalized by increased demand for candles, but many other industries, which are now receiving less demand relative to candles, are now suffering. The key is, those that are forced to buy candles would have been much better off if they were allowed to instead purchase whatever they pleased! Instead of using their money to improve their lives and standard of living, they must now spend that money to receive the same light they once received for free. The improvement that could be made to their lives is instead sacrificed to the candlemakers.
The argument from the candlemakers is completely one-sided. They are focusing only on what is seen. They completely ignore what is unseen! They extol the effects that the candle-making industries will feel, but say nothing at all of every other industry that must feel the necessary squeeze. The seen effects show only the vast amounts of new candles, but not the unseen effects of every other use that money would have gone to. Because of their exclusive view on the seen effects, the candlemaker’s proposal is nothing but bad economics.
The genius of “The Candlemaker’s Petition” is not in what Bastiat wrote, but rather, in their presentation. Anyone could see that the idea of shutting out the sun in every household is patently absurd. No one could take such an idea seriously. It does not pass the sniff test of common sense. However, this same argument from the candlemakers is made by those in favor of protectionism. To reject the candlemakers is to reject the mercantilists.
The brilliance of this essay is in its use of satire to destroy the argument for economic protectionism. Bastiat looked at the argument from the Mercantilists’, and proceeded to take it to its ridiculous logical extent. When satire is employed in this way, it condenses arguments to the point where their faults become obvious. Protectionism states that nations should not rely on other nations for goods, but should produce them at home. Competition from abroad is bad and should be stymied for this reason. Bastiat sees this and takes this same principle to the asinine level of reducing all competition from the sun. Bastiat shows, in a truly comical way, how the principle itself is flawed by taking it and applying it in such a ludicrous way as to discredit it entirely.
This argument via satire is highly effective at reaching large masses of people, as anyone can understand the inherent absurdity involved. Bastiat did not employ satire without knowing this, however. He spent most of his intellectual career trying to reach out to the French people and increase their economic literacy! He used the method of satire as a means to achieve that end.
The tool of satire is so useful because it can lower the bar of entry into economic discourse. Economic arguments are complicated matters, and many do not have the education necessary to fully understand them. However, with the tool of satire, weak arguments can be countered without first spreading large amounts of sound economic knowledge to the general population. Put simply: satire is a useful tool for countering unsound economic ideas in the public square.
What relevance is this for us today? The prevalence of unsound economics is perhaps near an all-time high. Central banks possess a near-unchecked power over the manipulation of the currency all around the world. Interest rates have been forced to at or near 0 and not risen in years. The rise of MMT, Modern Monetary Theory, has shown a startling lack of knowledge among even economists about the basic functions of money. Sound economic ideas are needed now more than ever.
Satire is a useful tool at the disposal of economists to fight back against unsound economic ideas. They are many ways to appeal to both the layperson and education on the issues of sound economic theory. Satire should be considered a weapon in that arsenal. As Bastiat showed in the “Candlemaker’s Petition”, if used correctly, it can dismantle bad economics with ease.
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Originally published at https://www.thejwrich.com on October 4, 2020.