Which is the best for man or for society, abundance or scarcity?
How, it may be exclaimed, can such a question be asked? Has it ever been
pretended, is it possible to maintain, that scarcity can be the basis of
a man's happiness?
Yes; this has been maintained, this is daily maintained; and I do not
hesitate to say that the scarcity theory is by far the most popular of
the day. It furnishes t
e subject of discussions, in conversations,
journals, books, courts of justice; and extraordinary as it may appear,
it is certain that political economy will have fulfilled its task and
its practical mission, when it shall have rendered common and
irrefutable the simple proposition that in abundance consist man's
Do we not hear it said every day, Foreign nations are inundating us
with their productions? Then we fear abundance.
Has not Mr. de Saint Cricq said, Production is superabundant? Then he
Do we not see workmen destroying and breaking machinery? They are
frightened by the excess of production; in other words, they fear
Has not Mr. Bugeaud said, Let bread be dear and the agriculturist will
be rich? Now bread can only be dear because it is scarce. Then Mr.
Bugeaud lauded scarcity.
Has not Mr. d'Argout produced the fruitfulness of the sugar culture as
an argument against it? Has he not said, The beet cannot have a
permanent and extended cultivation, because a few acres given up to it
in each department, would furnish sufficient for the consumption of all
France? Then, in his opinion, good consists in sterility and scarcity,
evil in fertility and abundance.
La Presse, Le Commerce, and the majority of our journals, are,
every day, publishing articles whose aim is to prove to the chambers and
to government that a wise policy should seek to raise prices by tariffs;
and do we not daily see these powers obeying these injunctions of the
press? Now, tariffs can only raise prices by diminishing the quantity of
goods offered for sale. Then, here we see newspapers, the legislature,
the ministry, all guided by the scarcity theory, and I was correct in my
statement that this theory is by far the most popular.
How then has it happened, that in the eyes at once of laborers, editors
and statesmen, abundance should appear alarming, and scarcity
advantageous? It is my intention to endeavor to show the origin of this
A man becomes rich, in proportion to the profitableness of his labor;
that is to say, in proportion as he sells his productions at a high
price. The price of his productions is high in proportion to their
scarcity. It is plain then, that, as far as regards him at least,
scarcity enriches him. Applying successively this mode of reasoning to
each class of laborers individually, the scarcity theory is deduced
from it. To put this theory into practice, and in order to favor each
class of labor, an artificial scarcity is forced in every kind of
production, by prohibition, restriction, suppression of machinery, and
other analogous measures.
In the same manner it is observed that when an article is abundant it
brings a small price. The gains of the producer are, of course, less. If
this is the case with all produce, all producers are then poor.
Abundance then ruins society. And as any strong conviction will always
seek to force itself into practice, we see, in many countries, the laws
aiming to prevent abundance.
This sophism, stated in a general form, would produce but a slight
impression. But when applied to any particular order of facts, to any
particular article of industry, to any one class of labor, it is
extremely specious, because it is a syllogism which is not false, but
incomplete. And what is true in a syllogism always necessarily
presents itself to the mind, while the incomplete, which is a negative
quality, an unknown value, is easily forgotten in the calculation.
Man produces in order to consume. He is at once producer and consumer.
The argument given above, considers him only under the first point of
view. Let us look at him in the second character and the conclusion will
be different. We may say,
The consumer is rich in proportion as he buys at a low price. He buys
at a low price in proportion to the abundance of the article in demand;
abundance then enriches him. This reasoning extended to all consumers
must lead to the theory of abundance!
It is the imperfectly understood notion of exchange of produce which
leads to these fallacies. If we consult our individual interest, we
perceive immediately that it is double. As sellers we are interested
in high prices, consequently in scarcity. As buyers our advantage is
in cheapness, or what is the same thing, abundance. It is impossible
then to found a proper system of reasoning upon either the one or the
other of these separate interests before determining which of the two
coincides and identifies itself with the general and permanent interests
If man were a solitary animal, working exclusively for himself,
consuming the fruit of his own personal labor; if, in a word, he did not
exchange his produce, the theory of scarcity could never have introduced
itself into the world. It would be too strikingly evident, that
abundance, whencesoever derived, is advantageous to him, whether this
abundance might be the result of his own labor, of ingenious tools, or
of powerful machinery; whether due to the fertility of the soil, to the
liberality of nature, or to an inundation of foreign goods, such as
the sea bringing from distant regions might cast upon his shores. Never
would the solitary man have dreamed, in order to encourage his own
labor, of destroying his instruments for facilitating his work, of
neutralizing the fertility of the soil, or of casting back into the sea
the produce of its bounty. He would understand that his labor was a
means not an end, and that it would be absurd to reject the object,
in order to encourage the means. He would understand that if he has
required two hours per day to supply his necessities, any thing which
spares him an hour of this labor, leaving the result the same, gives him
this hour to dispose of as he pleases in adding to his comforts. In a
word, he would understand that every step in the saving of labor, is a
step in the improvement of his condition. But traffic clouds our vision
in the contemplation of this simple truth. In a state of society with
the division of labor to which it leads, the production and consumption
of an article no longer belong to the same individual. Each now looks
upon his labor not as a means, but as an end. The exchange of produce
creates with regard to each object two separate interests, that of the
producer and that of the consumer; and these two interests are always
directly opposed to each other.
It is essential to analyze and study the nature of each. Let us then
suppose a producer of whatever kind; what is his immediate interest? It
consists in two things: 1st, that the smallest possible number of
individuals should devote themselves to the business which he follows;
and 2dly, that the greatest possible number should seek the articles of
his produce. In the more succinct terms of Political Economy, the supply
should be small, the demand large; or yet in other words: limited
competition, unlimited consumption.
What on the other side is the immediate interest of the consumer? That
the supply should be large, the demand small.
As these two interests are immediately opposed to each other, it follows
that if one coincides with the general interest of society the other
must be adverse to it.
Which then, if either, should legislation favor as contributing most to
the good of the community?
To determine this question, it suffices to inquire in which the secret
desires of the majority of men would be accomplished.
Inasmuch as we are producers, it must be confessed that we have each of
us anti-social desires. Are we vine-growers? It would not distress us
were the frost to nip all the vines in the world except our own: this
is the scarcity theory. Are we iron-workers? We would desire (whatever
might be the public need) that the market should offer no iron but our
own; and precisely for the reason that this need, painfully felt and
imperfectly supplied, causes us to receive a high price for our iron:
again here is the theory of scarcity. Are we agriculturists? We say
with Mr. Bugeaud, let bread be dear, that is to say scarce, and our
business goes well: again the theory of scarcity.
Are we physicians? We cannot but see that certain physical
ameliorations, such as the improved climate of the country, the
development of certain moral virtues, the progress of knowledge pushed
to the extent of enabling each individual to take care of his own
health, the discovery of certain simple remedies easily applied, would
be so many fatal blows to our profession. As physicians, then, our
secret desires are anti-social. I must not be understood to imply that
physicians allow themselves to form such desires. I am happy to believe
that they would hail with joy a universal panacea. But in such a
sentiment it is the man, the Christian, who manifests himself, and who
by a praiseworthy abnegation of self, takes that point of view of the
question, which belongs to the consumer. As a physician exercising his
profession, and gaining from this profession his standing in society,
his comforts, even the means of existence of his family, it is
impossible but that his desires, or if you please so to word it, his
interests, should be anti-social.
Are we manufacturers of cotton goods? We desire to sell them at the
price most advantageous to ourselves. We would willingly consent to
the suppression of all rival manufactories. And if we dare not publicly
express this desire, or pursue the complete realization of it with some
success, we do so, at least to a certain extent, by indirect means; as
for example, the exclusion of foreign goods, in order to diminish the
quantity offered, and to produce thus by forcible means, and for our
own profits, a scarcity of clothing.
We might thus pass in review every business and every profession, and
should always find that the producers, in their character of
producers, have invariably anti-social interests. The shop-keeper
(says Montaigne) succeeds in his business through the extravagance of
youth; the laborer by the high price of grain; the architect by the
decay of houses; officers of justice by lawsuits and quarrels. The
standing and occupation even of ministers of religion are drawn from our
death and our vices. No physician takes pleasure in the health even of
his friends; no soldier in the peace of his country; and so on with
If then the secret desires of each producer were realized, the world
would rapidly retrograde towards barbarism. The sail would proscribe
steam; the oar would proscribe the sail, only in its turn to give way to
wagons, the wagon to the mule, and the mule to the foot-peddler. Wool
would exclude cotton; cotton would exclude wool; and thus on, until the
scarcity and want of every thing would cause man himself to disappear
from the face of the globe.
If we now go on to consider the immediate interest of the consumer, we
shall find it in perfect harmony with the public interest, and with the
well-being of humanity. When the buyer presents himself in the market,
he desires to find it abundantly furnished. He sees with pleasure
propitious seasons for harvesting; wonderful inventions putting within
his reach the largest possible quantity of produce; time and labor
saved; distances effaced; the spirit of peace and justice diminishing
the weight of taxes; every barrier to improvement cast down; and in all
this his interest runs parallel with an enlightened public interest. He
may push his secret desires to an absurd and chimerical height, but
never can they cease to be humanizing in their tendency. He may desire
that food and clothing, house and hearth, instruction and morality,
security and peace, strength and health, should come to us without limit
and without labor or effort on our part, as the water of the stream, the
air which we breathe, and the sunbeams in which we bask, but never could
the realization of his most extravagant wishes run counter to the good
It may be said, perhaps, that were these desires granted, the labor of
the producer constantly checked would end by being entirely arrested
for want of support. But why? Because in this extreme supposition every
imaginable need and desire would be completely satisfied. Man, like the
All-powerful, would create by the single act of his will. How in such an
hypothesis could laborious production be regretted?
Imagine a legislative assembly composed of producers, of whom each
member should cause to pass into a law his secret desire as a
producer; the code which would emanate from such an assembly could be
nothing but systematized monopoly; the scarcity theory put into
In the same manner, an assembly in which each member should consult only
his immediate interest of consumer would aim at the systematizing of
free trade; the suppression of every restrictive measure; the
destruction of artificial barriers; in a word, would realize the theory
It follows then,
That to consult exclusively the immediate interest of the producer, is
to consult an anti-social interest.
To take exclusively for basis the interest of the consumer, is to take
for basis the general interest.
* * * * *
Let me be permitted to insist once more upon this point of view, though
at the risk of repetition.
A radical antagonism exists between the seller and the buyer.
The former wishes the article offered to be scarce, supply small, and
at a high price.
The latter wishes it abundant, supply large, and at a low price.
The laws, which should at least remain neutral, take part for the seller
against the buyer; for the producer against the consumer; for high
against low prices; for scarcity against abundance. They act, if not
intentionally at least logically, upon the principle that a nation is
rich in proportion as it is in want of every thing.
For, say they, it is necessary to favor the producer by securing him a
profitable disposal of his goods. To effect this, their price must be
raised; to raise the price the supply must be diminished; and to
diminish the supply is to create scarcity.
Let us suppose that at this moment, with these laws in full action, a
complete inventory should be made, not by value, but by weight, measure
and quantity, of all articles now in France calculated to supply the
necessities and pleasures of its inhabitants; as grain, meat, woollen
and cotton goods, fuel, etc.
Let us suppose again that to-morrow every barrier to the introduction of
foreign goods should be removed.
Then, to judge of the effect of such a reform, let a new inventory be
made three months hence.
Is it not certain that at the time of the second inventory, the
quantity of grain, cattle, goods, iron, coal, sugar, etc., will be
greater than at the first?
So true is this, that the sole object of our protective tariffs is to
prevent such articles from reaching us, to diminish the supply, to
prevent low prices, or which is the same thing, the abundance of goods.
Now I ask, are the people under the action of these laws better fed
because there is less bread, less meat, and less sugar in the
country? Are they better dressed because there are fewer goods? Better
warmed because there is less coal? Or do they prosper better in their
labor because iron, copper, tools and machinery are scarce?
But, it is answered, if we are inundated with foreign goods and produce,
our coin will leave the country.
Well, and what matters that? Man is not fed with coin. He does not dress
in gold, nor warm himself with silver. What difference does it make
whether there be more or less coin in the country, provided there be
more bread in the cupboard, more meat in the larder, more clothing in
the press, and more wood in the cellar?
* * * * *
To Restrictive Laws, I offer this dilemma:
Either you allow that you produce scarcity, or you do not allow it.
If you allow it, you confess at once that your end is to injure the
people as much as possible. If you do not allow it, then you deny your
power to diminish the supply, to raise the price, and consequently you
deny having favored the producer.
You are either injurious or inefficient. You can never be useful.