We have seen that between our wants and their gratification many
obstacles are interposed. We conquer or weaken these by the employment
of our faculties. It may be said, in general terms, that industry is an
effort followed by a result.
But by what do we measure our well-being? By the result of our effort,
or by the effort itself? There exists always a proportion between the
effort employed and the result
obtained. Does progress consist in the
relative increase of the second or of the first term of this proportion?
Both propositions have been sustained, and in political economy opinions
are divided between them.
According to the first system, riches are the result of labor. They
increase in the same ratio as the result does to the effort. Absolute
perfection, of which God is the type, consists in the infinite
distance between these two terms in this relation, viz., effort none,
The second system maintains that it is the effort itself which forms the
measure of, and constitutes, our riches. Progression is the increase of
the proportion of the effort to the result. Its ideal extreme may be
represented by the eternal and fruitless efforts of Sisyphus.
[Footnote 7: We will therefore beg the reader to allow us in future, for
the sake of conciseness, to designate this system under the term of
The first system tends naturally to the encouragement of every thing
which diminishes difficulties, and augments production,--as powerful
machinery, which adds to the strength of man; the exchange of produce,
which allows us to profit by the various natural agents distributed in
different degrees over the surface of our globe; the intellect which
discovers, experience which proves, and emulation which excites.
The second as logically inclines to every thing which can augment the
difficulty and diminish the product; as privileges, monopolies,
restrictions, prohibitions, suppression of machinery, sterility, etc.
It is well to remark here that the universal practice of men is always
guided by the principle of the first system. Every workman, whether
agriculturist, manufacturer, merchant, soldier, writer or philosopher,
devotes the strength of his intellect to do better, to do more quickly,
more economically,--in a word, to do more with less.
The opposite doctrine is in use with legislators, editors, statesmen,
men whose business is to make experiments upon society. And even of
these we may observe, that in what personally concerns themselves,
they act, like every body else, upon the principle of obtaining from
their labor the greatest possible quantity of useful results.
It may be supposed that I exaggerate, and that there are no true
I grant that in practice the principle is not pushed to its extremest
consequences. And this must always be the case when one starts upon a
wrong principle, because the absurd and injurious results to which it
leads, cannot but check it in its progress. For this reason, practical
industry never can admit of Sisyphism. The error is too quickly
followed by its punishment to remain concealed. But in the speculative
industry of theorists and statesmen, a false principle may be for a long
time followed up, before the complication of its consequences, only half
understood, can prove its falsity; and even when all is revealed, the
opposite principle is acted upon, self is contradicted, and
justification sought, in the incomparably absurd modern axiom, that in
political economy there is no principle universally true.
Let us see then, if the two opposite principles I have laid down do not
predominate, each in its turn;--the one in practical industry, the other
in industrial legislation.
I have already quoted some words of Mr. Bugeaud; but we must look on Mr.
Bugeaud in two separate characters, the agriculturist and the
As agriculturist, Mr. Bugeaud makes every effort to attain the double
object of sparing labor, and obtaining bread cheap. When he prefers a
good plough to a bad one, when he improves the quality of his manures;
when, to loosen his soil, he substitutes as much as possible the action
of the atmosphere for that of the hoe or the harrow; when he calls to
his aid every improvement that science and experience have revealed, he
has, and can have, but one object, viz., to diminish the proportion of
the effort to the result. We have indeed no other means of judging of
the success of an agriculturist, or of the merits of his system, but by
observing how far he has succeeded in lessening the one, while he
increases the other; and as all the farmers in the world act upon this
principle, we may say that all mankind are seeking, no doubt for their
own advantage, to obtain at the lowest price, bread, or whatever other
article of produce they may need, always diminishing the effort
necessary for obtaining any given quantity thereof.
This incontestable tendency of human nature, once proved, would, one
might suppose, be sufficient to point out the true principle to the
legislator, and to show him how he ought to assist industry (if indeed
it is any part of his business to assist it at all), for it would be
absurd to say that the laws of men should operate in an inverse ratio
from those of Providence.
Yet we have heard Mr. Bugeaud in his character of legislator, exclaim,
I do not understand this theory of cheapness; I would rather see bread
dear, and work more abundant. And consequently the deputy from Dordogne
votes in favor of legislative measures whose effect is to shackle and
impede commerce, precisely because by so doing we are prevented from
procuring by exchange, and at low price, what direct production can only
furnish more expensively.
Now it is very evident that the system of Mr. Bugeaud the deputy, is
directly opposed to that of Mr. Bugeaud the agriculturist. Were he
consistent with himself, he would as legislator vote against all
restriction; or else as farmer, he would practice in his fields the same
principle which he proclaims in the public councils. We should then see
him sowing his grain in his most sterile fields, because he would thus
succeed in laboring much, to obtain little. We should see him
forbidding the use of the plough, because he could, by scratching up the
soil with his nails, fully gratify his double wish of dear bread and
Restriction has for its avowed object, and acknowledged effect, the
augmentation of labor. And again, equally avowed and acknowledged, its
object and effect are, the increase of prices;--a synonymous term for
scarcity of produce. Pushed then to its greatest extreme, it is pure
Sisyphism as we have defined it: labor infinite; result nothing.
Baron Charles Dupin, who is looked upon as the oracle of the peerage in
the science of political economy, accuses railroads of injuring
shipping, and it is certainly true that the most perfect means of
attaining an object must always limit the use of a less perfect means.
But railways can only injure shipping by drawing from it articles of
transportation; this they can only do by transporting more cheaply; and
they can only transport more cheaply, by diminishing the proportion of
the effort employed to the result obtained; for it is in this that
cheapness consists. When, therefore, Baron Dupin laments the suppression
of labor in attaining a given result, he maintains the doctrine of
Sisyphism. Logically, if he prefers the vessel to the railway, he
should also prefer the wagon to the vessel, the pack-saddle to the
wagon, and the wallet to the pack-saddle; for this is, of all known
means of transportation, the one which requires the greatest amount of
labor, in proportion to the result obtained.
Labor constitutes the riches of the people, said Mr. de Saint Cricq, a
minister who has laid not a few shackles upon our commerce. This was no
elliptical expression, meaning that the results of labor constitute the
riches of the people. No,--this statesman intended to say, that it is
the intensity of labor, which measures riches; and the proof of this
is, that from step to step, from restriction to restriction, he forced
on France (and in so doing believed that he was doing well) to give to
the procuring, of, for instance, a certain quantity of iron, double the
necessary labor. In England, iron was then at eight francs; in France it
cost sixteen. Supposing the day's work to be worth one franc, it is
evident that France could, by barter, procure a quintal of iron by eight
days' labor taken from the labor of the nation. Thanks to the
restrictive measures of Mr. de Saint Cricq, sixteen days' work were
necessary to procure it, by direct production. Here then we have double
labor for an identical result; therefore double riches; and riches,
measured not by the result, but by the intensity of labor. Is not this
pure and unadulterated Sisyphism?
That there may be nothing equivocal, the minister carries his idea still
farther, and on the same principle that we have heard him call the
intensity of labor riches, we will find him calling the abundant
results of labor, and the plenty of every thing proper to the satisfying
of our wants, poverty. Every where, he remarks, machinery has
pushed aside manual labor; every where production is superabundant;
every where the equilibrium is destroyed between the power of production
and that of consumption. Here then we see that, according to Mr. de
Saint Cricq, if France was in a critical situation, it was because her
productions were too abundant; there was too much intelligence, too
much efficiency in her national labor. We were too well fed, too well
clothed, too well supplied with every thing; the rapid production was
more than sufficient for our wants. It was necessary to put an end to
this calamity, and therefore it became needful to force us, by
restrictions, to work more, in order to produce less.
I also touched upon an opinion expressed by another minister of
commerce, Mr. d'Argout, which is worthy of being a little more closely
looked into. Wishing to give a death blow to the beet, he said: The
culture of the beet is undoubtedly useful, but this usefulness is
limited. It is not capable of the prodigious developments which have
been predicted of it. To be convinced of this it is enough to remark
that the cultivation of it must necessarily be confined within the
limits of consumption. Double, treble if you will, the present
consumption of France, and you will still find that a very small
portion of her soil will suffice for this consumption. (Truly a most
singular cause of complaint!) Do you wish the proof of this? How many
hectares were planted in beets in the year 1828? 3,130, which is
1-10540th of our cultivable soil. How many are there at this time, when
our domestic sugar supplies one-third of the consumption of the country?
16,700 hectares, or 1-1978th of the cultivable soil, or 45 centiares for
each commune. Suppose that our domestic sugar should monopolize the
supply of the whole consumption, we still would have but 48,000 hectares
or 1-689th of our cultivable soil in beets.
[Footnote 8: In justice to Mr. d'Argout we should say that this singular
language is given by him as the argument of the enemies of the beet. But
he made it his own, and sanctioned it by the law in justification of
which he adduced it.]
There are two things to consider in this quotation. The facts and the
doctrine. The facts go to prove that very little soil, capital, and
labor would be necessary for the production of a large quantity of
sugar; and that each commune of France would be abundantly provided with
it by giving up one hectare to its cultivation. The peculiarity of the
doctrine consists in the looking upon this facility of production as an
unfortunate circumstance, and the regarding the very fruitfulness of
this new branch of industry as a limitation to its usefulness.
It is not my purpose here to constitute myself the defender of the beet,
or the judge of the singular facts stated by Mr. d'Argout, but it is
worth the trouble of examining into the doctrines of a statesman, to
whose judgment France, for a long time, confided the fate of her
agriculture and her commerce.
I began by saying that a variable proportion exists in all industrial
pursuits, between the effort and the result. Absolute imperfection
consists in an infinite effort, without any result; absolute perfection
in an unlimited result, without any effort; and perfectibility, in the
progressive diminution of the effort, compared with the result.
But Mr. d'Argout tells us, that where we looked for life, we shall find
only death. The importance of any object of industry is, according to
him, in direct proportion to its feebleness. What, for instance, can we
expect from the beet? Do you not see that 48,000 hectares of land, with
capital and labor in proportion, will suffice to furnish sugar to all
France? It is then an object of limited usefulness; limited, be it
understood, in the work which it calls for; and this is the sole
measure, according to our minister, of the usefulness of any pursuit.
This usefulness would be much more limited still, if, thanks to the
fertility of the soil, or the richness of the beet, 24,000 hectares
would serve instead of 48,000. If there were only needed twenty times, a
hundred times more soil, more capital, more labor, to attain the same
result--Oh! then some hopes might be founded upon this article of
industry; it would be worthy of the protection of the state, for it
would open a vast field to national labor. But to produce much with
little is a bad example, and the laws ought to set things to rights.
What is true with regard to sugar, cannot be false with regard to bread.
If therefore the usefulness of an object of industry is to be
calculated, not by the comforts which it can furnish with a certain
quantum of labor, but, on the contrary, by the increase of labor which
it requires in order to furnish a certain quantity of comforts, it is
evident that we ought to desire, that each acre of land should produce
little corn, and that each grain of corn should furnish little
nutriment; in other words, that our territory should be sterile enough
to require a considerably larger proportion of soil, capital, and labor
to nourish its population. The demand for human labor could not fail to
be in direct proportion to this sterility, and then truly would the
wishes of Messrs. Bugeaud, Saint Cricq, Dupin, and d'Argout be
satisfied; bread would be dear, work abundant, and France would be
rich--rich according to the understanding of these gentlemen.
All that we could have further to hope for, would be, that human
intellect might sink and become extinct; for, while intellect exists, it
can but seek continually to increase the proportion of the end to the
means; of the product to the labor. Indeed it is in this continuous
effort, and in this alone, that intellect consists.
Sisyphism has then been the doctrine of all those who have been
intrusted with the regulation of the industry of our country. It would
not be just to reproach them with this; for this principle becomes that
of our ministry, only because it prevails in the chambers; it prevails
in the chambers, only because it is sent there by the electoral body;
and the electoral body is imbued with it, only because public opinion
is filled with it to repletion.
Let me repeat here, that I do not accuse such men as Messrs. Bugeaud,
Dupin, Saint Cricq, and d'Argout, of being absolutely and always
Sisyphists. Very certainly they are not such in their personal
transactions; very certainly each one of them will procure for himself
by barter, what by direct production would be attainable only at a
higher price. But I maintain that they are Sisyphists when they
prevent the country from acting upon the same principle.