The obstacle mistaken for the cause--scarcity mistaken for abundance.
The sophism is the same. It is well to study it under every aspect.
Man naturally is in a state of entire destitution.
Between this state and the satisfying of his wants, there exists a
multitude of obstacles which it is the object of labor to surmount. It
is interesting to seek how and why he could have been led to look even
upon these obstacles to his happiness as the cause of it.
I wish to take a journey of some hundred miles. But, between the point
of my departure and my destination, there are interposed, mountains,
rivers, swamps, forests, robbers--in a word, obstacles; and to conquer
these obstacles, it is necessary that I should bestow much labor and
great efforts in opposing them;--or, what is the same thing, if others
do it for me, I must pay them the value of their exertions. It is
evident that I should have been better off had these obstacles never
Through the journey of life, in the long series of days from the cradle
to the tomb, man has many difficulties to oppose him in his progress.
Hunger, thirst, sickness, heat, cold, are so many obstacles scattered
along his road. In a state of isolation, he would be obliged to combat
them all by hunting, fishing, agriculture, spinning, weaving,
architecture, etc., and it is very evident that it would be better for
him that these difficulties should exist to a less degree, or even not
at all. In a state of society he is not obliged, personally, to struggle
with each of these obstacles, but others do it for him; and he, in
return, must remove some one of them for the benefit of his fellow-men.
Again it is evident, that, considering mankind as a whole, it would be
better for society that these obstacles should be as weak and as few as
But if we examine closely and in detail the phenomena of society, and
the private interests of men as modified by exchange of produce, we
perceive, without difficulty, how it has happened that wants have been
confounded with riches, and the obstacle with the cause.
The separation of occupations, which results from the habits of
exchange, causes each man, instead of struggling against all surrounding
obstacles to combat only one; the effort being made not for himself
alone, but for the benefit of his fellows, who, in their turn, render a
similar service to him.
Now, it hence results, that this man looks upon the obstacle which he
has made it his profession to combat for the benefit of others, as the
immediate cause of his riches. The greater, the more serious, the more
stringent may be this obstacle, the more he is remunerated for the
conquering of it, by those who are relieved by his labors.
A physician, for instance, does not busy himself in baking his bread, or
in manufacturing his clothing and his instruments; others do it for him,
and he, in return, combats the maladies with which his patients are
afflicted. The more dangerous and frequent these maladies are, the more
others are willing, the more, even, are they forced, to work in his
service. Disease, then, which is an obstacle to the happiness of
mankind, becomes to him the source of his comforts. The reasoning of all
producers is, in what concerns themselves, the same. As the doctor draws
his profits from disease, so does the ship owner from the obstacle
called distance; the agriculturist from that named hunger; the cloth
manufacturer from cold; the schoolmaster lives upon ignorance, the
jeweler upon vanity, the lawyer upon quarrels, the notary upon
breach of faith. Each profession has then an immediate interest in
the continuation, even in the extension, of the particular obstacle to
which its attention has been directed.
Theorists hence go on to found a system upon these individual interests,
and say: Wants are riches: Labor is riches: The obstacle to well-being
is well-being: To multiply obstacles is to give food to industry.
Then comes the statesman;--and as the developing and propagating of
obstacles is the developing and propagating of riches, what more natural
than that he should bend his efforts to that point? He says, for
instance: If we prevent a large importation of iron, we create a
difficulty in procuring it. This obstacle severely felt, obliges
individuals to pay, in order to relieve themselves from it. A certain
number of our citizens, giving themselves up to the combating of this
obstacle, will thereby make their fortunes. In proportion, too, as the
obstacle is great, and the mineral scarce, inaccessible, and of
difficult and distant transportation, in the same proportion will be the
number of laborers maintained by the various branches of this industry.
The same reasoning will lead to the suppression of machinery.
Here are men who are at a loss how to dispose of their wine-harvest.
This is an obstacle which other men set about removing for them by the
manufacture of casks. It is fortunate, say our statesmen, that this
obstacle exists, since it occupies a portion of the labor of the
nation, and enriches a certain number of our citizens. But here is
presented to us an ingenious machine, which cuts down the oak, squares
it, makes it into staves, and, gathering these together, forms them into
casks. The obstacle is thus diminished, and with it the profits of the
coopers. We must prevent this. Let us proscribe the machine!
To sift thoroughly this sophism, it is sufficient to remember that human
labor is not an end, but a means. It is never without employment.
If one obstacle is removed, it seizes another, and mankind is delivered
from two obstacles by the same effort which was at first necessary for
one. If the labor of coopers becomes useless, it must take another
direction. But with what, it may be asked, will they be remunerated?
Precisely with what they are at present remunerated. For if a certain
quantity of labor becomes free from its original occupation, to be
otherwise disposed of, a corresponding quantity of wages must thus also
become free. To maintain that human labor can end by wanting employment,
it would be necessary to prove that mankind will cease to encounter
obstacles. In such a case, labor would be not only impossible, it would
be superfluous. We should have nothing to do, because we should be
all-powerful, and our fiat alone would satisfy at once our wants and