Theory Practice

Partisans of free trade, we are accused of being theorists, and not

relying sufficiently upon practice.

What a powerful argument against Mr. Say (says Mr. Ferrier,) is the long

succession of distinguished ministers, the imposing league of writers

who have all differed from him; and Mr. Say is himself conscious of

this, for he says: It has been said, in support of old errors, that

there must necessarily be
some foundation for ideas so generally adopted

by all nations. Ought we not, it is asked, to distrust observations and

reasoning which run counter to every thing which has been looked upon as

certain up to this day, and which has been regarded as undoubted by so

many who were to be confided in, alike on account of their learning and

of their philanthropic intentions? This argument is, I confess,

calculated to make a profound impression, and might cast a doubt upon

the most incontestable facts, if the world had not seen so many

opinions, now universally recognized as false, as universally maintain,

during a long series of ages, their dominion over the human mind. The

day is not long passed since all nations, from the most ignorant to the

most enlightened, and all men, the wisest as well as the most

uninformed, admitted only four elements. Nobody dreamed of disputing

this doctrine, which is, nevertheless, false, and to-day universally


Upon this passage Mr. Ferrier makes the following remarks:

Mr. Say is strangely mistaken, if he believes that he has thus answered

the very strong objections which he has himself advanced. It is natural

enough that, for ages, men otherwise well informed, might mistake upon a

question of natural history; this proves nothing. Water, air, earth, and

fire, elements or not, were not the less useful to man.... Such errors

as this are of no importance. They do not lead to revolutions, nor do

they cause mental uneasiness; above all, they clash with no interests,

and might, therefore, without inconvenience, last for millions of years.

The physical world progresses as though they did not exist. But can it

be thus with errors which affect the moral world? Can it be conceived

that a system of government absolutely false, consequently injurious,

could be followed for many centuries, and among many nations, with the

general consent of well-informed men? Can it be explained how such a

system could be connected with the constantly increasing prosperity of

these nations? Mr. Say confesses that the argument which he combats is

calculated to make a profound impression. Most certainly it is; and

this impression remains; for Mr. Say has rather increased than

diminished it.

Let us hear Mr. de Saint Chamans.

It has been only towards the middle of the last, the eighteenth

century, when every subject and every principle have without exception

been given up to the discussion of book-makers, that these furnishers of

speculative ideas, applied to every thing and applicable to nothing,

have begun to write upon the subject of political economy. There existed

previously a system of political economy, not written, but practiced

by governments. Colbert was, it is said, the inventor of it; and Colbert

gave the law to every state of Europe. Strange to say, he does so still,

in spite of contempt and anathemas, in spite too of the discoveries of

the modern school. This system, which has been called by our writers the

mercantile system, consisted in ... checking by prohibition or import

duties such foreign productions as were calculated to ruin our

manufactures by competition.... This system has been declared, by all

writers on political economy, of every school,[12] to be weak, absurd,

and calculated to impoverish the countries where it prevails. Banished

from books, it has taken refuge in the practice of all nations,

greatly to the surprise of those who cannot conceive that in what

concerns the wealth of nations, governments should, rather than be

guided by the wisdom of authors, prefer the long experience of a

system, etc.... It is above all inconceivable to them that the French

government ... should obstinately resist the new lights of political

economy, and maintain in its practice the old errors, pointed out by

all our writers.... But I am devoting too much time to this mercantile

system, which, unsustained by writers, has only facts in its favor!

[Footnote 12: Might we not say: It is a powerful argument against

Messrs. Ferrier and de Saint Chamans, that all writers on political

economy, of every school, that is to say, all men who have studied the

question, come to this conclusion: After all, freedom is better than

restriction, and the laws of God wiser than those of Mr. Colbert.]

Would it not be supposed from this language that political economists,

in claiming for each individual the free disposition of his own

property, have, like the Fourierists, stumbled upon some new, strange,

and chimerical system of social government, some wild theory, without

precedent in the annals of human nature? It does appear to me, that, if

in all this there is any thing doubtful, and of fanciful or theoretic

origin, it is not free trade, but protection; not the operating of

exchanges, but the custom-house, the duties, imposed to overturn

artificially the natural order of things.

The question, however, is not here to compare and judge of the merits of

the two systems, but simply to know which of the two is sanctioned by


You, Messrs. monopolists, maintain that facts are for you, and that we

on our side have only theory.

You even flatter yourselves that this long series of public acts, this

old experience of Europe which you invoke, appeared imposing to Mr. Say;

and I confess that he has not refuted you, with his habitual sagacity.

I, for my part, cannot consent to give up to you the domain of facts;

for while on your side you can advance only limited and special facts,

we can oppose to them universal facts, the free and voluntary acts of

all men.

What do we maintain? and what do you maintain?

We maintain that it is best to buy from others what we ourselves can

produce only at a higher price.

You maintain that it is best to make for ourselves, even though it

should cost us more than to buy from others.

Now gentlemen, putting aside theory, demonstration, reasoning, (things

which seem to nauseate you,) which of these assertions is sanctioned by

universal practice?

Visit our fields, workshops, forges, stores; look above, below, and

around you; examine what is passing in your own household; observe your

own actions at every moment, and say which principle it is, that directs

these laborers, workmen, contractors, and merchants; say what is your

own personal practice.

Does the agriculturist make his own clothes? Does the tailor produce the

grain which he consumes? Does not your housekeeper cease to make her

bread at home, as soon as she finds it more economical to buy it from

the baker? Do you lay down your pen to take up the blacking-brush in

order to avoid paying tribute to the shoe-black? Does not the whole

economy of society depend upon a separation of occupations, a division

of labor, in a word, upon mutual exchange of production, by which we,

one and all, make a calculation which causes us to discontinue direct

production, when indirect acquisition offers us a saving of time and


You are not then sustained by practice, since it would be impossible,

were you to search the world, to show us a single man who acts according

to your principle.

You may answer that you never intended to make your principle the rule

of individual relations. You confess that it would thus destroy all

social ties, and force men to the isolated life of snails. You only

contend that it governs in fact, the relations which are established

between the agglomerations of the human family.

We say that this assertion too is erroneous. A family, a town, county,

department, province, all are so many agglomerations, which, without any

exception, all practically reject your principle; never, indeed, even

think of it. Each of these procures by barter, what would be more

expensively procured by production. Nations would do the same, did you

not by force prevent them.

We, then, are the men who are guided by practice and experience. For to

combat the interdict which you have specially put upon some

international exchanges, we bring forward the practice and experience of

all individuals, and of all agglomerations of individuals, whose acts

being voluntary, render them proper to be given as proof in the

question. But you, on your part, begin by forcing, by hindering, and

then, adducing forced or forbidden acts, you exclaim: Look; we can

prove ourselves justified by example!

You exclaim against our theory, and even against all theory. But are

you certain, in laying down your principles, so antagonistic to ours,

that you too are not building up theories? Truly, you too have your

theory; but between yours and ours there is this difference:

Our theory is formed upon the observation of universal facts,

universal sentiments, universal calculations and acts. We do nothing

more than classify and arrange these, in order to better understand

them. It is so little opposed to practice, that it is in fact only

practice explained. We look upon the actions of men as prompted by the

instinct of self-preservation and of progress. What they do freely,

willingly,--this is what we call Political Economy, or economy of

society. We must repeat constantly that each man is practically an

excellent political economist, producing or exchanging, as his advantage

dictates. Each by experience raises himself to the science; or rather

the science is nothing more than experience, scrupulously observed and

methodically expounded.

But your theory is theory in the worst sense of the word. You

imagine procedures which are sanctioned by the experience of no living

man, and then call to your aid constraint and prohibition. You cannot

avoid having recourse to force; because, wishing to make men produce

what they can more advantageously buy, you require them to give up an

advantage, and to be led by a doctrine which implies contradiction even

in its terms.

I defy you too, to take this doctrine, which by your own avowal would be

absurd in individual relations, and apply it, even in speculation, to

transactions between families, towns, departments, or provinces. You

yourselves confess that it is only applicable to internal relations.

Thus it is that you are daily forced to repeat:

Principles can never be universal. What is well in an individual, a

family, commune, or province, is ill in a nation. What is good in

detail--for instance: purchase rather than production, where purchase is

more advantageous--is bad in a society. The political economy of

individuals is not that of nations; and other such stuff, ejusdem


And all this for what? To prove to us, that we consumers, we are your

property! that we belong to you, soul and body! that you have an

exclusive right on our stomachs and our limbs! that it is your right to

feed and dress us at your own price, however great your ignorance, your

rapacity, or the inferiority of your work.

Truly, then, your system is one not founded upon practice; it is one of

abstraction--of extortion.