There Are No Absolute Principles

The facility with which men resign themselves to ignorance in cases

where knowledge is all-important to them, is often astonishing; and we

may be sure that a man has determined to rest in his ignorance, when he

once brings himself to proclaim as a maxim that there are no absolute


We enter into the legislative halls, and find that the question is, to

determine whether the law will or will not a
low of international


A deputy rises and says, If we tolerate these exchanges, foreign nations

will overwhelm us with their produce. We will have cotton goods from

England, coal from Belgium, woolens from Spain, silks from Italy, cattle

from Switzerland, iron from Sweden, corn from Prussia, so that no

industrial pursuit will any longer be possible to us.

Another answers: Prohibit these exchanges, and the divers advantages

with which nature has endowed these different countries, will be for us

as though they did not exist. We will have no share in the benefits

resulting from English skill, or Belgian mines, from the fertility of

the Polish soil, or the Swiss pastures; neither will we profit by the

cheapness of Spanish labor, or the heat of the Italian climate. We will

be obliged to seek by a forced and laborious production, what, by means

of exchanges, would be much more easily obtained.

Assuredly one or other of these deputies is mistaken. But which? It is

worth the trouble of examining. There lie before us two roads, one of

which leads inevitably to wretchedness. We must choose.

To throw off the feeling of responsibility, the answer is easy: There

are no absolute principles.

This maxim, at present so fashionable, not only pleases idleness, but

also suits ambition.

If either the theory of prohibition, or that of free trade, should

finally triumph, one little law would form our whole economical code. In

the first case this would be: foreign trade is forbidden; in the

second: foreign trade is free; and thus, many great personages would

lose their importance.

But if trade has no distinctive character, if it is capriciously useful

or injurious, and is governed by no natural law, if it finds no spur in

its usefulness, no check in its inutility, if its effects cannot be

appreciated by those who exercise it; in a word, if it has no absolute

principles,--oh! then it is necessary to deliberate, weigh, and regulate

transactions, the conditions of labor must be equalized, the level of

profits sought. This is an important charge, well calculated to give to

those who execute it, large salaries, and extensive influence.

Contemplating this great city of Paris, I have thought to myself: Here

are a million of human beings who would die in a few days, if provisions

of every kind did not flow in towards this vast metropolis. The

imagination is unable to calculate the multiplicity of objects which

to-morrow must enter its gates, to prevent the life of its inhabitants

from terminating in famine, riot, or pillage. And yet at this moment all

are asleep, without feeling one moment's uneasiness, from the

contemplation of this frightful possibility. On the other side, we see

eighty departments who have this day labored, without concert, without

mutual understanding, for the victualing of Paris. How can each day

bring just what is necessary, nothing less, nothing more, to this

gigantic market? What is the ingenious and secret power which presides

over the astonishing regularity of such complicated movements, a

regularity in which we all have so implicit, though thoughtless, a

faith; on which our comfort, our very existence depends? This power is

an absolute principle, the principle of freedom in exchanges. We have

faith in that inner light which Providence has placed in the heart of

all men; confiding to it the preservation and amelioration of our

species; interest, since we must give its name, so vigilant, so

active, having so much forecast when allowed its free action. What would

be your condition, inhabitants of Paris, if a minister, however superior

his abilities, should undertake to substitute, in the place of this

power, the combinations of his own genius? If he should think of

subjecting to his own supreme direction this prodigious mechanism,

taking all its springs into his own hand, and deciding by whom, how, and

on what conditions each article should be produced, transported,

exchanged and consumed? Ah! although there is much suffering within your

walls; although misery, despair, and perhaps starvation, may call forth

more tears than your warmest charity can wipe away, it is probable, it

is certain, that the arbitrary intervention of government would

infinitely multiply these sufferings, and would extend among you the

evils which now reach but a small number of your citizens.

If then we have such faith in this principle as applied to our private

concerns, why should we not extend it to international transactions,

which are assuredly less numerous, less delicate, and less complicated?

And if it be not necessary for the prefect of Paris to regulate our

industrial pursuits, to weigh our profits and our losses, to occupy

himself with the quantity of our cash, and to equalize the conditions of

our labor in internal commerce, on what principle can it be necessary

that the custom-house, going beyond its fiscal mission, should pretend

to exercise a protective power over our external commerce?