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?