Freeman

ARTICLE

How to Work More and Have Less

FEBRUARY 01, 1958 by FREDERIC BASTIAT

Do you remember how Robinson Crusoe made a plank on his desert island? Since he had no saw, he used his axe to cut down a tree. Then he chopped the trunk of the tree, first on one side and then on the other, until he reduced it to the desired thickness. This plank cost him 15 days of labor. In addition, he dulled his axe and con­sumed much of his food supplies.

Now here is a footnote to that story that is not generally known. Just as Robinson was striking the first blow with his axe, he saw a plank thrown by the tide upon the seashore. His first impulse was to run and get it, but then he stopped and reasoned as follows:

If I get that plank, it will cost me only the time and trouble of going down to the water’s edge and carrying it back up the cliff. But if I make a plank with my axe, I shall give myself 15 days of labor. In addition, I shall also dull my axe, which means that I shall have the job of sharpening it. Also, I shall have to replace the provi­sions that I consume during my labor. Now everybody knows that labor is wealth. So it is clear that I would be doing a disservice to myself if I accepted that free plank. I must make sure that I al­ways have work to do. Now that I think of it, I can even make additional work for myself by going down and kicking that plank back into the sea!

Now you might think that Robinson’s reasoning was absurd. Nevertheless, it is the same rea­soning that is followed by every nation that uses tariffs and other restrictions against trade in an effort to make more jobs at home. The nation rejects the foreign plank that is offered in exchange for a little work, in order to insure more work by manufacturing its own plank at home. Such a nation even sees a gain in the labor of the customhouse officials — much like Robinson’s decision to return to the sea the present it had given him.

If you think of a nation as a collective being, you can’t find an atom of difference between the reasoning of the tariff advocates in real life and the reasoning of Robinson Crusoe in this fable.

Translated by Dean Russell from Select­ed Works of Frederic Bastiat, Volume 1, Paris: Guillaumin, 1863. pp. 243-244.

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February 1958

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Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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