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The Importance of Subjectivism in Economics

Sheldon Richman

After many years, Frédéric Bastiat remains a hero to libertarians. No mystery there. He made the case for freedom and punctured the arguments for state socialism with clarity and imagination. He spoke to lay readers with great effect.

Bastiat loved the market economy, and badly wanted it to blossom in full—in France and everywhere else. When he described the blessings of freedom, his benevolence shined forth. Free markets can raise living standards and enable everyone to have better lives; therefore stifling freedom is unjust and tragic. The reverse of Bastiat’s benevolence is his indignation at the deprivation that results from interference with the market process.

He begins his book Economic Harmonies (available at the FEE store) by pointing out the economic benefits of living in society:

It is impossible not to be struck by the disproportion, truly incommensurable, that exists between the satisfactions [a] man derives from society and the satisfactions that he could provide for himself if he were reduced to his own resources. I make bold to say that in one day he consumes more things than he could produce himself in ten centuries.

What makes the phenomenon stranger still is that the same thing holds true for all other men. Every one of the members of society has consumed a million times more than he could have produced; yet no one has robbed anyone else.


The Existence of Privilege

Bastiat was not naïve. He knew he was not in a fully free market. He was well aware of the existence of privilege: “Privilege implies someone to profit from it and someone to pay for it,” he wrote. Those who pay are worse off than they would be in the free market. “I trust that the reader will not conclude from the preceding remarks that we are insensible to the social suffering of our fellow men. Although the suffering is less in the present imperfect state of our society than in the state of isolation, it does not follow that we do not seek wholeheartedly for further progress to make it less and less.”

He wished to emphasize the importance of free exchange for human flourishing. In chapter four he wrote,

Exchange is political economy. It is society itself, for it is impossible to conceive of society without exchange, or exchange without society. …For man, isolation means death….

By means of exchange, men attain the same satisfaction with less effort, because the mutual services they render one another yield them a larger proportion of gratuitous utility.

Therefore, the fewer obstacles an exchange encounters, the less effort it requires, the more readily men exchange.

How does trade deliver its benefits?

Exchange produces two phenomena: the joining of men’s forces and the diversification of their occupations, or the division of labor.

It is very clear that in many cases the combined force of several men is superior to the sum of their individual separate forces.…

Now, the joining of men’s forces implies exchange. To gain their co-operation, they must have good reason to anticipate sharing in the satisfaction to be obtained. Each one by his efforts benefits the others and in turn benefits by their efforts according to the terms of the bargain, which is exchange.

But isn’t something missing from this account?

Austrian Insight

Indeed, there is: the subjectivist Austrian insight that individuals gain from trade per se. For an exchange to take place, the two parties must assess the items traded differently, with each party preferring what he is to receive to what he is to give up. If that condition did not hold, no exchange would occur. There must be what Murray Rothbard called a double inequality of value. It’s in the logic of human action–which Ludwig von Mises christened praxeology. Bastiat, like his classical forebears Smith and Ricardo, erroneously believed (at least explicitly) that people trade equal values and that something is wrong when unequal values are exchanged.

Perhaps I am too hard on Bastiat. After all, he was writing before 1850. Carl Menger did not publish Principles of Economics until 1871. Yet the Austrians were not the first to look at exchange strictly through subjectivist spectacles, that is, from the economic actors points of view. The French philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-1780) did so a hundred years before Bastiat wrote:

The very fact that an exchange takes place is proof that there must necessarily be profit in it for both the contracting parties; otherwise it would not be made. Hence, every exchange represents two gains for humanity.


Bastiat Unaware?

Well, perhaps Bastiat was unaware of Condillac’s argument. That is not the case. He reprints the quote above in his book and responds:

The explanation we owe to Condillac seems to me entirely insufficient and empirical, or rather it fails to explain anything at all. . . .

The exchange represents two gains, you say. The question is: Why and how? It results from the very fact that it takes place. But why does it take place? What motives have induced the two men to make it take place? Does the exchange have in it a mysterious virtue, inherently beneficial and incapable of explanation?

We see how exchange . . . adds to our satisfactions. . . . [T]here is no trace of . . . the double and empirical profit alleged by Condillac.

This is perplexing. Clearly, the necessary double inequality of value is not empirical or contingent. Contra Bastiat, the double inequality explains quite a lot, and his questions all have easy answers.

Yet more perplexing still is Bastiat’s statement in the same chapter: “The profit of the one is the profit of the other.” This seems to imply what he just denied.

Consequential Failure

Bastiat’s failure to grasp this point had consequences for his debates with other economists. For example, he and his fellow “left-free-market” advocate Pierre-Joseph Proudhon engaged in a lengthy debate over whether interest on loans would exist in the free market or whether it was a privilege bestowed when government suppresses competition. Unfortunately, the debate suffers because neither Bastiat nor Proudhon fully and explicitly grasped the Condillac/Austrian point about the double inequality of value. As Roderick Long explains in his priceless commentary on the exchange,

[E]ach one trips up his defense of his own position through an inconsistent grasp of the Austrian principle of the “double inequality of value”; Proudhon embraces it, but fails to apply it consistently, while Bastiat implicitly relies on it, but explicitly rejects it. . . .

Proudhon’s case against interest seems to depend crucially on his claim that all exchange must be of equivalent values; so pointing out the incoherence of this notion would be a telling reply. But Bastiat cannot officially give this reply (though he comes tantalisingly close over and over throughout the debate) because elsewhere–in his Economic Harmonies–Bastiat explicitly rejects the doctrine of double inequality of value.

How frustrating! Bastiat has so much to teach. But here is one blind spot that kept him from being even better.

An earlier version of this article appeared on January 7, 2011

You can find a Portuguese version of this article here

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