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The Mark Twain Novel That Contains One of the Best (and Funniest) Economic Lessons in All of Literature

In "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," Twain, "knocks the stuffing” out of protectionism.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Mark Twain is widely considered one of the greatest American authors. Naturally, people of all beliefs have tried to claim him as their political ally. From classical liberals to progressives, people all along the political spectrum have found a kindred spirit in Twain.

One piece of evidence on the classical liberal side of the ledger might be what Twain wrote in a letter about the generally laissez-faire American President Grover Cleveland.

“Of all our public men of today he stands first in my reverence & admiration, & the next one stands two-hundred-&-twenty-fifth. He is the only statesman we have now,” wrote Twain. “Cleveland drunk is a more valuable asset to this country than the whole batch of the rest of our public men sober. He is high-minded; all his impulses are great & pure & fine. I wish we had another of this sort.”

A passage from one of his works of fiction also seems to put him on the side of free markets.

6th Century Political Economy

In one of Twain’s stories, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a 19th century American receives a blow to the head and is transported back in time to the Dark Ages. With his futuristic knowledge of technology and political philosophy the Yankee sets about reforming the monarchy into an industrial republic.

In one scene the Yankee debates the merits of his free trade reforms with a blacksmith from a foreign kingdom who supports his own local protectionist regime.

First, the blacksmith starts a line of inquiry intended to show the benefits of protectionism.

“In your country, brother, what is the wage of a master bailiff, master hind, carter, shepherd, swineherd?”

“Twenty-five milrays a day; that is to say, a quarter of a cent.”

The smith’s face beamed with joy. He said:

“With us they are allowed the double of it! “

The Yankee is forced to admit that wages in the smith’s country are generally higher. However, he comes back with some questions of his own.

“What do you pay a pound for salt?”

“A hundred milrays.”

“We pay forty. What do you pay for beef and mutton—when you buy it?” That was a neat hit; it made the color come.

“It varieth somewhat, but not much; one may say seventy-five milrays the pound.”

We pay thirty-three.”

This goes on for some time. The Yankee shows that goods generally cost more in the protectionist country. The Yankee believes he has “knocked the stuffing” out of protectionism, but the smith has a counter argument.

“Marry, I seem not to understand. It is proved that our wages be double thine,” he says; “how then may it be that thou’st knocked therefrom the stuffing?—an miscall not the wonderly word, this being the first time under grace and providence of God it hath been granted me to hear it.”

The Yankee tries to explain the economics of it all.

“Yes-yes, I don’t deny that at all. But that’s got nothing to do with it; the amount of the wages in mere coins, with meaningless names attached to them to know them by, has got nothing to do with it. The thing is, how much can you buy with your wages?—that’s the idea.

Let us suppose a case. Suppose one of your journeymen goes out and buys the following articles:

“1 pound of salt; 1 dozen eggs; 1 dozen pints of beer; 1 bushel of wheat; 1 tow-linen suit; 5 pounds of beef; 5 pounds of mutton.

“The lot will cost him 32 cents. It takes him 32 working days to earn the money—5 weeks and 2 days. Let him come to us and work 32 days at half the wages; he can buy all those things for a shade under 14 1/2 cents; they will cost him a shade under 29 days’ work, and he will have about half a week’s wages over. Carry it through the year; he would save nearly a week’s wages every two months, your man nothing; thus saving five or six weeks’ wages in a year, your man not a cent. Now I reckon you understand that ‘high wages’ and ‘low wages’ are phrases that don’t mean anything in the world until you find out which of them will buy the most!”

The Yankee believes he has delivered a “crusher” and soon receives the apparently timeless reward of the economist.

“But, alas! it didn’t crush. No, I had to give it up. What those people valued was high wages; it didn’t seem to be a matter of any consequence to them whether the high wages would buy anything or not. They stood for “protection,” and swore by it, which was reasonable enough, because interested parties had gulled them into the notion that it was protection which had created their high wages. I proved to them that in a quarter of a century their wages had advanced but 30 per cent., while the cost of living had gone up 100; and that with us, in a shorter time, wages had advanced 40 per cent. while the cost of living had gone steadily down. But it didn’t do any good. Nothing could unseat their strange beliefs.

With the blacksmith’s views seemingly resurgent, we will see if the Yankee’s line of reasoning proves more persuasive in our time than in King Arthur’s.

  • Kody Jensen is a millennial who enjoys economics and chess. Some of his favorite writers are Frédéric Bastiat, Henry Hazlitt, and Frank Albert Fetter.