Two Classics by Bastiat

“The Candlemakers’ Petition” was translated and slightly condensed by Dean Russell from the Selected Works of Frederic Bastiat, Volume I (Paris: Guillamin, 1863), pp. 58–59 and originally published in the March 1958 issue of The Freeman. “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen” is excerpted from the first chapter of Selected Essays on Political Economy by Frédéric Bastiat, translated by Seymour Cain and edited by George B. de Huszar, published by the Foundation for Economic Education.

The Candlemakers’ Petition

We candlemakers are suffering from the unfair competition of a foreign rival. This foreign manufacturer of light has such an advantage over us that he floods our domestic markets with his product. And he offers it at an absurdly low price. The moment this foreigner appears in our country, all our customers desert us and turn to him. As a result, an entire domestic industry is rendered completely stagnant. And even more, since the lighting industry has countless ramifications with other national industries, they too are injured. This foreign manufacturer who competes with us without mercy is none other than the sun itself!

Here is our petition: Please pass a law ordering the closing of all windows, skylights, shutters, curtains, and blinds—that is, all openings, holes, and cracks through which the light of the sun is able to enter houses. This free sunlight is hurting the business of us deserving manufacturers of candles. Since we have always served our country well, gratitude demands that our country ought not to abandon us now to this unequal competition.

We hope that you gentlemen will not regard our petition as mere satire, or refuse it without at least hearing our reasons in support of it.

First, if you make it as difficult as possible for people to have access to natural light—and thus create an increased demand for artificial light—will not all domestic manufacturers be stimulated thereby?

For example, if more tallow is consumed, naturally there must be more cattle and sheep. As a result, there will also be more meat, wool, and hides. There will even be more manure, which is the basis of agriculture.

Next, if more oil is consumed for lighting, we shall have to plant extensive olive groves and other oil-producing crops. This will bring prosperity.

Also, our wastelands will soon be covered with pines and other resinous trees. As a result of this, there will be numerous swarms of bees to increase the production of honey. In fact, all branches of agriculture will show an increased development.

The same applies to the shipping industry. The increased demand for whale oil will require thousands of ships for whale fishing. In turn, that will provide a myriad of jobs for shipbuilders and sailors. In a short time, this will result in a navy capable of defending our country. And that, of course, will gratify the patriotic sentiments of the candlemakers and other persons in related industries.

The manufacturers of lighting fixtures—candlesticks, lamps, candelabra, chandeliers, crystals, bronzes, and so on—will be especially stimulated. The resulting warehouses and display rooms will make our present shops look poor indeed.

The resin collectors on the heights along the seacoast, as well as the coal miners in the depths of the earth, will rejoice at their higher wages and increased prosperity. In fact, gentlemen, the condition of every citizen in our country—from the wealthiest owner of coal mines to the poorest seller of matches—will be improved by the success of our petition.

What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen

In the economic sphere, an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them. There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

It almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.

The Broken Window

Have you ever been witness to the fury of that solid citizen, James Goodfellow, when his incorrigible son has happened to break a pane of glass?

If you have been present at this spectacle, certainly you must also have observed that the onlookers, even if there are as many as thirty of them, seem with one accord to offer the unfortunate owner the selfsame consolation: “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody some good. Such accidents keep industry going. Everybody has to make a living. What would become of the glaziers if no one ever broke a window?”

Suppose that it will cost six francs to repair the damage. If you mean that the accident gives six francs’ worth of encouragement to the aforesaid industry, I agree. I do not contest it in any way; your reasoning is correct. The glazier will come, do his job, receive six francs, congratulate himself, and bless in his heart the careless child. That is what is seen.

But if, by way of deduction, you conclude, as happens only too often, that it is good to break windows, that it helps to circulate money, that it results in encouraging industry in general, I am obliged to cry out: That will never do! Your theory stops at what is seen. It does not take account of what is not seen.

It is not seen that, since our citizen has spent six francs for one thing, he will not be able to spend them for another. It is not seen that if he had not had a windowpane to replace, he would have replaced, for example, his worn-out shoes or added another book to his library. In brief, he would have put his six francs to some use or other for which he will not now have them.

Let us next consider industry in general. The window having been broken, the glass industry gets six francs’ worth of encouragement; that is what is seen.

If the window had not been broken, the shoe industry (or some other) would have received six francs’ worth of encouragement; that is what is not seen.

And if we were to take into consideration what is not seen, because it is a negative factor, as well as what is seen, because it is a positive factor, we should understand that there is no benefit to industry in general or to national employment as a whole, whether windows are broken or not broken.

Now let us consider James Goodfellow.

On the first hypothesis, that of the broken window, he spends six francs and has, neither more nor less than before, the enjoyment of one window.

On the second, that in which the accident did not happen, he would have spent six francs for new shoes and would have had the enjoyment of a pair of shoes as well as of a window.

Now, if James Goodfellow is part of society, we must conclude that society, considering its labors and its enjoyments, has lost the value of the broken window.

From which, by generalizing, we arrive at this unexpected conclusion: “Society loses the value of objects unnecessarily destroyed,” and at this aphorism, which will make the hair of the protectionists stand on end: “To break, to destroy, to dissipate is not to encourage national employment,” or more briefly: “Destruction is not profitable.”

The reader must apply himself to observe that there are not only two people, but three, in the little drama that I have presented. The one, James Goodfellow, represents the consumer, reduced by destruction to one enjoyment instead of two. The other, under the figure of the glazier, shows us the producer whose industry the accident encourages. The third is the shoemaker (or any other manufacturer) whose industry is correspondingly discouraged by the same cause. It is this third person who is always in the shadow, and who, personifying what is not seen, is an essential element of the problem.

Public Works

Nothing is more natural than that a nation, after making sure that a great enterprise will profit the community, should have such an enterprise carried out with funds collected from the citizenry. But I lose patience completely, I confess, when I hear alleged in support of such a resolution this economic fallacy: “Besides, it is a way of creating jobs for the workers.”

The state opens a road, builds a palace, repairs a street, digs a canal; with these projects it gives jobs to certain workers. That is what is seen. But it deprives certain other laborers of employment. That is what is not seen.

Suppose a road is under construction. A thousand laborers arrive every morning, go home every evening, and receive their wages; that is certain. If the road had not been authorized, if funds for it had not been voted, these good people would have neither found this work nor earned these wages; that again is certain.

But is this all? Taken all together, does not the operation involve something else? For the process to be complete, does not the state have to organize the collection of funds as well as their expenditure? Does it not have to get its tax collectors into the country and its taxpayers to make their contribution?

Thus, we see, from the many subjects I have dealt with, that not to know political economy is to allow oneself to be dazzled by the immediate effect of a phenomenon; to know political economy is to take into account the sum total of all effects, both immediate and future.

I could submit here a host of other questions to the same test. But I desist from doing so, because of the monotony of demonstrations that would always be the same, and I conclude by applying to political economy what Chateaubriand said of history:

There are two consequences in history: one immediate and instantaneously recognized; the other distant and unperceived at first. These consequences often contradict each other; the former come from our short-run wisdom, the latter from long-run wisdom. The providential event appears after the human event. Behind men rises God. Deny as much as you wish the Supreme Wisdom, do not believe in its action, dispute over words, call what the common man calls Providence “the force of circumstances” or “reason”; but look at the end of an accomplished fact, and you will see that it has always produced the opposite of what was expected when it has not been founded from the first on morality and justice.
(Chateaubriand, Memoirs from beyond the Tomb)

Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850) was one of the most eloquent and persuasive advocates of liberty in the nineteenth century. His wit and often satirical style demolished the arguments of socialists, interventionists, and welfare statists. Economist Joseph Schumpeter called him “the most brilliant economic journalist who ever lived.”

Bastiat was the leader of the free-trade movement in France from its inception until his untimely death from tuberculosis in 1850. Bastiat was also a deputy in the French Legislative Assembly (1848–1850) where he opposed the rising tide of collectivist policies. He was also the editor of Free Trade, one of France’s leading classical-liberal newspapers at the time.

The best of his writings are available in English from the Foundation for Economic Education in three volumes: Economic Sophisms; Selected Essays in Political Economy; and Economic Harmonies. Bastiat’s classical defense of individual liberty, The Law, is now available in a handsome new edition from FEE.

In honor of the anniversary of Bastiat’s birth on June 30, we are pleased to reprint “The Candlemakers’ Petition” and “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen” in this issue of Notes from FEE.

Further Reading