Because of his stress on the role of consumer demand in initiating economic progress, Bastiat has been described by Mark Thornton, Thomas DiLorenzo, and other economists as a forerunner of the Austrian School. In his Economic Harmonies, Bastiat states that,
Thornton posits that Bastiat, through taking this position on the motivations of human action, demonstrates a pronounced "Austrian flavor."
One of Bastiat's most important contributions to the field of economics was his admonition to the effect that good economic decisions can only be made by taking into account the "full picture." That is, economic truths should be arrived at by observing not only the immediate consequences – that is, benefits or liabilities – of an economic decision, but also by examining the long-term consequences. Additionally, one must examine the decision's effect not only on a single group of people (say candlemakers) or a single industry (say candles), but on all people and all industries in the society as a whole. As Bastiat famously put it, an economist must take into account both "What is Seen and What is Not Seen." Bastiat's "rule" was later expounded and developed by Henry Hazlitt in his work Economics in One Lesson, in which Hazlitt borrowed Bastiat's trenchant "Broken Window Fallacy" and went on to demonstrate how it applies to a wide variety of economic falsehoods.
A famous section of Economic Sophisms concerns the way that tariffs are inherently counterproductive. Bastiat posits a theoretical railway between Spain and France that is built in order to reduce the costs of trade between the two countries. This is achieved, of course, by making goods move to and from the two nations faster and more easily. Bastiat demonstrates that this situation benefits both countries' consumers because it reduces the cost of shipping goods, and therefore reduces the price at market for those goods.
However, each country's producers begin to criticize their governments because the other country's producers can now provide certain goods to the domestic market at reduced price. Domestic producers of these goods are afraid of being out-competed by the newly viable industry from the other country. So, these domestic producers demand that tariffs be enacted to artificially raise the cost of the foreign goods back to their pre-railroad levels, so that they can continue to compete.
Bastiat raises two significant points here:
To further demonstrate his points, Bastiat suggests that, rather than enacting tariffs, the government should simply destroy the railroad anywhere that foreign goods can outcompete local goods. Since this would be just about everywhere, he goes on to suggest that that government should simply build a broken or "negative" railroad right from the start, and not waste time with tariffs and rail building. This is an example of Bastiat's consummate skill with the reductio ad absurdum rhetorical technique. Indeed, one can take Bastiat's argument even farther and see that, by examining everything from the perspective of the producer: society would be "best" if we were regressed to a cave-man state where supply of goods was at maximum scarcity. Then people would have to work as hard as possible for as little as possible and never have to fear outside competition.
In short, the thrust of Bastiat's negative railroad hinges on two major points:
An important corollary to these conclusions is that the power which consumers wield with any governing body, while theoretically tremendous, is extremely diffuse in application. Producers, on the other hand, while not as powerful on the whole as the sum total of consumers, have the ability to consolidate their power in ways that make it much more attractive for governing bodies to service their needs. Thus, while consumers could theoretically shut down an entire industry (or government) by refusing to buy/sell/do something, the likelihood of the great mass of people organizing in this way for any reason whatever is so infinitesimal as to be practically impossible. Producers, on the other hand, are able to threaten or cajole the government with shutting down a single industry, with reductions in political and financial contributions to the government agents who make certain decisions, etc. It is for this reason that governments are much more likely to pander to the desires of producers than to those of consumers, and it is for this reason, Bastiat concludes, that governments are inherently adversarial to the interests of the people as a whole. Indeed, they are even adversarial, in some way, to the interests of the producers themselves, as the producers of one good or service are still consumers of all the other goods and services.
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