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The Two Hatchets

The following excerpt comes from Bastiat's "Economic Sophisms," used with permission via Project Gutenberg.  


Petition of Jacques Bonhomme, Carpenter, to M. Cunin-Gridaine, Minister of Commerce.

Monsieur le Fabricant-Ministre,

I am a carpenter to trade, as was St Joseph of old; and I handle the hatchet and adze, for your benefit.

Now, while engaged in hewing and chopping from morning to night upon the lands of our Lord the King, the idea has struck me that my labour may be regarded as national, as well as yours.

And, in these circumstances, I cannot see why protection should not visit my woodyard as well as your workshop.

For, sooth to say, if you make cloths I make roofs; and both, in their own way, shelter our customers from cold and from rain.

And yet I run after customers; and customers run after you. You have found out the way of securing them by hindering them from supplying themselves elsewhere, while mine apply to whomsoever they think proper.

What is astonishing in all this? Monsieur Cunin, the Minister of State, has not forgotten M. Cunin, the manufacturer—all quite natural. But, alas! my humble trade has not given a Minister to France, although practised, in Scripture times, by far more august personages.

And in the immortal code which I find embodied in Scripture, I cannot discover the slightest expression which could be quoted by carpenters, as authorizing them to enrich themselves at the expense of other people.

You see, then, how I am situated. I earn fifteen pence a day, when it is not Sunday or holiday. I offer you my services at the same time as a Flemish carpenter offers you his, and, because he abates a halfpenny, you give him the preference.

But I desire to clothe myself; and if a Belgian weaver presents his cloth alongside of yours, you drive him and his cloth out of the country.

So that, being forced to frequent your shop, although the dearest, my poor fifteen pence go no further in reality than fourteen.

Nay, they are not worth more than thirteen! for in place of expelling the Belgian weaver at your own cost (which was the least you could do), you, for your own ends, make me pay for the people you set at his heels.

And as a great number of your co-legislators, with whom you are on a marvellously good footing, take each a halfpenny or a penny, under pretext of protecting iron, or coal, or oil, or corn, I find, when everything is taken into account, that of my fifteen pence, I have only been able to save seven pence or eight pence from pillage.

You will no doubt tell me that these small halfpence, which pass in this way from my pocket to yours, maintain workpeople who reside around your castle, and enable you to live in a style of magnificence. To which I will only reply, that if the pence had been left with me, the person who earned them, they would have maintained workpeople in my neighbourhood.

Be this as it may, Monsieur le Ministre-fabricant, knowing that I should be but ill received by you, I have not come to require you, as I had good right to do, to withdraw the restriction which you impose on your customers. I prefer following the ordinary course, and I approach you to solicit a little bit of protection for myself.

Here, of course, you will interpose a difficulty. "My good friend," you will say, "I would protect you and your fellow-workmen with all my heart; but how can I confer customhouse favours on carpenter-work? What use would it be to prohibit the importation of houses by sea or by land?"

That would be a good joke, to be sure; but, by dint of thinking, I have discovered another mode of favouring the children of St Joseph; which you will welcome the more willingly, I hope, as it differs in nothing from that which constitutes the privilege which you vote year after year in your own favour.

The means of favouring us, which I have thus marvellously discovered, is to prohibit the use of sharp axes in this country.

I maintain that such a restriction would not be in the least more illogical or more arbitrary than the one to which you subject us in the case of your cloth.

Why do you drive away the Belgians? Because they sell cheaper than you. And why do they sell cheaper than you? Because they have a certain degree of superiority over you as manufacturers.

Between you and a Belgian, therefore, there is exactly the same difference as in my trade there would be between a blunt and a sharp axe.

And you force me, as a tradesman, to purchase from you the product of the blunt hatchet?

Regard the country at large as a workman who desires, by his labour, to procure all things he has want of, and, among others, cloth.

There are two means of effecting this.

The first is to spin and weave the wool.

The second is to produce other articles, as, for example, French clocks, paper-hangings, or wines, and exchange them with the Belgians for the cloth wanted.

Of these two processes, the one which gives the best result may be represented by the sharp axe, and the other by the blunt one.

You do not deny that at present, in France, we obtain a piece of stuff by the work of our own looms (that is the blunt axe) with more labour than by producing and exchanging wines (that is the sharp axe). So far are you from denying this, that it is precisely because of this excess of labour (in which you make wealth to consist) that you recommend, nay, that you compel the employment of the worse of the two hatchets.

Now, only be consistent, be impartial, and if you mean to be just, treat the poor carpenters as you treat yourselves.

Pass a law to this effect:

"No one shall henceforth be permitted to employ any beams or rafters, but such as are produced and fashioned by blunt hatchets."

And see what will immediately happen.

Whereas at present we give a hundred blows of the axe, we shall then give three hundred. The work which we now do in an hour will then require three hours. What a powerful encouragement will thus be given to labour! Masters, journeymen, apprentices! our sufferings are now at an end. We shall be in demand; and, therefore, well paid. Whoever shall henceforth desire to have a roof to cover him must comply with our exactions, just as at present whoever desires clothes to his back must comply with yours.

And should the theoretical advocates of free trade ever dare to call in question the utility of the measure, we know well where to seek for reasons to confute them Your Inquiry of 1834 is still to be had. With that weapon, we shall conquer; for you have there admirably pleaded the cause of restriction, and of blunt axes, which are in reality the same thing.


Claude-Frédéric Bastiat was a French economist and author who was a prominent member of the French Liberal School.


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