Sophism is not a word often read or heard by the eyes and ears of the twenty-first century. It is a word, however, we would do well to become more familiar with. At its root lies wisdom, but the Sophists of the fifth century BC damaged that root for all time; so that rather than relating to wisdom, it is now used to indicate a “plausible but fallacious argument”. It is this fallacious meaning that Frédéric Bastiat had in mind when he titled his collection of essays Economic Sophisms (pdf version here). And while the term in modern use can also indicate an intention to deceive, Bastiat mostly thought the best of his intellectual opponents and assumed that they were not the authors, but rather, the victims and unwitting propagators of the deceit inherent in economic fallacies.
Sophisms, praised as the “…best literary defense of free trade available…” is a collection of two different series of essays defending free trade against the economic fallacies of mid nineteenth century France. In the First Series, a collection of twenty-three essays first published together in 1845, Bastiat examines free trade from many different perspectives employing a variety of writing styles. Most of the essays are written in a conversational prose with an occasional one being satire or story. The Second Series of seventeen essays was originally published in 1848. In terms of style this series differs from the first in that over half of the essays are stories, dialogues or satire with only a few being written in prose.
On the first read, the essays in Sophisms may appear to be repetitious. Even Bastiat admits as much when he says that repetition, “…the inherent defect of this little work…” is also “…its principal utility.” There is, in fact, much repetition, but it is intentional. Bastiat is following the advice of Jean-Baptiste Say, who was a major influence on his economic formation. In his Introduction to A Treatise on Political Economy, Say states:
To obtain a knowledge of the truth, it is not then so necessary to be acquainted with a great number of facts, as with such as are essential, and have a direct and immediate influence; and, above all, to examine them under all their aspects, to be enabled to deduce from them just conclusions, and be assured that the consequences ascribed to them do not in reality proceed from other causes. [Emphasis added]
And indeed, Bastiat does examine the facts under all aspects. In every case, whether the satirical petition to the king to have the right hand of all his subjects cut off or the passionate warning of the perversion of the meaning of words, Bastiat examines the facts of protectionist economic policies and exposes the fallacies upon which the policies are built. In each case he follows more of Say’s advice to “…discover the chain which binds them [facts] together, and always, from observation, establish the existence of the two links at their point of connexion (sic).” In his own Introduction Bastiat echoes Say with an explanation of the complexities of mounting a defense against the simple half-truths of his opponents:
… we cannot limit ourselves to the consideration of a single cause and its immediate effect. We know that this effect itself becomes in its turn a cause. In order to pass judgment on a measure, we must, then, trace it through the whole chain of its effects to its final result. In other words, we are reduced, quite frankly, to an appeal to reason.
Thus his reasons for repetition.
Free trade is the obvious theme of the Sophisms, but it’s addressed through many different fallacies. Some of the fallacies include, imports destroy the country’s wealth; high prices increase the country’s wealth; a favorable balance of trade increases wealth; general welfare is incompatible with justice and peace; economics is based on theory, not real life, and more. His most famous essay in Sophisms, “A Petition”, is a fictitious request for a law to forbid sunlight indoors. To do so would increase jobs and industry including whaling, shipping, agriculture, manufacturing and more. Not a Frenchman would miss out on the prosperity. Of course, the request is absurd, but, as in many of the essays, he uses the absurdity to point out the harm brought to consumers in order to create or protect jobs and industry.
And it is the role of the consumer that is Bastiat’s main point through and through. His mission is to show the reader the many and varied ways that the sophisms bring him harm:
In regard to the question that I have been dealing with, each sophism doubtless has its own phraseology and its particular meaning, but all have a common root: the disregard of men’s interests in their capacity as consumers. To show that this sophism is the starting point for a thousand roads to error is to teach the public to recognize it, to understand it, and to mistrust it under all circumstances.