Bastiat and the consumer's point of view

by Rob Horning

13 February 2008

 

Frederic Bastiat, a 19th-century French free-trade polemicist, is a highly entertaining writer who reaches almost Swiftian heights in ridiculing protectionist “sophisms,” and one of his best essays, “A Petition” may have inspired one of the best Simpsons episdoes, the one in which Mr. Burns plans to blot out the sun to help his energy business. Bastiat often refutes protectionism by enjoining us to look at things from the consumer’s point of view—tariffs protect producers at the expense of consumers, impoverishing everyone who would otherwise benefit from the magic of comparative advantage. “Consumption is the goal of all our efforts,’ he declares in a typical formulation, “and it is only by adopting the point of view of the consumer that we shall find the solution to all our problems.” This is a core idea of neo-classical economics, that the point of production is consumption, and maximizing consumption maximizes well-being. As Bastiat says, “human labor is not an end but a means. It never remains unemployed.” The last part of that is to refute the lump-of-labor fallacy; human ingenuity will find new uses for our productive capacity and we can never run out of work. But why? The answer to that runs counter to Bastiat’s first proposition, that labor is a means. It is also an end, in that people need meaningful work to perform in order to be personally fulfilled. This notion is at the heart of the early Marxian critique of Adam Smith in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.

So when we are encouraged to fixate on the consumer’s point of view to resolve all sorts of labor-related economic issues, what we’re essentially being told is: Give up your fantasy of meaningful work and be happy with the range of goods you can consume. Be a shopper, not a maker.

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