Here is an story taken from W. M. Curtiss’s The Tariff Idea, to explain protectionism.
More than a century ago, Frederic Bastiat, a French
economist and an ardent opponent of protectionism, drew
on Daniel Defoe’s immortal classic, Robinson Crusoe,
to illustrate the evils of trade restrictions:
“You remember how Robinson Crusoe managed
to make a plank when he had no saw.”
“Yes; he felled a tree, and then, cutting the trunk
right and left with his hatchet, he reduced it to the
thickness of a board.”
“And that cost him much labour?”
“Fifteen whole days’ work.”
“And what did he live on during that time?”
“He had provisions.”
“What happened to the hatchet?”
“It was blunted by the work.”
“Yes; but you perhaps do not know this: that at
the moment when Robinson was beginning the work
he perceived a plank thrown by the tide upon the
"Happy accident! He of course ran to appropriate
it?"and began to reason thus with himself:
" ‘If I get this plank, it will cost me only the trouble
of carrying it, and the time needed to descend and
remount the cliff. But if I form a plank with my
hatchet, first of all, it will procure me fifteen days’
employment; then my hatchet will get blunt, which
will furnish me with the additional employment of
sharpening it; then I shall consume my stock of provisions,
which will be a third source of employment
in replacing them. Now, labour is wealth. It is clear
thatÂ· I should ruin myself by getting the plank. I must
protect my personal labour; and, now that I think of
it, I can even increase that labour by throwing back
the plank into the sea.’ "
“But this reasoning was absurd.”
“N0 doubt. It is nevertheless the reasoning of every
nation which protects itself by prohibition. It throws
back the plank which is offered in exchange for a
small amount of labour in order to exert a greater
amount of labour. Even in the labour of the Customhouse
officials it discovers a gain. That gain is represented
by the pains which Robinson takes to render
back to the waves the gift which they had offered him.
Consider the nation as a collective being, and you
will not find between its reasoning and that of Robinson
an atom of difference.”
time saved to something else?"
“As long as a man has wants to satisfy and time at
his disposal, there is always something to be done. I
am not bound to specify the kind of labour he would
in such a case undertake.”
“I see clearly what labour he could have escaped.”
"And I maintain that Robinson, with incredible
blindness, confounded the labour with its result, the
end with the means, and I am going to prove to
you … "
“There is no need. Here we have the system of
restriction or prohibition in its simplest form. If it
appear to you absurd when so put, it is because the
two capacities of producer and consumer are in this
case mixed up in the same individual.”
“Let us pass on, therefore, to a more complicated
“With all my heart. Some time afterwards, Robinson
having met with Friday, they united their labour
in a common work. In the morning they hunted for
six hours, and brought home four baskets of game.
In the evening they worked in the garden for six
hours, and obtained four baskets of vegetables.”
A Visiting Foreigner
"One day a canoe touched at the island. A goodlooking
foreigner landed, and was admitted to the
table of our two recluses. He tasted and commended
very much the produce .of the garden, and before taking
leave of his entertainers, spoke as follows:
"‘Generous islanders, I inhabit a country where
game is much more plentiful than here, but where
horticulture is quite unknown. It would be an easy
matter to bring you every evening four baskets of
game, if you will give me in exchange two baskets of
"At these words Robinson and Friday retired to
consult, and the debate that took place is too interesting
not to be reported in extenso.
"Friday: What do you think of it?
"Robinson: If we close with. the proposal, we are ruined.
"F: Are you sure of that? Let us consider.
"R: The case is clear. Crushed by competition, our hunting
as a branch of industry is annihilated.
“F: What matters it” if we have the game?
"R: Theory! It will no longer be the product of our
"F: I beg your pardon, sir; for in order to have game we
must part with vegetables.
"R: Then, what shall we gain?
"F: The four baskets of game cost us six hours’ work.
The foreigner gives us them in exchange for two baskets
of vegetables, which cost us only three hours’ work. This
places three hours at our disposal.
"R: Say, rather, which are subtracted from our exertions.
There is our loss. Labour is wealth, and if we lose
a fourth part of our time we shall be less rich by a fourth.
"F: You are greatly mistaken, my good friend. We shall
have as much game, and the same quantity of vegetables,
and three hours at our disposal into the bargain. This is
progress, or there is no such thing in the world.
"R: You lose yourself in generalities! What should we
make of these three hours?
"F: We would do something else.
"R: Ah! I understand you. You cannot come to particulars.
Something else, something else-that is easily said.
"F: We can fish, we can ornament our cottage, we can
read the Bible.
"R: Utopia! Is there any.certainty that we should do
either the one or the other?
"F: Very well, if we have no wants to satisfy we can
rest. Is repose nothing?
"R: But while we repose we may die of hunger.
"F: My dear friend, you have got into a vicious circle.
I speak uf a repose which will subtract nothing from our
supply of game and vegetables. You always forget that
by means of our foreign trade nine hours’ labour will
give us the same quantity of provisions that we obtain at
present with twelve.
"R: It is very evident, Friday, that you have not been
educated in Europe, and that you have never read the
Moniteur Industriel. If you had, it would have taught
you this: that all tim~ saved is sheer loss. The important
thing is not to eat or consume, but to work. All that we
consume, if itÂ· is not the direct produce of our labour,
goes for nothing. Do you want to know whether you are
rich? Never consider the enjoyments you obtain, but the
labour you undergo. This is what the Moniteur Industriel
would teach you. For myself, who have no pretensions
to be a theorist, the only thing I look at is the loss of
A Strange Idea
"F: What a strange turning upside down of ideas! But …
"R: No buts. Moreover, there are political reasons for
rejecting the interested offers of the perfidious foreigner.
"F: Political reasons!
"R: Yes, he only makes us these offers because they are
advantageous to him.
"F: So much the better, since they are for our advantage
"R: Then by this traffic we should place ourselves in a
situation of dependence upon him.
"F: And he would place himself in dependence on us.
We should have need of his game, and he of our vegetables,
and we should live on terms of friendship.
"R: System! Do you want me to shut your mouth?
"F: We shall see about that. I have as yet heard no good
"R: Suppose the foreigner learns to cultivate a garden,
and that his island should prove more fertile than ours.
Do you see the consequence?
"F: Yes; our relations with the foreigner would cease. He
would take from us no more vegetables,. since he could
have them at home with less labour. He would bring us
no more game, since we should have nothing to give him
in exchange, and we should then be in precisely the
situation that you wish us in now.
"R: Improvident savage! You don’t see that after having
annihilated our hunting by inundating us with game,
he would annihilate our gardening by inundating us with
"F: But this would only last so long as we were in a
situation to give him something else; that is to say, so
long as we found something else which we could produce
with economy of labour for ourselves.
"R: Something else, something else! You always come
back to that. You are at sea, my good friend Friday;
there is nothing practical in your views.
"The debate was long prolonged, and, as often happens,
each remained wedded to his own opinion. But
Robinson possessing a great influence over Friday, his
opinion prevailed, and when the foreigner arrived to
demand a reply, Robinson said to him:
" 'Stranger, in order to induce us to accept your proposal,
we must be assured of two things: The first is, that
your island is noÂ· better stocked with game than ours, for
we want to fight only with equal weapons. The second is
that you will lose by the bargain. For, as in every exchange
there is necessarily a gaining and a losing party,
we should be dupes, if you were not the loser. What have
you got to say?’
“‘Nothing,’ replied the foreigner; and, bursting out
laughing, he regained his canoe.”*