Home > Economics > Negative railroad, by Frederic Bastiat

Negative railroad, by Frederic Bastiat

April 12, 2011

Frederic Bastiat may be the best thing to have ever come out of France. I am currently reading a volume of his selected works, and thought the below letter worth sharing. In a few short paragraphs, Bastiat shows up the absurdity of the anti-consumer activists who lobby on behalf of producers. Sadly, nearly 200 years later we still regularly hear the same arguments to “protect” producers at the expense of consumers… with milk pricing one recent example.

I have said that as long as one has regard, as unfortunately happens, only to the interest of the producer, it is impossible to avoid running counter to the general interest, since the producer, as such, demands nothing but the multiplication of obstacles, wants, and efforts. I find a remarkable illustration of this in a Bordeaux newspaper. M Simiot raises the following question: should there be a break in the tracks at Bordeaux on the railroad from paris to Spain?

He answers the question in the affirmative and offers a number of reasons, of which I propose to examine only this: There should be a break in the railroad from Paris to Bayonne at Bordeaux; for, if goods and passengers are forced to stop at the city, this will be profitable for boatmen, porters, owners of hotels, etc.

Here again we see clearly how the interests of those who perform services are given priority over the interests of the consumers.

But if Bordeaux has a right to profit from a break in the tracks, and if this profit is consistent with the public interest, then Angouleme, Poitiers, Tours, Orleans, and in fact, all the intermediate points, including Ruffec, Chatellerault, etc, etc, ought also to demand breaks in the tracks, on the grounds of the general interest — in the interest, that is, of domestic industry — for the more there are of these breaks in the line, the greater will be the amount paid for storage, porters, and cartage at every point along the way. By this means, we shall end by having a railroad composed of a whole series of breaks in the tracks, ie a negative railroad.

Whatever the protectionists may say, it is no less certain that the basic principle of restrictions is the same as the basic principle of breaks in the tracks: the sacrifice of the consumer to the producer, of the ends to the means.

  1. TerjeP
    April 14, 2011 at 4:06 am

    Frederic is one of the good guys. Nice quote.

  2. BilB
    April 15, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    Bastiat proves his own assertion to be false. Because one production centre seeks to apply an obstruction he deduces therefore that every producer seeks obstruction. However he then goes on to point out how many other centres there are which have not sought to create a “break in the line”, thereby proving that the production centre seeking an obstruction is in fact an exception, rather than a new rule.

  3. April 18, 2011 at 2:52 am

    @BilB — you have misunderstood the point of Bastiat’s short essay. He is not saying that other French towns will ask for a break in the train line. He is pointing out that if you give special treatment to help producers then you will generally hurt consumers. In this case he demonstrates his point using reductio ad absurdum on a specific example.

  4. BilB
    April 18, 2011 at 9:02 am

    I think, John, that he is making a minor obvious point in an absurd way, which is why I picked issue with it.

    To digress, what is your libertarian opinion of


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