J.B. Say on Gains from Exchange

Say what you want; I think he’s great.

I’m the discussion leader next week of a colloquium on the writings of late 18th and early 19th-century French economist Jean-Baptiste Say. I hadn’t read much by or about him since 1992, when I researched and wrote his bio for the then Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics (and later Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.) Even then I read only little snippets of his work.

So it has been a real treat to work my way through over 200 pages of his writing.

Here’s a highlight where Say takes on the view that exchange is a zero-sum game:

The English writer, Stewart, who may be looked up as the leading advocate of the exclusive system, the system founded on the maxim, that the wealth of one set of men is derived from the impoverishment of another, is himself no less mistaken in asserting, that, “when one a stop is put to external commerce, the stock of internal wealth cannot be augmented.” Wealth, it seems, can come only from abroad; but abroad, where does it come from? from abroad also. So that in tracing it from abroad to abroad, we must necessarily, in the end, exhaust every source, till at last we are compelled to look for it beyond the limits of our own planet, which is absurd.

Forbonnais, too, builds his prohibitory system on this glaring fallacy; and to speak freely, on this fallacy are founded the exclusive systems of all the short-sighted merchants, and all the governments of Europe and of the world. They all take it for granted, that what one individual gains must needs be lost to another; that what is gained by one country is inevitably lost to another: as if the possessions of abundance of individuals and of communities could not be multiplied, without the robbery of somebody or other. If one man or set of men, could only be enriched at others’ expense, how could the whole number of individuals, of whom a state is composed, be richer at one period than at another, as they now confessedly are in France, England, Holland, and Germany, compared with what they were formerly? How is it, that nations are in our days more opulent, and their wants more supplied in every respect, than they were in the seventeenth century? Whence can they have derived that portion of their present wealth, which then had no existence? Is it from the mines of the new continent? They had already advanced in wealth before the discovery of America.

 

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