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The Bastiat-Proudhon Debate
on Interest (1849-1850)

Capital and Rent


Capital et Rente, February 1849; anonymous translation (as “Capital and Interest”) from Essays on Political Economy by the Late M. Frederic Bastiat (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, and London: Provost, 1874)


4. The Sack of Corn


by Claude Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850)



DOI-II-4.1 Mathurin, in other respects as poor as Job, and obliged to earn his bread by day-labour, became nevertheless, by some inheritance, the owner of a fine piece of uncultivated land. He was exceedingly anxious to cultivate it. “Alas!” said he, “to make ditches, to raise fences, to break the soil, to clear away the brambles and stones, to plough it, to sow it, might bring me a living in a year or two; but certainly not to-day, or to-morrow. It is impossible to set about farming it, without previously saving some provisions for my subsistence until the harvest; and I know, by experience, that preparatory labour is indispensable, in order to render present labour productive.” The good Mathurin was not content with making these reflections. He resolved to work by the day, and to save something from his wages to buy a spade and a sack of corn; without which things, he must give up his fine agricultural projects. He acted so well, was so active and steady, that he soon saw himself in possession of the wished-for sack of corn. “I shall take it to the mill,” said he, “and then I shall have enough to live upon till my field is covered with a rich harvest.” Just as he was starting, Jerome came to borrow his treasure of him. “If you will lend me this sack of corn,” said Jerome, “you will do me a great service; for I have some very lucrative work in view, which I cannot possibly undertake, for want of provisions to live upon until it is finished.” “I was in the same case,” answered Mathurin, “and if I have now secured bread for several months, it is at the expense of my arms and my stomach. Upon what principle of justice can it be devoted to the realisation of your enterprise instead of mine?”
DOI-II-4.2 You may well believe that the bargain was a long one. However, it was finished at length, and on these conditions: –
DOI-II-4.3 First – Jerome promised to give back, at the end of the year, a sack of corn of the same quality, and of the same weight, without missing a single grain. “This first clause is perfectly just,” said he, “for without it Mathurin would give, and not lend.”
DOI-II-4.4 Secondly – He engaged to deliver five litres on every hectoliter. “This clause is no less just than the other,” thought he; “for without it Mathurin would do me a service without compensation; he would inflict upon himself a privation – he would renounce his cherished enterprise – he would enable me to accomplish mine – he would cause me to enjoy for a year the fruits of his savings, and all this gratuitously. Since he delays the cultivation of his land, since he enables me to realise a lucrative labour, it is quite natural that I should let him partake, in a certain proportion, of the profits which I shall gain by the sacrifice he makes of his own.”
DOI-II-4.5 On his side, Mathurin, who was something of a scholar, made this calculation: – “Since, by virtue of the first clause, the sack of corn will return to me at the end of a year,” he said to himself, “I shall be able to lend it again; it will return to me at the end of the second year; I may lend it again, and so on, to all eternity. However, I cannot deny that it will have been eaten long ago. It is singular that I should be perpetually the owner of a sack of corn, although the one I have lent has been consumed for ever. But this is explained thus: – It will be consumed in the service of Jerome. It will put it into the power of Jerome to produce a superior value; and, consequently, Jerome will be able to restore me a sack of corn, or the value of it, without having suffered the slightest injury: but quite the contrary. And as regards myself, this value ought to be my property, as long as I do not consume it myself. If I had used it to clear my land, I should have received it again in the form of a fine harvest. Instead of that, I lend it, and shall recover it in the form of repayment.
DOI-II-4.6 “From the second clause, I gain another piece of information. At the end of the year I shall be in possession of five litres of corn over the one hundred that I have just lent. If, then, I were to continue to work by the day, and to save part of my wages, as I have been doing, in the course of time I should be able to lend two sacks of corn; then three; then four; and when I should have gained a sufficient number to enable me to live on these additions of five litres over and above each, I shall be at liberty to take a little repose in my old age. But how is this? In this case, shall I not be living at the expense of others? No, certainly, for it has been proved that in lending I perform a service; I complete the labour of my borrowers, and only deduct a trifling part of the excess of production, due to my lendings and savings. It is a marvellous thing that a man may thus realise a leisure which injures no one, and for which he cannot be envied without injustice.”



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