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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)


6. The Plane


by Claude Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850)



DOI-II-6.1 A very long time ago there lived, in a poor village, a joiner, who was a philosopher, as all my heroes are in their way. James worked from morning till night with his two strong arms, but his brain was not idle for all that. He was fond of reviewing his actions, their causes, and their effects. He sometimes said to himself, “With my hatchet, my saw, and my hammer, I can make only coarse furniture, and can only get the pay for such. If I only had a plane, I should please my customers more, and they would pay me more. It is quite just; I can only expect services proportioned to those which I render myself. Yes! I am resolved, I will make myself a plane.”
DOI-II-6.2 However, just as he was setting to work, James reflected further: – “I work for my customers 300 days in the year. If I give ten to making my plane, supposing it lasts me a year, only 290 days will remain for me to make my furniture. Now, in order that I be not the loser in this matter, I must gain henceforth, with the help of the plane, as much in 290 days, as I now do in 300. I must even gain more; for unless I do so, it would not be worth my while to venture upon any innovations.” James began to calculate. He satisfied himself that he should sell his finished furniture at a price which would amply compensate for the ten days devoted to the plane; and when no doubt remained on this point, he set to work. I beg the reader to remark, that the power which exists in the tool to increase the productiveness of labour, is the basis of the solution which follows.
DOI-II-6.3 At the end of ten days, James had in his possession an admirable plane, which he valued all the more for having made it himself. He danced for joy, – for, like the girl with her basket of eggs, he reckoned all the profits which he expected to derive from the ingenious instrument; but, more fortunate than she, he was not reduced to the necessity of saying good-bye to calf, cow, pig, and eggs, together. He was building his fine castles in the air, when he was interrupted by his acquaintance William, a joiner in the neighbouring village. William having admired the plane, was struck with the advantages which might be gained from it. He said to James: –
DOI-II-6.4 W. You must do me a service.
DOI-II-6.5 J. What service?
DOI-II-6.6 W. Lend me the plane for a year.
DOI-II-6.7 As might be expected, James at this proposal did not fail to cry out, “How can you think of such a thing, William? Well, if I do you this service, what will you do for me in return?”
DOI-II-6.8 W. Nothing. Don’t you know that a loan ought to be gratuitous? Don’t you know that capital is naturally unproductive? Don’t you know fraternity has been proclaimed[?] If you only do me a service for the sake of receiving one from me in return, what merit would you have?
DOI-II-6.9 J. William, my friend, fraternity does not mean that all the sacrifices are to be on one side; if so, I do not see why they should not be on yours. Whether a loan should be gratuitous I don’t know; but I do know that if I were to lend you my plane for a year it would be giving it you. To tell you the truth, that was not what I made it for.
DOI-II-6.10 W. Well, we will say nothing about the modern maxims discovered by the Socialist gentlemen. I ask you to do me a service; what service do you ask me in return?
DOI-II-6.11 J. First, then, in a year, the plane will be done for, it will be good for nothing. It is only just, that you should let me have another exactly like it; or that you should give me money enough to get it repaired; or that you should supply me the ten days which I must devote to replacing it.
DOI-II-6.12 W. This is perfectly just. I submit to these conditions. I engage to return it, or to let you have one like it, or the value of the same. I think you must be satisfied with this, and can require nothing further.
DOI-II-6.13 J. I think otherwise. I made the plane for myself, and not for you. I expected to gain some advantage from it, by my work being better finished and better paid, by an improvement in my condition. What reason is there that I should make the plane, and you should gain the profit? I might as well ask you to give me your saw and hatchet! What a confusion! Is it not natural that each should keep what he has made with his own hands, as well as his hands themselves? To use without recompense the hands of another, I call slavery; to use without recompense the plane of another, can this be called fraternity?
DOI-II-6.14 W. But, then, I have agreed to return it to you at the end of a year, as well polished and as sharp as it is now.
DOI-II-6.15 J. We have nothing to do with next year; we are speaking of this year. I have made the plane for the sake of improving my work and condition; if you merely return it to me in a year, it is you who will gain the profit of it during the whole of that time. I am not bound to do you such a service without receiving anything from you in return: therefore, if you wish for my plane, independently of the entire restoration already bargained for, you must do me a service which we will now discuss; you must grant me remuneration.
DOI-II-6.16 And this was done thus: – William granted a remuneration calculated in such a way that, at the end of the year, James received his plane quite new, and in addition, a compensation, consisting of a new plank, for the advantages of which he had deprived himself, and which he had yielded to his friend.
DOI-II-6.17 It was impossible for any one acquainted with the transaction to discover the slightest trace in it of oppression or injustice.
DOI-II-6.18 The singular part of it is, that, at the end of the year, the plane came into James’s possession, and he lent it again; recovered it, and lent it a third and fourth time. It has passed into the hands of his son, who still lends it. Poor plane! how many times has it changed, sometimes its blade, sometimes its handle. It is no longer the same plane, but it has always the same value, at least for James’s posterity. Workmen! let us examine into these little stories. [Online editor’s note: For John Ruskin’s critique of this example, and BRT’s comments thereon, see Instead of a Book III.4 and III.11. – RTL]
DOI-II-6.19 I maintain, first of all, that the sack of corn and the plane are here the type, the model, a faithful representation, the symbol of all capital; as the five litres of corn and the plank are the type, the model, the representation, the symbol of all interest. This granted, the following are, it seems to me, a series of consequences, the justice of which it is impossible to dispute.
DOI-II-6.20 1st. If the yielding of a plank by the borrower to the lender is a natural, equitable, lawful remuneration, the just price of a real service, we may conclude that, as a general rule, it is in the nature of capital to produce interest. When this capital, as in the foregoing examples, takes the form of an instrument of labour, it is clear enough that it ought to bring an advantage to its possessor, to him who has devoted to it his time, his brains, and his strength. Otherwise, why should he have made it? No necessity of life can be immediately satisfied with instruments of labour; no one eats planes or drinks saws, except, indeed, he be a conjuror. If a man determines to spend his time in the production of such things, he must have been led to it by the consideration of the power which these instruments add to his power; of the time which they save him; of the perfection and rapidity which they give to his labour; in a word, of the advantages which they procure for him. Now, these advantages, which have been prepared by labour, by the sacrifice of time which might have been used in a more immediate manner, are we bound, as soon as they are ready to be enjoyed, to confer them gratuitously upon another? Would it be an advance in social order, if the law decided thus, and citizens should pay officials for causing such a law to be executed by force? I venture to say, that there is not one amongst you who would support it. It would be to legalize, to organize, to systematize injustice itself, for it would be proclaiming that there are men born to render, and others born to receive, gratuitous services. Granted, then, that interest is just, natural, and lawful.
DOI-II-6.21 2nd. A second consequence, not less remarkable than the former, and, if possible, still more conclusive, to which I call your attention, is this: – Interest is not injurious to the borrower. I mean to say, the obligation in which the borrower finds himself, to pay a remuneration for the use of capital, cannot do any harm to his condition. [See the 8th letter of the pamphlet Gratuity of Credit, in the present volume. – OC] Observe, in fact, that James and William are perfectly free, as regards the transaction to which the plane gave occasion. The transaction cannot be accomplished without the consent of the one as well as of the other. The worst which can happen is, that James may be too exacting; and in this case, William, refusing the loan, remains as he was before. By the fact of his agreeing to borrow, he proves that he considers it an advantage to himself; he proves, that after every calculation, including the remuneration, whatever it may be, required of him, he still finds it more profitable to borrow than not to borrow. He only determines to do so because he has compared the inconveniences with the advantages. He has calculated that the day on which he returns the plane, accompanied by the remuneration agreed upon, he will have effected more work, with the same labour, thanks to this tool. A profit will remain to him, otherwise he would not have borrowed. The two services of which we are speaking are exchanged according to the law which governs all exchanges, the law of supply and demand. The claims of James have a natural and impassable limit. This is the point in which the remuneration demanded by him would absorb all the advantage which William might find in making use of a plane. In this case, the borrowing would not take place. William would be bound either to make a plane for himself, or to do without one, which would leave him in his original condition. He borrows, because he gains by borrowing. I know very well what will be told me. You will say, William may be deceived, or, perhaps, he may be governed by necessity, and be obliged to submit to a harsh law.
DOI-II-6.22 It may be so. As to errors in calculation, they belong to the infirmity of our nature, and to argue from this against the transaction in question, is objecting the possibility of loss in all imaginable transactions, in every human act. Error is an accidental fact, which is incessantly remedied by experience. In short, everybody must guard against it. As far as those hard necessities are concerned, which force persons to burdensome borrowings, it is clear that these necessities exist previously to the borrowing. If William is in a situation in which he cannot possibly do without a plane, and must borrow one at any price, does this situation result from James having taken the trouble to make the tool? Does it not exist independently of this circumstance? However harsh, however severe James may be, he will never render the supposed condition of William worse than it is. Morally, it is true, the lender will be to blame; but, in an economical point of view, the loan itself can never be considered responsible for previous necessities, which it has not created, and which it relieves to a certain extent.
DOI-II-6.23 But this proves something to which I shall return. The evident interests of William, representing here the borrowers, there are many Jameses and planes, in other words, lenders and capitals. [EPE’s rendering is grammatically incoherent as it stands. DAW revises to: “It is evidently for the interest of William, representing here the borrowers, that there shall be many Jameses and planes, or in other words, lenders and capitals.” – RTL] It is very evident, that if William can say to James, – “Your demands are exorbitant; there is no lack of planes in the world;” he will be in a better situation than if James’s plane was the only one to be borrowed. Assuredly, there is no maxim more true than this – service for service. But let us not forget that no service has a fixed and absolute value, compared with others. The contracting parties are free. Each carries his requisitions to the farthest possible point, and the most favourable circumstance for these requisitions is the absence of rivalship. Hence it follows, that if there is a class of men more interested than any other in the formation, multiplication, and abundance of capitals, it is mainly that of the borrowers. Now, since capitals can only be formed and increased by the stimulus and the prospect of remuneration, let this class understand the injury they are inflicting on themselves when they deny the lawfulness of interest, when they proclaim that credit should be gratuitous, when they declaim against the pretended tyranny of capital, when they discourage saving, thus forcing capitals to become scarce, and consequently interests to rise.
DOI-II-6.24 3rd. The anecdote I have just related enables you to explain this apparently singular phenomenon, which is termed the duration or perpetuity of interest. Since, in lending his plane, James has been able, very lawfully, to make it a condition that it should be returned to him, at the end of a year, in the same state in which it was when he lent it, is it not evident that he may, at the expiration of the term, lend it again on the same conditions? If he resolves upon the latter plan, the plane will return to him at the end of every year, and that without end. James will then be in a condition to lend it without end; that is, he may derive from it a perpetual interest. It will be said, that the plane will be worn out. That is true; but it will be worn out by the hand and for the profit of the borrower. The latter has taken into account this gradual wear, and taken upon himself, as he ought, the consequences. He has reckoned that he shall derive from this tool an advantage, which will allow him to restore it in its original condition, after having realised a profit from it. As long as James does not use this capital himself, or for his own advantage – as long as he renounces the advantages which allow it to be restored to its original condition – he will have an incontestable right to have it restored, and that independently of interest.
DOI-II-6.25 Observe, besides, that if, as I believe I have shown, James, far from doing any harm to William, has done him a service in lending him his plane for a year; for the same reason, he will do no harm to a second, a third, a fourth borrower, in the subsequent periods. Hence you may understand that the interest of a capital is as natural, as lawful, as useful, in the thousandth year, as in the first. We may go still further. It may happen that James lends more than a single plane. It is possible, that by means of working, of saving, of privations, of order, of activity, he may come to lend a multitude of planes and saws; that is to say, to do a multitude of services. I insist upon this point, – that if the first loan has been a social good, it will be the same with all the others; for they are all similar, and based upon the same principle. It may happen, then, that the amount of all the remunerations received by our honest operative, in exchange for services rendered by him, may suffice to maintain him. In this case, there will be a man in the world who has a right to live without working. I do not say that he would be doing right to give himself up to idleness – but I say, that he has a right to do so; and if he does so, it will be at nobody’s expense, but quite the contrary. If society at all understands the nature of things, it will acknowledge that this man subsists on services which he receives certainly (as we all do), but which he lawfully receives in exchange for other services, which he himself has rendered, that he continues to render, and which are quite real, inasmuch as they are freely and voluntarily accepted.
DOI-II-6.26 And here we have a glimpse of one of the finest harmonies in the social world. I allude to leisure: not that leisure that the warlike and tyrannical classes arrange for themselves by the plunder of the workers, but that leisure which is the lawful and innocent fruit of past activity and economy. In expressing myself thus, I know that I shall shock many received ideas. But see! Is not leisure an essential spring in the social machine? Without it, the world would never have had a Newton, a Pascal, a Fenelon; mankind would have been ignorant of all arts, sciences, and of those wonderful inventions prepared originally by investigations of mere curiosity; thought would have been inert – man would have made no progress. [“Of all the results which are produced among a people by their climate, food, and soil, the accumulation of wealth (capital) is the earliest, and in many respects the most important. For although the progress of knowledge eventually accelerates the increase of wealth, it is nevertheless certain that, in the first formation of society, the wealth must accumulate before the knowledge can begin. As long as every man is engaged in collecting the materials necessary for his own subsistence, there will be neither leisure nor taste for higher pursuits. But if the produce is greater than consumption, an overplus arises, by means of which men can use what they did not produce, and are thus enabled to devote themselves to subjects for which at an earlier period the pressure of their daily wants would have left them no time.” – Buckle’s History of Civilization. – DAW] On the other hand, if leisure could only be explained by plunder and oppression – if it were a benefit which could only be enjoyed unjustly, and at the expense of others, there would be no middle path between these two evils; either mankind would be reduced to the necessity of stagnating in a vegetable and stationary life, in eternal ignorance, from the absence of wheels to its machine – or else it would have to acquire these wheels at the price of inevitable injustice, and would necessarily present the sad spectacle, in one form or other, of the antique classification of human beings into masters and slaves. I defy any one to show me, in this case, any other alternative. We should be compelled to contemplate the Divine plan which governs society, with the regret of thinking that it presents a deplorable chasm. The stimulus of progress would be forgotten, or, which is worse, this stimulus would be no other than injustice itself. But no! God has not left such a chasm in His work of love. We must take care not to disregard His wisdom and power; for those whose imperfect meditations cannot explain the lawfulness of leisure, are very much like the astronomer who said, at a certain point in the heavens there ought to exist a planet which will be at last discovered, for without it the celestial world is not harmony, but discord.
DOI-II-6.27 Well, I say that, if well understood, the history of my humble plane, although very modest, is sufficient to raise us to the contemplation of one of the most consoling, but least understood of the social harmonies.
DOI-II-6.28 It is not true that we must choose between the denial or the unlawfulness of leisure; thanks to rent and its natural duration, leisure may arise from labour and saving. It is a pleasing prospect, which every one may have in view; a noble recompense, to which each may aspire. It makes its appearance in the world; it distributes itself proportionably to the exercise of certain virtues; it opens all the avenues to intelligence; it ennobles, it raises the morals; it spiritualizes the soul of humanity, not only without laying any weight on those of our brethren whose lot in life devotes them to severe labour, but relieving them gradually from the heaviest and most repugnant part of this labour. It is enough that capitals should be formed, accumulated, multiplied; should be lent on conditions less and less burdensome; that they should descend, penetrate into every social circle, and that by an admirable progression, after having liberated the lenders, they should hasten the liberation of the borrowers themselves. For that end, the laws and customs ought all to be favourable to economy, the source of capital. It is enough to say, that the first of all these conditions is, not to alarm, to attack, to deny that which is the stimulus of saving and the reason of its existence – interest.
DOI-II-6.29 As long as we see nothing passing from hand to hand, in the character of loan, but provisions, materials, instruments, things indispensable to the productiveness of labour itself, the ideas thus far exhibited will not find many opponents. Who knows, even, that I may not be reproached for having made a great effort to burst what may be said to be an open door. But as soon as cash makes its appearance as the subject of the transaction (and it is this which appears almost always), immediately a crowd of objections are raised. Money, it will be said, will not reproduce it self, like your sack of corn; it does not assist labour, like your plane; it does not afford an immediate satisfaction, like your house. It is incapable, by its nature, of producing interest, of multiplying itself, and the remuneration it demands is a positive extortion.
DOI-II-6.30 Who cannot see the sophistry of this? Who does not see that cash is only a transient form, which men give at the time to other values, to real objects of usefulness, for the sole object of facilitating their arrangements? In the midst of social complications, the man who is in a condition to lend, scarcely ever has the exact thing which the borrower wants. James, it is true, has a plane; but, perhaps, William wants a saw. They cannot negotiate; the transaction favourable to both cannot take place, and then what happens? It happens that James first exchanges his plane for money; he lends the money to William, and William exchanges the money for a saw. The transaction is no longer a simple one; it is decomposed into two parts, as I explained above in speaking of exchange. But, for all that, it has not changed its nature; it still contains all the elements of a direct loan. James has still got rid of a tool which was useful to him; William has still received an instrument which perfects his work and increases his profits; there is still a service rendered by the lender, which entitles him to receive an equivalent service from the borrower; this just balance is not the less established by free mutual bargaining. The very natural obligation to restore at the end of the term the entire value, still constitutes the principle of the duration of interest.
DOI-II-6.31 At the end of a year, says M. Thoré, will you find an additional crown in a bag of a hundred pounds?
DOI-II-6.32 No, certainly, if the borrower puts the bag of one hundred pounds on the shelf. In such a case, neither the plane nor the sack of corn would reproduce themselves. But it is not for the sake of leaving the money in the bag, nor the plane on the hook, that they are borrowed. The plane is borrowed to be used, or the money to procure a plane. And if it is clearly proved that this tool enables the borrower to obtain profits which he would not have made without it, if it is proved that the lender has renounced creating for himself this excess of profits, we may understand how the stipulation of a part of this excess of profits in favour of the lender, is equitable and lawful.
DOI-II-6.33 Ignorance of the true part which cash plays in human transactions, is the source of the most fatal errors. I intend devoting an entire pamphlet to this subject. [That which follows, under the title Cursed Money! – OC.] From what we may infer from the writings of M. Proudhon, that which has led him to think that gratuitous credit was a logical and definite consequence of social progress, is the observation of the phenomenon which shows a decreasing interest, almost in direct proportion to the rate of civilisation. In barbarous times it is, in fact, cent. per cent., and more. Then it descends to eighty, sixty, fifty, forty, twenty, ten, eight, five, four, and three per cent. In Holland, it has even been as low as two per cent. Hence it is concluded, that “in proportion as society comes to perfection, it will descend to zero by the time civilisation is complete. In other words, that which characterises social perfection is the gratuitousness of credit. When, therefore, we shall have abolished interest, we shall have reached the last step of progress.” [See the 10th letter of the pamphlet Gratuity of Credit, – OC.] This is mere sophistry, and as such false arguing may contribute to render popular the unjust, dangerous, and destructive dogma, that credit should be gratuitous, by representing it as coincident with social perfection, with the reader’s permission I will examine in a few words this new view of the question.



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