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

Translators’ Introductions

Roderick T. Long’s Introduction
DOI-Intro.1 The “Bastiat-Proudhon debate,” as presented here, includes not only the twelve letters exchanged between the two men in the pages of Proudhon’s Voice of the People (and subsequently translated by Benjamin Tucker), but also: Bastiat’s final letter, which he published separately; the initial letter from C. F Chevé, which triggered the exchange; Bastiat’s essay Capital and Rent, which originally prompted Chevé; and another piece by Bastiat, Cursed Money!, which, while not integrally a part of the exchange, was evidently conceived as a companion piece to Capital and Rent, and extends the latter’s critique of Proudhon.
DOI-Intro.2 The translations used here of Capital and Rent and Cursed Money! have often been attributed either to Horace White (Sophisms of Protection, ed. Horace White (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1869)) or to David A. Wells (Essays on Political Economy, ed. David A. Wells (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1877)). But it appears that White was reprinting, and Wells revising, the anonymous translations in an earlier British edition, Essays on Political Economy by the Late M. Frederic Bastiat (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, and London: Provost, 1874). It is these original British translations that are used here. Most of Wells’ revisions are in the service of Americanisation (changing francs to dollars and so on) and modernisation (thereby foisting on Bastiat some bizarre anachronisms, e.g., having Capital and Rent comment on Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera when Fors Clavigera already comments on Capital and Rent); these are here ignored. Wells’ more substantive amendments are sometimes noted. (Of these Wells writes in his Preface (p. x): “all that the Editor has had to do with the present American edition has been to revise the previous English translation, which was exceedingly imperfect, and in some instances absolutely without meaning.” In fact most of Wells’ revisions are in the direction of decreased fidelity to the French original.) I have also used Wells’s section divisions of Capital and Rent.
DOI-Intro.3 The translations of Proudhon’s letters, and of Bastiat’s first six letters, come from Benjamin R. Tucker’s translation serialised in the The Irish World and American Industrial Liberator from 12 July through 11 October 1879. As the microfilm of the Irish World from which I was working was an extremely poor reproduction, I have sometimes had to make conjectures, based on the French original; these conjectures are marked in brackets. I assume the choice of passages to set off as section headings was the Irish World’s and not Tucker’s; probably the generous use of capital letters is so too; but I have retained these nonetheless.
DOI-Intro.4 The translations of Chevé’s initial letter and Bastiat’s final letter are my own; when Chevé quotes from Bastiat’s Capital and Rent, however, I make use of the British translation (with occasional adjustments); likewise, when Bastiat in his final letter quotes from Proudhon’s letters I make use of Tucker’s translation (again with occasional adjustments).
DOI-Intro.5 In editorial notes, BRT is Benjamin R. Tucker, RTL is myself, EPE is the anonymous translator(s) of the British edition of the Essays, DAW is David A. Wells, HC is Henry Cohen (whose Proudhon’s Solution of the Social Problem (New York: Vanguard Press, 1927) contains excerpts, sometimes revised, from Tucker’s translations), and OC is the editor(s) of Bastiat’s Œuvres Complètes.
DOI-Intro.6 While I occasionally note inaccuracies in BRT’s and EPE’s translations, I have not checked them line by line against the originals.
DOI-Intro.7 For background on Bastiat’s position, see his Economic Harmonies.
DOI-Intro.8 For background on Proudhon’s position, see his What Is Property?, Economic Contradictions, Solution of the Social Problem, and General Idea of the Revolution.
DOI-Intro.9 For Tucker’s position see Section III of his Instead of a Book; Tucker comments specifically on Bastiat at III.10 and III.11. For positions broadly similar to Tucker’s see also William Greene’s Mutual Banking, Francis Tandy’s Voluntary Socialism, Dyer Lum’s Economics of Anarchy, and Kevin Carson’s Studies in Mutualist Political Economy.
DOI-Intro.10 For my own analysis of the Bastiat-Proudhon debate, see the final Commentary.

Translator’s Preface – Benjamin R. Tucker

The Irish World and American Industrial Liberator, 12 July 1879.
DOI-Intro.11 The republication in the columns of the IRISH WORLD, by the kind permission of its hospitable editor, of the discussion between Frederic Bastiat and P. J. Proudhon needs to be accompanied by a brief statement of the events which immediately led to it and the motives which have influenced the translator to present it to American readers.
DOI-Intro.12 In February, 1849, there appeared in Paris a pamphlet, written by Bastiat, entitled “Capital and Rent,” the object of which was to expose the fallacy (as the author deemed it) on which was based the modern socialistic movement, then rapidly spreading among the working classes of France under the lead of Proudhon. The evils of our social state are due, it was claimed by Proudhon and his followers, to the well-nigh universal acceptance of the fiction that Capital is productive, and to the usurious practices founded thereon. Bastiat, on the contrary, maintained in his pamphlet that the productivity of Capital is not a fiction, but a reality; that interest on capital is consequently legitimate; and that the movement of the Socialists was chimerical. In March, soon after the appearance of the pamphlet, Proudhon was sentenced to imprisonment for his opposition to Napoleon, [i.e., Napoleon III. – RTL] who, a short time before, had been elected president of the Republic. His daily journal, Le Peuple, was suppressed. In October of the same year, however, Le Peuple was replaced by a new journal, Le Voix du Peuple, which Proudhon edited from his prison cell. In its issue of October 22, M. C. F. Cheve, a sub-editor, combated Bastiat’s argument, claiming that use pays for use and property for property, but that the exchange of use for property is illegitimate. Bastiat asked permission to reply in the same columns. Proudhon granted the request, but, deeming M. Cheve’s defence of Socialism inadequate and even unsound, he notified Bastiat that

He Should Take up the Controversy

himself. Accordingly, on the 12th of November Bastiat’s first letter appeared; the next week brought Proudhon’s answer; and for three months, week by week, their letters appeared alternately, until at last, on the 11th of February, 1850, Proudhon, tired, as he said, of the constant repetition of arguments which he had as often replied to, summed up and closed the discussion. Both parties to the debate subsequently issued the letters in book form, Proudhon entitling his edition “Interest and Principal,” Bastiat entitling his “Gratuity of Credit.” [Tucker may have been unaware that Bastiat’s edition, unlike Proudhon’s, includes Chevé’s initial letter, as well as a final letter from Bastiat; in any case, Tucker’s translation is based on Proudhon’s edition, and so his numbering of the letters starts with Bastiat’s first letter, whereas Bastiat’s numbering, as well as that of the present edition, starts with Chevé’s. – RTL]
DOI-Intro.13 So much for the history of this controversy, which ever since has been waged by other pens and tongues (swords, even) with increasing vigor, spreading the world over, until to-day in our own country the point at issue is a pressing question of the hour. For all the signs of the times point to the conclusion that this is the pivot on which the all-absorbing Labor Question is to turn. Newspapers are springing up in various quarters with the avowed purpose of discussing this and kindred subjects; old political parties are splitting, and new ones organizing, on this rock; and each day makes clearer than before how critical is the emergency and how squarely it must be met. One way or another a solution must be had; if not permanently by argument, then temporarily by violence, destruction, and bloodshed. It is in the hope that these letters, written by two men, each of whom had the confidence of those for whom he spoke as entirely adequate and trustworthy exponents of their views, may lead the country one step nearer to reason, one step further from violence, that the translator now renders them accessible to the general public. Of the manner in which he has performed his task, he has but this to say: That, while holding somewhat pronounced views upon the respective merits of the opposing arguments, it nevertheless has been his endeavor to present them impartially, favoring neither the one nor the other.

B. R. T.

Preface of the French Editor

[translated by BRT, from Proudhon’s Interest and Principal: Articles Extracted from The Voice of the People, edited by M.-L. B.]
DOI-Intro.14 During the close of 1849 and the beginning of 1850 the question of the gratuity of credit was the subject of a discussion between P. J. Proudhon and Frederic Bastiat in La Voix du Peuple, a discussion which is still celebrated, and which, far from having lost any of its original importance, will call forth some day, perhaps, an echo even louder than that occasioned by its first appearance.
DOI-Intro.15 We have collected, and here publish in their integrity, the documents of the trial contested by two men who differed in their views and opinions upon the point at issue, but who resembled each other as closely at least in sincerity of conviction and dignity of character as in loftiness and breadth of mind. The suit on trial between them on the subject of interest or rent of capital is not yet decided; it looks to the future for the verdict.
DOI-Intro.16 These are the words with which Proudhon introduced the discussion in La Voix du Peuple, No, 43: –
“PARIS, November 12, 1849.
“We publish to-day a first article by M. Frederic Bastiat, a representative of the people, and one of the most distinguished economists of our country, upon the great question of the day, Interest or Rent of capital. We do for M. Bastiat, we will do for any serious economist who will honor us with his criticisms, a thing hitherto unknown in the annals of journalism. We open our columns to our opponent, we publish his article entire, we make no comment upon it, in order not to influence the judgment of our readers, and to equalize the advantages of the controversy between our antagonist and ourselves. It will not be our fault if the question if Interest, which, in the economic order, constitutes the whole object of the socialistic protest of the nineteenth century, is not discussed seriously before the country and before Europe, and probably ere long decided. When the writer’s pen is able to effect or avert a revolution, what need of paving stones and bayonets?
DOI-Intro.18 “The abundance and multiplicity of our tasks not permitting us to reply to M. Bastiat to-morrow, we postpone our answer till next Monday, November 19, thus leaving our readers for a week under the influence of the arguments of our adversary.

M. L. B.           

Introduction from the Editor(s) of Bastiat’s Œuvres Complètes
DOI-Intro.19 The brochure Capital and Rent had made a certain impression on the working classes, to whom the author addressed himself, and produced a schism within a certain portion of socialism. The Voice of the People therefore judged it necessary to combat this writing. – To the first article by M. Chevé, Bastiat requested of the editorship permission to respond, and obtained it. But he was advised that for the continuation of the discussion, M. Proudhon would substitute himself for M. Chevé. Replies followed one another on a more or less weekly basis until the thirteenth letter, in which M. Proudhon declared the debate closed. He collected the thirteen letters together into a volume under the title Interest and Principal. [Actually only twelve, as Proudhon’s edition omitted Chevé’s letter; see earlier note. – RTL] Bastiat, making use of his right, for his part published the same collection, augmented by a fourteenth letter, and gave this the title Gratuity of Credit.

Henry Cohen’s Introduction
DOI-Intro.20 The famous debate on “Interest and Principal” between Proudhon and Frederic Bastiat, the great economist, was first printed in the columns of Proudhon’s paper, The Voice of the People, in 1849. Each party wrote a letter weekly, [Not quite. – RTL] alternating for twelve weeks. The former said that interest is paid for the use of the bank’s credit, which can be furnished gratuitously by a system of mutual credit. The latter contended that it is paid for the use of capital, which he claimed was productive and of which the capitalist “deprives” himself in order to lend it. The following are extracts from Proudhon’s letters in refutation of Bastiat’s arguments.

Next section

Up to table of contents

Back to online library