One of the most famous documents in the history of free-trade literature is Bastiat's famous "Candlemakers' Petition." In that parody, the French economist and parliamentarian imagined the makers of candles and street lamps petitioning the French Chamber of Deputies for protection from a most dastardly foreign competitor:
You are on the right track. You reject abstract theories and have little regard for abundance and low prices. You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition, that is, to reserve the domestic market for domestic industry.
We come to offer you a wonderful opportunity. . . .
We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival . . . is none other than the sun.
For after all, Bastiat's petitioners noted, how can the makers of candles and lanterns compete with a light source that is totally free?
Thank goodness we wouldn't fall for such nonsense today. Or would we?
Last month, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and nine colleagues (ranging from Barbara Boxer to Tom Coburn) endorsed a petition from — you guessed it — the domestic candlemaking industry asking the secretary of commerce to impose a 108.3 percent tariff on Chinese candle producers.
After the Commerce Department approved the candlemakers' petition, Clinton said in a statement:
This is a real victory for the Syracuse candle-making industry. Our manufacturers deserve a level playing field and we owe it to them to make sure that others do not unfairly circumvent our fair trade practices. Syracuse has a proud history of candle production but attempts by importers to undercut our producers have put that tradition at risk. I am pleased that the Department of Commerce heeded our call to take action against these unfair practices and recognized the importance of this decision to local producers, especially here in Syracuse. We will continue to make the case on behalf of Syracuse candle-makers as the Commerce Department considers its final determination.
But perhaps the comparison is unfair. After all, Clinton and the National Candle Association aren't asking for protection from the sun, only from Chinese candle producers who are allegedly "dumping" candles in to the American market "at less than fair value."
What's the difference, though? Any source that supplies light to American consumers is a competitor of the American candle industry. And any source that can deliver the light cheaper than American candle companies is a tough competitor. Domestic producers will no doubt gain by imposing a 100 percent tariff on their Chinese competitors. But they could also sell more candles if the government required "the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull's-eyes, deadlights, and blinds — in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses," as Bastiat's candlemakers requested.
In our modern world, the candlemakers might also propose that electric lights be banned. Think what that would do for the Syracuse candlemaking industry! Sales would soar, profits would soar, jobs would be created. And, no doubt, the owners and the employees would be immensely grateful to Senator Clinton. Of course, Senator Clinton is a centrist these days, so she would not support such sweeping legislation; perhaps she would propose only to ban electric lights from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
In either case, the benefits would not stop with the Syracuse candlemaking industry alone. As Bastiat's candlemakers told the Chamber of Deputies:
If you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light, and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged?
If France consumes more tallow, there will have to be more cattle and sheep, and, consequently, we shall see an increase in cleared fields, meat, wool, leather, and especially manure, the basis of all agricultural wealth.
If France consumes more oil, we shall see an expansion in the cultivation of the poppy, the olive, and rapeseed. These rich yet soil-exhausting plants will come at just the right time to enable us to put to profitable use the increased fertility that the breeding of cattle will impart to the land. . . .
Thousands of vessels will engage in whaling, and in a short time we shall have a fleet capable of upholding the honour of France and of gratifying the patriotic aspirations of the undersigned petitioners, chandlers, etc.
No doubt, we can expect the same cascade of benefits to ensue from the government's approval of the petition of the Syracuse candlemaking industry.