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What Do Frederic Bastiat And The Simpsons Have In Common?

June 30th, 2010 · 5 Comments
Macroeconomics · The Simpsons

Happy Birthday Mr. Bastiat…okay, you have to picture me singing that in my Marilyn Monroe voice to get the full effect. Anyway, in case you are not aware, Frederic Bastiat was a political economist back in the early to mid 1800’s. His writings are generally more on the extreme libertarian end of the spectrum than what I would personally endorse, but I am a big fan of his use of satire and often sarcastic humor to get people’s attention, since I fully believe that it is nearly impossible to educate people without entertaining them to some degree. As such, one of Bastiat’s main contributions to economics was the ability to convey economic principles in (comparatively) simple terms to a wide audience.

One of Bastiat’s most well-known works is a satirical “candlemakers’ petition” to request that the French government implement protectionist policies to prevent unfair competition from…wait for it…the sun:

A PETITION From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, sticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers, and Extinguishers, and from Producers of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol, and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting.

To the Honourable Members of the Chamber of Deputies.

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, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on us so mercilessly we suspect he is being stirred up against us by perfidious Albion (excellent diplomacy nowadays!), particularly because he has for that haughty island a respect that he does not show for us.

We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring 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, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country, a country that cannot, without betraying ingratitude, abandon us today to so unequal a combat.

Be good enough, honourable deputies, to take our request seriously, and do not reject it without at least hearing the reasons that we have to advance in its support.

First, 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?

You can read the full text of the petition here. Basically, it goes on to argue that since the French government had up until that point protected the producer at the expense of the consumer, it should do so this time too, despite the fact that any economic principles textbook will tell you that, under certain loose conditions, protectionism hurts consumers more than it helps producers and thus leads to economic inefficiency. In a political sense, I am okay to a degree with a society sacrificing some efficiency in the name of fairness, but politicians and citizens should at least understand the tradeoffs that they face in this arena so that they can make intelligent choices.

Bastiat was born 209 years ago today and died in 1850, but the principles that he championed are still being discussed today. Therefore, I present to you the modern-day equivalent of the candlemakers’ petition:

Mr. Burns vs. The Sun

The text, courtesy of SNPP:

Smithers: Well, Sir, you’ve certainly vanquished all your enemies: the
Elementary School, the local tavern, the old age home…you
must be very proud.
Burns: [stuffing money into his wallet] No, not while my greatest
nemesis still provides our customers with free light, heat and
energy. I call this enemy…the sun.
[throws a switch; a control panel appears at his desk]
[another button slides the floor off a model of Springfield]
Since the beginning of time man has yearned to destroy the
sun. I will do the next best thing…block it out!
[another button raises a shield over the model town]
Smithers: Good God!
Burns: Imagine it, Smithers: electrical lights and heaters running
all day long!
Smithers: But Sir! Every plant and tree will die, owls will deafen us
with incessant hooting…the town’s sundial will be useless.
I don’t want any part of this project, it’s unconscionably
Burns: I will not suffer your insubordination. There has been a
shocking decline in the quality and quantity of your toadying,
Waylon. And you will fall into line, now!
Smithers: [pained] No…no, Monty, I won’t. Not until you step back
from the brink of insanity.
Burns: I’ll do no such thing. You’re fired!
[Smithers walks out]
[Burns starts crushing things in the model]
Burns: [laughing] Take that, Bowlerama! [stomp] Take that,
Convenience Mart! [stomp] Take that, Nuclear Power Plan —
[stomp] oh, fiddlesticks.

In the Simpson kitchen, Homer reads the Springfield Shopper with
headlines “Burns Plans Sunshine Halt”, “Special Section: Your Guide to
Perpetual Darkness”, and “Town Meeting Friday”.

Marge: I must say, Mr. Burns is being awfully inconsiderate — selfish,
[Bart and Lisa walk in]
Bart: Burns needs some serious boostafazoo, right Dad?

“Take one last look at the sun, Springfield!” he exhorts, pressing a
button on a remote control. A giant shield lifts out of a mountain and
blocks out the sun. Burns laughs uncontrollably as it does so. Krusty
runs up the steps to the town hall in shorts with a suitcase and does
his trademark laugh. “I’ve been in Reno for six weeks. Did I miss
anything?” When he sees everyone looking aghast, he turns around.
Everyone starts leaving in the gloom.

Burns walks down the street and sighs, “Perpetual twilight, bathed in
the glow of Burns brand electricity.” He jumps onto a lamppost and
rhymes, “Hello, lamppost. Whatcha knowin’? I’ve come to watch your…
power flowin’.”

I have no idea whether the writers knew about the candlemakers’ petition when they wrote this episode, and I can’t decide whether the connection being random would make me like it more or less. In this context, in any case, it’s pretty obvious that preventing this cheap “competition” isn’t so helpful to society, despite the fact that it may put more people to work at the nuclear power plant and put some extra cash in Burns’ already overstuffed wallet.

Tags: Macroeconomics · The Simpsons

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 tamara // Jul 1, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    well, if it’s not a coincidence it certanly is scary o_O

  • 2 Jacob // Jun 4, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    I was jsut telling my friend this story after watching the episode at his house. Whether or not the writers knew or not, the episode is a great demonstration of Bastiat’s essay.

  • 3 Jacob // Jun 4, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    I was just telling my friend this story after watching the episode at his house. Whether or not the writers knew, it is a great way to demonstrate Bastiat’s essay. Especially to those who are wholly uninterested in economics!

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