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The "Candle Maker's Petition" is a satire of protectionist tariffs, written the by great French economist Frederic Bastiat. In many ways, it expanded on the free market argument against mercantilism set forth by Adam Smith, but Bastiat targeted government tariffs that were levied to protect domestic industries from competition.

In Bastiat's "Petition," all the people involved in the French lighting industry, including "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" call upon the French government to take protective action against unfair competition from the sun. It argues sarcastically: "We candlemakers are suffering from the unfair competition of a foreign rival."

Key Takeaways

  • The "Candle Maker's Petition" was a complaint written by French economist Bastiat to his government to oppose import tariffs.
  • Bastiat instead favored free markets for international trade and competition and that tariffs would have negative unintended consequences.
  • Despite the economic theory underlying Bastiat's argument, protectionism still remains a tool used by governments in the global market.

Bastiat's Argument Against Tariffs

They argue that forcing people to close "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"—will lead to a higher consumption of candles and related products. In turn, they reason, the industries that those in the lighting industry depend on for materials will have greater sales, as will their dependent suppliers, and so on—until everyone is better off without the sun.

This satirical essay suggests that forcing people to pay for something when a free alternative is available is often a waste of resources. In this case, the money people spend on additional lighting products would indeed boost the candle makers' profit, but because this expenditure is not required, it is wasteful and diverts money from other products. Rather than producing wealth, satisfying the candle maker's petition would lower overall disposable income by needlessly raising everyone's costs.

Similarly, using tariffs to force people to pay more for domestic goods when cheaper foreign imports are available allows domestic producers to survive natural competition, but costs everyone as a whole. Additionally, the money put into an uncompetitive company would be more efficiently placed into an industry in which domestic companies have a competitive advantage.

Bastiat concludes with the following remark:

Make your choice, but be logical; for as long as you ban, as you do, foreign coal, iron, wheat, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to admit the light of the sun, whose price is zero all day long!