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Dissertation Sur Les Physiocrats Physiocracy

The half-century preceding the French Revolution witnessed a boom in tropical commodities, especially sugar, in France’s Caribbean colonies, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of African slaves toiling in the French empire and a growing debate over the institution of slavery. The link between sugar and slavery was made most explicit by Enlightenment writers such as Helvétius, who thundered that “not a single cube of sugar arrives in Europe which is not stained with human blood,” and Voltaire, whose antihero Candide is told by a slave cruelly mutilated by his master, “This is the price paid for the sugar you eat in Europe.”[1] Defenders of slavery, especially colonial planters, merchants, and others who benefited from the transatlantic economy, stressed the profits brought by the sugar trade to the French nation, and argued that only Africans could withstand hard labor in the tropical environment. Opponents of slavery, many of whom would later organize themselves as the Société des Amis des Noirs, made emotional appeals against the cruelty of slavery, but rarely addressed the claims that the plantation system was economically beneficial to France or that its abolition would bring financial hardship. However, in a remarkable essay published in the Physiocratic journal Les Ephémérides du Citoyen in 1771, Pierre-Samuel Dupont de Nemours, a young economic theorist and editor of the journal, argued that slavery was not only morally reprehensible, but also economically wasteful, and that the added expenses required to purchase, maintain, and discipline slaves and to track down and capture runaways made it a more costly system than free labor. Dupont’s attack on the economic case for slavery failed, however, to achieve its desired impact, partly because it is buried within his review of Saint-Lambert’s anti-slavery novella Ziméo, and partly because the Physiocratic principles that inform his argument failed to fully represent the rapidly changing global economy of the eighteenth century and consequently fell out of favor soon after he wrote it.

In her recent study, Trading Places, Madeleine Dobie has argued that anti-slavery sentiment in France derived not from a principled moral objection to the enslavement of other human beings, as scholars such as Lynn Hunt and Jean Ehrard have argued[2], but rather “from within the new field of liberal political economy ... Economic discourse was not just an important facet of abolitionism but rather the principal conceptual register in which slavery and emancipation were discussed in France between 1763 and the French Revolution.”[3] Dobie is correct to note that public criticism of slavery, relatively rare in the early eighteenth century, became increasingly common in the decades preceding the French Revolution, and that most pre-revolutionary opponents of slavery, recognizing that France’s lucrative foreign commerce depended on slave-produced commodities from the colonial Caribbean, envisioned a gradual transition from slavery to freedom that would jeopardize neither France’s strategic position in the Atlantic world, nor the prosperity of its colonial possessions. It is my contention, however, that Dobie has reversed cause and effect in her analysis of French Enlightenment discourse on slavery. I will argue instead that French critics of slavery came to their opposition on moral and ethical grounds, and that only after deciding that slavery was immoral did they seek to persuade their compatriots that it was not economically necessary.

Moral and material considerations were not so neatly separated in the eighteenth century as they appear today. For the Physiocrats, both were intertwined by a providential plan, which Dupont called “the pattern mapped out by Nature herself to ensure the welfare of mankind on this earth.”[4] Physiocracy, as elaborated by the court physician François Quesnay, held that agriculture was the source of all wealth and that replacing mercantilist regulations with a free market in grains would ensure the prosperity of the nation and the well-being of its citizens. Jessica Riskin writes, “the Physiocrats made the economy an integral part of the natural world, its naturalism literal and absolute,” while Liana Vardi notes that the Physiocrats believed that “nature’s message had always been there for man to see.”[5] More than a simple economic school, Physiocracy was also a quasi-religious movement, with its master (Quesnay) and loyal disciples, and whose doctrines were believed (by its initiates, at least) to hold the key to human happiness. Dupont and his fellow Physiocrats believed that prosperity and harmony would inevitably result if humanity would just follow the dictates of nature.

The relatively brief heyday of Physiocracy from the late 1750s to the early 1770s coincided with a moment of crisis in France’s overseas empire and a lively debate regarding its future. The loss of Canada, Louisiana, and much of France’s foothold on the Indian subcontinent as a result of the Seven Years’ War was a national humiliation, and the resulting imperial retrenchment toward the remaining Caribbean colonies increased the relative importance of plantation slavery and tropical commodities to the French state. The abolition of the corrupt and inefficient Compagnie des Indes in 1769 stimulated debate regarding the relative merits of monopolistic trade companies versus free trade, although, as James McClellan and François Regourd note, “the principles of mercantilism rather than capitalism or industrial expansion focused the government’s colonial and overseas vision virtually down to 1789.”[6] The military imperative of revenge against Britain, which consolidated its position as ruler of the seas as a result of the Seven Years’ War, also contributed to debate as to whether colonies should be seen primarily as projections of France’s military power abroad, or as purely financial ventures. Some French statesmen, notably the duc de Choiseul, saw the plantation colonies (which had been easily overrun by the British during the war) as militarily useless, and hoped to establish a new settlement colony to replace Canada and provide manpower to defend the empire. Dupont engaged with these issues in his writings; in a 1769 treatise, Du commerce et de la Compagnie des Indes, he criticized colonialism, condemned the company’s monopoly over trade with the Orient, and argued that it would cost the nation less to buy tropical commodities from other nations than to subsidize the failed company with capital that would be better spent in domestic improvements.[7]

The occasion for Dupont to present his economic case against slavery was the publication of a new edition of Saint-Lambert’s Saisons, a volume of poetry that also included three short stories. One of these stories, Ziméo, was the tragic tale of an African prince lured into captivity by Portuguese merchants and sold into plantation slavery in Jamaica, where he escaped to the mountains and became the leader of a war of revenge and liberation against the English colonists. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Ziméo, his betrothed, Ellaroë, and her father, captured along with him, have fallen into the hands of an enlightened planter, the Quaker Wilmouth, who treats them and his other slaves with kindness. The improbable climax of the story comes when Ziméo is reunited with his lost loved ones and agrees to spare the good master who had treated them well. Saint-Lambert’s story, romantic and somewhat lachrymose, offers an emotional and moral case against slavery, presenting the slave rebel Ziméo as a noble and heroic character and his cause as justified. (Surely it is significant that Ziméo’s revolt threatens to annihilate the English rather than the French). The overall message of the story, however, is reformist rather than revolutionary. The slaves of the good master remain loyal during the revolt, even choosing to remain on the plantation rather than join the maroons, while the brutalized victims of his more rapacious neighbors join the rebellion and slaughter their erstwhile masters.

After summarizing Ziméo for his readers, Dupont commented, “This story, which demonstrates how much Negro slavery is hateful and detestable in itself, offers us the occasion to develop a calculation through which we hope to prove that it is also a useless and burdensome crime for us. It was about two years ago that we made this calculation, the idea of which the famous Benjamin Franklin had already suggested in 1751, and thereafter we had often shared it with our friends.”[8] Dupont’s text then makes an abrupt shift from book review to economic treatise, as the remainder of his essay is devoted to the exposition of a detailed (yet, as we shall see, speculative) analysis of the economics of slavery.

That Dupont should have invoked Benjamin Franklin to support his case is not surprising, as the Philadelphia sage was both an early supporter of the antislavery cause and the Anglo-American best known to the French learned public. Furthermore, Riskin observes that the Physiocrats were among Franklin’s earliest French admirers, sensing in his work “a congenial model of nature and of natural science, one that ascribed moral purpose to nature and privileged these purposes in scientific explanation.”[9] Jacques Barbeu Dubourg, a Physiocrat, physician, and experimental scientist, published a French translation of Franklin’s writings and circulated his essays in manuscript form among Physiocratic circles. These evidently included Franklin’s 1751 “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind,” which criticized mercantilist restrictions on economic activity in the colonies, and asserted, “The labor of slaves can never be so cheap here as the labor of workingmen is in Britain.”[10] Dupont wrote to Franklin on May 10, 1768, “I had known you as ... the Physicist, the man whom nature allows to unveil her secrets. My friend Monsieur le Docteur Barbeu du Bourg has since communicated to me several of your writings concerning the affairs of your country.”[11]

Including an endorsement from Ziméo’s author in his essay, Dupont suggested that the two men served the same purpose—denouncing slavery—by different means. He modestly wrote, “M. de Saint-Lambert is a sublime poet, while we are mere calculators, not cold but severe. Happily those whom we seek to persuade are not less sensitive to the calculation of their interests than to the portrait of their duties.”[12] He then went on to outline his argument, writing, “Never has one seriously claimed that it was good and admirable to enchain one’s peers and to treat them as beasts of burden ... but [defenders of slavery] believe that it brings great savings, that the labor of slaves who are not paid wages or salaries, is much cheaper than would be the labor of free men, who would have to be paid; finally, if the latter were employed in the cultivation of our colonies, sugar would be too expensive.” Dupont denounced such crassly self-interested defenses of slavery, remarking, “To say that it is legitimate to enslave a man in order to have his labor more cheaply, is to say that it would be legitimate to murder him on the open road in order to have his money more cheaply.”[13]

Declaring that it was “a gross error” to believe that the only cost of slaves to their masters was the cost of their food, Dupont then presented his readers with a set of actuarial calculations to estimate the true total cost of plantation labor. Franklin’s influence on Dupont is clear in that both men’s arguments enumerated the same categories of expenses associated with slavery: purchase price, the opportunity cost of lost interest, the risk of loss of life, expenses for food and clothing, the cost of supervision, and low productivity resulting from the slave’s lack of interest in the product of his labor. Dupont asserted that an adult male laborer cost 1200 livres to purchase, that this purchase tied up investment capital that otherwise could be invested at ten percent interest per year, and that the average working lifetime for a slave on a Caribbean sugar plantation was just eight to ten years. Nor was this all. In order to ensure the work discipline of slave laborers, Dupont asserted, planters had to employ one overseer for each ten workers and maintain a security force to prevent revolt and to track down runaways. Adding to these hidden expenses the costs of feeding and clothing the slaves, Dupont asserted that the true operating costs of slavery came to 420 livres per slave per year, or twenty-eight sous per day of work. He then concluded, “We ask if, when there are now in Europe twenty or twenty-five million souls who have barely ten écus or thirty livres per year on which to live, if there would be a lack of free men willing to go to earn ... twenty-eight sous per day in the islands? ... Would it not be enough merely to post in what place the work is to be found, and by what port one could embark?”[14]

While Dupont’s balance sheet of the economics of slavery gives the impression of statistical precision, it is, much like the Tableau Economique of his master François Quesnay, an essentially speculative and hypothetical exercise, and rested upon assumptions that were more a matter of conjecture than of demonstrable fact. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s critique of Quesnay’s Tableau Economique could just as easily apply to Dupont’s calculations on the economics of slavery. She writes, “The Tableau constitutes ... a counter-factual argument, and suffers ... from the confusion between its reliance upon concrete historical facts and its development of hypothetical situations logically derived from the initial, real data.”[15] Similarly, James McLain notes Dupont’s “habit of inventing, or of manhandling already collected, statistics to prove his points,” and argues that “Du Pont’s analysis of slavery combines his own imaginative powers in creating plausible statistics to support an argument for the abolition of slavery that, although coinciding with Du Pont’s own concept of moral justice, is based strictly on Physiocratic principles.”[16]

I would concur with Fox-Genovese and McLain on the hypothetical nature of Dupont’s statistical argument, but would further elaborate that this hypothetical argument is predicated upon the Physiocrat’s a priori assumption that, in the divinely inspired natural order of things, morality and economic rationality could not be in conflict with one another. As Dupont put it, “[Self interest] is always in accord with the most severe justice, and almost always with benevolence, [while] wickedness and oppression ... are but the result of poorly understood interests.”[17] If slavery was immoral, as Dupont and Saint-Lambert both believed it to be, then it could not also be profitable, at least once all of its hidden costs and externalities were taken into account. Dupont would, therefore, seek empirical proof for a position that he had first adopted on ethical, rather than economic grounds.

As McLain notes, some of Dupont’s statistical arguments and inferences are at best questionable. Following Franklin, Dupont factored into the expenses of slavery the “opportunity cost” of forgoing interest income of ten percent on the capital used to purchase slaves—a comparatively high rate of return that also entailed significant risk of loss, which does not figure into the calculations. He somewhat arbitrarily factored in a ten percent surcharge on the price of each slave for the maintenance of public order, without evidence that this figure corresponded to actual defense costs in the colonies or that these charges were paid primarily by the planters themselves. In fact, as historians of the French Caribbean have demonstrated, the issues of paying for defense and service in colonial militias were hotly debated topics between the colony and the metropole.[18]

Finally, Dupont estimated the average working life expectancy of a slave as no more than eight to ten years. This figure was generally accepted at the time, and was cited by defenders of slavery, such as the colonial official Pierre-Victor Malouet, as well as by opponents of the practice. Moreover, the inability of the slave population of the French Caribbean to maintain itself through natural reproduction seemed to attest to the truth of this grim statistic. The reality, however, was somewhat more complicated, as contemporary scholarship on the demographics of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade has demonstrated.[19] While new arrivals to the Caribbean (both free and enslaved) experienced horrific death rates due to the unfamiliar disease environment, Creole slaves born in the Americas, as well as African-born slaves who survived an initial period of “seasoning,” could expect to live much longer than ten years, and slave societies with high proportions of native-born slaves, notably the southern United States, were thus able to increase their enslaved populations through natural reproduction. This greater life expectancy was surely one factor in the preference, noted by observers such as Moreau de Saint-Méry, for Creole over African-born slaves.[20]

In calling for the replacement of slavery by free labor, Dupont rejected the common claim that white Europeans, natives to the temperate zone, could not survive harsh labor in the tropics. Blaming the poor health of white colonists on their idleness and debauchery, he declared that the first settlers, pirates and frontiersmen, “resisted better than today’s colonists, precisely because they were more laborious.”[21] He went on to stress the superiority of free white labor in ethnocentric terms, calling white Europeans “one of the most lively and robust species that Heaven has placed on the earth ... clearly superior ... to the Negro, to the Asian, and to the native of America.”[22] Here as well, Dupont followed Franklin’s lead, for the Pennsylvania philosopher had also closed his essay with the hope that the American colonies would become sites of free white settlement rather than predominantly African slave societies.[23]

Rather than simply leaving the point with this assertion, however, Dupont hedged his bets somewhat. That he should do so is not surprising, for the claim that white Europeans could not withstand labor in the heat of the tropics had been repeated so many times as to become a truism in eighteenth-century French discourse. The climate theory of human difference enjoyed a respectable intellectual pedigree, as it was endorsed by Montesquieu and Buffon, and was the most frequent argument made by pro-slavery apologists, such as Malouet and Moreau de Saint-Méry, that slavery, however distasteful, was a necessary evil in tropical colonies. The recent Kourou disaster, in which thousands of white colonists sent to Guyana under the Choiseul ministry died of hunger and disease, seemed to confirm the mortality of the Torrid Zone to white settlers, at least to those required to perform heavy physical labor.[24] For Dupont to suggest that free French colonists were to toil in the tropical sugar cane fields would surely have provoked a furious response.

For this reason, Dupont suggested that free white colonists instead cultivate other crops in the Antilles, and that rather than being captured and transported as slaves, Africans should be encouraged to cultivate sugar cane in their own lands and to sell it to European brokers. He cited the recent observation of his fellow Physiocrat, Pierre Poivre, who had observed in his travels throughout Southeast Asia that sugar cane was cultivated profitably by free peasants in Indochina. Condemning slavery in the French Caribbean, Poivre declared, “After what I have seen in Cochinchina, I cannot doubt that free cultivators ... would not have produced double the product that is drawn from the slaves.” Poivre also claimed that sugar cane grew naturally and more abundantly in West Africa than it did in the Antilles. However, as would be the case with Dupont, Poivre’s appeal for the cultivation of sugar by free non-white peasant farmers was motivated as much by moral outrage as by economic utility, as he concluded, “Such was the wish of the author of nature, who created men free.”[25]

These observations of a fellow Physiocrat inspired Dupont to envision a very different sort of colonialism. Remarking on the horrors wrought by the slave trade along the African coast, Dupont then commented that West Africans “undoubtedly would have preferred to sell us the juice of their canes than the blood of their brothers.” Dupont imagined a civilizing mission that anticipated French policies in Africa a century later, writing, “We would have perfected their manners and our own, we would have made them industrious cultivators, and we would not have become senseless and cruel oppressors.” Finally, he argued that this humanitarian project would benefit French consumers, concluding, “The cultivation of sugar established among the Negroes in their own country ... where Nature assumes most of the costs of production, would cost very little, and we would probably today have refined sugar at six liards per pound, which is its price in Cochinchina.”[26] Pernille Røge reports that Dupont may have suggested such a plan to Turgot in the 1770s, and that he would again propose the creation of a French African colony of free black cultivators as a member of the Institut in 1796.[27]

Dupont’s economic arguments, however, made little impression on the growth and rising power of the plantation complex, which, Pierre Boulle has demonstrated, enjoyed unprecedented influence in French administrative circles during the period from the 1760s to the 1780s.[28] David Brion Davis has observed that the debate over the profitability of slavery between Dupont and his critics “was symptomatic of fundamental problems that would long haunt economic liberalism. Given the facts of history, how could it be shown that slavery was not a natural expression of individual self-interest, and thus in accordance with economic laws?”[29] Whatever the moral merits of his cause, Dupont’s economic indictment of slavery flies in the face most of the available evidence. Even among the generally profitable plantation colonies of the Caribbean, Saint Domingue stood apart as, in the words of John Garrigus, “one of the most profitable and exploitative systems of plantation slavery in world history,” and Alex Dupuy has observed that Saint-Domingue outproduced all of the British Caribbean colonies combined, and that its planters reaped annual returns ranging from eight to twelve percent of their investments.[30] James McClellan concurs, observing, “slavery absolutely permeated Saint-Domingue ... No colonist questioned the institution of slavery or the proposition that colonial development depended fundamentally upon slavery.”[31] Given these “facts on the ground,” it is little wonder that Dupont’s claims that slavery was economically harmful to the French metropole found few adherents among his countrymen.

One of the sources of error in Dupont’s economic calculations is his strict adherence to the Physiocratic principle that land alone is the source of all value.[32] This shortcoming limited the applicability of Physiocratic theory to the rapidly changing world of the late eighteenth century, and was one of the main reasons that the doctrine was quickly supplanted by the theories of Adam Smith and his followers in the last quarter of the century. Interestingly, Pernille Røge has recently observed that, while the founders of Physiocracy, Quesnay and Mirabeau, “stress that slavery was a perversion of the natural order and that slave labour was inefficient,” the Physiocrat with the most experience in the colonial Caribbean, the onetime intendant of Martinique, Le Mercier de la Rivière, “believed that slave labour was crucial to a well-functioning plantation system” and “implied that slaves produced wealth, thus developing the notion of a produit net des nègres.”[33] As the Physiocrats were primarily concerned with cereal cultivation in metropolitan France, this disagreement did not produce a rift within the movement, but it does highlight the contradictions between Enlightenment theory and colonial practice that Dupont’s essay sought to reason away.

Lacking a theory of labor productivity or of value added to commodities through the process of their production, and without direct experience in the economics of plantation societies, Dupont approached the question of colonial labor in an abstract way, disconnected from colonial realities, focusing primarily on access to land and motivation to cultivate it. He did not take into account the very labor-intensive, multi-stage process by which raw sugar cane is converted to molasses and then to crystalized sugar, a system of production that, in the words of Sidney Mintz, united “field and factory,”[34] with labor and technological inputs contributing significant added value to the raw product of the land. While he was surely correct to observe that the slave, who does not share in the product of his labor, would have less incentive to work productively than would the free laborer, Dupont failed to recognize that the planters had ample means of coercion to ensure compliance, and that such coercion could be exercised to a far greater degree over a population whose rights as human beings were scarcely acknowledged in law, with even the modest protections of the Code Noir routinely flouted in practice.[35] Few scholars today would argue that enslaved labor was less profitable or productive than free labor, although a lively scholarly debate remains as to why this was so.[36]

The economic revolution that Dupont advocated in the close of his review essay—with sugar cultivation displaced to free black farmers on the West African coast, and the Caribbean colonies transitioning to the cultivation of cereals and other foodstuffs by free white yeoman farmers—was driven by moral rather than financial considerations. It was entirely consistent with Physiocratic principles, which insisted, despite growing evidence to the contrary, that in a providentially ordered universe, economic utility and morality could not be in conflict with one another. The Physiocratic project enjoyed official favor for a time, as it coincided with the desire of statesmen such as Choiseul for colonies of white settlement that could serve as military bastions in a future war against Great Britain. Ultimately, however, this project failed to leave a lasting mark on colonial policy because it ignored the economic realities of a highly profitable and increasingly influential plantation complex. Robert-Jacques Turgot, Dupont’s friend and mentor, responded to the young Physiocrat, “I very much wish that you were right to assert that slavery is not beneficial to anyone, for it is an abominable and barbaric injustice.”[37] Turgot nonetheless expressed his doubts of Dupont’s thesis that slavery was also economically detrimental, remarking, “humanity is not sufficiently happy that injustice is always punished immediately.”[38] Turgot suggested that slavery might be economically detrimental to society as a whole, yet beneficial to the slaveholding planter elite, and later elaborated, “I have read your piece about the Nègres, and I find that you have not addressed the question. I am upset, because others will respond to you, and unfortunately they will be correct in doing so.”[39]

Finally, as both Vardi and Riskin have argued, Physiocracy rested on very reductionist assumptions of human nature, assuming natural inclinations toward justice and enlightened self-interest, and discounting the role of “the passions.” These shortcomings are especially apparent in the work of Dupont, whom Mack Thompson has faulted for “a habit of squandering his energy on impractical and ephemeral projects and a tendency to confuse the world of his desire with the world as it really was.”[40] Dupont wrote that “the man who is not depraved cannot help but love that which is useful to his peers and to himself ... there is no man who can fully understand justice and refuse to submit to it, who can deeply feel nature and not adore its laws. The evil man is but a more or less ignorant fool.”[41] The Physiocrat’s unshakeable confidence that a simple demonstration of the economic folly of slavery would suffice to bring about its abolition is evidence of his generous but naïve optimism. The planters, merchants, and officials who dominated the plantation colonies and enjoyed both the material and symbolic aspects of mastery would not be so easily moved by appeals to the better angels of their nature. Dupont’s contemporary Jean-Jacques Rousseau recognized the limitations of a theory based on human beings as purely rational actors, writing in a 1767 letter to Mirabeau, “Gentlemen, permit me to inform you that you give too much weight to your calculations and not enough to the inclinations of the human heart and to the play of the passions. Your system is excellent for the residents of Utopia, but will not do for the sons of Adam.”[42]

Notes:

  1. Claude-Adrien Helvétius, De l’esprit (Paris: Durand, 1758), 25; Voltaire, “Candide, or Optimism” [1759] in The Portable Voltaire, ed. Ben Ray Redman (New York: Viking, 1977), 282. The question of the French Enlightenment’s relationship to slavery and colonialism has been much debated in recent years. For a critical view, see Michèle Duchet, Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des Lumières (Paris: François Maspéro, 1971); and Louis Sala-Molins, Dark Side of the Light: Slavery and the French Enlightenment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). For a more positive assessment of the Enlightenment’s role in the rise of anti-slavery sentiment, see Jean Ehrard, Lumières et esclavage: L’esclavage colonial et l’opinion publique en France au XVIIIe siècle (Brussels: André Versaille, 2008).

  2. For the view that French abolitionism emerged out of a principled rejection of slavery as contrary to an emerging universalist concept of human rights, see Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: Norton, 2008), and Ehrard, op. cit.

  3. Madeleine Dobie, Trading Places: Colonization and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century French Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), 14-15.

  4. Quoted in Liana Vardi, The Physiocrats and the World of the Enlightenment (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 136.

  5. Jessica Riskin, Science in the Age of Sensibility: The Sentimental Empiricists of the French Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 111; Vardi, 130.

  6. James McClellan III and François Regourd, The Colonial Machine: French Science and Overseas Expansion in the Old Regime (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2011), 24.

  7. James J. McLain, The Economic Writings of Du Pont de Nemours (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1977), 118-9.

  8. Pierre-Samuel Dupont, “Troisième Edition des Saisons,” Ephémérides du Citoyen Vol. VI (1771), 179.

  9. Riskin, 111-2, 73-4.

  10. Benjamin Franklin, “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.” (1751). Reprinted in Nathan A. Goodman, ed., A Benjamin Franklin Reader (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1945), 331-332.

  11. Dupont letter to Benjamin Franklin, May 10, 1768, quoted in Riskin, 114.

  12. Dupont, 216-217.

  13. Dupont, 217-218. A decade after Dupont’s essay, the marquis de Condorcet would make an almost identical argument, including the same comparison between slavery and highway robbery, to deny that one could justify immoral acts on the grounds of economic utility. See Schwartz (Condorcet), Réflexions sur l’esclavage des nègres (Neufchâtel: Société Typographique, 1781).

  14. Dupont, 235-236.

  15. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, The Origins of Physiocracy: Economic Revolution and Social Order in Eighteenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), 269.

  16. McLain, 122.

  17. Dupont, 222-223.

  18. On these points, see Charles Frostin, Les révoltes blanches à Saint-Domingue au XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Paris : Editions de l’Ecole, 1975); and Stewart King, Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint-Domingue (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001).

  19. On this point, see Herbert S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); David Geggus, “Sex Ratio, Age, and Ethnicity in the Atlantic Slave Trade: Data from French Shipping and Plantation Records,” Journal of African History 30 (1989); and Richard Follett, “The Demography of Slavery,” The Routledge History of Slavery, ed. Gad Heuman and Trevor Burnard (London and New York: Routledge, 2012).

  20. Médéric-Louis-Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, ed. Blanche Maurel & Etienne Taillemite, Description topographique, physique, civile, politique, et historique de la partie française de d’Isle Saint-Domingue (Paris: Société de l’Histoire des Colonies Françaises, 1958 [1797]), 59.

  21. Dupont, 237.

  22. Dupont, 237.

  23. Franklin, 336.

  24. On the catastrophic failure of the Kourou colony, see Emma Rothschild, “A Horrible Tragedy in the French Atlantic,” Past and Present 192 (August 2006), 67-108.

  25. Pierre Poivre, Voyages d’un philosophe, ou observations sur les mœurs et les arts des peuples de l’Afrique, de l’Asie, et de l’Amérique (Yverdon, 1768), 93-95.

  26. Dupont, 243-244.

  27. Pernille Røge, Political Economy and the Reinvention of France’s Colonial System, 1756-1802 (Dissertation, Queens College, Cambridge, 2009), 176.

  28. On this point, see Pierre Boulle, Race et esclavage dans la France de l’Ancien Régime (Paris: Perrin, 2007).

  29. David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966), 433.

  30. John Garrigus, Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 53; Alex Dupuy, “French Merchant Capital and Slavery in Saint Domingue,” Latin American Perspectives 12:3 (1985), 91-92. See also Christopher L. Miller, The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 26-27.

  31. James E. McClellan III, Colonialism and Science: Saint-Domingue in the Old Regime (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 9.

  32. On this point, see David Gleicher, “The Historical Bases of Physiocracy: An Analysis of the Tableau Economique,” Science and Society 46:3 (1982), as well as Riskin and Vardi, op. cit.

  33. Pernille Røge, “A Natural Order of Empire: The Physiocratic Vision of Colonial France after the Seven Years’ War,” in Sophus Reinert and Pernille Røge, eds., The Political Economy of Empire in the Early Modern World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 42.

  34. Mintz quoted in McClellan, Colonialism and Science, 64.

  35. On this point, see Philip P. Boucher, France and the American Tropics to 1700: Tropics of Discontent? (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); Malick Ghachem, Sovereignty and Slavery in the Age of Revolution: Haitian Variations on a Metropolitan Theme (Stanford University Dissertation, 2001); Doris Garraway, The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); and Garrigus, op. cit..

  36. While some historians, most controversially Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, have highlighted the role of positive incentives in fomenting the productivity of enslaved labor, the majority of their colleagues instead stress the role of coercion and a brutal regime of discipline. For Fogel and Engerman’s thesis, see Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, and Company, 1974). For a devastating critique of Fogel and Engerman’s methods and conclusions, see Herbert G. Gutman, Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1975). For more contemporary assessments, see Lorena Walsh, “Work and the Slave Economy, The Routledge History of Slavery, ed. Gad Heuman and Trevor Burnard (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), and Dupuy, op. cit.

  37. Turgot letter to Dupont, cited in Edward Seeber, Antislavery Opinion in France during the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969 [1937], 103.

  38. Quoted in Emma Rothschild, “Global Commerce and the Question of Sovereignty in the Eighteenth-Century Provinces,” Modern Intellectual History 1:1 (April 2004), 12.

  39. Turgot letter to Dupont, cited in Seeber, 103.

  40. Mack Thompson, “Causes and Consequences of the Du Pont Family’s Emigration,” French Historical Studies 6:1 (1969), 65. For a similar assessment, see Raymond Betts, “Dupont de Nemours in Napoleonic France, 1802-1815,” French Historical Studies 5:2 (1967), 201.

  41. Dupont, 164-166.

  42. Letter of July 26, 1767 from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the marquis de Mirabeau, quoted in Vardi, 144.

CONTENTS

  • I

    Rise of the School

    France in the middle of the eighteenth century—Social and financial condition—Abuses under the ancien regime— Political economy before the Physiocrats—Boisguillebert— Vauban—The Mercantilists—Cantillon's Essai sur la nature du commerce at gineral, 1755—The Marquis of Mirabeau's L'Ami des Hommes, 1756— Meeting of Mirabeau and Qnesnay, July 1757—Origin of the School. 1

  • II

    The School and its Doctrines

    Quesnay and his work—The articles “Fermiers” and “Grains” in the Encyclopedic, 1756–57—The Tableau Oeconomique, 1758—Production, distribution, and consumption of wealth —Social utility of Capital—Philosophy: moral, political, and economic—Economic policy—Produit net—Finance— The impti unique—Free trade—Political constitution— Personal influence of Quesnay—His death, 16th December 1774 ....... 26

  • III

    The School and its Doctrines(contd.)

    The Marquis of Mirabeau—Life and writings—His leadership after Qnesnay—Du Pont de Nemours—Gournay not a Physiocrat — Origin of maxims, Laisses - faire, Laisses - passer—Errors of Du Pont on this subject—Mercier de la Riviere—Bandeau—Le Trosne—St. Peravy—Abeille— Roubaud ..... 49

  • Edition: current; Page: [x]IV

    Activities of the School

    The Tuesdays—Journal de l'Agriculture—Éphmérédes—The moulins économiques—The Caisse de Poissy—Foreign relations—Carl Friedrich of Baden—Gustavus of Sweden— Catherine of Russia—Leopold of Tuscany—Joseph II.— Charles III. of Spain—Stanislas of Poland—Ferdinand of Naples—The Dauphin—Turgot's writings and reforms— Morellet—Condillac—Condorcet—Schlettwein—F. K. von Moser—Mauvillon—Schmalz—Krug—Iselin—Longo. 78

  • V

    Opponents of the School

    Forbonnais—Mably—Le Pessellier— Riviere—Guiraudet—de Casaux—Tifaut de la Noue—Voltaire—Galiani—Graslin —Necker—Linguet—J. J. von Moser—Pfeiffer—Dohm— Von Sonnenfels ...... 102

  • VI

    Influence of the School

    Their place in the history of theory—Criticisms by Adam Smith, Lauderdale, Gray (or “Purves”), M'Culloch, James Mill, Torrens—Influence on Malthus, Dugald Stewart, Paley, Spence, Proudhon, J. S. Mill, and Henry George—Rela tions to Say, Gamier, Bastiat, and modem, French school —Conclusion ...... 123

  • Appendix ....... 147
  • Authorities ...... 153
  • Index ....... 155
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I

The Physiocrats have been the subjects of so many and such divergent appreciations by historians, philosophers, economists, and students of political science, that hardly a single general proposition of importance has been advanced with regard to them by one writer which has not been contradicted by another. To de Tocqueville they were doctrinaire advocates of absolute equality. To Rousseau they were the supporters of an odious, if “legal,” despotism. To Professor Cohn they are, in their main proposals, “thoroughly socialistic.” To Louis Blanc they were tainted with a bourgeois individualism. To Linguet their mystic jargon was charlatanical nonsense, not to be understood even by themselves. To Voltaire it was so clear as to be made easily comprehensible (and ridiculous) to the meanest intelligence. To Taine, as to many others, they made powerfully for revolution. To Carlyle, who speaks ironically of “victorious analysis” and scornfully of “rose-pink sentimentalism,” they seem Edition: current; Page: [2] to have been a mere literary ripple on the surface of the great flood. Rossi praised them for conceiving a vast synthesis of social organisation; certain writers, like Mably, have blamed them for a narrow materialism; while there are judges who pronounce them markedly deistic. To Proudhon their system of taxation was a rare Utopia; to others they lack an ideal of any kind. They were to de Loménie a bundle of contradictions— at once monarchical and democratic, half-socialist and highly conservative. To Adam Smith their “system, with all its imperfections, is perhaps the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published upon the subject of political economy, and is, upon that account, well worth the consideration of every man who wishes to examine with attention the principles of that very important science.” To many compilers of little text-books, who know better than Adam Smith, they are merely people who lived in the dark ages before 1776, and held some absurd opinions about land. To some they appear to have had a transitory success followed by complete and lasting reaction. To Léon Say their principles, after suffering reverses in the eighteenth century, have dominated the nineteenth. Of many serious writers these, anxious for precedent, have appealed to their authority in support of their own views; those, striving after originality, have been eager to prove that the point which they seek to emphasise was Edition: current; Page: [3] really missed by the Physiocrats; and the great majority of authors have been content to follow the well-worn phrases of one predecessor or another without direct reference to the writings of the old economists themselves. Probably no man alive has read the whole published works of, say, the Marquis of Mirabeau—to mention only a single member of the school. And happily no one is obliged to do so. When we have once mastered their doctrines we are dispensed from following the prolix repetitions and tedious amplifications which make up ninetenths of their literary activity. Yet this mastery is essential to a due acquaintance with the history of economic theory. For the Physiocrats were the first scientific school of political economy.

The Mercantilists, it is true, come first in order of time, but they are not in any proper sense of the term “a school” at all. There is no personal link between the different writers who, for more than a century, support what is called “the mercantile system”—an indiscriminate phrase covering proposals so different that their authors can only be said to have had a common tendency and not a common doctrine any more than a common acquaintance. But in the Physiocrats we see an alliance of persons, a community of ideas, an acknowledged authority, and a combination in purpose, which banded them into a society apart. To this personal tie, Turgot, the great lover of individual liberty in thought and Edition: current; Page: [4] deed, took grave objection. “It is the sectarian spirit,” he says, “which arouses against useful truths enemies and persecutions. When an isolated person modestly proposes what he believes to be the truth, he is listened to if he is right, and forgotten if he is wrong. But when even learned men have once formed themselves into a body, and say we, and think they can impose laws upon public opinion, then public opinion revolts against them, and with justice, for it ought to receive laws from truth alone and not from any authority. Every society soon sees its badge worn by the stupid, the crack-brained, and the ignorant, proud in joining themselves to it to give themselves airs. These people are guilty of stupidities and absurdities, and then their excited opponents fail not to impute folly to all their colleagues.” Turgot refused to wear their intellectual badge, but, as we shall see, he shared many of their ideas.

The Physiocrats were not merely a school of economic thought; they were a school of political action. Kings and princes were among their pupils. The great French Revolution itself was influenced by their writings. And the force of their work is still not wholly spent. But before the origin and significance of their writings can be appreciated it is necessary briefly to sketch the circumstances of their time in relation to which their ideas must be considered.

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The economic and financial condition of France at the beginning of the eighteenth century was truly pitiable. In spite of her great natural resources, the variety of her favourable climates, the fertility of her well-watered soil, and the thrift, industry, and intelligence of her people, the efforts of able ministers like Mazarin and Colbert to increase her national wealth had been rendered nugatory by the senseless politics of the Great Monarch. Costly campaigns abroad, ruinous extravagance at home, left the kingdom at his death, in 1715, with a debt of 3460 million francs, of which over 3300 had been contracted since the death of Colbert in 1683. His murderous wars, reducing the birth-rate, increasing the mortality, and “an act of religious intolerance, disavowed by religion”1 —the expulsion of the Protestants—had reduced the population by four millions, or 20 per cent, since 1660.2 Agricultural products had fallen off by one-third since he ascended the throne. Burdens increased while they were diminished who bore them. And competent judges computed that two-thirds of the taxes themselves were eaten up by the cost of collection.3 The Edition: current; Page: [6] contemptible creatures who succeeded Louis XIV., Philip, Duke of Orleans (the Regent), and Louis XV., squandered the national revenues in vice and frivolities with shameless prodigality. The system of Law (1718–1720), which is generally held responsible for a large share of the subsequent financial trouble of France, had, it might be shown, little or no ill effect as a whole upon the royal treasury either immediately1 or in the long-run, for it taught useful lessons of the power as well as the dangers of credit, and proved by bitter experience to masses of men the folly of striving after fortune by gambling instead of by honest work. The Court maintained its outward brilliance, and the seigneurs who surrounded the king at Versailles vied with one another in splendour and extravagance, while their country houses were abandoned, and young labourers fled from the gloomy farms and the hated militia to the glitter of the cities and the security of domestic service with the great An economic drain of wealth from the fields to the town thus intensified the contrast between luxury and misery, and a vicious financial system pressed with increasing weight upon the already crushed industries of the nation. The taille or direct tax (said to be etymologically related to our words tallage and tallies) was imposed only upon the Edition: current; Page: [7] goods and persons of the common people, and not on the nobles or clergy, who by a relic of feudal fiction owed the king their personal service and not their money, so that subjection to taille was synonymous with and incidental to degradation from nobility. A man who could afford to buy a patent of nobility obtained with it the privilege of exemption from taille; and the inequality with which the tax was levied, as between place and place, man and man, constituted an additional aggravation. The gabelle, an indirect tax which had come eventually to stand simply for the tax upon salt, was collected at the rate of 62 francs a quintal in some provinces, at 33 francs 12 sous in others, at 21 francs 12 sous in others, while certain districts had either redeemed it or been exempted from its operation. Except in these favoured districts every person over eight years of age was compelled to pay on at least a certain quantity of salt (sel de devoir); and the tax was collected with revolting harshness at a cost of about 50 per cent. The indirect taxes were leased out to a body of financiers, the farmers-general, who paid a fixed sum in advance year by year and purchased thereby the taxes they collected. Armed with stringent powers they paid domiciliary visits, seized goods suspected to be smuggled, and in their efforts to capture smugglers (whose fate was the galleys or the gibbet) they frequently provoked strife and bloodshed. “Those who consider the Edition: current; Page: [8] blood of the people as nothing,” says Adam Smith, “in comparison with the revenue of the prince, may, perhaps, approve of this method of levying taxes.”1 The corvée, an obligation upon the peasant to supply the state with labour or services without payment,— e.g. to work so many days in the year on repairing the roads,—was extended to the whole country in 1737, and was estimated in 1758 to yield 1,200,000 livres's worth of forced labour, though its cost to the peasants greatly exceeded this sum, and was stated by Necker to amount to 624,000 livres a year in Berry alone. It included also the billeting and the transport of soldiers. The regular army was, it is true, recruited by enlistment and not by conscription; but each district was compelled to provide its quota for the militia; and this service was so distasteful that the men whose names were drawn often fled to the woods or the mountains, and were pursued by their neighbours in arms who had no relish for serving in their stead. Voluntary substitutes were not accepted lest recruiting should suffer. Apart from these and other national vexations there were the tithes of the clergy and numerous troublesome local dues. Minute regulations fettered industry and commerce; tolls had been lightened and simplified by Colbert in 1664,2 but Forbonnais still mentions twenty-eight on the Loire alone. Until 1754 corn Edition: current; Page: [9] could not be freely “exported” even from one part of France to another, much less to foreign countries. And at the peasant's own door were the innumerable fees, often for absurdly trifling amounts, but none the less irritating, due to his feudal lord. Financial deficit was chronic. The capital of the nation, its industrial life-blood, ebbed away and left it weaker and weaker. Even the seed-corn was often lacking. In the first half of the century large territories lay waste, and over great tracts of country the poor were reduced to live on grass and water, like the beasts of the field. When the king asked the Bishop of Chartres how his flock fared he was answered that they ate grass like sheep and starved like flies. The Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand described his people— without beds or furniture, and lacking half their time the barley-bread or oaten cakes which constituted their sole food—as infinitely less fortunate than the negro slaves of the colonies, who had at least food and raiment. The government intendant of Bourges reported that whole families passed two days without food, and that in several parishes the starving lay abed most of the day to diminish their suffering. His colleague of Orleans refers to poor widows burning their wooden beds and their fruit-trees for lack of fuel. Beggars abounded. Bread riots were frequent, and so desperate that they were only quelled by lead and cold steel. Young men and maidens refused to marry, asking why they should add to Edition: current; Page: [10] the misery around them. And all the while taxes were ruthlessly wrung from the poorest families. The collectors forced doors, seized furniture and clothing, and even the last measure of meal, and sold the very materials of the building, often for ridiculously small sums, barely sufficient to pay the expenses of distraint The duties levied upon land were so onerous that some proprietors preferred to abandon their property, and more would have done so if the law had not confiscated the whole local property of an owner who left his land derelict. “The people,” says Taine, “is like a man walking in a pond with water up to his chin; the least dip in the ground, the least ripple, and he loses footing, goes under, and suffocates. In vain ancient charity and new humanity strive to succour him; the water is too high. Its level must abate, and the pond find some great outlet. Till then the miserable man can breathe only at intervals, and at every moment will run the risk of drowning.”1 Here and there, no doubt, the people hoarded a little money and enjoyed some surreptitious comfort; but they either bought parcels of land, which brought home to increasing numbers the tyranny of taxation, or they hid their money in secret hoards; for a man was assessed according to his apparent wealth, and there was no Edition: current; Page: [11] inducement to stock a farm well or work it to greater advantage when the rapacity of the tax-gatherer might confiscate more than the whole of the increased profit. Payment of taxes was wilfully delayed, law costs were deliberately incurred, and sheriff's officers were housed and fed for days together lest a readier payment should provoke suspicion of greater wealth, and lead to increased assessments the following year. The nobles, indeed, stood between the people and the crown, but it was only, in the bitter words of Chamfort, as the hounds are between the hunter and the hare; and the fierceness of popular indignation, which was directed first against the agents of the royal treasury, vented itself upon the privileged classes before it spread to the throne in that “general upset” which the elder Mirabeau clearly foresaw, and his son was to be instrumental in bringing to completion.

Such in barest outline were the economic woes of the ancien régime. So deplorable a condition of things could not fail to evoke the criticism and suggestion of thinking men. Passing by La Bruyère and Féieélon, we come, at the end of the seventeenth century, to a courageous, outspoken, and well-informed writer in Boisguillebert (1646–1714),1 a state official of Normandy, who mercilessly exposed the blunders of administration, the misery of the people, and the connection of one with the other. He urged Edition: current; Page: [12] upon successive ministers plans of reform, the consolidation and reduction of taxes, and, convinced that agriculture, the all-important business of the country, was being stifled, he pressed for the abolition of fetters upon internal and export trade,1 until he was disgraced and exiled to Auvergne as a warning against meddling importunity. In 1707 the great soldier, Marshal Vauban, in his seventy-fourth year, printed anonymously, for private circulation, his Dixme Royale or proposal to substitute for a host of other taxes a general tithe upon all classes of men and all kinds of revenue, and died the same year, chagrined at the king's severe disfavour, and the suppression of his book as a social danger.2 The army of financiers and functionaries found their occupations menaced by this hardy plan for the simplification of taxation. The anger of the privileged classes was easily roused by proposals to tax them equally with others. The amour propre of the king himself could not fail to be wounded by the rude simplicity with which Vauban proved him to be, as St. Simon wrote in the security of his Edition: current; Page: [13] closet, not the greatest monarch in Europe, but “a king of tatterdemalions.” In my forty years' wanderings, says Vauban in effect, I have carefully noted the state of the people. Boisguillebert1 is perfectly right Taxation has reached a pitch of absurdity. Naked, starving mendicants swarm the streets and roads. “Of every ten men one is a beggar, five are too poor to give him alms, three more are ill at ease, embarrassed by debts and law-suits, and the tenth does not. represent 100,000 families. I believe not 10,000 great or little are really well-to-do, and these include rich merchants, officials, and the favoured of the king. Take them away and hardly any remain.” He stigmatised luxury, privilege, public debts, and the farming of taxes; extolled labour, agriculture, and equality before the law; and reiterated in capital letters the warning that kings have a real and most essential interest in not overburdening their people to the point of depriving them of the necessaries of life. Half a century was to pass before Vauban's ideas reappeared, in a modified form, with the Physiocrats, and then their spokesman was clapped into prison for using similar language. Such was the encouragement afforded to these early writers on taxation. After Vauban they kept long silence, and the intellect of the nation seemed to lie fallow. “The government,” says Buckle,2 “had broken the Edition: current; Page: [14] spirit of the country.” Writings on paper money raged round the system of Law; and Melon, a former secretary of Law, published in 1734 his overrated Essai politique sur le commerce. The Abbé Alary had indeed founded a little club, the Club de I'Entresol, in 1724, which counted Bolingbroke, D'Argenson, and the Abbé de Saint-Pierre among its members, and met in the Abbe Alary's rooms,1 in the Place Vendôme at Paris, to discuss political economy. But the club was closed in 1731, because the Cardinal de Fleury, then minister, disliked its debating Government affairs. Saint-Pierre, who had been expelled from the Academy for denying to Louis XIV. the title of Grand, turned his prolific pen from one project to another; from spelling-reform to utilising horse-chestnuts, from the advantage of a census to the disadvantage of debasing the coinage, and dreamed a dream of Universal Peace. But his writings, though some of them are not without economic importance, need not detain us. And D'Argenson's2 economic reflections appeared only in 1764. During the whole of the first half of the eighteenth century the Government Edition: current; Page: [15] underwent little public criticism. It was the calm before a storm. After the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 began a veritable renaissance in every department of thought,—in religion, in politics, in philosophy, and in science,—largely under the impulse of English writers, and especially of Locke. The old crystallised forms of thought and action were broken up by the solvent of free criticism and fearless inquiry. Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois appeared in 1748. The Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert was started in 1751. Voltaire and Rousseau were sharpening their pens, and had even begun to write. Gournay, appointed intendant of commerce in 1751, devoted his attention to the English economists, translated Child and Culpeper, and directed into the same channel the mental activity of Turgot, whom he persuaded to translate a volume of Tucker. The original and suggestive essays of Hume appeared in a French translation (1756). The efforts of Du Pin,1 Gournay, Trudaine, Fourqueux, and Machault had assisted in wringing from the Government an edict in 1754 permitting free trade in corn between one part of France and another; and Herbert had argued (Essai sur la police des grains, 1755) in favour of free export. Edition: current; Page: [16] But the work which heralded in the era of active and original thought in French economics was Cantillon's Essai sur la nature du commerce en général, 1755, a little volume of 430 pages duodecimo, immeasurably superior to anything which had preceded it, and profoundly important by the influence which it exercised over the minds of leading writers.1 Cantillon, who died in 1734, was an English banker of Irish extraction. He had houses in all the principal countries of Europe, made a great fortune out of sagacious operations at Paris during the “system” of Law, and studied with great penetration the general principles which regulate the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth. His original English writings are unfortunately lost; but his Essay was handed about in manuscript, and a translation of part of the Essay which he made for a French friend is all that we have remaining of him. The Mercantilists seem always to have propounded to themselves the problem, How can Government make this nation prosperous? Nationalism, state-regulation, and particularism are the essence of their policy. But a Edition: current; Page: [17] man of much travel is less prone to be trammelled by narrow views of local circumstance, as had already been shown by Dudley North in his tract of 1691, the Discourse of Trade, and especially by Nicholas Barbon in his book of the same title a year before.1 In Cantillon and his successors we find broader and more philosophical views of the fundamental principles which govern the Science of Wealth at all times and in all places, though time and place are not without their modifying effect. The words en général which figure in his title are significant of much. They mark a change from works like Mun's England's Treasure by Forraign Trade (published 1664), Malynes's Canker of England's Commonwealth (1601), Fortrey's England's Interest and Improvement (1663), Britannia Languens (1680), Yarranton's England's Improvement by Sea and Land (1677, 1681), and others, to the cosmopolitan spirit which Adam Smith was to show in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)— of nations in general and not of England in particular. Cantillon sets himself to answer the questions, What is wealth? How does it originate? What are the causes which regulate its distribution among the different classes of society, and determine its circulation not only within the country but between one Edition: current; Page: [18] country and another? “Land,” he begins (and this is the keynote of physiocracy), “is the source or material from which Wealth is extracted”; but he continues, “human labour is the form which produces it; and Wealth in itself is no other than the sustenance, the conveniences, and the comforts of life.” He sketches the growth of human societies, beginning with the nomadic stage, and concludes that in all forms of society the ownership of land necessarily belongs to a small number; that in modern societies, after satisfying the claims of farmers and labourers, the surplus product is at the disposition of the landowners, and that their mode of consuming this surplus will determine the nature of national production. After dwelling upon the formation of villages, hamlets, towns, and cities, he passes to a consideration of labour, shows why the work of an agricultural labourers cannot command such high wages as that of an artisan, and distinguishes between the causes which regulate the difference of wages in different industries. The supply of labour of all kinds is determined by the demand for it; and, generally, the normal price of all services and commodities is regulated by the cost of Production. Without pursuing his analysis further, or dwelling upon his masterly account of foreign exchanges, it will be seen that this manner of attacking the problem at once raises economic discussion to the highest plane.1

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It has been mentioned that Cantillon's manuscript had been handed about before its publication. Postlethwayt plagiarised large portions of it verbatim in his Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce as early as 1751.1 But the French translation, subsequently published, had been for many years in the hands of the Marquis of Mirabeau, father of the great orator and tribune of the French Revolution. Mirabeau seems at one time to have meditated publishing this fragment as his own work; but he eventually set himself to write a commentary upon it, and after the Essai itself had been reclaimed from him and given to the world in 1755 he expanded and published his commentary under the title of L'Ami des Hommes, Avignon, 1756, which took the public by storm. The anonymous author was soon revealed. He became the lion of the hour. The people flocked to see him when he showed himself in public. Tradesmen set up the sign-board of L'Ami des Hommes, and Mirabeau himself was so designated to the day of his death. His book ran, it is said, through forty editions, and was widely translated. Its peculiarities of style accounted for part of its success. The Marquis's first work was a plea for decentralisation of local Edition: current; Page: [20] government published in 1750, the Mémoire concernant I'utilité des états provinciaux. The country was divided into two groups—pays d'état and fays d'élection, in the first of which (consisting mainly of the frontier provinces) the inhabitants themselves decided how to raise the money demanded from them by royal precept, in the second, the officials of the Government (the intendants) allotted its share of burden to each parish. Mirabeau pleaded for a general extension of the system of the pays d'état. His Mémoire had been attributed by D'Argenson, no mean judge, to Montesquieu. The Ami des Homines now reminded readers of the naïve prattle of Montaigne. Here it glowed with the fire of eloquence, there it glittered with wit and humour, elsewhere it exhibited shrewd observation, sober judgment, and able, though often inconsecutive, discussion. Its success owed something to its style, where quaint archaisms jostled with words fresh-minted by the author, and provoked Quesnay to write Où diable avez-vous pris ce style marotique? Je ne connais pas Marat, was the answer, mais apparemment J' ai bu de la me'me eau que lui. Victor Hugo finds in him the style of Moliére and Saint-Simon, the beau style-grand-seigneur du temps de Louis XIV. The sub-title of the book was Traité de la Population, and its central purpose was to show that a large population was desirable as conducive to the wealth of the country. It was a time of Edition: current; Page: [21] peace, and the population was already recovering from the set-back it had experienced during half a century. But it was seen that for a long time there had been, side by side with a diminution of population, a reduction in national wealth; and in Mirabeau's view the problem of the statesman was to remove the economic causes which kept down the numbers of the people. “Men multiply,” he says, borrowing from Cantillon, “like rats in a barn, if they have the means of subsistence.” “The means of subsistence are the measure of population.” The production of food should therefore be assisted. The burdens of agriculture should be alleviated. The small cultivator was to be encouraged and held in honour; the idle consumer viewed with reprobation. Luxury he defined as the abuse of wealth. An unequal distribution of wealth is prejudicial to production, for the very rich are “like pikes in a pond” who devour their smaller neighbours. Great landowners should live upon their estates and stimulate their development,—not lead an absentee life of pleasure in the metropolis. Interest should be reduced, public debts extinguished, and a ministry of agriculture created to bring to agriculture the succour of applied science, to facilitate the development of canals, communications, drainage, and so forth. The state is a tree, agriculture its roots,1Edition: current; Page: [22] population its trunk, arts and commerce its leaves. From the roots come the vivifying sap drawn up by multitudinous fibres from the soil. The leaves, the most brilliant part of the tree, are the least enduring. A storm may destroy them. But the sap will soon renew them if the roots maintain their vigour. If, however, some unfriendly insect attack the roots, then in vain do we wait for the sun and the dew to reanimate the withered trunk. To the roots must the remedy go, to let them expand and recover. If not, the tree will perish.

Such was the burden of the book which fell into the hands of Quesnay, a doctor at the court, in attendance on Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of the king. Quesnay, the son of an advocate,1 had early distinguished himself as a surgeon and physician, and had come to court as the Abbé de Saint-Pierre had done before, and perhaps from the same motive. This is how the Abbe had expressed himself in a letter to a friend: “I have taken a little opera-box to get a better view of the principal actors on the stage of the world. I see our Government at its headquarters, and already I perceive that it would Edition: current; Page: [23] be easy to make it much more honourable to the king, much more convenient to his ministers, and much more useful to the people.”1

If these, too, were Quesnay's motives, he purchased his advantages dearly; for, as will be found, his official position fettered his freedom of action very considerably. He was now over sixty-three years of age, had written nothing on economic subjects except two recent articles, “Fermiers” (1756) and “Grains” (1757), in the Encyclopédie of Diderot, and the courtiers by whom he was surrounded seem to have regarded him as a harmless eccentric with a mania for agricultural science. But there was much in Mirabeau's book of which he approved. “The child,” he wrote on the margin, “has been nursed on bad milk: the strength of his constitution often sets him right in the end, but he has no knowledge of principles.” He expressed a desire to meet the author, and they had an interview, of which Mirabeau, many years later, wrote a graphic and perhaps somewhat fanciful account to Rousseau. Quesnay, he says, showed him that Cantillon had set the plough before the oxen,—that population was not a means to national wealth, but vice versâ. Quesnay sketched his own ideas to the Ami des Hommes, who confesses that, much as he had written, his mind was still swimming in an ocean of uncertainties. He thought the doctor mad, and quitted him. But he came Edition: current; Page: [24] back the same night, renewed the discussion, and was converted into a life-long disciple and friend. Each found in the other the qualities lacking in himself. Quesnay, aged, sententious, oracular, personally retiring, timorous in action, but a hard thinker, who had carved out for himself a consistent theory, —the marquis, young (for all his forty-two years), garrulous, diffuse, egotistic, daring, and imaginative, but unsystematic and incapable of sustained connected thought. As an example of his boldness take the following extract from L'Ami des Hommes, in which the preface declares that he personifies la voix de l'humanity qui réclame ses droits. Sire, he says to the king, regard that class of your subjects which is “the most useful of all, those who see beneath them nothing but their nurse and yours —mother-earth; who stoop unceasingly beneath the weight of the most toilsome labours; who bless you every day, and ask nothing from you but peace and protection. It is with their sweat and (you know it not!) their very blood that you gratify that heap of useless people who are ever telling you that the greatness of a prince consists in the value, and above all, the number of favours he divides among his courtiers, nobility, and companions. I have seen a tax-gathering bailiff cut off the wrist of a poor woman who clung to her saucepan, the last utensil of her household, which she was defending from distraint. What would you have said, great Prince?” Edition: current; Page: [25] etc. etc. This fiery spirit was never quite kept in check by Quesnay's influence, but the energy which lay behind it soon raised up a band of followers for the solitary thinker of Versailles. The school of the Physiocrats dates from this interview in July 1757.

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II

François Quesnay, the founder of the school of the Économistes (or, as they came to be called in later years, the Physiocrates), was born at Méré near Versailles on the 4th of June 1694, the same year as Voltaire, and died at Versailles on the 16th December 1774, the same year as Louis XV. His first published work was Observations sur Us effets de la saignée, 1730, in which he successfully opposed the theories of bleeding of Silva, the leading contemporary medical authority. The reputation of this work led to his selection as Secretary of the Academy of Surgery at Paris, founded 1731. In 1736 he published an Essay physique sur l'économie animale, in 1749 a Traité de la suppuration, and a Traite de la gangrène, and in 1753 a Traité des fiévres continues. Meanwhile defective eyesight had led him to abandon surgery for medicine. In 1749 he had settled at Versailles as physician to Madame de Pompadour. In 1752 he successfully attended the Dauphin for smallpox, and was rewarded by being appointed physician to the king, and given a patent Edition: current; Page: [27] of nobility.1 In 1756 he published an anonymous, metaphysical article on “Évidence”2 in the Encyclopédie, in which appeared the same year his article “Fermiers,” and the following year “Grains,” both over the signature of his son, Quesnay le fils; for the doctor's official position restrained him, as he thought, from publicly writing upon matters of government and administration, and he invariably, throughout his life, published his economical views anonymously or pseudonymously,—sometimes under the name of one of his disciples. The article “Fermiers “begins by balancing with minute detail and intimate knowledge the direct and indirect advantages of using horses or oxen in cultivation, and decides in favour of the former,—the grande culture, as against the petite culture3 Most farmers, Quesnay admits, were too poor to employ horses. The result was a great national loss of wealth. The disastrous poverty of agriculture was mainly due to three causes: (i) the desertion of the children of the peasantry, driven by penury, taille, Edition: current; Page: [28] and milice1 to immigrate into the large towns, whither they brought some of their parents' little capital; (2) the arbitrary taxation which deprived agricultural investors of security in their property; (3) the restrictions which embarrassed the corn trade. It might, he says, be worth while to exempt farmers' sons from the militia, as some of them chose a town life to evade this service. He satirises the view that indigence is a necessary spur to rural industry: hope is a better stimulus than despair, and activity is proportioned to success. He examines the agricultural statistics of the country, of acreage, arable and pasture, live stock, population, production and consumption of corn, the range of prices, expenses of production, and profits. Agriculture was the fundamental industry of the country; liberty and security were its chief requisites. Free trade in corn, permission, and even (as in England) encouragement to export, would greatly diminish fluctuations in annual prices, and conduce to the prosperity of farmers, which would in turn beget further prosperity, and result in higher and more lucrative farming, increased national and individual wealth, a larger and healthier population, and a more flourishing treasury. But, above all, the arbitrary taille was to be given up. Quesnay did not see., he says, how to impose taxation on any just and simple principle; Edition: current; Page: [29] his impôt unique had not yet presented itself to him as the perfect solution of this problem. “La répartition proportionnelle n'est guère possible... II n'est guère possible d'imaginer aucun plan général pour établir une répartition proportionnelle des impositions.” Following, probably, the Abbé de Saint-Pierre's plan of a taille tarifée, he suggested that a personal declaration, somewhat resembling our income tax returns, might be the best basis for assessment But at any rate the taxes should be, as Adam Smith urged some years later, certain, or, in the language of Bentham, cognoscible.

The only writers mentioned in this article are Locke and an agronomic authority, Dupré de Saint Maur. In the next article, “Grains,” we have a much more significant and important exposition of Quesnay's views. For a long time the policy of the Government had been to stimulate manufactures (and especially those of luxuries like silk stuffs), to the detriment of agriculture The people had been forbidden to plant vines, and encouraged to plant mulberry-trees. The true national economic policy was to turn to account the great productive powers of the soil of France, and buy luxuries from abroad —exactly the reverse of what was being attempted. The country would leap into prosperity by good harvests of corn and a free corn trade, at home and abroad. The actual production of corn in the country he estimated as worth about 595,000,000 of livres Edition: current; Page: [30] a year. If properly cultivated, with horses everywhere, the harvests would amount to 1,815,000,000, or more than three times as much; while the surplus, after paying all the costs of production, would be 885,000,000 compared with 178,000,000, or nearly five times the amount1 The details are as follows:—

Actual.Possible.
Landlords..76,500,000400,000,000
Taille...27,000,000165,000,000
Fanners..27,500,000165,000,000
Tithe...50,000,000155,000,000
Cultivation..415,000,000930,000,000
Total (sic)595,000,0001,815,000,000

Agriculture and commerce are regarded as the two resources of wealth in France; but this distinction is, he says, a mere abstraction, for commerce and industry (which is much more considerable than commerce) are but branches of agriculture,—the primary and indispensable source of the other two. The policy of Sully and the “fundamental truths” expressed by Cantillon are praised, the hindrances to viticulture and the wine trade deplored. Large farms, raised to their highest value by well-to-do farmers, are the true basis of prosperity and of a large population. By a rich farmer he means not “a workman who himself tills the soil, but an entrepreneur1Edition: current; Page: [31] who governs and manages his enterprise by his intelligence and his wealth.” “Those who regard the advantages of a large population only as a means of recruiting large armies judge but ill of the strength of a state. The military merely consider men as potential soldiers; but the statesman regrets men destined for war as the landlord regrets land laid out in a ditch to preserve his field. Great armies drain a state, a large population and much wealth make it redoubtable.... Without human labour land has no value. Men, land, and cattle are the primitive wealth of a great state.” The taille, he now suggests, should be based upon the farmer's rent, so as to spare taxation of his means of production, and to enable him to take the taille into account when considering what rent to offer for his farm. This ideal is not easily attained in the present state of affairs, and for that reason he had proposed a different system in his article “Fermiers”; but his new idea might be applied forthwith to farmers on lease, and, though not without difficulty, to metayers. He would not speak of the petty policy attributed to the Government2 of regarding arbitrary taxation Edition: current; Page: [32] as an assured method of keeping its subjects in submission. Conduct so absurd was not to be imputed to great ministers, who all knew how objectionable and ridiculous it would be. The taillables were men of very modest fortune, needing to be encouraged rather than humiliated. The author of the Remarques, contrasting the enlightened policy and the wealth of England with the unwise policy and the poverty of France, had concluded that England had nothing to fear from her neighbour. But let us adopt free trade, says Quesnay, and we shall be as rich as they. We might, indeed, seem to be in danger from the fertile soils of America; but their competition is not much to be dreaded, for their corn is not of such good quality; it deteriorates in the sea-voyage; and they will soon need all their corn themselves.1 Our corn makes better bread, and keeps in better preservation.

Arrived at this point he proceeds to compare the advantages of a foreign corn trade with that of a trade in manufacture, and lays down fourteen maxims of economic government. Of these maxims, each followed by a short explanation, we shall hear Edition: current; Page: [33] again. Like other parts of this article they are steps towards his crowning work, the Tableau Oeconomique. (i) Labour expended in industry (les travaux d'Industries), as opposed to agriculture, does not multiply wealth, though (2) it contributes to population and the increase of wealth, unless (3) it occupies men to the prejudice of agriculture, in which case it has the contrary effect. (4) The wealth of the agriculturist begets agricultural wealth. (5) Industrial labour tends to increase the revenue from the land, and this again supports industry. (6) A nation having a large trade in its raw products can always keep up a relatively large trade in manufactures; but (7) if it have little of the first and is reduced to the second for subsistence, it is in a dangerous and insecure condition. (8) A large internal trade in manufactured articles can only be maintained by the revenue from the land. (9) A nation with a large territory which depreciates its raw products to favour manufactures, destroys itself in all directions. (10) The advantages of external trade do not consist in the increase of money, (11) The balance of trade does not indicate the advantage of trade or the state of wealth of each nation, which is (12) to be judged by both internal and external trade and especially by the first. (13) A nation which extracts from its soil, its men, and its navigation the best possible result needs not grudge the trade of its neighbours, and (14) in reciprocal commerce Edition: current; Page: [34] nations which sell the most useful or necessary commodities have the advantage over those which sell luxuries. Finally, he sums up the measures which Government should take to render the country prosperous: freedom in the production and circulation of goods; the abolition or diminution of tolls on transport; the extinction of local or personal privileges in dues of the same character; the repair of roads and of river communication; the suppression of the arbitrary discretion of private persons in subordinate administrations, so far as the national revenue was concerned. With these reforms progress would be rapid. Under Henri IV. the kingdom, worn out and burdened with debt, soon became a land of wealth and abundance. To persist in the present courses would devastate the country. A hundred years ago there was a population of 24,000,000. In 1700, after forty years of almost continuous war and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, there were still 19,500,000. Today there are but 16,000,000, and many of these in extreme misery. Prices must not be too low, for abundance and inability to sell are not wealth i dearness and penury are misery; abundance and a fair price, normal and continued, are opulence. The export of surplus corn would conduce to this fair price. Something must be done to remedy the “enormous degradation of agriculture and of the population.”

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This is a bold and a statesmanlike programme. If a serious, cautious, and continued effort had been made to carry it out, the subsequent history of France and of the world would not have been what they are. Other articles were to be contributed by Quesnay,— Hommes, Impôt, and Intérêt de largent,—but the Encyclopedic fell under the official ban in 1757, became a secret publication, and Quesnay withdrew his co-operation. The manuscript of the article Hommes was discovered by Dr. Stephan Bauer in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris in 1890. The others are lost.

The article “Grains” shows wider economic reading and deeper thought than the article “Fermiers.” The text is short,—the dissertation comprehensive and far-seeing. It makes mention of Dupre de Saint Maur, the Financier Citoyen,1 D'Angeul's book referred to above (p. 31 n.), Sully, Colbert, Cantillon, and Herbert's Essai sur la police géne'rale des grains, 1755. It contains many indications of Quesnay's later views. But before he next went into print he made, as already described, the acquaintance of Mirabeau, and it was after discussion with that writer that he printed his Tableau Oeconomique in December 1758 at the palace at Versailles. We shall find him inspiring much of the work of other men, notably the Physiocratie of Du Pont, 1767 and 1768, but except some articles in the Journal de F agriculture in 1765 Edition: current; Page: [36] and 1766, and in the Éphémerides du citoyen in 1767 and 1768, he wrote little more that concerns us here; and the Tableau Oeconomique may serve to explain at once the main doctrines of the master and the school.

It is necessary, however, first to return for a moment to the Essai of Cantillon. At page 55 of his Essai Cantillon begins to develop an argument of this kind. If the owners of land shut off their property and allowed no one to labour on the soil, there would be neither food nor clothing available. Every inhabitant of a state is therefore, in a sense, dependent upon the landowner. But since the latter himself desires the means of subsistence he cultivates his land, or lets it out to a farmer, who usually pays him about a third of the product for the use of the soil, retains another third for himself, as profit, and pays the remainder in wages and expenses of cultivation. Now the landlord and the farmer expend part of their shares of the product upon services and commodities furnished by manufacturers, artisans, and other members of society, who are not directly engaged in agriculture. And so it comes about that “the annual produce of the land and labour of the country,” to use the later, favourite phrase of Adam Smith, becomes circulated throughout the community. But the landlords, and especially the sovereign as the largest proprietor, by their modes of living determine the economic activities of the Edition: current; Page: [37] nation. Industries are responsive to, and dependent upon, their demands, their humours, fashions, and style of life. These regulate the uses to which the soil shall be put, and thus determine indirectly the number of inhabitants of the state, which must be limited by the means of subsistence available. Here is the whole theory of the Tableau Oeconomique. Cantillon, with his fine eye for light and shade, characteristically adds (p. 59): “It is true that there are often in the large towns many employers and artisans who subsist by foreign trade, and therefore at the expense of landowners in foreign parts; but at present I am considering a state only with regard to its own produce and its own industry.”

The practical economic problem of contemporary France, as it presented itself to the mind of Quesnay, was of this character. Here is a country, abounding in natural resources, but production is starved in its infancy for lack of capital. Yet capital is only to be obtained by setting it aside out of the fund created by production. If this fund be turned into channels where it is not available for utilisation as producer's capital, the nation is doomed to sterility. How then is wealth distributed throughout the different classes of the nation, and how is a larger portion of it to be diverted from immediate consumption to the benefit of future production? It was clear to him that luxury and extravagance had reached a pitch at which the nation was rapidly impoverishing Edition: current; Page: [38] itself, living above its means and consuming not only its revenue but its capital. To make this intelligible at a glance he designed a chart or table which, so far as rapid intelligibility is concerned, is a ludicrous failure. It occupies one quarto page, and consists of three columns, headed respectively Défenses productives relatives à l'Agriculture, etc., Défenses du Revenue, and Défenses steriles relatives a I'Industrie, etc. He assumes that agriculture “as in England” produces a net product (produit net) or net profit of 100 per cent (in other words a rent of cent per cent) over and above all the expenses of production including farmers' profits. Taking the hypothesis of an employment of 600 livres of capital a year (avances annuelles) in agriculture he attempts to track out the fate of the resulting rent year by year. First of all it goes to the landlord, who spends (it is assumed) half in agricultural produce and half in other expenses (dépenses stériles); and the 600 livres by dotted lines are conveyed, as by divergent streams, from the central column, one-half to the left and one-half to the right The 300 livres which go to the left are again applied to agriculture, and again yield a rent of 100 per cent, or 300 livres (centre column), which is again divided right and left, admitting of a further investment of 150 livres to agriculture, and so on continually. Meanwhile the wealth which has found its way annually to the right of the table in payment for manufactures, lodging, clothing, interest of money, Edition: current; Page: [39] domestic servants, cost of transport, foreign commodities, and generally for everything except the conduct of extractive industry, is divided annually into two portions which are assumed to be equal, of which one is re-expended upon raw material or products of the soil, and is thus reconducted by dotted lines to the column on the left; the other half is consumed “unproductively.” This zic-zac, as Quesnay calls it, was as significant as Lord Burghley's nod in Sheridan's play of The Critic. Whole volumes of political economy were read into it. In a well-known passage, quoted by Adam Smith,1 Mirabeau refers to it as follows: “There have been since the world began, three great inventions which have principally given stability to political societies, independent of many other inventions which have enriched and adorned them. The first is the invention of writing, which alone gives human nature the power of transmitting, without alteration, its laws, its contracts, its annals, and its discoveries. The second is the invention of money, which binds together all the relations between civilised societies. The third is the economical table, the result of the other two, which completes them both by perfecting their object; the great discovery of our age, but of which our posterity will reap the benefit”2

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The Tableau is followed by twelve pages of “explanation,” and this again by a restatement of the Tableau without the crossed and dotted lines. Next come four pages of maxims, twenty-three in number, headed Extrait des Oeconomies Royales de M. de Sully. The “explanation” points out that the effective production of the country turns upon the extent to which the left-hand column is alimented. If a large portion of wealth is annually absorbed by the right-hand column without finding its way back to the left, the national dividend is reduced. “Hence it is seen that excess of decorative luxury may very promptly ruin by magnificence an opulent state.” As Voltaire says, when writing a few years later against the Physiocrats, luxuries and new wants were intensifying a refined misery. “Nous sommes pauvres avec goût”1

Given a wise employment of capital such as is assumed in the table, and granting, as is also assumed, that horses everywhere replace oxen in cultivation, it is estimated that the total capitalised wealth of the country should amount to some 59,000,000,000 of livres, or, allowing for a margin of error, from 55,000 to 60,000 of millions. But all this is conditional further upon the absence of eight great obstacles, — the principal causes of decay of an agricultural nation. These are:—

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  • 1.

    Bad forms of taxation, bearing upon the capital of cultivators.

  • 2.

    Excessive cost of collection of taxes.

  • 3.

    Excessive luxury of decoration.

  • 4.

    Excessive expense in litigation.

  • 5.

    Lack of export trade in raw materials.

  • 6.

    Lack of freedom (a) in internal trade in raw materials and (b) in cultivation.

  • 7.

    Personal harassing of the country people.

  • 8.

    Lack of return of the annual produit net to the category of productive expenses.

The pretended extracts from the Oeconomies royales of Sully are really the Maximes of economic government of the article “Grains” further worked up and developed. They are too succinct to be stated without full quotation and explanation, and only the gist of them can be given in the course of a further brief summary of Quesnay's views. An able commentary upon them will be found in the excellent little volume of Lavergne. Certain bold maxims or principles of government had indeed been laid down by Sully, the favourite minister, chief agent, and almost sole adviser of the most popular monarch who ever sat on the throne of France; and there was in truth much affinity of spirit between the reforming zeal and the predilection for agriculture which characterised alike Sully and the Physiocrats. But it is hardly doubtful that a further motive with Quesnay was his desire to place himself under the ægis of the great rulers of the state in a glorious Edition: current; Page: [42] past To refer again to the Abbé de Saint-Pierre for comparison,—the Abbe's Projet de paixllperpe'tuelle, 3 vols., 1713, was abridged and published in 1728 as: Abrégé du projet de paix perpétuelle inventé par le roi Henri le Grand, etc. To claim the sanction of Henri IV. and of Sully was to disarm much opposition. And as Sully had declared labourage et paturage sont les deux mamelles de la France, so Quesnay too devised an apophthegm for the motto of his Tableau,—-pauvres paysans, pauvre royaume; pauvre royaume, pauvre rot. His desire was to publish the Tableau in the official Mercure de France, but the tactful Pompadour dissuaded him, foreseeing that the form of the Tableau would expose it to ridicule, such as it encountered at the merciless hands of Linguet in 1771.1 It was, therefore, privately printed in the royal palace of Versailles in December 1758.2 Only a few proofs were struck off, and until 1890 it was believed to be extinct, but in that year a copy of it, slightly revised by Quesnay for further proof, was discovered by Dr. Stephan Bauer among the manuscripts of Mirabeau in the Archives Nationales at Paris; and this copy has been reproduced in facsimile by the British Economic Association in honour of Quesnay's bicentenary in 1894. In 1760 Mirabeau printed the Tableau with some modifications in the sixth Edition: current; Page: [43] part of his L'Ami des Hommes, and again in 1763 in the Philosophie Rurale, and in 1767 in the Elements de philosophie rurale. In June 1766 Quesnay published an Analyse du Tableau Économique in the Journal de agriculture, du commerce et des finances; in November 1765 Objections centre le Tableau economique, and in January 1766 Réponse aux objections, both in the same journal. Quesnay's analysis of his Tableau appears also in the Physiocratie (November 1767), dated Leyden, 1768. Baudeau's Explication du Tableau in the Ephemerides, 1767, Quesnay's Maximes, 1775, and the reprints of Forbonnais, Linguet, Daire and Oncken complete the list of reproductions.

We come now to consider Quesnay's views with regard to taxation. Identifying wealth with material objects he opines that the only industry productive of wealth is that which produces raw material. The labours of artisans and craftsmen may be productive of refinement and utility, but do not add anything to the stock of wealth, for they merely change the form of existing material, and the enhanced value of the object upon which their work is expended is simply the equivalent of the payment for their services. In other words, agriculture alone yields a rent (produit net); manufacture yields none, and is stérile—an unfortunate arid ill-chosen expression which did the Physiocrats much mischief. The statesman's aim should be to meet the national expenses out of Edition: current; Page: [44] national revenues, without trenching upon capital. But as the produit net is the only true revenue, so should it be the only corpus to be taxed. All taxation of persons or of manufactured articles must eventually be paid out of this fund. Simplicity, justice, and economy alike, therefore, require that the taxes should be collected at their source. A single, simple, direct tax (impôt unique) should be levied upon land, and should not exceed one-third of the produit net. Landowners and farmers will adjust their burdens by raising the price of raw materials, every consumer of which will thus pay a share of taxation with the minimum of expense for cost of collection, and the whole cumbrous apparatus of existing fiscal machinery will be swept away. To sum up, the Tableau prescribes wise consumption (individuals, classes, and nations should direct their expenditure so far as possible into “productive” channels), taxation (which must fall eventually upon the land) should be directly levied upon, and should not exceed a small proportion of, the annual net production of the soil, and freedom should be allowed to individuals to prosecute the production and circulation of wealth free from let or hindrance on the part of Government.

So much for the economic and financial bearings of Quesnay's teaching. The philosophical foundation on which it seems to rest will be found in his other writings, especially Le Droit Naturel, which is included Edition: current; Page: [45] in the Physiocratie. Every man, he urges, has a natural right to the free exercise of his faculties provided he does not employ them to the injury of himself or others. This right to liberty implies as a corollary the right to property, and the duty of the state to defend it,—in other words security. The guarantee of security is indeed the sole function of the state. To extend it would be to encroach on individual liberty. The state cannot be too strong for this purpose,—any constitutional checks and balance of power would but weaken the central authority. The despotism of the state is to be tempered only by enlightened public opinion, which will revolt against any infraction of natural law, or rather render it impossible. The Dauphin once bemoaned to Quesnay the difficulty of the kingly office, which he was not destined to live to assume. “I do not see,” said Quesnay, “that it is so troublesome.”— “What then,” asked the Dauphin, “would you do if you were king?” — “Nothing.”— “Then who would govern?” and the laconic answer was, “The law.” On another occasion a courtier, seeing the king wearied with the disputes of clergy and parliament, proposed violent measures: “It is the halberd which governs the kingdom.”— “And pray, sir,” asked Quesnay, “who governs the halberd?” His adversary was reduced to silence. “It is opinion,” added the doctor: “therefore it is upon opinion that you must set to work.”

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In Professor Hasbach's opinion Quesnay based his economic views upon a deductive system of philosophy derived from the English writers, Shaftesbury, Locke, and Cumberland. Like them, he appeals to the Law of Nature, but unlike his predecessors (with the exception of Grotius, who had declared for free trade) he extends its sphere beyond religion, politics, and individual life, to the realm of political economy. As Locke was the father of political individualism, so Quesnay was one of the fathers of economic individualism; and his real originality lies in his organic theory of economic life.1 It might be argued that his economic principles were buttressed by, rather than deliberately founded upon, his philosophy; but in the hands of Mercier de la Rivière and others it undoubtedly took on more and more of a philosophical form.

In 1758 Quesnay drew up a table of motives,2 4 pp., 4, somewhat resembling the later work of Bentham, and printed it at Versailles about the same time as the Tableau Oeconomique with which it is uniform in type, paper, and form. The only copy which I have ever seen is in the library of Professor Foxwell at Cambridge, bound up in a volume once the property of Adam Smith, who wrote the Edition: current; Page: [47] name of Quesnay against it in the title-page. It is entitled Observations sur la psychologie, ou science de l'ăme. The versatility of Quesnay's genius is further attested by several writings upon mathematics,1 and in his extreme old age he believed he had solved the problem of squaring the circle. Some analogous belief he may well have held as to the originality and unshakable accuracy of his speculations in economic and financial science; for the exaggerated eulogies of his followers were enough to turn the head of the most modest of men. Exacting from each of his disciples an undertaking not to refer to him by name, and publishing his own views on economics under the anagram of Nisaque, M. H., M. N., M. Alpha, M. de I'Isle, anonymously, or under the sole name of some collaborator, he was the victim of much hyperbolical periphrase for which Mirabeau was usually responsible. He was in turn “the greatest genius of our age,” “the Confucius of Europe,” “the Socrates of our day,” “the Moses of modern times.” Well might Adam Smith say of the Physiocrats, “The admiration of this whole sect for their master, who was himself a man of the greatest modesty and simplicity, is not inferior to that of the ancient philosophers for the founders of their respective systems.”2 He was not without honour in England. Edition: current; Page: [48] The Royal Society elected him a Fellow.1 On the death of Louis XV. he lost his Court favour, lived just long enough to see Turgot's accession to power and commencement of reforms, but died at Versailles the same year, 16th December 1774, before the fall of Turgot, and before the appearance of the Wealth of Nations (both in 1776) which it had been Adam Smith's intention to dedicate to this “very ingenious and profound author,” the “modest and simple” founder of the physiocratic school.2

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III

The artist has not yet arisen who has chosen to paint a great historical picture of the scene which M. de Loménie1 describes as follows:—

“On the 2Oth December 1774, amidst the enthusiastic hopes to which a new reign gave birth, five months after Turgot's entrance into the ministry, a considerable number of persons, attired in mourning, were gathered in the principal room of a townhouse in the Rue Vaugirard [at Paris]. At the end of the room had been placed a large pedestal surmounted by a marble bust, and the whole assembly being turned towards this bust in an attitude of sorrow and respect, the master of the house pronounced a speech of a rather odd character, especially for the epoch.” “Gentlemen,” began the orator, “we have just lost our master; the veritable benefactor of humanity belongs to this earth only by the memory of his good deeds and the imperishable record of his Edition: current; Page: [50] achievements,” He goes on to declare that Socrates1 had been said to have drawn down morality from heaven. Their master had done more, he had made it germinate upon earth. Religion was a solace and a ruling power only to a few elevated souls. The terrestrial guide of conduct based upon the produit net appealed to the reason and intelligence of every man, persuading him by the enlightened pursuit of self-interest to promote the welfare of mankind at large. The speaker, now left, he says, the leader of the band, appeals to his hearers to carry on their immortal founder's work, and further the progress of “the science which shall one day render societies peaceful and prosperous, and men reasonable and virtuous.” And he concludes by apostrophising the bust on which they gazed: “O venerable bust, that represents to us the features of our master,”2 etc. The silent bust which looked down upon this somewhat theatrical mise en scène was that of Quesnay. The extravagant and stilted eloquence, its pomp redeemed by sincerity and affection, was the characteristic language of the Friend of Humanity, the Marquis of Mirabeau, refraining, even now, with pious fidelity, from speaking Edition: current; Page: [51] the doctor's name. We can guess who were many of the disciples gathered round, but none of them was so popular or authoritative an exponent of physiocracy as Mirabeau himself, and several of them were his own proselytes. His indefatigable industry and ardent zeal had spread the fame of the Physiocrats and their system through all the countries of Europe.1 He brought to the service of Quesnay in 17 5 7 a literary reputation already firmly and widely established, a considerable amount of social influence, and valuable resources of time and energy, as well as of money. The history of his family—a “tempestuous race,” he himself confesses — is, as recounted by M. de Lomenie, one of the most striking and fascinating in the whole range of biographical literature, and is not without importance for the student of his works. He was born on the 4th October 1715, the year of the death of Louis XIV., and died on the 13th July 1789, the day before the storming of the Bastille. His life thus coincides with what is usually regarded as the inception and the triumph of the French Revolution. After serving with bravery in the army, he succeeded, in 1737, when only twenty-two years of age, to his father's title and estates, and gave up the profession of arms. He seems early to have cherished the ambition of becoming a great philosophical statesman, and of aggrandising the honour Edition: current; Page: [52] and power of his own family. He married a wife whose great expectations, her only recommendation, became a veritable apple of discord. When her unspeakable misconduct, approaching—if not overstepping—the bounds of madness, and the sensational follies of his famous but dissolute and spendthrift son, wounded his family pride, he acted with the despotism of a Highland chief smarting under a sense of dishonour to his clan. But in 1757 these troubles were yet to come. He had been the friend of Vauvenargues and an acquaintance of Montesquieu. The system of government appeared to him hopelessly unsuited to the needs of the nation, and far better than most of his contemporaries he saw the real power which lay dormant in the people—the force of numbers. “He was,” says Victor Hugo, “at once in advance of and behind his age.” “He presents in himself,” says de Tocqueville, “the spectacle of a feudal character invaded by democratic ideas.” He had argued in the first part of L'Ami des Hommes for a multiplication of small peasant proprietors; but he allowed Quesnay to persuade him that the true ideal was the maximising of the produit net of the country, which was to be better achieved by an economical exploitation of land on the larger scale. He had also urged, following Cantillon, that imports of corn should be encouraged and exports discouraged; but, as we have seen, this too was in opposition to Quesnay's views, for the Edition: current; Page: [53] doctor considered such a course, in the long-run, inimical to a large food supply, since low prices of corn would discourage its national production. But while giving way upon these points he remained the most independent member of the school. Utilising the popularity acquired by L'Ami des Hommes, he proceeded, after allying himself with Quesnay, to publish continuations of the work (part 4, no imprint, 4to and 12mo, 1758; parts 5 and 6, do. do., 1760), making a whole of three quarto or six duodecimo volumes. In these later parts the cooperation of Quesnay is evident. Part 4 contains a Dialogue entre le Surintendant D'O. et L.D.H., a reprint of the Mémoire sur les États provinciaux, with a reply to an anonymous criticism of Naveau's, and a series of (separately paged) Questions interessantes sur la Population, I'Agriculture, et le Commerce proposées aux Academies et autres sociétés sçavantes des Provinces, asking for local information upon agricultural conditions, and also suggesting some general considerations somewhat in the style of Berkeley's Querist. These questions, the reader is informed, are not by the author of the Mémoire sur les États provinciaux.1 The 5th part contains the essay which Mirabeau had written for the prize of the Berne Agricultural Society in 1759, on the reasons why Switzerland should give preference to the cultivation Edition: current; Page: [54] of corn. The essay is followed by extracts from the first six books of an English work (translated from T. Hale's Compleat Body of Husbandry, 1756). The 6th part consists of a Réponse a l'Essai sur les ponts et Chaussés, La Voierie, et Les Coru/es, and of the Tableau Oeconomique avec ses explications. In the same year with this later part, 1760, appeared his Théarie de l'Impôt 4to and 12 mo, without imprint, which immediately had an enormous vogue. It was a spirited and able attack upon the financial administration of the country, and especially upon the farmers-general, whom Mirabeau regarded as parasites preying upon the vitals of the nation.1 The tax-gatherer is never a welcome visitor, even when he is the direct representative of local or central authority; but when he presents himself in the guise of a speculator whose personal profit or loss turns upon the amount of taxation he can collect, whose agents have no bowels of compassion, no willingness to hear or ability to accept excuse or appeal, and who violate the public conscience by relentless severity, while their employer is seen to be making a considerable fortune at the public expense, then indeed an outcry against him will awaken innumerable echoes, and the Théorie de l'mpôt spread like wildfire. “Seigneur,” begins the author, with an address to the king— “Seigneur! you have 20,000,000 of subjects, Edition: current; Page: [55] more or less,1 all with a little money, and almost all capable of rendering you such service as you require; and yet you can no longer obtain service without money, nor money to pay for service In plain language your people are holding back from you, without knowing it, for they are still well disposed to your person even though they be not to the agents of your authority.” And he puts into the mouth of the king the soliloquy that his position as the head of his people is justified only so long as, and only because, he costs them less than he is worth to them. This remorseless test, “Are you worth what you cost?” must have been like acid to a raw wound, for the colonial empire was falling to pieces, and within a year the French had been driven out of Canada and of India. He makes the king add: “Where my people loses its rights, there is the limit of my empire.” Taxes are really of the nature of voluntary offerings rather than forced contributions. The sovereign has not the right to tax his subjects without their participation and assent, and the collection of taxes should be handed over to the representatives of the people themselves.2 The powerful financial interest, fastening upon such passages, where exhortation is mingled with barely-veiled Edition: current; Page: [56] menace, denounced the Ami des Hommes to the king, who caused him to be imprisoned (16th December 1760) in the chateau of Vincennes, which was afterwards to receive the author's son. The anger of the king was mollified by Madame de Pompadour1 and Mirabeau's friends, and on Christmas Eve he allowed him to be liberated under orders to reside at his property at Bignon and not in Paris. This sharp reminder of the limits of freedom kept the Physiocrats silent, though not inactive, for two and a half years. In 1763 Mirabeau made a convert of Du Pont de Nemours, who, writing in 1769 of the Théorie de lʼnImpôt

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