French Liberal Economics, 1695–1776

france just sentiments economic liberalism

Benoît Malbranque for AdamSmithWorks

Laissez faire, laissez passer. The history of economic liberalism in France from 1695 to 1776 shares a common legacy with other European countries and is a rich and understudied source of economic reasoning.

"Economic liberalism was formulated over several generations of intellectuals across Europe. The contribution of France was especially valuable from the year 1695."

June 28, 2023
Economic liberalism was formulated over several generations of intellectuals across Europe. The contribution of France was especially valuable from the year 1695.
At that time, for reasons historic and geographic, a centralized and warrior state, greedy for taxes, had risen in France. Under Louis XIV, extreme luxury in Versailles offered a striking contrast to the grimy and endemic misery of the countryside, which only worsened during times of extreme weather and bad harvests, like in 1695.
Some exceptional figures not only offered practical solutions, primarily tax reform, but ventured into economic principles. In his peculiar prose, Pierre de Boisguilbert argued for the urgency of abolishing the current tax system, said to be arbitrary and disastrous, but he also examined the unintended consequences of such measures as trade barriers and price control on grain. Boisguilbert allowed that such measures might have been well-intended. He maintained, however, that they were nonetheless oppressive by their very nature. He then explained how freedom and competition could produce a state of harmony and general prosperity. A summary of his economic ideas can be found in his motto, “let nature run its course.” He moved to erect the principle of non-intervention into a system of public policy (Boisguilbert 1695, 1705).
Around the same time, Marshal Vauban, a military man, inspired both by an interest in statistics and a real love for humanity, similarly understood the disincentive nature of arbitrary taxation. He advocated the elimination of virtually all taxes in favor of a single flat-rate contribution based on several sort of revenues (Vauban 1707).
The economic themes of Vauban and Boisguilbert were amplified by such authors as the abbot de Saint-Pierre, a lover of peace and humanity, who devoted himself to the continuous improvement of society. Saint-Pierre authored numerous proposals that he termed “projects,” which were later appreciated by Gustave de Molinari (Molinari 1857). Throughout these proposals of Saint-Pierre, one finds clear expression of many economic principles such as that trade, operating freely, is positive-sum (Saint-Pierre 1733, vol. 5, 173).
The influence of these early figures was, however, limited. Saint-Pierre was called a dreamer, Boisguilbert a madman, and Vauban was harassed until his death. Ministers remained deaf and blind to the new perspectives on commerce. They sought expedients and proposed new forms of economic controls. One, introduced by John Law, resulted in a collapse—the so-called Mississippi Bubble (1718-1720)—that encouraged able minds to enquire into its causes and beyond.
Jean-François Melon and the mysterious Du Tot analyzed, in treatises of wider scope, the effects of the debasement of money, which played a key role in the collapse of Law’s scheme. Richard Cantillon—born in Ireland, he became French in 1708—offered one of the very first systems of economic reasoning, in which entrepreneurship, private property and individual initiative were key (Cantillon 1755). Economic discussions were becoming popular. In the middle of the 18th century, Montesquieu examined economic affairs with his usual superior point of view, but offered principles sometimes unsound and unaligned with the liberal line.
In the meantime, other Europeans countries had made significant progress, both in economic development and in economic discourse. Seeing France falling behind, Vincent de Gournay organized a large translation effort involving a group of literary men. He undertook translations himself, wrote occasionally, and invited others to write and publish. Two of his memorials against the exclusionary privileges of guilds have been translated into English (Gournay 1753). While his appeals remained, like Cantillon’s and Melon’s, rooted in mercantilist rhetoric about national greatness and power, Gournay nonetheless promoted the complete freedom of work, over against the guild system. His pupils, Turgot and Morellet would remember him fondly as a teacher of laissez-faire (Turgot, 1759; Morellet 1821, I, 36-37).
The brilliance of the marquis d’Argenson, like that of Gournay, can only be measured retrospectively. D’Argenson wrote memorials and several volumes of journal notes, which were rediscovered much later; similarly, his main work on government (Considérations sur le gouvernement), first disseminated in a manuscript form, was published only after his death. If, with his great sense of humanity, he echoed his old mentor Saint-Pierre in some respects, his economic principles were sharper and more radical: non-intervention, complete free-trade, and a limited government. Free competition, he argues, will ensure a degree of common prosperity that government planning can never achieve (d’Argenson 1742; d’Argenson 1765, 185; d’Argenson 1751, 109-110; d’Argenson 1765, 41). Without knowing each other personally, Gournay and d’Argenson found themselves in agreement (d’Argenson 1755).
While Boisguilbert, Vauban, and Saint-Pierre each spoke out as somewhat isolated voices, the common effort of Gournay, d’Argenson, and others fostered a current of lively liberal discourse. Once very rare, economic publications had become common and widespread.
During the early 1750s, the doctor François Quesnay, alone in Versailles, discontinued his study of medicine for that of political economy. In 1756, the marquis de Mirabeau obtained great celebrity with his curious book L’Ami des Hommes, and from 1757 onwards, Quesnay and Mirabeau join forces. Dupont, Baudeau, Le Trosne, and many others, soon after joined their cause.
In the early 1760s, such figures recognized the urgency of disseminating this new science; they gathered and joined forces. Due to a great variety of backgrounds, personalities and even ideas, the so-called physiocrat school was really a plural society with blurry boundaries. The term “physiocracy” was not significant to the group at the time, and the subsequent employment of that label by intellectual historians and commentators is cause for regret.
Quesnay was an old man, as though a grandparent to young men in the set like Dupont de Nemours; Mirabeau was an aristocrat, and Roubaud a self-made man from very humble roots. Quesnay entered political economy as a doctor, Dupont as a poet, Abeille and Le Trosne as lawyers.
If we go beyond Quesnay’s Tableau Économique and the debate on the exclusive productivity of lands (and waters), which is mainly a verbal matter, these economists put forward some key principles. They described theoretically why central direction fails (Abeille 1763, 13-14; Abeille 1768, 45; Le Trosne 1768b, 15-19 et 52; Mirabeau 1768; Turgot 1773). They argue that, in a system of free competition, self-interest will be a driving force bringing common prosperity (Mirabeau 1763, 50; Le Mercier de la Rivière 1767, 33, 35; Le Trosne 1768a, 193-194; Le Trosne 1768b, 36-37).
The conclusion of their studies and works is usually quite radical. They present it using the famous words “laissez faire, laissez passer,” that is: Do not restrict economic activity (Baudeau 1771, 208-209; Le Trosne 1768b, 158, 168). Having little taste for compromise, they argue for “complete,” “unlimited,” “full and comprehensive” freedom of trade (Abeille 1768, 55;Le Trosne 1768a, 155; Le Trosne 1768b, 9). Their view on the role of government is that it should be minimal (Le Trosne 1768, 58-59; Le Trosne 1777, 69-70). Le Trosne, a rather overlooked figure, leads the fight against “monopolies of every sort, of every size, of every aspect and color” (Le Trosne 1766, 23). He argues that free trade, even unilaterally, is beneficial.
One can only regret the lack of a proper treatise on economics in their common legacy. Quesnay was working and living in the palace of Versailles, and could not have dreamt of it—besides, his mental abilities were declining; Turgot was in government and found the time to pen only a “sketch.” The sort of economic journalism of Dupont, Baudeau, Abeille and Le Trosne can be explained by their conviction that “a science as new and as far-reaching as economics can only be treated at first part by part” (Le Trosne 1767). This mindset gave rise to a diffuse array of writings, whose access today is difficult, although rewarding. For example, in 1907, Gustave Schelle (355) compared the forgotten Le Trosne to Bastiat himself. Le Trosne wrote some delightful pieces, such as the “Request of the Carriers of Orléans,” which, three-quarter of a century before the “Petition of the Candlemakers,” is similarly an instructive mockery (Le Trosne 1765b; Le Trosne 1766, 246; Le Trosne 1768a, 126).
Alongside the circle that has come to be termed “the physiocrats” were men defending similar ideas, fellow travelers, including Morellet, Turgot, Condillac, Condorcet, and Chastellux. The abbot Morellet was introduced to political economy before the rise of the physiocrats, and he outlived all of them; yet his economic works are as fragmentary as theirs. He engaged into a large but never completed Dictionary of Commerce, and started translating Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations without ever finishing. Many of his publications on economics are filled, nonetheless, with great insights, like the well-named Fragment of a Letter on the Grain Trade Question (Morellet 1764). In another rushed publication, he advanced a rights-based defense of liberalism (Morellet 1770, 103-104), and fellow liberal economists likewise mounted ethical arguments for liberty (Abeille 1765, 33; Le Trosne 1768b, 116).
Turgot’s brilliance flashed in writings of a life busy and cut short at age 54. In the middle of a tiring enquiry he was conducting in his province, he wrote some insightful letters on the freedom of trade in just three weeks, (Dupont 1808, vol. 6, 119; Condorcet 1786, 49). Similarly, he prepared some Reflexions on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth to be distributed to two Chinese who were travelling back to their country. What would he have published if he had moved in with his mother and meditated ten years by the warm chimney?
In 1776, at last, liberal economic thought in France, scattered but remarkable, found expression in a treatise on economics. In a letter addressed to lord Shelburne, dated April 12th 1776, and alongside which was sent a copy of the new book, “filled with good reasoning,” by Condillac, Le Commerce et le Gouvernement (On commerce and government), Morellet explains that he has just received the first volume of Adam Smith, where there are also very good principles, amidst developments “perhaps rather long,” a sign of an ill that he calls “scotish subtilty” (Morellet 1776). There finally appeared, on both side of the Channel, major statements of thinking advanced by many generations of economists across Europe.
The history of economic liberalism in France from 1695 to 1776 deserves a single treatment, large and colorful. Without question there is a common legacy, a rich French source to what Peter Boettke calls the historic mainline of economic thought—the liberal line. A large treatment of the French wellsprings would unfold powerful economic reasoning, but also communicate a mindset of humanity, tolerance, and openness.

Benoît Malbranque, a research fellow at Institut Coppet, is studying French classical liberalism. He is the author of Les théoriciens français de la liberté humaine (Institut Coppet, 2020). He is currently working on an online, multi-volume encyclopedia of French classical liberalism, made possible by the Institut Coppet.

This essay is part of the AdamSmithWorks series Just Sentiments curated by Daniel B. Klein and Erik Matson. New essays will be published on the fourth Wednesday of the month. You can read more about the series in this Speaking of Smith post, "Just Sentiments- Welcome!". Klein and Matson lead the Adam Smith Program in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, in association with the Mercatus Center. In the program, they study big ideas in jurisprudence, politics, ethics, and economics as they were pursued during the original arc of liberalism, especially in the 18th century in Britain.

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