III. THE PHYSIOCRATS

In an apartment at Versailles, under the rooms and the favoring eye of Mme. de Pompadour, that economic theory took form which was to stir and mold the Revolution, and shape the capitalism of the nineteenth century.

The French economy had been struggling to grow despite the swaddling clothes of regulations—by guilds and Colbert—and the Midas myth of a mercantilism that mistook gold for wealth. To increase exports, diminish imports, and take the “favorable balance” in silver and gold as a prop of political and military power, France and England had subjected their national economies to a mesh of rules and restraints helpful to economic order but harming production by hampering innovation, enterprise, and competition. All this—said men like Gournay, Quesnay, Mirabeau père, Du Pont de Nemours, and Turgot—was quite contrary to nature; man is by nature acquisitive and competitive; and if his nature is freed from unnecessary trammels he will astonish the world with the quantity, variety, and excellence of his products. So, said these “physiocrats,” let nature (in Greek, physis) rule (kratein); let men invent, manufacture, and trade according to their natural instincts; or, as Gournay is said to have said, laissez faire—“let him do” as he himself thinks best. The famous phrase was already old, for about 1664, when Colbert asked businessman Legendre, “What should we [the government] do to help you?” he answered, “Nous laisser faire—let us do it, let us alone.”30

Jean-Claude Vincent de Gournay was the first clear voice of the physiocrats in France. Doubtless he knew of the protests that Boisguillebert and Vauban had made to Louis XIV against the stifling restrictions laid upon agriculture under the feudal regime. He was so impressed by Sir Josiah Child’s Brief Observations Concerning Trade and Interest (1668) that he translated it into French (1754); and presumably he had read Richard Cantillon’s Essay on the Nature of Commerce (c. 1734) in its French form (1755). Some would date from this last book the birth of economics as a “science”—a reasoned analysis of the sources, production, and distribution of wealth. “Land,” said Cantillon, “is the source or material from which wealth is extracted,” but “human labor is the form which produces wealth”; and he defined wealth not in terms of gold or money, but as “the sustenance, conveniences, and comforts of life.”31 This definition was itself a revolution in economic theory.

Gournay was a well-to-do merchant operating at first (1729-44) in Cadíz. After extensive business dealings in England, Germany, and the United Provinces, he settled in Paris, and was appointed intendant du commerce (1751). Traveling through France on tours of inspection, he observed at first hand the restraints put by guild and governmental regulations upon economic enterprise and exchange. He left no written formulation of his views, but they were summarized after his death (1759) by his pupil Turgot. He urged that existing economic regulations should be reduced, if not removed; every man knows better than the government what procedure best favors his work; when each is free to follow his interest more goods will be produced, wealth will grow.32

There are laws unique and primeval, founded on nature alone, by which all existing values in commerce balance one another and fix themselves at a determined price, just as bodies left to their own weight arrange themselves according to their specific gravity;33

that is, values and prices are determined by the relations of supply and demand, which in turn are determined by the nature of man. Gournay concluded that the state should intervene in the economy only to protect life, liberty, and property, and to stimulate, with distinctions and awards, the quantity and quality of production. M. Trudaine, heading the Bureau of Commerce, accepted these doctrines, and Turgot gave them the force of his eloquence and acknowledged probity.

François Quesnay followed a slightly different physiocratic line. Son of a landed proprietor, he never lost his interest in land, though he was trained to be a physician. He made a fortune by his skill in medicine and surgery, and rose to be physician to Mme. de Pompadour and the King (1749). In his rooms at Versailles he gathered a coterie of heretics—Duclos, Diderot, Buffon, Helvétius, Turgot … ; there they discussed everything freely except the King, whom they dreamed of transforming into an “enlightened despot” as the agent of peaceful reform. Immersed in the Age of Reason, Quesnay felt that the time had come to apply reason to economics. Though he was a self-confident dogmatist in his works, he was in person a kindly soul, distinguished by integrity in an immoral milieu.

In 1750 he met Gournay, and soon became more interested in economics than in medicine. Under careful pseudonyms he contributed essays to the Encyclopédie of Diderot. His article “Farms” ascribed their desertion to high taxes and conscription. The article “Grains” (1757) noted that small farms were incapable of profitably using the most productive methods, and [ favored large plantations managed by “entrepreneurs”—an anticipation of the agricultural mammoths of our time. The government should improve roads, rivers, and canals, remove all tolls on transportation, and free the products of agriculture from all restraints of trade.

In 1758 Quesnay published a Tableau économique that became the basic manifesto of the physiocrats. Though printed by the government press in the Palace of Versailles under the supervision of the King, it condemned luxury as a wasteful use of wealth that might have been employed to produce greater wealth. In Quesnay’s view only the products of the earth constituted ; wealth. He divided society into three classes: a classe productive, of farmers, miners, and fishermen; a classe disponible— persons available for military or administrative offices; and a classe stérile— artisans who work up the products of the earth into useful objects, and tradesmen who bring the products to the consumer. Since taxes laid upon the second or third class ultimately (in Quesnay’s view) fall upon the owners of land, the most scientific and convenient impost would be a single tax (impôt unique) upon the annual net profit of each parcel of land. Taxes should be collected directly by the state, never by private financiers (fermiers généraux) . The government should be an absolute and hereditary monarchy.

Quesnay’s proposals now seem to be vitiated by their underestimation of labor, industry, commerce, and art, but to some of his contemporaries they appeared as an illuminating revelation. The most colorful of his followers, Victor Riqueti, Marquis de Mirabeau, thought that the Tableau économique rivaled writing and money as among the noblest inventions of history. Born in 1715, dying in 1789, the Marquis precisely spanned the age of Voltaire. He inherited a comfortable estate, lived like a lord, wrote like a democrat, entitled his first book L’Ami des hommes, ou Traitéde la population (1756), and earned the name he had taken, “Friend of Mankind.” After publishing his chef-d’oeuvre he came under the influence of Quesnay; he revised his book accordingly, and enlarged it into a six-volume treatise that went through forty editions and shared in preparing the mind of France for 1789.

The Marquis was not as disturbed by human multiplication as Malthus was to be in 1798. He held that a nation is made great by a large population, and that this is made possible by “men multiplying like rats in a barn if they have the means of subsistence”34—as we still see. He concluded that every encouragement should be given to those who grow food. The unequal distribution of wealth, he thought, discourages food production, for the estates of the rich take up land that could be fertile farms. Mirabeau’s preface told the King that the peasants were

the most productive class 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 labors; 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 number … of favors that he divides among his courtiers. I have seen a tax-gathering bailiff cut off the hand of a poor woman who clung to her saucepan, the last utensil of the household, which she was defending from distraint. What would you have said, great prince?35

In Théorie de l’impôt (1760) the revolutionary Marquis attacked the tax-collecting farmers general as parasites preying upon the vitals of the nation. The angry financiers persuaded Louis XV to imprison him in the Château de Vincennes (December 16, 1760); Quesnay induced Mme. de Pompadour to intercede; Louis released the Marquis (December 25), but ordered him to remain on his estate at Le Bignon. Mirabeau made a virtue of necessity by studying agriculture-at first hand and in 1763 he issued philosophie rurale, “the most comprehensive treatise on economics prior to Adam Smith.”36 Grimm called it “the Pentateuch of the [physiocratic] sect.”37

Altogether this unique Marquis wrote forty books, right up to his dying year—all despite the trouble given him by his son, whom in desperation he sent to prison as a measure of safety for both. Like that son he was violent and dissolute, married for money, charged his wife with adultery, let her return to her parents, and took a mistress. He denounced lettres de cachet as intolerable tyranny, and later prevailed upon the ministry to issue fifty of them to help him discipline his family.38

We find it hard to realize today the commotion raised by the publications of the physiocrats, and the ardor of their campaigns. Quesnay’s disciples looked up to him as the Socrates of economics; they submitted their writings to him before going to print, and in many cases he contributed to their books. In 1767 Lemercier de la Rivière, sometime governor of Martinique, issued what Adam Smith considered “the most distinct and best connected account of the doctrine,”39 L’Ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques.In economic relations (ran the argument) there are laws corresponding to those that Newton found in the universe; economic ills arise from ignorance or violation of those laws.

Do you wish a society to attain the highest degree of wealth, population, and power? Trust, then, its interests to freedom, and let this be universal. By means of this liberty (which is the essential element of industry) and the desire to enjoy—stimulated by competition and enlightened by experience and example—you are guaranteed that everyone will always act for his own greatest possible advantage, and consequently will contribute with all the power of his particular interest to the general good, both to the ruler and to every member of the society.40

Pierre-Samuel du Pont summed up the gospel in Physiocratie (1768), which gave the school its historic name. Du Pont spread the theory also in two periodicals whose influence was felt all the way from Sweden to Tuscany. He served as inspector general of manufactures under Turgot, and fell with Turgot’s fall (1776). He helped to negotiate with England the treaty that recognized American independence (1783). He was elected to the Assembly of Notables (1787) and the Constituent Assembly (1789). There, to distinguish him from another member called Du Pont, he was called Du Pont de Nemours, from the town that he represented. Having opposed the Jacobins, he was endangered by their rise to power; in 1799 he exiled himself to America. He returned to France in 1802, but in 1815 he made his final home in the United States, where he founded one of America’s most famous families.

On the face of it the physiocratie doctrine appeared to favor feudalism, since feudal lords still owned, or drew feudal dues from, at least a third of the land of France. But they—who had paid hardly any taxes before 1756—were appalled at the notion that all taxes should fall upon the landowners; nor could they accept the removal of feudal tolls on the transport of goods through their domains. The middle classes, which were thinking of new dignities, resented the idea that they were a sterile, unproductive, part of the nation. And the philosophes, though mostly agreeing with the physiocrats about relying on the King as an agent of reform, could not accompany them in making peace with the Church.41 David Hume, who visited Quesnay in 1763, thought the physiocrats “the most chimerical and arrogant set of men to be found nowadays since the destruction of the Sorbonne.”42 Voltaire lampooned them (1768) in L’Homme aux quarante écus (The Man with Forty Crowns).43 In 1770 Ferdinando Galiani, an Italian habitué of d’Holbach’s “synagogue” of atheists, issued Dialoghi sul commercio dei grani, which Diderot in that same year translated into French. Voltaire said that Plato and Molière must have joined in writing this excellent contribution to the already “dismal science” of economics. Galiani ridiculed with Parisian wit the physiocratie notion that only the land produces wealth. To free the trade in grains from all regulation would (he argued) ruin the farmers of France, and could produce a famine at home while clever merchants exported French grain to other states. This is precisely what happened in 1768 and 1775.

A story tells how Louis XV asked Quesnay what he would do if he were king. “Nothing,” answered Quesnay. “Who, then, would govern?” “The laws”44—by which the physiocrat meant the “laws” inherent in the nature of man and governing supply and demand. The King agreed to try them. On September 17, 1754, his ministry abolished all tolls and restraints on the sale and transport of grains—wheat, rye, and corn—within the kingdom; in 1764 this freedom was extended to the export of grains except when these should reach a stated price. Left to the operation of supply and demand, the price of bread dropped for a time, but a bad harvest in 1765 raised it far beyond normal. The shortage of grains reached the famine stage in 1768-69; peasants grubbed for food in pigsties, and ate weeds and grass. In a parish of 2,200 souls 1,800 begged for bread. The people complained that while they faced starvation, speculators were exporting grain. Critics charged the government with profiting from the operations of thesemonopoleurs in a “Pacte de Famine,” and this bitter variation on the Pacte de Famille of 1761 rang through subsequent years to accuse even the kindly Louis XVI of benefiting from the high price of bread. Some officials were apparently guilty, but Louis XV was not. He had commissioned certain dealers to buy grain in good years, store it, and put it on the market in years of scarcity; but when this was sold it was at prices too high for the impoverished to pay. The government took tardy remedial measures; it imported grain and distributed it to the neediest provinces. The public clamored for restoration of state control over the trade in grain; the Parlement joined in the demand; it was at this juncture that Voltaire published his L’Homme aux quarante écus. The government yielded; on December 23, 1770, the edicts permitting free trade in grain were revoked.

Despite this setback, physiocratic notions made their way, at home and abroad. An edict of 1758 had established free trade in wool and woolen products. Adam Smith visited Quesnay in 1765, was attracted by his “modesty and simplicity,” and was confirmed in his own predilection for economic liberty. He judged “the capital error of this system … to lie in its representing the class of artificers, manufacturers, and merchants as altogether barren and unproductive,” but he concluded that “this system, with all its imperfections, is perhaps the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published on the subject of political economy.”45 The ideas of the physiocrats accorded well with the desire of England—already the greatest exporter among the nations—to reduce export and import dues. The doctrine that wealth would grow faster under freedom from governmental restrictions on production and distribution found sympathetic hearing in Sweden under Gustavus III, in Tuscany under Grand Duke Leopold, in Spain under Charles III. Jefferson’s affection for a government that governed least was in part an echo of physiocratic principles. Henry George acknowledged the influence of the physiocrats on his advocacy of a single tax falling upon realty.46 The philosophy of free enterprise and trade charmed the American business class, and gave an added stimulus to the rapid development of industry and wealth in the United States. In France the physiocrats provided a theoretical basis for freeing the middle classes from feudal and legal impediments to domestic trade and political advancement. Before Quesnay died (December 16, 1774) he had the comfort of seeing one of his friends made controller general of finance; and had he lived fifteen years more he would have seen the triumph of many physiocratic ideas in the Revolution.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!