Was Turgot a physiocrat? His rich and diverse background repels every label. He came of an old family—“une bonne race” Louis XV called it—which had through generations filled with distinction important posts. His father was a councilor of state and prévôt des marchands— the highest administrative office in Paris. His older brother was maître des requêtes (secretary for petitions and claims), and a leading member, of the Parlement of Paris. As a younger son, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot was intended for the priesthood. In the Collège Louis-le-Grand, in the Seminary of St.-Sulpice, and in the Sorbonne he passed all tests with credit, and at the age of nineteen he became Abbé de Brucourt. He learned to read Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, German, and English, and to speak the last three of these languages fluently. In 1749 he was elected a prior of the Sorbonne, and in that capacity he delivered lectures two of which made a stir beyond the ramparts of theology.
In July, 1750, he addressed the Sorbonne in Latin on “The Advantages that the Establishment of Christianity Has Conferred upon the Human Race”: it had rescued antiquity from superstition, had preserved many arts and sciences, and had presented to mankind the liberating conception of a law of justice transcending all human prejudices and interests. “Could one hope for this from any other principle than religion? … The Christian religion alone has … brought to light the rights of humanity.”47 There is an echo of philosophy in this piety; apparently the young prior had read Montesquieu and Voltaire, with some effect upon his theology.
In December, 1750, he addressed the Sorbonne with a Tableau philosophique des progrès successifs de l’esprit humain. This historic enunciation of the new religion of progress was a remarkable performance for a youth of twenty-three. Anticipating Comte—perhaps following Vico—he divided the history of the human mind into three stages: theological, metaphysical, and scientific:
Before man understood the causal connection of physical phenomena, nothing was so natural as to suppose they were produced by intelligent beings, invisible, and resembling themselves. … When philosophers recognized the absurdity of these fables about the gods, but had not yet gained an insight into natural history, they thought to explain the causes of phenomena by abstract expressions such as essences and faculties.... It was only at a later period that, by observing the reciprocal mechanical action of bodies, hypotheses were formed which could be developed by mathematics and verified by experience.48
Animals, said this brilliant youth, know no progress; they remain the same from generation to generation; but man, by having learned to accumulate and transmit knowledge, is able to improve the tools by which he deals with his environment and enriches his life. As long as this accumulation and transmission of knowledge and technology continues, progress is inevitable, though it may be interrupted by natural calamities and the vicissitudes of states. Progress is not uniform, nor is it universal; some nations advance while others retreat; art may stand still while science moves on; but the sum of the movement is forward. For good measure Turgot predicted the American Revolution: “Colonies are like fruit, which clings to the tree only until it is ripe. By becoming self-sufficient, they do what Carthage did, what America will sometime do.”49
Inspired by the idea of progress, Turgot, while still in the Sorbonne, planned to write a history of civilization. Only his notes for some sections of the project survive; from these it appears that he had intended to include the history of language, religion, science, economics, sociology, and psychology as well as the rise and fall of states.50 His father’s death having left him an adequate income, he determined, late in 1750, to leave the ecclesiastical career. A fellow abbé protested, and promised him rapid advancement, but Turgot replied, according to Du Pont de Nemours, “I cannot condemn myself to wear a mask throughout my life.”51
He had taken only minor orders, and was free to enter a political career. In January, 1752, he became substitute attorney general, and in December counselor in the Parlement; in 1753 he bought the office of maître des requêtes, in which he won a reputation for industry and justice. In 1755-56 he accompanied Gournay on tours of inspection in the provinces; now he learned economics by direct contact with farmers, merchants, and manufacturers. Through Gournay he met Quesnay, and through him Mirabeau père, Du Pont de Nemours, and Adam Smith. He never listed himself as of the physiocratic school, but his money and his pen were main supports of Du Pont’s magazine, Éphémérides.
Meanwhile (1751) his mind and manners won him welcome in the salons of Mme. Geoffrin, Mme. de Graffigny, Mme. du Deffand, and Mlle. de Lespinasse. There he met d’Alembert, Diderot, Helvétius, d’Holbach, and Grimm. One early result of these contacts was his publication (1753) of two Lettres sur la tolérance. To Diderot’s Encyclopédie he contributed articles on existence, etymology, fairs, and markets, but when the enterprise was condemned by the government he withdrew as a contributor. Traveling in Switzerland and France, he visited Voltaire (1760), beginning a friendship that lasted till Voltaire’s death. The sage of Ferney wrote to d’Alembert: “I have scarcely ever seen a man more lovable or better informed.”52 The philosophes claimed him as their own, and hoped through him to influence the King.
In 1766 he wrote, for two Chinese students who were about to return to China, a hundred-page outline of economics—Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses. Published in the Éphémérides (1769-70), it was acclaimed as one of the most concise and forceful expositions of physiocratic theory. Land, said Turgot, is the only source of wealth; all classes but cultivators of the soil live on the surplus that these produce beyond their own need; this surplus constitutes a “wages fund” from which the artisan class can be paid. Here follows an early formulation of what came to be known as “the iron law of wages”:
The wages of the worker are limited to his subsistence by competition among the workmen. … The mere worker, who has only his arms and his industry, has nothing except in so far as he succeeds in selling his toil to others. … The employer pays him as little as he can; and as he has a choice among a great number of workers, he prefers the one who works for the least wage. The workers are therefore obliged to lower their price in competition with one another. In every kind of work it cannot fail to happen, and actually it does happen, that the wages of the worker are limited to what is necessary for his subsistence.53
Turgot went on to stress the importance of capital. Someone through his savings must supply the tools and materials of production before the worker can be employed, and he must keep the workers alive until the sale of the product replenishes his capital. As an enterprise is never sure of success, profits must be allowed to balance the risk of losing the capital. “It is this continual advance and return of capital which constitutes … the circulation of money, that useful and fruitful circulation which gives life to all the labors of the society, … and is with great reason compared to the circulation of the blood in the animal body.”54 This circulation must not be interfered with; profits and interest, like wages, must be allowed to reach their natural level according to supply and demand. Capitalists, manufacturers, merchants, and workingmen should be free from taxation; this should fall only upon landowners, who will reimburse themselves by charging more for their products. No duty should be charged on the transport or sale of any article of consumption.
In these Réflexions Turgot laid down the theoretical basis of nineteenthcentury capitalism—before the effective organization of labor. One of the kindest and most honest men of his time could see for the workers no better future than a subsistence wage. Yet this same man became a devoted public servant. In August, 1761, he was appointed intendant—the king’s supervisor—of the généralité of Limoges, one of the poorest regions of France. He estimated that forty-eight to fifty per cent of the income of the land went in taxes to the state and tithes to the Church. The local peasants were sullen, the nobles uncouth. “I have the misfortune,” he wrote to Voltaire, “of being an intendant. I say the misfortune, for in this age of quarrels and remonstrances there is happiness only in living the philosophic life among one’s books and friends.” Voltaire answered: “You will win the hearts and the purses of Limousins … I believe that an intendant is the only person who can be useful. Can he not have the highways repaired, the fields cultivated, the marshes drained, and can he not encourage manufactures?”
Turgot did all that. He labored zealously in Limoges for thirteen years, winning affection from the people and dislike from the nobility. He repeatedly—vainly—petitioned the Council of State to reduce the tax rate. He improved the allotment of taxes, remedied injustices, organized a civil service, freed the trade in grain, and built 450 miles of roads; they were part of that nationwide road-building program (begun by the French government in 1732) to which we owe the lovely tree-shaded highways of France today. Before Turgot the roads had been built by corvée— the forced and unpaid labor of the peasantry; he abolished corvée in Limoges, and paid for the labor by a general tax on all the laity. He persuaded the inhabitants to grow potatoes as human food, instead of only for animals. His vigorous measures of relief in the famine periods of 1768-72 won universal admiration.
On July 20, 1774, a new King invited him to join the central government. All France rejoiced, and looked to him as the man who would save the crumbling state.