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Biography of A.R.J. Turgot (1727-1781)

August 1, 2007

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ANNE ROBERT JACQUES TURGOT'S career in economics was brief but brilliant, and in every way remarkable. In the first place, he died rather young, and second, the time and energy he devoted to economics was comparatively little. He was a busy man of affairs, born in Paris to a distinguished Norman family which had long served as important royal officials. Turgot's father, Michael-Etienne, was a Councillor of the Parliament of Paris, a master of requests, and top administrator of the city of Paris. His mother was the intellectual and aristocratic Dame Magdelaine-Francoise Martineau.

Turgot had a sparkling career as a student, earning honors at the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice, and then at the great theological faculty of the University of Paris, the Sorbonne. As a younger son of a distinguished but not wealthy family, Turgot was expected to enter the Church, the preferred path of advancement for someone in that position in eighteenth-century France. But although he became an Abbe, Turgot decided instead to become magistrate, master of requests, intendant, and, finally, a short-lived and controversial minister of finance (or "controller-general") in a heroic but ill-fated attempt to sweep away statist restrictions on the market economy in a virtual revolution from above.

Not only was Turgot a busy administrator, but his intellectual interests were wide-ranging, and most of his spare time was spent in reading and writing, not in economics, but in history, literature, philology, and the natural sciences. His contributions to economics were brief, scattered, and hasty. His most famous work, "Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth" (1766), comprised only fifty-three pages. This brevity only highlights the great contributions to economics made by this remarkable man.

In the history of thought, the style is often the man, and Turgot's clarity and lucidity of style mirrors the virtues of his thought, and contrasts refreshingly to the prolix and turgid prose of the physiocrat school.


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