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The Grandiose Failure of François du Noyer

June 24, 2010

Tags BiographiesGlobal EconomyHistory of the Austrian School of EconomicsMonopoly and Competition

[This article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available for download.]

Monopoly France

François du Noyer, sieur de Saint-Martin, had a dream. It was a grandiose vision of the future. All around him, in the early 17th century, and in all major nations of the West, the state was creating monopoly companies. Then why not, du Noyer reasoned, go all the way? If monopoly companies for specific products or specific areas of trade were good, why not go one better? Why not one big company, one gigantic monopoly for virtually everything?

King Henry IV listened to du Noyer's schemes with interest. They were, after all, only logical conclusions of doctrines and notions that were everywhere in the air. But it was not until 1613 that du Noyer worked out his plan in detail, and set it before the council of state. It was to be an enormous, virtually all-inclusive company, to be called the French Royal Company of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem. The company, to be headed of course by du Noyer himself, was to have either a privileged monopoly, or the right to regulate all other firms, in virtually every trade.

Thus, the Royal Company was to make cloth, and regulate all other manufacture and preparation of all types of cloth; control all aspects of wine making, and all merchants and hotels buying wine would have to invest certain sums in the company, at a low fixed return; hold four privileged fairs a year in Paris; have a monopoly of all public coaches; control all mines in France; obtain gratis various unoccupied Crown lands and abandoned quarries; dig canals, erect mills; have a monopoly on sale of playing cards; make munitions; borrow and lend money; and numerous other activities. Furthermore, du Noyer would have the Royal Company obtain extraordinary powers from the Crown:

  • It would have the right to seize beggars and vagabonds and take them to the French colonies, which it would presumably run.

  • All convicted criminals would be sentenced to forced labor for the company in the colonies.

  • All bankrupts who had managed to save some money from their wreckage would be forced to invest that amount in the company.

  • All people exiled from France could be let back into the country by serving or paying money to the company.

  • All who conducted trade higher than their rank or privileges would be forced to join the company.

  • All business documents whatsoever would have to use stamped paper sold to them by the company.

The council of state was impressed by du Noyer's vision and ordered an investigation of the project. The following year, 1614, the Royal Company plan was approved by the estates-general of France, and various generals, admirals, and other high-level officials joined in the praise. Du Noyer reached the peak of his influence, being given the old Laffemas post of controller-general of commerce. It seemed as if the grandiloquent Royal Company plan was actually going to be adopted. Du Noyer elaborated on his plan in a pamphlet which he presented to the king in 1615.

The king, or rather the regent, Marie de Medici, was impressed, and in 1616 recreated the old Commission of Commerce, formerly headed by Laffemas, with instructions to study the du Noyer project in detail. The commission met, and the following year approved the plan of the Royal Company, and urged that all persons carrying on trade be forced to invest their money exclusively in it. In short, the Royal Company would be the monopoly company to end all companies. The delighted du Noyer, in the meanwhile, seeing his cherished scheme close to fruition, published a longer pamphlet on the plan, urging his one big company upon France. Like the king himself, the Royal Company would be unique and universal, and its capital would come from both private and royal sources.

The Royal Company project seemed to keep barreling along, the council of state granting its approval in 1618, and again in 1620, when King Louis XIII himself gave it his warm endorsement. In early 1621, public criers throughout Paris announced the glad tidings that the Royal Company had been formed, and was open to receive funds for investment.

The problem, however, was money. No one seemed to want to provide actual cash or even pledges to the new enterprise, however grandiloquent and privileged it appeared to be. The king urged every city in France to join, but the cities kept hanging back, pleading that they had no funds. In desperation, controller-general of commerce du Noyer scaled down the Royal Company to concentrate only on commerce and trade with the Indies and other overseas areas. Finally, du Noyer narrowed the scope of his beloved company's capital still further to just Paris and Brittany. But even the Bretons proved not to be interested.

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"Old du Noyer's loss was the French public's gain."

The coming to power as prime minister of Cardinal Richelieu in 1624 put the du Noyer scheme into abeyance. But four years later, the project had its final fling. The king urged the Commission of Commerce to act, and in the spring of 1629, it again approved the plan, this time adding to its original grandiose powers the right to make treaties with foreign countries, and to establish colonial islands for entrepôt trade.

After nearly three decades of planning and lobbying, du Noyer now needed only the simple signature of King Louis to put his hypertrophied vision into effect. But for some reason, the royal signature never came. No one knows quite why. Perhaps the powerful Richelieu didn't want a rival's scheme to be approved. Or perhaps the king was getting weary of the aging monomaniac and his untiring enthusiasm. Repeated entreaties and importuning, however, fell only on deaf ears. The Royal Company was at last dead, stillborn, and old du Noyer's loss was the French public's gain.

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This article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available for download.

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