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Tableau of Mischief?

June 1, 2006

One reason I so loved Murray Rothbard was his ability to pick out that which was blindly hailed by the mainstream, critically examine it, and produce unique and honest insight as to the real nature of such. In his Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, in an essay titled "Physiocracy in mid-eighteenth century France," he presents some great insight on Francois Quesnay (1694-1774) and his famed Tableau economique.

Rothbard, always one to get in the sarcastic nod, takes a pop at Mirabeau for exalting the Tableau as one of the three greatest human inventions ever. About Quesnay's Tableau, he says:

an incomprehensible, jargon-filled chart purporting to depict the flow of expenditures from one economic class to another. Generally dismissed as turgid and irrelevant in its day, it has been rediscovered by twentieth century economists, who are fascinated because of its very incomprehensibility. All the better to publish a journal article on!

Academics are forever fascinated with producing that which cannot be understood — not even by themselves or their colleagues — and it was Rothbard who always called such nonsense to the carpet.

Rothbard basically describes this contraption as producing unsound, unsubstantiated economic thinking, and laying the groundwork for Keynesian mischief. As a precursor of Keynes and the circular flow diagram, Quesnay's Tableau — first published in 1758 — was inclusive of some of the worst concepts used, as Rothbard notes, in twentieth century economics: "aggregative concepts, input-output analysis, econometrics, depiction of the 'circular flow' of equilibrium, Keynesian stress on expenditure and consumer demand, and the Keynesian 'multiplier.'"

Rothbard grants that the Tableau produced some legitimate insights — on goods exchange and money as the intermediary — but such insights were brought forth long before that (Cantillon), and Quesnay's charts and lines only served to confuse and obscure otherwise basic facts. He calls the Tableau "holistic, aggregative, and macroeconomic, with no solid grounding in the methodological individualism of sound microeconomics."

The Tableau, like the circular flow flapdoodle, hailed expenditures and referred to savings as a "leakage" from the circular flow of spending, which, of course, was detrimental when considering Quesnay's emphasis on expenditures for agricultural products and, later, the Keynesian focus on consumer and government expenditures.

Rothbard has this to say about the Tableau and its value to scholarship:

At best, then, the Tableau was elaborate frippery; at worse, false, mischief-making, and deceptive. And in no sense did the Tableau do anything but detract and divert attention from genuine economic analysis and insight.

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