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The Influence of Say's Traité

Tags BiographiesHistory of the Austrian School of Economics

04/10/2012Murray N. Rothbard

J.B. Say was made a member of the governing tribunate during the Napoleonic consulate regime in 1799. Four years later, his Traité was published, soon establishing him as the outstanding interpreter of Smithian thought on the continent of Europe. The Traité went through six editions in Say's lifetime, the last in 1829, then double in size from the original edition. In addition, Say's Cours complet d'économie politique (1828–30) was reprinted several times, and the extract from the Traité printed as the Catéchisme d'Économie politique (1817), was reprinted for the fourth time shortly after Say's death. Every great European nation translated Say's Traité into its own language.

In 1802, Napoleon cracked down on the ideologues, a group he had once courted but had always detested for its liberal economic and political views. He recognized the ideologues as the staunchest opponents, in theory and practice, of his intensifying dictatorship.1 Napoleon forced the senate to purge itself and the tribunate of the ideologues, thus ousting J.B. Say from his tribunal post. The ideologues were philosophers, and the Bonapartists saw philosophy itself as a threat to dictatorial rule. As Joseph Fievée, editor of the Bonapartist Journal de l'Empire, put it, "philosophy is a means of complaining about the government, of threatening it when it departs from the principles and the men of the Revolution."2

Two years later, shortly after becoming emperor, Napoleon again went after Say, refusing to allow a second edition of the Traité to be published unless Say changed an offending chapter. When Say refused to do so, the new edition was suppressed. Ousted from the French government, Say became a successful cotton manufacturer for ten years. In fact, Say became one of the leading new-style manufacturers in France. As his biographer writes, Say was "intimately involved in the emergence of large scale industry. He was, in effect, one of the most remarkable types of these manufacturers of the Consulate and of the Empire, of these first great entrepreneurs who sought to place the new technological processes in operation."3

After Napoleon's fall in 1814, the second edition of the Traité was finally published, and in 1819 Say embarked on a new professorial career, first at the Conservatoire National and finally at the College de France. The admiring Jefferson, himself steeped in laissez-faire economic thought, assured Say that he would find a hospitable climate in the United States. Jefferson was joined in those wishes by President Madison. Indeed, Jefferson wanted to offer Say the professorship of political economy at his newly founded University of Virginia.

Say's Traité exerted great influence in Italy. At first, Smith's Wealth of Nations had little impact on Italian economics. Italy had already had a flourishing free-trade tradition, notably in the systematic Meditations on Political Economy (1771) (Meditazioni sull'economia politico) of the Milanese Count Pietro Verri (1728–97). There was no mention of Smith in the 1780 work of the Neapolitan Gaetano Filangieri (1752–88), in the writings of Count Giovanni Battista Gherardo D'Arco (1785), or even as late as Francesco Mengotti's free-trade work Il Colbertismo (1792) — and even though the Wealth of Nations had been translated into Italian in 1779.

The spread of the French revolutionary regime into Italy brought Adam Smith's influence along with the soldiers. Smith became the leading economic authority during the early Napoleonic years. After 1810, Say and de Tracy swept Italian economics into their camp. The views of Say were propounded in the lucid treatise, the Elementi di economie politica (1813) by Luca De Samuele Cagnazzi of Altamura (1764–1852), and in the treatise by Carlo Bosellini of Modena, Nuovo esame delle sorgenti della privata e della pubblica richezza (1816). The courageous Abbate Paolo Balsamo (1764–1816) spread Smithian and later Say's views throughout Sicily, calling for free trade in agriculture, and for the freeing of Sicilian agriculture from the restrictions of feudalism (particularly in his Memorie economiche ed agrarie, Palermo, 1803, and his Memorie inedite di pubblica economia, Palermo, 1845).

Say's friend and colleague Destutt de Tracy also wielded enormous influence in Italy. His Elements was translated into a ten-volume edition (Milan, 1817–19) by the former priest Giuseppe Compagnoni (1754–1833). Furthermore, high up in the revolutionary government of Naples in the 1820s were the elderly statesman and philosopher Melchiorre Delfico, head of the provisional revolutionary junta and correspondent and admirer of de Tracy, and the follower of de Tracy, Pasquale Borelli, head of the Neapolitan revolutionary parliament.

Spain and the new Latin American countries were also influenced by de Tracy. One of the leaders of the liberal Spanish revolution of 1820 against absolute monarchy was Dom Manuel Maria Gutierrez, the translator of the Traité into Spanish (1817), and professor of political economy at Malaga. Furthermore, a member of the revolutionary Spanish Cortes of 1820 was Ramon de Salas, the translator of de Tracy's Commentary, who returned from exile in France to take part in the struggle. And still another member of the Cortes, J. Justo Garcia, had translated de Tracy's book on Logic, In Latin America, de Tracy's admirer and follower, Berardino Rivadavia, became president of the newly independent Republic of Argentina.4 Tracy also became highly popular in Brazil as well as Argentina, and in Bolivia his "ideology" became the official doctrine of the state schools in the 1820s and 1830s.

It is hardly surprising that the second wave of Smithian writers in Germany were strongly influenced by J.B. Say's Traité. Ludwig Heinrich von Jakob (1759–1827) was, like Kraus, a Kantian philosopher as well as economist. Studying at the University of Halle, he became professor of philosophy there. Von Jakob published a Smithian treatise on general economic principles, the Grundsätze der Nationalökonomie (Principles of Economics) (Halle, 1805). Later editions, up to the third, published in 1825, incorporated Sayite emendations. Furthermore, von Jakob was so impressed with Say's work that he translated the Traité into German (1807) and into Russian. Von Jakob, indeed, helped spread enlightened views in Russia in more ways than by publishing a translation of Say. He taught for a while at the University of Kharkov, and was a consultant to several official commissions at St Petersburg.

The most interesting and thoroughgoing Sayite in Germany was Gottlieb Hufeland (1760–1817). Hufeland was born in Danzig, where he became mayor, and studied at Gottingen and Jena, where he became professor of political economy. In his Neue Grundlegung der Staatswirtschaftskunst (Giessen, 1807–13), Hufeland adopted all the important innovations of J.B. Say — or rather his return to the French-continental, pre-Smithian tradition. Thus, Hufeland brought back the entrepreneur, and carefully separated his pure profits from confronting risk, from his interest return and from the rent or wage for his managerial abilities. Furthermore, Hufeland adopted a utility-scarcity theory of value, stressing the cause of value as the valuations of a stock of goods by individual consumers.

The influence of Say and de Tracy in Russia strikes an ironic note. In 1825, one of the leading liberal Decembrists, Pavel Ivanovich Pestel, who considered de Tracy's Commentary as his bible, tried to assassinate the absolute ruler Tsar Nicholas I. Nicholas, in turn, proceeded to have Pestel hanged, even though he himself was educated in the Smithian and Sayite Cours d'Economie Politique of Heinrich Freiherr von Storch.5

The English translation of the fourth edition of Say's Traité appeared in London in 1821, as The Treatise on Political Economy. The free-trade Boston journal, the North American Review, reissued the Treatise in the United States the same year, with American annotations by the free-trade champion Clement C. Biddle. Say's Treatise quickly became and remained the most popular textbook on economics in the United States down through the Civil War6 Indeed, it was still being reprinted as a college text in 1880. During that period, the Treatise had gone through 26 American printings, in contrast to only 8 in France.

The untranslated writings of the ideologues had an unexpected influence in Great Britain. Thomas Brown, friend and successor to Dugald Stewart in the chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, was fluent in French, and was heavily influenced by the philosophy of de Tracy. Furthermore, James Mill was a philosophic disciple of Dr. Brown, and was himself an admirer of Helvetius, Condillac, and Cabanis. It is not surprising, therefore, that Mill should have been the first in Great Britain to appreciate the importance of Say's law of markets.

It is no wonder that the Say version of Smithianism became the most popular economics work on the European continent and in the United States. Not being able to call himself a Physiocrat, Say called himself a Smith follower, but he was one largely in name only. As we shall see, his views were really post-Cantillon and pre-Austrian rather than Smithian classical.

One crucial difference between Say and Smith was in the limpid clarity and lucidity of Say's Treatise. Say quite justly called the Wealth of Nations a "vast chaos," and "a chaotic collection of just ideas thrown indiscriminately among a number of positive truths." At another point, he calls Smith's work "a promiscuous assemblage of the soundest principles … , an ill-digested mass of enlightened views and accurate information." And again, with great perceptiveness, Say charges that "almost every portion of it [the Wealth of Nations] is destitute of method."

Indeed, it was precisely Say's great clarity which, while winning him world wide popularity, lowered his stock among the British writers who unfortunately ruled the roost of economic thought. (The fact that he was not British himself doubtless added to this deprecation.) In contrast to the inchoate Smith, or to the tortured and virtually unreadable Ricardo, Say's clarity and felicity, the very ease of reading him, made him suspect. Schumpeter puts it very well:

His argument flows along with such easy limpidity that the reader hardly ever stops to think and hardly ever experiences a suspicion that there might be deeper things below this smooth surface. This brought him [Say] sweeping success with the many; it cost him the good will of the few. He sometimes did see important and deep-seated truths; but when he had seen them, he pointed them out in sentences that read like trivialities.

Because he was a splendid writer, because he avoided the rough and tortured prose of a Ricardo, because, in Jefferson's phrase, his book was "shorter, clearer, and sounder" than the Wealth of Nations, economists then and later tended to confuse smoothness of surface with superficiality, just as they so often confound vagueness and obscurity with profundity. Schumpeter adds:

Thus he never got his due. The huge textbook success of the Traité — nowhere greater than in the United States — only confirmed contemporaneous and later critics in their diagnosis that he was just a popularizer of a Smith. In fact, the book got so popular precisely because it seemed to save hasty or ill-prepared readers the trouble of wading through the Wealth of Nations. This was substantially the opinion of the Ricardians, who … put him down as a writer — see McCulloch's comments upon him in the Literature of Political Economy – who had been just able to rise to Smithian, but had failed to rise to Ricardian, wisdom. For Marx he is simply the "insipid" Say.7

  • 1. Thus in a famous speech in February 1801, Napoleon denounced the ideologues as the most harmful class of men. They were "windbags and ideologues. They have always fought the existing authority," he thundered. "Always distrusting authority, even when it was in their hands, they always refused to give it the independent force needed to resist revolutions." See Kennedy, op. cit., note 2, pp. 80ff.
  • 2. Or as Emmet Kennedy commented, "political theory could not be tolerated in a state where politics was not." Ibid.
  • 3. Ernest Teilhac, L'Oeuvre economique de Jean-Baptiste Say (Paris: Librairie Felix Alcan, 1927), pp. 24–6. Quoted and translated in Leonard P. Ligglio, "Charles Dunoyer and French Classical Liberalism," Journal of Libertarian Studies, 1 (Summer 1977), pp. 156–7.
  • 4. For a while, Rivadavia was also working on a translation of Bentham.
  • 5. Storch's Cours, published in Russia in 1815, was reprinted in Paris in 1823, with notes appended by Say. Storch accused Say of theft in publishing the French edition without his consent, whereupon Say riposted that Storch lifted the bulk of the work from himself, de Tracy, Bentham, and Sismondi.
  • 6. The sixth and last American edition of 1834, edited by Biddle, incorporated changes made in the final French edition of 1826.
  • 7. J.A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 491.

Murray N. Rothbard

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.