Jean-Baptiste Say

Jean-Baptiste Say

Beyond some rudimentary facts, very little is available in English about the life of J.B. Say.1 He was born in Lyons, France, to middle-class Huguenot parents, and spent most of his early years in Geneva and London. As a young man, he returned to France in the employ of a life insurance company, and soon became an influential member of a group of strongly pro-free- market intellectuals.2 Indeed, Say was the first editor of La Decade Philosophique, a journal published by the group. After the Napoleonic Wars, he held a Chair of Political Economy at the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, and again, later, at the College de France. In addition to his famous Treatise, his works included Cours Complet d Economie Politique Pratique and Letters to Mr. Malthus. By means of his writing, his influence spread to Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia, Latin America, Great Britain, and the United States, in which latter country his admirers included Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. His devotion to laissez-faire principles appears to have been maintained throughout his life. Say died in Paris.

J.B. Say deserves to be remembered, especially by Austrian economists, as a pivotal figure in the history of economic thought. Yet, one finds him discussed very briefly, if at all. In fact, even Austrians have devoted little attention to Say’s contributions.3

Mainstream history-of-thought texts usually mention Say only briefly, and then only in connection with his law of markets, thereby implicitly trivializing much of his work. One of the exceptions is A History of Economic Thought by Eric Roll.4 Roll treats Say with notable respect, but, unfortunately, partly because he misinterprets Say as an ancestor of modern general- equilibrium, positivistic, neoclassical economists.

In all fairness, one could argue that this lack of both attention and appreciation might be traced, at least in part, to Say himself. After all, Say did explicitly represent his work as being mainly an elaboration and popularization of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations for the benefit of continental European readers. Taking Say at his word, many economists seem never to have bothered to investigate more closely. Upon close reading of Say’s principal work, A Treatise on Political Economy,5 one will find that, although Say frequently praises Smith, he also departs from Smithian doctrine on a number of important points. In fact, Say even sharply criticizes Adam Smith on more than one occasion. Rather than thinking of Say as a slight variation on Smith, it is much more accurate to recognize that these two men represent two meandering, but generally divergent, paths embedded within classical economics.

Smith leads one to David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall, Irving Fisher, John Maynard Keynes, and Milton Friedman. Say leads from A.R.J. Turgot and Richard Cantillon to Nassau Senior, Frank A. Fetter, Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard. The reader should keep in mind, however, that these two paths, or progressions, have often been circuitous and nonlinear. That is to say, J.B. Say was in a number of ways truly a precursor of the Austrian School, but one must not leap to the conclusion that he was a full-fledged Austrian who was simply ahead of his time. One should not read Say and expect, at all points, to find Mises.

  • 1One recent book may rectify that deficiency. See R.R. Palmer, J.B. Say: An Economist in Troubled Times (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).
  • 2This group was inspired by the work of Abb, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, and it included such men as Destutt de Tracy and Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis as well as Say.
  • 3Of course, Murray N. Rothbard does discuss Say in detail and with great respect in Classical Economics, vol. 2, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar, 1995), pp. 3 45.
  • 4Eric Roll, A History of Economic Thought (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, [1956] 1961).
  • 5This was first published in French in 1803 as Traite d Economie Politique. There were five editions of this enormously popular book published during Say s life, the last being in 1826. See Jean-Baptiste Say, A Treatise on Political Economy: or the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of Wealth, C.R. Prinsep and Clement C. Biddle, trans. (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, [1880] 1971), p. 111. It has been translated into a number of other languages.

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Jean-Baptiste Say
Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832) has been described as a revolutionary, an author of scholarly books and popular tracts, a social philosopher, a successful entrepreneur and a remarkable Renaissance man. Above all, however, he was a great economist. He