Political Economy in the Eighteenth Century: Popular or Despotic? The Physiocrats Against the Right to Existence

Florence Gauthier


Control over food supply was advanced in the kingdom of France in the Eighteenth century by Physiocrat economists under the seemingly advantageous label of ‘freedom of grain trade’. In 1764 these reforms brought about a rise in grain prices and generated an artificial dearth that ruined the poor, some of whom died from malnutrition. The King halted the reform and re-established the old regime of regulated prices; in order to maintain the delicate balance between prices and wages, the monarchy tried to limit speculation in subsistence goods and achieved some success in regulating the provisioning of public markets. Le Mercier de la Rivière concluded that executing these reforms required more effective political control. After 1774 the new king gave the Physiocratic reforms a second chance, reforming property rights and establishing an aristocracy of the landed rich. Again, this led to price hikes and as a result so-called ‘popular emotions’ erupted. Turgot ordered military intervention to dispel the protesters, marking a first rupture between the monarchy and the people over speculation on subsistence. Turgot’s experiment failed and he was dismissed, but the Physiocracy had discovered that the market in subsistence offered new opportunities for economic power under the misleading legitimacy of ‘economic laws’. Turgot’s followers, Dupont de Nemours and Condorcet, continued to develop this ‘theory’ that was later translated into a ‘scientific language’ that ultimately asserted the autonomy of the economic sphere and its alleged independence from ethics and politics. The paper examines the continuity of events through the six great jacqueries and the French Revolution, including the all- important agrarian reform that ensued after 1792. Robespierre’s concept of ‘popular political economy’ is analysed and compared with the notion of unfettered private property rights that lies at the heart of neoliberalism.

Published on 23rd March, 2015, in Economic Thought Vol 4, No 1, 2015