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Bold ideas. French liberal economists and
the State: Say to Leroy-Beaulieu
Gilbert Faccarello ∗
Abstract. In 19th-century France, the nature and functions of
the State were an almost constant subject of debate among liberal
economists. The aim of this paper is to analyse and restate some
hitherto neglected discussions and to discover some bold ideas that
could form the hallmarks of a French approach to the question. The
enquiry starts at the turn of the century with the seminal work of J.-
B. Say and writings by A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, who both shaped
the liberal reﬂection on public economics during this period. But
the works of these authors suﬀered from important ambiguities. It
is shown how subsequent liberal economists — Ch. Dunoyer, V. de
Broglie, G. de Molinari, É. de Girardin, P. Leroy-Beaulieu — tried
to deal with some of the unresolved questions and, mainly on the
basis of Say’s work, developed original approaches focusing on the
productivity of public spending, the role of the State as a factor
of production, utopian views of the State as a private company,
and ﬁnally the inexorable political and administrative logic of the
modern electoral State.
∗Panthéon-Assas University, Paris. Email: email@example.com. Homepage:
http://ggjjﬀ.free.fr/. Published in The European Journal of the History of Economic
Thought,17 (4), 2010, pp. 719–758.
Bold ideas 2
1Setting the stage
In 19th-century France, the questions of the nature and economic role of
the State were extensively discussed among the various currents of thought
concerned with the public sphere. This troubled period had no shortage of
opportunities to debate about economic and political subjects, because of a
long series of dramatic events that often gave rise to changes of political regime.
Remember that the turmoil of the 1789 Revolution and the episode of the
First Empire were followed by two Bourbon Restorations (1814 and 1815), the
second of which lasted until the July Revolution of 1830. This was followed
by the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe, the February Revolution of 1848,
the Second Republic, the coup d’État by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte and the
Second Empire (1852-1870), a transitional and ambiguous regime (1870-1879)
after the fall of the Empire and eventually the oﬃcial establishment of the
Third Republic in 1879.
The question of the State was thus permanently on the agenda. The contro-
versies of the time were lively, not only between opposing political camps, i.e.,
to put it brieﬂy, liberals against associationnistes or socialists, but also within
each camp. On the associationnist side there was little agreement between the
ideas of the Saint-Simonians, Joseph Fourrier, Pierre Leroux, Pierre-Joseph
Proudhon or Constantin Pecqueur for example. And the debates were no less
heated within the liberal camp. The liberal strand of industrialism 1for instance
was by no means homogeneous on the question of the State, and moreover cer-
tainly often at odds with the more moderate doctrinaires.2The heterogeneity
of positions among the liberals is a ﬁrst relevant observation for our subject.
1. Jean-Baptiste Say and his followers : ﬁrst Charles Comte — Say’s son in law —and
Barthélémy-Charles Dunoyer de Segonzac, and then most of the economists who later gathe-
red around the Journal des économistes and the Société d’économie politique. This current
of thought also includes political thinkers like Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant
(Faccarello and Steiner 2008).
2. The doctrinaires formed another liberal current of thought of the time and held sway
during the July Monarchy. They recognized a positive and leading inﬂuence of the State and
some educated elites upon the organization and evolution of society. Among the most well
known ﬁgures are François Guizot and Pellegrino Rossi. Say often took a polemical stance
against them. In Politique pratique, some pages attack their position, equating them to the
English Whigs (cf. for example Say nd : 362-3). We can also ﬁnd an echo of his critique in
Cours complet : “the social body is a living body by itself, by nature [. . .]. It does not receive
its impulsion from an extraneous force” i.e., the government (Say 1828-9, II : 536).
Bold ideas 3
But when analysing the evolution of public economics in France during
the 19th century, we are faced with a second signiﬁcant observation. Together
with a huge and well-known development of economic theory, the second half
of the French 18th century also witnessed some important advances in public
economics. Yet these were almost completely ignored in the 19th century. In
contrast with English Classical economics, the French sensationist approach
— Turgot, Condorcet and Rœderer, for example, and even Graslin (Faccarello
2006, 2009) — developed theories that were only to be rediscovered by Italian
and Swedish economists a century later. To put it brieﬂy, we can ﬁnd in their
writings (i) a strong link between the nature of public ﬁnance and the kind of
political regime examined, with the conviction that a proper theory of public
ﬁnance is only possible for a modern, democratic State ; (ii) a reﬂection on
the nature of public goods, externalities — generally speaking the free rider
problem — and merit goods following what was later termed the “market
failures” approach ; (iii) the idea that it is impossible to analyze the income side
of the budget independently of the expenditure side ; (iv) a quid pro quo theory
of taxation ; (v) the determination, at the macro level, of the optimal amount of
public expenditure and taxation — and, in this context, of the ﬁrst equilibrium
at the margin. At the turn of the 19th century, the development of public
economics along these lines apparently stopped in France. With the exception
of some developments by the ingénieurs économistes, it seems that most liberal
economists were easily satisﬁed with a vague reference to public or merit goods,
without any further precision.3
To illustrate these observations, one episode in the debates within the So-
ciété d’économie politique is of particular interest, for two reasons. Firstly
because these discussions arose just after the 1848 Revolution, during the trou-
bled years of the Second Republic : the dramatic events reminded economists
that they had to clarify and develop their position(s) on the question of the
State. And secondly because of the publication of provocative texts by two
important liberal ﬁgures of the century, namely Frédéric Bastiat’s pamphlet
“L’État” (Bastiat 1848) and two writings by Gustave de Molinari : 4a paper,
3. The diﬀusion of the Wealth of Nations in France (see Faccarello and Steiner 2002, and
Béraud, Gislain and Steiner 2004) may have also played a part in this evolution — an issue
beyond the scope of this paper.
4. A young Belgian economist who had joined Bastiat some years earlier in his ﬁght for
Bold ideas 4
“De la production de sécurité”, and his celebrated book, Les soirées de la rue
Saint-Lazare (Molinari 1849a and b). While Bastiat’s assertions were obviously
excessive, 5the ideas put forth by Molinari (see below, section 3) brought the
analytical question of the State back to the fore, and prominent members of
the Société d’économie politique felt obliged to react. An extensive and cri-
tical review of Molinari’s book was published in the Journal des économistes
(November 1849 : 364-372), and a footnote by the editor was added to Moli-
nari’s paper describing it as utopian but at the same time acknowledging the
necessity to discuss the subject :
As utopian as the conclusions of this paper may appear, we believe
that we must nevertheless publish it in order to draw the attention
. . . to a question which, until now, has only been dealt with inci-
dentally and which should now be broached more accurately. (in
Molinari 1849a : 277)
Discussions were organized at the Société d’économie politique, reported as
usual in the “Chronique” of the Journal des économistes. “M. Say 6. . . proposed
to discuss . . ., the question of the limits of the functions of the State and of
individual action ; and to know whether these limits are well deﬁned .. .. M.
Say said that this subject was suggested to him by his reading of the book just
published by M. Molinari” (Journal des économistes, October 1849 : 315). The
discussions about “one of the most delicate questions one could ever consider”
(ibid., January 1850 : 202) continued and were reported in the 1850 January
and February issues of the Journal. A paper by Ambroise Clément, “Des at-
tributions rationnelles de l’autorité publique” (February 1850) was supposed
provisionally to end the debates. 7
All these debates produced no positive results. The only thing liberal econo-
free trade . . . and who was still publishing in 1911.
5. For example : “The state is a great illusion by means of which everybody endeavours
to live at the expense of everybody” (Bastiat 1848 : 332).
6. Horace Émile Say, Jean-Baptiste’s son.
7. The discussions, however, resumed some months later when Charles Dunoyer, at the
Académie des sciences morales et politiques, read the text of the entry “Government” he
had written for the ﬁrst volume of Coquelin and Guillaumin’s Dictionnaire de l’économie
politique. A debate followed — especially with the philosopher Victor Cousin, a doctrinaire,
and the ex-Saint-Simonian economist Michel Chevalier — the content of which can be found
in a series of two articles by Dunoyer, with introductions by Joseph Garnier, on “Les limites
de l’économie politique” (Dunoyer 1852a, 1853a).
Bold ideas 5
mists had in common seems to have been their hostility to all kinds of socialism
— but the deﬁnitions of socialism could greatly vary. The opinions expressed
are rather vague, no theoretical developments are advanced to deal with the
question of public economics and only the general liberal position is eventually
restated. During the discussions, Antoine-Élisée Cherbuliez eventually tried to
draw the attention of his colleagues to the necessity of a coherent theoretical
approach and to ﬁnd out “the general and, so to speak, higher and leading
principles that could help to determine whether a given function should be
carried out by the government or left to the private industry.” (Chronique,
Journal des économistes, January 1850 : 204) But his own solution is mainly
In spite of all this, however, certain French liberal economists of the time
cannot be accused of a lack of originality when dealing with the ‘raison d’être’
of the State — the point on which I concentrate here. My opinion is that
the ideas put forth by some of them are of high interest. Leaving aside the
best-known authors 8(with the exception of Jean-Baptiste Say), and analyzing
instead some allegedly “minor” ﬁgures, I think it is possible to uncover some
bold ideas that could form the hallmarks of a French liberal approach to the
My enquiry inevitably starts (section 2) at the very turn of the century with
the seminal work of Say. Another author, however, was also of importance at
that time and must be taken into account : Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de
Tracy, 9whose work constitutes the most direct and explicit continuation of
the sensationist approach of the previous century. Say and Destutt symbolize
the ﬁrst generation of liberal thinkers under the Restoration, who tried to
deal with the question of the State in a coherent way in the perspective of
political economy and on the basis of a subjective theory of value. At diﬀerent
levels, they shaped the reﬂection about public economics during this period.
Moreover, analyzing them together allows for a clearer presentation of the more
complex ideas advanced by Say, and their diversity. One of the main ideas Say
and Destutt have in common with most of the liberal camp of the time is that
8. Dupuit, Cournot, Walras for example, whose positions are well-known.
9. Auguste Walras still writes of the “so imposing authority of M. de Tracy” (1850 : 566),
and stresses that the economic science is greatly indebted “to the works of Quesnay, Turgot,
Adam Smith, Ricardo, J.-B. Say and Destutt de Tracy” (1849b : 537).
Bold ideas 6
the State, while a useful institution, is nevertheless an unproductive entity.
However, their positions involve important and unresolved ambiguities.
I then examine some of the positions ensuing from these ambiguities. Sec-
tion 3 deals with two kinds of reactions expressed during the ﬁrst part of the
century. Firstly, some liberals, responding to the allegations of Smith, Say and
Destutt, forcefully developed the idea of the productive character of the State’s
activities. Using diﬀerent arguments, this thesis is put forward by both the in-
dustrialist Charles Dunoyer and the doctrinaire Victor de Broglie. 10 Secondly,
and again with diﬀerent arguments, Gustave de Molinari and Émile de Girar-
din proposed the transformation of the political authority into a commercial
company. Their utopian position pushed the liberal logic of the market to an
extreme degree and formed two related answers to Say’s dream of a society
without a conventional State.
As a conclusion, I present in section 4 a third kind of position, expressed
towards the end of the century, at a time when a democratic parliamentary
regime seemed stabilized : namely, Paul Leroy-Beaulieu’s 11 strong reaction
against any idealization of the State and its functions. Elaborating upon some
ideas closely akin to those of Say when he noted how the State was functioning
in practice — focusing his attention on the real process of decision-making by
politicians and civil servants —, Leroy-Beaulieu stressed the inexorable logic
of the modern electoral State. His analysis, together with Say’s views on the
subject, forms one of the ﬁrst coherent expressions of public choice analysis. 12
10. V. de Broglie — Madame de Staël’s son in law — was a minister and prime minister
under the July Monarchy.
11. P. Leroy-Beaulieu was Michel Chevalier’s son in law. As a student, he spent the aca-
demic year 1864-65 in Bonn and Berlin. He had a good knowledge of the German economic
12. In the following pages the words “government” and “State” will generally be considered
as synonyms. The vocabulary used by the authors is not ﬁxed. At the beginning of the period,
Say makes a distinction between the government (the political structure of the country and
the men in charge of it) and the public or the nation (that represents the general interest).
He uses “State” most often for government, but sometimes also for nation. At the end of
the period, Leroy-Beaulieu most of the time speaks of the State. In the Dictionnaire de
l’économie politique, the entry “Gouvernement” (Dunoyer 1852), is substantial, while “État”
(Coquelin 1852) is rather brief. Coquelin’s text states that “the State is the political body,
the head of which is the government. To deﬁne and characterize it, we can thus refer to
the entry Government where its natural and legitimate attributions are clearly determined”
(ibid. : 733-4). Later, the Nouveau dictionnaire d’économie politique has only one entry,
“État” (Leroy-Beaulieu 1890) and no “Gouvernement”.
Bold ideas 7
2On some initial ambiguities : Say and Destutt de
Say published the ﬁrst edition of his Traité d’économie politique in 1803,
but because of imperial censorship, the second edition (1814) had to wait until
the fall of Napoléon. These ﬁrst two editions, together with the subsequent
ones (1817, 1819, 1826 and the posthumous 6th edition : 1841) and some
other works like Cours complet d’économie politique pratique (1828-9), played
a fundamental role in French intellectual life, in continental Europe and even
in the United States of America, where the Traité was highly appreciated by
Thomas Jeﬀerson and James Madison. 13 Destutt de Tracy, for his part, was
a celebrated philosopher thanks to the publication of the ﬁrst three parts of
his Éléments d’idéologie (1801-1805). Again, Napoleonic censorship prevented
publication of the fourth and ﬁfth parts (namely the Traité de la volonté et
de ses eﬀets, where economic matters are dealt with), until 1815. Of great
interest is also Destutt’s Commentaire de l’Esprit des lois de Montesquieu,
written more than 10 years before its publication in France in 1819, and before
the Traité de la volonté. Both books were very quickly published in America
thanks to Jeﬀerson. 14
2.1 The basic function of the State
In the eyes of Say and Destutt, the question of the nature of the State
and its eﬀects on the economy should be dealt with, like any other question of
political economy, in relation with the ﬁrst principles of the new science. These
fundamental principles alone could generate the right analysis. In consequence,
for our authors the main problem was to determine whether the State is neces-
sary or useful in a free market society, and if it is, whether and to what extent
it is productive.
13. On the diﬀerent editions of Say’s Traité, and their translations, see Steiner (2006) and
14. The Traité de la volonté was published in 1817 as A Treatise on Political Economy,
the translation being revised by Jeﬀerson. As for the Commentaire, its American translation
by Jeﬀerson — A Commetary and Review of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, 1811 — was
published long before the French original text. It is also to be noted that, in France, an
unauthorized and anonymous edition of the French version was published in 1817 and was
most favourably reviewed in Le Censeur Européen (Thierry 1818).
Bold ideas 8
On the ﬁrst point, they are aﬃrmative. The usefulness of a State lies in its
basic and traditional functions of police, justice and defence : “the advantages
we seek with the establishment of a government . . . boil down to a single one :
safety” (Say nd : 331). Safety means the defence of private property, but also
more fundamentally the achievement of liberty.
As the ﬁrst condition of the state of society is property, because
property only encourages production which is the condition of our
existence, any infringement on property is an infringement on the
entire social body. .. . The defence of property thus not only in-
cludes the defence of goods but also the defence of persons and
faculties, which encompasses liberty itself. I say that the main uti-
lity of governments lies in the defence of the property of the citizens,
as I deﬁne it. (Say 1819 : 106)
Destutt is of course of the same opinion (Destutt 1815 : 196). Besides this
fundamental task, however, the question arises of whether the government can
exercise additional activities such as education, some carefully designed public
relief, encouraging the arts and sciences, and of course ﬁnancing public works
like the construction of roads, bridges and canals. A kind of rule, inherited from
Turgot and Smith, asserted that the State should not engage in any activity
that could be performed by private entrepreneurs. In a sense, Destutt and Say
agree : the State, dealing with money which is not its own and having to rely
on people who, unlike entrepreneurs, have no direct interest in the success of
the enterprise, is in fact too big and careless a competitor vis-à-vis the other
entrepreneurs (Say 1841a : 382 & sq, 932; 1828-9, II : 323 & sq). Negative
externalities will be imposed on the private sector and public expenditure will
necessarily be wasted. As Say declares repeatedly, “government is itself a poor
producer” (1841a : 385), “private individuals work with less expenses than the
government” (ibid. : 382). This statement was accepted as a kind of axiom by
Destutt and most of the liberals of the time.
But some situations are not so clear-cut and there is room for discussion.
What about the possible additional public activities just listed above, that
are not an essential part of the State’s mission? The position of Destutt on
this point is rather radical and close to the common understanding of Smith
in France. As far as public works are concerned, for example, he thinks that
whenever it is possible to sell their services to users in the market, and thus
recoup the expenses incurred in production, with a proﬁt, they must also be
Bold ideas 9
left to the private sector, which can carry them out “with more intelligence and
economy” (Destutt 1815 : 234) :
. . . if, as it frequently happens, the government which defrays the
expense of construction, proﬁts therefrom by establishing tolls,
which, besides the expense of repairs, produces the interest of its
money, and thus nothing is done which individuals would not have
done with the same conditions and the same funds, if they had been
permitted to do so ; it may be said, that these individuals would al-
most always have attained the same end, with less expense (Destutt
1811 : 265).
Destutt is also doubtful of the utility of public encouragement of the arts
and sciences. While the sums devoted to them are not important, their useful-
ness is questionable.
For it is very certain that in general the most powerful encourage-
ment that can be given to industry of every kind, is to let it alone,
and not to meddle with it. The human mind would advance very
rapidly if only not restrained ; and it would be led, by the force of
things to do always what is most essential on every occurrence. To
direct it artiﬁcially on one side rather than on another, is commonly
to lead it astray instead of guiding it. (Destutt 1815 : 234)
Say’s opinion is more balanced. Actions in favour of education and science,
for example, must be ﬁnanced by the State — in a non-monopolistic manner
— but only at the extremes of the educational system. Government should
take care of primary education because it is a merit good that is necessary
to the formation of any citizen. It should also ﬁnance some higher education
and research (academies, encouragements to arts and sciences) because their
beneﬁcial eﬀects on production and welfare, while certain and of fundamental
importance, 15 are not immediate and would therefore be neglected by private
business. Intermediate education is not a matter for public intervention : ci-
tizens do not need to have encyclopaedic knowledge, but only to master the
science relative to their profession. And they are interested in acquiring this
knowledge by themselves.
As for public works, Say is very much in favour of them. In a way, unlike
Destutt, he continues the French tradition inherited from the previous century.
15. Remember the role the scientist plays in Say’s approach, in conjunction with the
entrepreneur and the worker.
Bold ideas 10
There are certain rules that must be respected, however, to ensure good ma-
nagement. In the ﬁrst place, as Turgot aﬃrmed, the realization of any such
public work, while ﬁnanced by the State — either at the national or local level
— must be entrusted to the private sector. Say is decisively hostile not only
to public companies but also to a public department of civil engineering like
the celebrated French Corps des ingénieurs des Ponts et Chaussées (see for
example Say 1828-9, II : 318-9).
In the second place, as for any production, the beneﬁts generated by a
public work must at least be equal to the costs. “Establishments made at the
expense of the public”, Says writes, “must generate a good, for the public,
equivalent to the sacriﬁces imposed on them on this subject. While the costs
of ﬁrst establishment are more an investment than an expense, the public is
entitled to require from those who impose this forced investment on them
that the advantage they will get from it be at least equivalent to the revenue
they would have obtained otherwise.” (1828-9, II : 298) But this rule is still
to be speciﬁed. When comparing the costs and the advantages of a public
intervention, the State must also take into account all the externalities resulting
from its implementation, at the diﬀerent levels of the community considered
as a whole.
The entire society must pay for those establishments that generate
advantages that are too divided in order for each consumer to be
able to appreciate them and to pay for them; but that at the same
time are so much multiplied that the possibility to enjoy them is
of the greatest beneﬁt to the public. (ibid. : 319-20)
What does this mean ? In brief, two kinds of works are considered. The ﬁrst
and most important concerns communication routes and the immense advan-
tages the population can get from them in terms of production and welfare.
. . . although government is itself a poor producer, it can at any rate
give a powerful stimulus to private production, by well-planned,
well-conducted, and well-maintained public works, particularly roads,
bridges, canals, and harbours. (1841a : 385)
But why must the State worry about them ? Could they not be proﬁtably
undertaken by private initiative, as Smith and Destutt think ? Say disagrees for
two reasons. Firstly because, as noted above, people are sometimes too short-
sighted to realize that works are capable of generating more advantages than
Bold ideas 11
they cost. This happens either because they cannot properly judge the future
advantages of an undertaking like a communication route, or because they
only take into account the monetary returns they can get from it, disregarding
all the potential positive externalities of the project. “It seems to me that in
England it is too easily thought that a public building, a bridge, a canal . . .
that does not yield the interest on the investment and the costs of maintenance
is not worth being constructed.” (Say 1828-9, II : 304)
But should we not, at least in many cases, put the communication
routes among those establishments of which Smith himself says
. . . that, while greatly beneﬁcial to society in general, nobody in
particular thinks to be interested enough in their existence to pay
their costs ? (ibid. : 305n)
Whence a second argument in favour of the State ﬁnancing of such public
works. Even if such works could generate proﬁts and be done privately, this
would not be a good solution because many people who might have used a
route would refrain from doing so because they are unwilling or unable to
pay a toll. This is why Say is, in general, against tolls : they exclude many
people from using the route and prevent the realization of important positive
If — on the pretext that the interests on the investment and the
costs of maintenance of a public establishment must be reimbursed
by those who use it i.e., by means of tolls .. . — many people
are deterred from using it, they are deprived of this multitude of
indirect beneﬁts that could have been enjoyed, and that, multiplied
during centuries in the case of a lasting establishment, deﬁes any
calculation. The entire nation is deprived of the principal merit of
the establishment. (ibid. : 305)
Say also examines a second type of public works. This concerns expenses
to do with some sort of redistribution of wealth resulting from the degree
of civilisation and increasing total welfare. Consider for example a bridge or a
town park, for the use of which you cannot decently ask any toll or entrance fee,
or the construction of underground sewers to remove the wastewater ﬂowing
through the streets — work for which it is impossible to ask any direct payment.
There is here a source of enjoyment granted to those who could not pay for it :
. . . we must consider it as an increase of enjoyment equivalent to
an increase in the income of the least wealthy class of the nation.
Bold ideas 12
Establishments of public utility are thus a forced accumulation im-
posed on the wealth of the citizens in proportion to their faculties,
and handed out to the enjoyment of the least wealthy class, not
in proportion to their faculties but to the need they have of them.
(ibid. : 298)
2.2 The State as an unproductive consumer
In spite of these — and other — diﬀerences between the positions of our
authors, however, and independently of any consideration of merit goods and
externalities, an important problem remains. “The question is, to know what
eﬀects these revenues, and these expenses [of the State], produce on the public
riches and national prosperity.” (Destutt 1815 : 196) This is the central question
of the productivity of public spending. This relates, of course, ﬁrst of all to a
fundamental aspect of Say’s doctrine : the meaning he attaches to production.
As Destutt reminds his readers,
. . . it is very important in political economy, to know what we
ought to understand by the word production . . .. This question . . .
has been treated of by many able men, at the head of whom we
should place Turgot and Smith. But . .. no one has thrown so much
light on it as Mr. Say, the author of the best book I know on these
matters. (Destutt 1815 : 19) 16
As we know — and this is a point Say and Destutt stress again and again
— production means the production of utility. “In this sense, then, the word
production must be understood in political economy . . . Production is the
creation, not of matter, but of utility.” (Say 1841a : 81) “This is what we
should understand by to produce : It is to give things an utility which they had
not. Whatever be our labour, if no utility results from it it is unfruitful. If any
results it is productive.” (Destutt 1815 : 20)
. . . since the result of all our labours is never but the production
of utility, . . . we are all producers . . . because there is no person so
unfortunate as never to do any thing useful. (ibid. : 35)
16. The English translation goes on : “although he [Say] leaves still something to be desi-
red”. This qualiﬁcation cannot be found in the French text, whatever the edition. Could it
be considered as an addition by Jeﬀerson ? It is also to be noted that Destutt refers to the
ﬁrst edition of Say’s Traité because his own texts were written before the publication of the
second edition in 1814.
Bold ideas 13
But the notion of production also takes on another important aspect. While
to be productive is to generate some utility, whatever that might be — “In
general we may say that whatever is capable of procuring any advantage, even a
frivolous pleasure, is useful” (Destutt 1815 : 27) —, this utility does not have to
be embodied in a material object. Although most products in markets assume
a material shape, many do not have this property : Say calls them produits
immatériels. In spite of the fact that immaterial products are consumed at
the very moment of their production, and that they cannot be accumulated
(see however below, section 3), their producers are obviously considered as
productive — this being stressed in opposition to Smith.
Besides these deﬁnitions of production and immaterial products, another
concept is relevant here : that of consumption. 17 This is simply the opposite of
production, to consume a product meaning to destroy its utility. But this des-
truction itself can be either “reproductive” or “unproductive”. The loss of utility
that results from consumption, Say stresses, always ﬁnds a kind of compensa-
tion, i.e., a pleasure. “This pleasure can be of two diﬀerent kinds. It consists
either in the immediate satisfaction of a need : this is the pleasure genera-
ted by unproductive consumption ; or in the reproduction of another product
that can be considered as a postponed satisfaction : this is the reproductive
consumption.” (1841a : 863) Hence the deﬁnitions we ﬁnd in the “Épitomé des
principes fondamentaux de l’économie politique”, included in the second and
subsequent editions of the Traité d’économie politique as an appendix :
There are thus two kinds of consumption : 1◦The reproductive
consumption which destroys a value in order to replace it by another
one ; 2◦The unproductive consumption which destroys the consu-
med value without replacement. The ﬁrst is a destruction of values
generating some other values inferior, equal or superior in amount
to that destroyed. .. . Unproductive consumption is a destruction
of values with no other result than the pleasure it gives to the
consumer. (1841b : 1100)
Now, with these basic deﬁnitions in mind, how should one characterize the
activity of the State? As an unproductive consumer. This is very clear in Des-
17. The words “consumption” and “expense” are used as synonyms on many occasions. Say
is aware they can have diﬀerent meanings : see 1841b, seventh part, Chapter III : “Of the
words Expense and Consumption”. He admits however that he can follow the common usage
and identify the two (ibid. : 206 ; see also ibid, 249).
Bold ideas 14
tutt de Tracy : “In every society the government is the greatest of consumers.”
(Destutt 1815 : 195). “Its expense does not re-produce itself in its hands . . .,
as in those of industrious men. Its consumption is real and deﬁnitive. Nothing
remains from the labour it hires.” (ibid. : 233)
I conclude, that the whole of the public expenses ought to be ran-
ged in the class of expenses justly called sterile and unproductive,
and consequently that whatever is paid to the State .. . is a result
of productive labour previously executed, which ought to be consi-
dered as entirely consumed and annihilated the day it enters the
national treasury. (ibid. : 234-5)
J.-B. Say is no less aﬃrmative. In Book III of his Traité, Chapter IV —
“Of the Eﬀect of Unproductive Consumption in General” — he declares that
“we shall only deal, in this and the following chapters, with such consumptions
as are eﬀected with no other end or object in view, than the mere satisfaction
of a want, or the enjoyment of some pleasurable sensation — consumptions
that are called unproductive or sterile.” (1841a : 881) Among the “following
chapters” alluded to are precisely the ones devoted to the public consumption
or expenses. 18
If I have made myself understood in the commencement of this third
book, my readers will have no diﬃculty in comprehending, that
public consumption . . . is precisely analogous to that consumption,
which goes to satisfy the wants of individuals or families. In either
case, there is a destruction of values, and a loss of wealth. (ibid. :
2.3 A fundamental ambiguity
It seems that there is a contradiction here. On the one hand, any activity
which produces any kind of utility is said to be productive. On the other
hand, the outcome of the activities of the State, which can be characterized as
immaterial products, are not subsumed in this category despite their utility to
18. Chapter VI, “Of the Nature and general Eﬀect of Public Consumption”, and VII, “Of
the principal Objects of National Expenditure”. Until and including the fourth edition of the
Traité in 1819, these two chapters were merged in a single chapter divided into two sections,
entitled “On Public Consumption”. This was changed in the ﬁfth edition of 1826. But the
English and American editions — from 1821 on — are based on a translation by Charles
Robert Prinsep of the fourth edition and thus still retain the former division.
Bold ideas 15
society. Public consumptions are made “for the common utility”, Say admits
(1841a : 921 ; see also 930, 937). The loss which results from these consumptions
must be balanced “by the advantage that society gets from them” (ibid. :
920) even if, very often, this advantage cannot properly be evaluated, and
not only because there is no market for them (ibid. : 971). Referring to the
various activities of the State, Destutt declares for his part that “all this is very
useful without doubt . . . ; but nothing of all this is productive.” (Destutt 1815 :
233) What is then the rationale for such a position ? Two hypotheses can be
formulated which involve either a modiﬁcation in the concept of productivity,
or a peculiar conception of “the public” and the State.
Let us ﬁrst deal with the deﬁnition of productivity. If the State is only
considered as an unproductive consumer although it produces useful imma-
terial services, this could be because the production of some kind of utility,
while necessary, is no longer suﬃcient to describe it as productive. This is the
case in Destutt de Tracy, with two main complementary lines of reasoning.
A ﬁrst argument refers to the fact that “almost the whole of the expense [of
the State], all that which is employed in paying soldiers, seamen, judges, the
public administration, priests and ministers . . . is absolutely lost ; for none of
those people produce any thing, which replaces what they consume.” (Destutt
1811 : 264) This implicitly emphasizes the non-marketable nature of the public
immaterial products : they are not sold in market, the expenses cannot thus
be reimbursed and taxation is not seen in a quid pro quo perspective.
This is conﬁrmed by the fact that the argument goes further, stressing that
the State does not generate any monetary proﬁt in the way that private com-
mercial activities do. Consequently, “government cannot be ranked amongst
the consumers of the industrious class. The expenditure it makes does not
return into its hands with an increase of value. It does not support itself on
the proﬁts it makes. I conclude, then, that its consumption is very real and
deﬁnitive; that nothing remains from the labour which it pays” (Destutt 1815 :
196-7). Forgetting that he had asserted that “ reproductive consumption . . . is
a destruction of values generating some other values inferior, equal or superior
in amount to that destroyed” (see above), Say also stresses the criterion of a
positive proﬁt :
There are not two kinds of economy, any more than two kinds of
honesty, or of morality. If a government or an individual consume
Bold ideas 16
in such a way, as to give birth to a production of value larger than
the value consumed, they have a productive activity. (1841a : 925)
Finally, another conception of productivity can be found in Say’s last work,
Cours complet d’économie politique pratique. There, on the occasion of the
discussion of the public expenses, a new criterion for productivity is presented :
the production of a capital.
Reproductive public expenses all amount to an accumulation of
a revenue in order to create a capital or to maintain a capital in
its integrity. Unproductive public expenses are aimed at the satis-
faction of one of the ordinary needs of the social body, and the
value employed for this can only be used once . . .. Thus the ex-
penses devoted to the construction of a beautiful road, a bridge,
are reproductive because the value is not consumed immediately.
(1828-9, II : 251)
All these deﬁnitions of productivity — an activity is productive when it
simply generates some utility, or when expenses return to the producer, or
when it generates a monetary proﬁt or forms a capital — explain why Des-
tutt’s and Say’s analyses are ambiguous, and why they sometimes hesitate in
their classiﬁcations. Take, for example, Destutt’s judgment on public works. In
Commentaire they are supposed to “enhance the value of land, facilitate the
transportation of goods, and encourage industry. It is certain that expenses
of this kind, directly increase the national riches, and are, therefore, in rea-
lity productive” (Destutt 1811 : 265). Consequently, while “almost all public
expenditures” are unproductive (ibid. : 265-6), some are not. In Traité de la
volonté, however, the judgment is diﬀerent. These expenses, he writes, while
contributing “powerfully to public prosperity”, “cannot be regarded as directly
productive in the hands of government, since they do not return to it with
proﬁt and do not create for it a revenue which represents the interest of the
funds they have absorbed” (Destutt 1815 : 233-4) — or otherwise they should
not have been undertaken by the State. Consequently, “the whole of the pu-
blic expenses” are now considered as unproductive (Destutt 1815 : 234). Say’s
views evolve in the opposite direction. In the Traité, he implicitly thinks that
public works are unproductive. His opinion is modiﬁed in Cours complet (Say
1828-9, II : 251, as just quoted above). 19
19. It is true that the Traité d’économie politique includes assertions such as : “The total
Bold ideas 17
Besides the ﬂuctuations in the deﬁnition of productivity, the other possible
explanation of the general characterization of the public expenses as unproduc-
tive concerns the meaning of what is called “the public” or the State. Public
consumptions, it is said, aim at satisfying “collective needs of a town, a pro-
vince, a nation” (Say 1821 : 399). They are consumed “for the public” (ibid.),
just as private consumptions are made “by” or “for” the private individuals.
Is it the public itself that is consuming the service of the public
servants ? It is ; or at least it is in the interest of the public that
this service is consumed. (Say 1821 : 408)
What does all this mean ? Here again, we face some ambiguities in Say’s
texts. One possible interpretation is to conceive “the public” as a collective
body that at the same time buys material and immaterial products in the
market and itself consumes the services they generate.
Besides the needs of individuals and of families . . ., the collection
of the private individuals also possesses, as a society, its own needs
which give rise to public consumptions : it buys and consumes the
service of the administrator . . ., of the soldier, . . . of the civil or
criminal judge. (Say 1841a : 921)
When individuals buy clothes and food, they enjoy its consumption. When
these items are bought for the troops, “it is the State which enjoys them. It is
easy to apply the same reasoning to all kinds of public consumptions” (ibid. :
923). In this perspective, “the public” or the State is necessarily unproductive.
2.4 ‘Il mondo va da se’
Besides this general characterization of public expenses and the role of
the State, it is possible to ﬁnd in Say some interesting additional reﬂections
suggesting new perspectives for these topics, later developed, for example, by
national consumption may be divided into the heads of public consumption, and private
consumption ; the former is eﬀected by the public, or in its service ; the latter by individuals
or families. Either class may be productive or unproductive” (1841a : 860). But in this book,
public works are dealt with in the chapters devoted to unproductive public expenses. There-
fore, the possible productivity of public consumption probably refers here to the possibility
for the State to engage in normal marketable activities of production, such as the tapestry
manufacturing of the Gobelins, or the porcelain manufacturing of Sèvres, which it should
not be allowed to do.
Bold ideas 18
Molinari or Leroy-Beaulieu. Many of these reﬂections can be found in his ma-
nuscripts, either of his teachings at Athénée or at Collège de France, or of a
book he planned on Politique pratique. These manuscripts reveal a rather more
radical and utopian Say than readers of his published works might imagine.
They also reveal an aspect that is in fact true for almost all the economists
and political philosophers of the century : the fundamental importance of a
reﬂection on the dramatic events of the French Revolution. Three main points
are of interest for our subject. According to Say, (i) a government, while useful,
is not a necessary institution ; (ii) the activities of the government should be
understood within the context of a general theory of the division of labour ;
and (iii) no reﬂection on public economics can avoid investigating and taking
into account the real decision processes at the level of the political power or
Say’s philosophy is best expressed by the Italian motto “Il mondo va da
se” (the world goes by itself), which he quotes both in the original language
and in French : “Le monde va tout seul”. The basic bond between citizens, he
stresses, is not political but economic, because “the main link in society is the
mutual need that all the productive classes have of each other” (Say 1819 :
106). This is why it is possible to imagine a society without any government :
“government is no essential part of a social organization. Note that I do not
say that government is useless ; I say that it is not essential ; that society can
do without it — provided that the associated men mind their own business
and let me mind my own one, society could possibly do without government”
(Say 1819 : 101).20 If government exists, this is only because of the “foolish-
ness” and “injustice” of men who cannot refrain from encroaching upon each
others’ rights— hence the question of safety. But, while a “necessary evil” (Say
nd : 348), it is a mere “accident” (1819 : 101) and its usefulness is in fact “in
proportion to our stupidity” (Say nd : 329). Il mondo va da se, “we are never
better governed than when there is no government” (ibid. : 325).
Say interpreted recent historical events as conﬁrming his opinion — or
20. This point is (cautiously) repeated in Say’s last work, the Cours complet d’économie
politique pratique. An appendix to the book, the “Tableau général de l’économie des sociétés”,
in which Say sums up the most important results of his analyses, is divided into two parts :
the ﬁrst deals with the “organes essentiels” to society, and the second with the “organes
accidentels”. Government is included among the latter (Say 1828-9, II : 528 ; see also ibid. :
Bold ideas 19
dream. On three or four occasions during the Revolution, he remarks, political
authority was nonexistent and there was no government. “Well, in no other
period the essential functions of the government were better achieved. All was
working as usual, and better than usual. The greatest evils that we had to
endure happened when we were governed, too much governed” (Say 1819 :
101). And this is also true for safety, the main task of the political authority :
(Say nd : 331) : “crimes have never been more severely repressed than at the
time the police found itself dissolved ; everybody then did his own policing,
and order has never been better kept” (ibid. : 327-8). Just “leave the policing
to society” :
Look at what happens in the streets of a town when a man beats
a woman, when a burglar breaks in a shop : everybody apprehends
the delinquent. Look what happens when two merchants have a
dispute of interest : both of them appeal to arbiters. The arbiters
deliver a verdict and the dispute comes to an end. (ibid. : 324)21
The defence of the country against foreign aggression should also be the
business of the people : a numerous and permanent army is not necessary. Say
knows that his opinion on this subject could seem paradoxical to his audience.
“I would advise you to beware of my ideas on this point. They are not very
diplomatic.” (Say 1819 : 108) He nevertheless insists that “a danger only threa-
tens those who look for it, that nothing is more risky for a country than a
permanent army and that a great nation which is not constituted in order to
disturb the peace of the others is never attacked” (ibid.) The best defence lies
in the will and courage of the citizens, the task of the government in this mat-
ter — “if it is really national and if its interests are fully identical with those
of the nation” — being to coordinate their eﬀorts (ibid.). In Cours complet
(1828-9, II : 278-93), Say develops his ideas against permanent armies and in
favour of a system based on a militia.
The example of safety is all the more interesting since, in one passage,
Say gives his readers to understand that the functions of the State could be
performed by private entrepreneurs. In this perspective, these functions are
seen as specialized activities within the context of the division of labour. This
idea had already been put forth by Graslin, in 1768, in his Dissertation of Saint
21. In Cours complet, Say suggested extending the system of arbiters to cover all civil
justice (1828-9, II : 273 et seq.).
Bold ideas 20
Petersburg. In his opinion, the activities of the State were a result of the process
of the division of labour and should consequently be considered like any other
sector of production. The idea of the State as a neutral entity aiming at the
general or public interest was thus rejected. “The protective power itself, while
instituted for the safety and peacefulness of all, has its own private interest
. . .. This interest is tied to the interest of all and in this sense it is essential for
people that this power be in a condition to perform its function. But this can
also be said of the interest of any class because ; in the same way, it is essential
for all other classes that each one in particular be in the condition to provide
the object in its charge.” (Graslin 1768 : 142) Say’s assertions go along the
The world goes by itself. Society consists in diﬀerent useful pro-
fessions which have various functions. One of these functions is to
protect individuals, their safety, their rights. It is as just a profes-
sion as the one entrusted with restoring health when one is sick.
(Say nd : 327; see also 1828-9, II : 254)
Applied to safety, this means for example that the domestic protection
of citizens could be entrusted to private companies when the collective self-
policing described above is not suﬃcient. “Give to entrepreneurship the task of
guarding that you cannot accomplish yourself, and cancel the contract if the
entrepreneur does not protect you from some attack or at least does not hand
the perpetrators over” (Say nd : 325).
We are thus led to a ﬁnal point which explains in part, also, Say’s hostility
towards any government — “government must be the object of a permanent
mistrust” (ibid. : 634). Look at the State that really exists. Who are the people
in power? Who are the civil servants, and how do they work ? This questioning
is important if one is to learn how and by whom public decisions are made. The
French Enlightenment had an answer : at the diﬀerent levels of the State, things
should be decided by politicians or civil servants whose only aim is the general
interest. Of course, 18th-century theoreticians were not so naïve and did not
think that this was always the case : but they believed that this behaviour was
possible and that the development of economic and political sciences could
help to improve both knowledge and the decision-making process. Hence, for
example, Condorcet’s constant endeavours to discover voting methods that
would be at the same time democratic and eﬃcient in delivering the “true”
Bold ideas 21
decisions. The experience of the French Revolution destroyed such hopes in
the eyes of most people. Say was one of them : the problem of public decision-
making had to be approached in a totally diﬀerent way.
Like people in any other profession, politicians and civil servants have their
own private interests that do not always match the general interest. Rulers, like
other people, have their own passions, their own prejudices and an education
often “a hundred times worse than ignorance” (Say 1819 : 104). Moreover, they
are members of a speciﬁc class or cast, and of a given family. “As interest is all
the more powerful as it is limited, it is to be feared that each of them sacriﬁce
the interests of the nation for those of his cast or family” (Say nd : 635). This is
the reason why “it is impossible to have an exact idea of public ﬁnance without
carefully distinguishing the interest of the government from that of the State”
(ibid.). In Politique pratique this is a leitmotiv.22 “The interest of the public
is what tends to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
The dismal interest is the interest of those in power” (ibid. : 637-8). 23
Moreover, government has a natural tendency to increase its prerogatives
and domain of action. The same thing happens with civil servants. They tend
to widen their remit and their power : and most of the time “they do not have
any scruples for this spirit of invasion because, in general, they have upright
intentions and think to do good. They do not suspect that it is an evil to do
the good badly” (Say 1819 : 114) — an echo of Condorcet’s motto : “Il ne suﬃt
pas de faire le bien, il faut le bien faire” (“It is not enough to do good ; it must
be done well”) (Condorcet 1779 : 373). And so the “administrative cancer” (Say
1819 : 117) goes on.
Nevertheless, Say was a pragmatist. 24 He believed that the development
of the social sciences could, in the future, open the eyes of the citizens and,
22. For example : “Interests of nations, interests of rulers always distinct and almost always
conﬂicting” (Say nd : 634). “The idea that the interest of rulers is the same as that of those
who are governed lies at the origin of repeated abuses” (ibid. : 635 ; see also ibid. : 637). “The
conﬁdence we must have in the rulers is but nonsense, and the one who would put it forth
in a private business would be laughed at” (ibid. : 640).
23. Say also refers to Destutt de Tracy, who explains why particular interests are always
more powerful than the general interest, and especially successful when lobbying (Say nd :
640, Destutt 1815 : 41-3).
24. For some other views and analyses of Say’s opinions in relation to politics, see Steiner
(1989, 1997) and Whatmore (2000).
Bold ideas 22
with the progress of representative government (Say nd : 408), lead to the
restriction of the State’s functions, carefully ensuring that only the strictly
necessary functions be fulﬁlled and at the lowest cost. The private interests of
the rulers and civil servants, while unavoidable, could thus in the end be made
less alarming : after all, they are also to be considered as the interests of any
other profession. We thus return to Graslin’s ideal view.
An opposition of interests is no division, is no quarrel, does not
break peace. Are not the individuals who form a nation in constant
opposition of interests between each other, without being at war?
. . . Each time we go into a shop and buy, do we not have an interest
that is opposed to that of the merchant? . .. Does a war necessarily
ensue between those in power and those who are governed ? Not at
all. These are interests to be amicably discussed, just as are the
interests of two merchants who do business together and agree on
sharing outlay and proﬁts (ibid. : 644-5)
3From clearing up ambiguities to ﬁghting for uto-
pian ideas : Dunoyer to Girardin
3.1 ‘Le gouvernement est le plus utile des producteurs’
When Say deﬁned the act of production as the production of utility and pro-
posed the concept of immaterial product, he opened a kind of Pandora’s box.
Although they did solve some diﬃculties, these innovations 25 created new theo-
retical problems, because Say seemed reluctant to draw all the consequences
of his own principles. This was the opinion of Charles Dunoyer. Together with
Charles Comte he played an important part in the battle for industrialism and
the liberties under the Restoration, especially with the publication of journals
like Le Censeur (1814-15) and Le Censeur européen (1817-19) and later with
a book entitled L’industrie et la morale considérées dans leurs rapports avec la
liberté (1825) and its developments : Nouveau traité d’économie sociale (1830)
and De la liberté du travail (1845). Dunoyer was a strong supporter of Say’s
political economy, and in Le Censeur and Le Censeur européen he always de-
voted a great deal of space to Say’s books. They were, in his opinion, of the
25. Some essential elements had, however, already been advanced by Turgot, and also by
Alexandre Vandermonde during the Revolution (Faccarello 1989).
Bold ideas 23
utmost importance in the search to ﬁnd the new and only adequate way to
think about politics in the context of the modern industrial society. Over time,
however, he became increasingly critical of some of the fundamental points of
Say’s economic doctrine. He expressed his dissenting views in a long review of
the ﬁfth edition of Say’s Traité d’économie politique that he published in 1827
in Revue Encyclopédique. Pointing out a number of ﬂaws and inconsistencies
in Say’s analysis, he followed Say’s approach to its logical conclusions. He re-
peated this point of view in various later writings and especially in the entries
“Gouvernement” and “Production” (Dunoyer 1852b, 1853b) that he wrote for
the Dictionnaire de l’économie politique.
For what concerns our subject, Dunoyer’s critique is the following. He ﬁrst
reminds Say and his followers of the importance of the deﬁnition of production
as the production of utility. He then contests Say’s three-way division of the
“agents of production” into labour, capital and land, aﬃrming that there is
only one agent : labour (Dunoyer 1827 : 75-8; 1853b : 445-6, 449-50). The only
original power in production lies in labour, in its quantity, quality, division
and freedom. “Land” and the collection of objects called “capital” are indeed
useful for the applications of the diﬀerent kinds of industry (i.e., activities),
but their utility is not natural. It does not exist as an original fact but has
been previously created by labour itself. Hence Dunoyer attaches the greatest
importance to all the circumstances that can act on human beings, physically
Dunoyer then contests Say’s famous distinction between material and im-
material products, which he ﬁnds inadequate and misleading. In fact, he stresses,
if production is simply the production of utility, then the only products human
beings can create are necessarily immaterial. Say himself noted that we never
create any fragment of matter. It is true that our industry can act on two
diﬀerent orders of things, i.e., either on material things or on human beings.
In both cases, however, this industry is exerted with the sole aim of modifying
them, of conferring on them a utility they do not initially have. The product —
utility — is immaterial. The neglect of this point also led political economy to
focus its attention on the production of material things, disregarding industries
that act on human beings despite their fundamental importance.
But this is not the only inconsistency in Say. His deﬁnition of productivity
Bold ideas 24
is ﬂawed with ambiguities. “It is possible to criticize M. Say”, Dunoyer stresses,
“for having only considered as really productive the industries that act on
physical objects and the products of which are realized in something material.”
(1827 : 68) Dunoyer knows of course that in Say’s opinion the producers of
immaterial products —physicians, lawyers, civil servants, etc. — perform a
productive activity. But, he asks, what kind of productivity is that ? Is it not
Say’s opinion that these products cannot be accumulated, do not add anything
to the national wealth and moreover that the expenses incurred in obtaining
them are unproductive, like public expenses ?
Now, I wonder what are these products which do not add anything
to the national wealth .. . and that confer on the expenses necessary
to get them the character of unproductive consumption? Would it
not be better to say, with the author of the Wealth of Nations, that
the creators of such wealth are unproductive? The fact is that M.
Say was aware of Smith’s mistake but did not succeed in correcting
it. He did not succeed in stating clearly how the classes that produce
what he calls immaterial products are in fact productive. (ibid. :
Say asserts that the distinctive character of immaterial products lies in the
fact that they are destroyed at the very moment of production. In Dunoyer’s
opinion, this statement is wrong. What is destroyed in production is labour,
but this happens in all kinds of activities. The very product of industry is
utility and this utility, far from being annihilated, remains.
It is because they do not distinguish labour from its results that
Smith and his followers made the above-mentioned mistake. All
the useful professions . . . exert a labour that vanishes when it is
executed, and all create some utility that is accumulated as it is
obtained. One must not say, with Smith, that wealth is accumulated
labour, but that it is accumulated utility. (ibid. : 68-69 ; see also
1853b : 442)
Like any other products, the so-called immaterial products can be kept,
increased and accumulated, for example in human beings : “we can acquire
more or less virtues or knowledge, just as we can accumulate more or less
corn, cloth, money and all these utilities that we can ﬁx in things” (1827 : 69).
Moreover, these “immaterial” products are even more durable and accumulable
than the so-called material products : “these latter cannot be used without
destruction nor handed on without being lost for their owners, while ideas and
Bold ideas 25
sentiments are improved through usage and increased through communication”
(1827 : 72).
For all these reasons, the so-called “immaterial” capital of a nation is as
important as — and even more important than (1852b : 838) — the “material”
accumulation of physical means of production. And those who, through their
industry, provide the various elements of this capital produce in fact a utility,
and a greater utility than what they consume — even if it is sometimes im-
possible to evaluate this utility exactly, when markets are missing for instance.
They are productive.
A capital made of knowledge or of good habits is worth no less
than a capital made of money . . . In order to produce material
wealth, it is not enough for a nation to possess workshops, tools,
machines, food or money. The nation needs safety, health, science,
taste, imagination, good moral habits ; and those who work to the
creation or improvement of these products can rightly be considered
as productive of the so-called material wealth, just as much as those
who directly and physically contribute to their creation. (Dunoyer
1827 : 71)
Now, the State is one of these producers. It is even the most important
among them because its role is to produce a basic utility without which nothing
would be possible : safety. This is the reason why, in this perspective, Say would
have been obliged to admit that “the government is the most useful of all the
producers whenever it creates in the population habits of respect for property
and persons” (ibid. : 72).
Government is essentially an art that acts on men . . .. Its speci-
ﬁc task . . . is to teach men to live well together, to imbue their
relationships . . . with measure and justice. . . . It is a producer of
sociability, of good civil habits. . . . It contributes to the general
production through the introduction, into this immense laboratory
that constitutes the society, of this precious ingredient of good rela-
tionships, of justice, without which nothing would be possible and
all would immediately stop, and which makes the art which pro-
duces it probably the most important in the economy of society.
(1852b : 837)
Had Say drawn all the consequences of his own principles, he would not have
been of the opinion that public expenses are unproductive or sterile : “he would
only have called sterile, in this order of consumption as in all reproductive
Bold ideas 26
consumption, the expenses that are not necessary to get the product” (1827 :
Dunoyer’s critique of Say is thus far-reaching (see also Augello 1979). But
on one point it is not totally fair. Probably because of previous discussions,
Say’s thinking on immaterial products changed somewhat over time. An evo-
lution was noticeable in the ﬁfth edition of the Traité that Dunoyer was re-
viewing. In the “Épitomé” of this edition, Say now asserts : “While immaterial
products do not seem susceptible to be accumulated because they are necessa-
rily consumed at the moment of production, they can however be accumulated
to the extent that they can be reproductively consumed and give rise to new
value” (1841b : 1087). His typical example is a lecture attended by medical
students : the lesson itself is an immaterial product, but its consumption al-
lows the increase of a human capital that will later yield a proﬁt. Later, Say
again put forward his new ideas in his lectures at the College de France (Say
1831-32 : 419). Admittedly, Dunoyer had good reasons to overlook this evolu-
tion. For one thing, this evolution is presented in a rather timid way, with no
real impact on the theoretical structure of the Traité : it is in fact conﬁned to
the ﬁeld of professional training. But there is a second, more powerful reason :
although some of the sentences in the “Épitomé” had been modiﬁed, the text of
the Traité itself remained curiously unchanged (see for example 1841a : 215).
3.2 The State as a factor of production
It is thus Dunoyer’s opinion that public expenses are productive because
they are spent to satisfy a basic ﬁnal need of the citizens : safety. The more
society evolves towards the industrial model, he argues, the more this basic
need will be felt by the citizens and the more the actual State will concentrate
on its genuine mission. It is interesting to note, however, how this mission is
very often presented. Obviously, in modern terms, Dunoyer’s approach also
focuses on the role of the State as a factor of production. The terminology
seems inadequate here, of course, because he does not recognize any “agent
of production” other than labour : but the action of the State as a produ-
cer is apprehended as providing essential elements for the implementation of
production and the wealth of the nation. “M. Say . . . must have considered
as productive consumptions all the private and public expenses that, while
Bold ideas 27
satisfying the needs of men, maintain or increase their faculties, and as un-
productive only those that are made without necessity for a useful object, or
those made in a totally useless way” (1827 : 89).
From another perspective, this role of the State as a factor of production
is unambiguously stressed by the doctrinaire Victor de Broglie. After the Re-
volution of 1848, during the discussions on taxation at the National Assembly
— and speciﬁcally to counteract a proposal by Hippolyte Passy to establish
an income tax — he wrote a long text, “Les impôts et les emprunts” (Broglie
1849), published posthumously by his son in 1879. This is a remarkably clear
text where the economic function of the State is addressed from the exclusive
point of view of production, focusing on the costs.
Say had already opened the way to such analysis when dealing with public
works like communication routes. In spite of some important ambiguity about
the productive character of this kind of work, he noted that it has the same
beneﬁcial eﬀect as machinery and considerably lowers the costs of production.
It is a means of furnishing the same product at less expense, which
has exactly the same eﬀect as raising a greater product with the
same expense. If this kind of calculation could be done — and
if we take into account the immense quantity of goods conveyed
upon the roads of a rich and populous empire, from the commonest
vegetables brought daily to market, up to the products poured into
its harbours from every part of the globe, and thence diﬀused over
the whole surface of a continent — we could readily perceive the
inestimable economy in the costs of production. (Say 1841a : 385-7)
For his part, Pellegrino Rossi, 26 in his lectures at the Collège de France,
spoke of the activity of the State as an “indirect means of production”.
Imagine that the government, social justice and the police are abo-
lished, and see what the labour of the civil societies would become.
. . . As a consequence, all those who devote their labour, their time,
their study to the exercise of the public authorities or the adminis-
tration of social justice contribute to the national product. (Rossi
1836-38, I : 214)
Broglie pursued this analysis. Suppose, he writes, that the State does not
exist and thus cannot provide the country with any protection or roads. As
26. Rossi was nominated to the Collège de France thanks to Broglie and Guizot.
Bold ideas 28
safety is essential to production, entrepreneurs will have to overcome the dif-
ﬁculty, either by organizing their own protection or by hiring the services of
specialized companies : in both cases, the costs of production would be increa-
sed (Broglie 1849 : 14-5). The same is true for roads (ibid. : 15-6). Hence a ﬁrst
conclusion : public expenses are productive. “All the expenses which are neces-
sary for production, all the expenses that directly or indirectly contribute to
production . . ., all the expenses without which any kind of production cannot
be initiated, carried on and completed, are productive expenses” (ibid. : 13).
It would be illogical to describe them as either productive or unproductive
according to whether they are made by entrepreneurs themselves or by the
Public expenses, however, are not only productive : they are the most pro-
ductive of all the expenses incurred in production. In a ﬁrm, Broglie remarks,
there are two kinds of costs : speciﬁc costs of production and overhead charges,
the burden of which becomes proportionately lighter as production increases.
The same happens in society, where the speciﬁc costs are incurred by the pro-
ducers while the overhead charges are supported by the State, to the great
beneﬁt of all the entrepreneurs because the transfer of these charges from
private ﬁrms to society generates increasing returns to scale. “The overhead
charges, in any ﬁrm, are the lower, in proportion to speciﬁc costs, as the ﬁrm
acts on a greater scale. In a like manner, in this immense workshop of society,
the disproportion between overhead charges and speciﬁc costs is great : a given
expense, made by the State . . ., thus contributes to the global production ten
times, a hundred times, a thousand times .. . more than the same sum .. . spent
by a private producer” (ibid. : 17). The abolition of the State would of course
abolish taxes : but it would also generate an increase in the costs of production
far greater than the savings made on taxation.
All the works made by the State, all the expenses incurred in the
interest of the entire society are not only productive works, produc-
tive expenses, but they are the most productive of all works and
expenses, because they are properly speaking the overhead costs of
the social production. (ibid. : 16)
Bold ideas 29
3.3 ‘Je demande des gouvernements libres’
At the same period, however, during the hectic discussions provoked by the
February Revolution, some liberal economists became bolder and proposed
systems that the great majority of their fellows in the Société d’économie
politique considered as pure utopian dreams. This was the case for Gustave de
Molinari in the above-mentioned texts (Molinari 1849a, 1849b). It was also the
case for Émile de Girardin, an entrepreneur and the inﬂuential founder of the
modern press in France — especially with the newspaper entitled La Presse.
He also took part in the general discussion on taxation during the Second
Republic and collected in one volume, Le socialisme et l’impôt (1849), the
contributions he had published on this subject in his own journal. 27 Molinari
and Girardin proposed radically diﬀerent theories : but both of them based
their proposals on the idea of a necessary disappearance or transformation of
the State into a new organisation designed on the model of a private company
— thus extending to the political level the logic of free market activity.
In the liberal tradition, some ideas in this direction had already been put
forth. The discourse on the division of labour and its powerful and beneﬁcial
eﬀects quite naturally induced some economists to think of government as fol-
lowing the same model as any other activity. Some more or less ambiguous
phrases by Graslin and Say have already been reported above. A similar posi-
tion can also be found in Dunoyer. Under the regime of industry, he stressed,
the State “is in fact but a commercial company, ﬁnanced by the community
and intended to preserve law and order” (Dunoyer 1825 : 358). But these state-
ments are, in a way, just a metaphor, the expression of a liberal dream that our
authors well knew to be impossible. The same can be said of Say’s assertion
that a government is not essential to society — a view that is also to be found
in Dunoyer (Dunoyer 1818 : 91-2). Molinari and Girardin, on the other hand,
took this idea literally.
Molinari’s position is an invitation to coherence. “For a long time”, he
writes, “economists not only refused to deal with government but also with
27. According to Auguste Walras, Girardin “has a distinguished mind. While he is not an
economist but ﬁrst and foremost a politician, he is fond of new ideas and he often seems to be
in search for them seriously. [. . .] One always likes to ﬁght with men who are not stagnating in
the most crude prejudices” (Auguste to Léon Walras, 31 July 1859, in A. Walras 1821-1866 :
Bold ideas 30
all purely immaterial functions. J.-B. Say was the ﬁrst to include this kind of
service in the ﬁeld of political economy” (1849b : 303). As a consequence, “he
did a far greater service” to this science “than is commonly supposed” (ibid.)
because now the function of the State can be rationally grasped and correctly
dealt with. Like Dunoyer, Molinari thought that economics would eventually
allow politics to be apprehended in a new manner, the only one adapted to a
free market society.
In this kind of society, where private industry eﬃciently provides for the
satisfaction of any need, it is simply illogical to make an exception with regard
to the need for safety and to consider that it can only be satisﬁed by a mono-
polized activity or, worse, a communistic organization. Even Dunoyer is to be
criticized on this point. “Among the economists who most greatly extended the
application of the principle of liberty, M. Dunoyer thinks that ‘the functions of
government should not be left to private activity’.” Why this “clear and obvious
exception made to the principle of free competition” (1849a : 279) ? There is
no rational ground for it. Economic theory, Molinari asserts, shows how a mo-
nopoly is ineﬃcient and dangerous, and historical evidence supports political
economy : any monopoly or privileged organization in charge of safety always
tends to neglect its duty, increases its ascendency and power over populations
and tries to extend the number of people it can control — whence a perma-
nent state of war and rebellion. “Just as war is the consequence of monopoly,
peace naturally results from liberty” (ibid. : 290). In the name of eﬃciency,
freedom and peace, then, it is necessary to accept “the rigorous consequence
of the principle of free competition” (ibid. : 279) and leave the “production of
safety” to private initiative.
It is the interest of the consumers of this immaterial product that
the production of safety be left to the law of free competition . . .
No government should prevent another government from competing
with it, nor should it oblige the consumers of safety to obtain this
product exclusively from itself. (ibid.)
In the name of the principle of property, in the name of the right I
have to provide myself for my own safety, or to buy it from anybody
as I think ﬁt, I call for free governments. (ibid. : 304)
These competing “governments” — “free governments” i.e., freely chosen
Bold ideas 31
by consumers who thus get rid of any “political servitude” 28 — are private
companies, also described in Les soirées de la rue Saint-Lazare as “insurance
companies”, whose task is to protect property (e.g., 1849b : 331). 29 Before
contracting with a company, consumers must investigate whether the ﬁrm is
powerful enough to protect them, whether it will not use its power against them
and whether some other ﬁrm could provide them with the same service under
better conditions. Any provider of safety, for its part, must be in a position to
protect persons and properties and, if need be, to repay the consumers a sum
proportionate to any damage incurred :
1◦The insurance companies must establish some form of punish-
ment for those who oﬀend against people and property, and insu-
red people should accept to subject themselves to this punishment
if they themselves create any damage to persons and property. 2◦
They should be able to impose some trouble on insured people with
the aim of discovering the perpetrators of oﬀences. 3◦They should
receive regularly .. . a given premium that would vary with the
situation of the insured people, their speciﬁc activity, the nature,
extent and value of the property to be protected. (ibid. : 334)
Whenever these conditions suit the consumers, “the deal is concluded;
otherwise consumers would provide themselves for their own safety or look for
another company” (ibid.) The “producers of safety” companies, on the other
hand, would not be able to grow indeﬁnitely : like any other ﬁrm, their size is
bounded by necessary upper and lower limits outside which they incur increa-
sing costs and therefore lower proﬁts.
Some additional aspects of this question, as well as the consequences of
this approach for the franchise and the concept of nation for instance,30 can
be disregarded here : they do not alter Molinari’s basic position. Moreover,
he did not think it possible to enter into details that cannot be dealt with in
advance. “Political economy can say : if a given need exists, it will be satisﬁed,
and in a better way under a regime of entire freedom than under any other one.
28. On the raison d’être of “political servitude” and its end, see for example Molinari 1884 :
29. Three years before, in a paper published in Le Courrier Français (23 July 1846),
Molinari wrote : “Men gather in a society in order to guarantee the safety of persons and
properties. A State is just a great company for mutual insurance.”
30. See for example Molinari 1884 : 394 et seq., “Individual sovereignty and political sove-
reignty”, and “Nationality and patriotism”.
Bold ideas 32
There is no exception to this rule ! But how this industry will organize itself,
what will be its technical processes — political economy cannot say anything
on this question” (1849b : 328-9). He nevertheless tried to specify his position in
a series of subsequent writings (Molinari 1854, 1884, 1887, 1899), with always
the same conclusion : 31
The future belongs neither to the absorption of the society into the
State, as communists and collectivists claim, nor to the suppres-
sion of the State, as anarchists and nihilists dream of, but to the
diﬀusion of the State into society. It is . . . a free State in a free
Society. (Molinari 1884 : 393-4)
Understandably enough, these ideas were received with scepticism or hos-
tility in the discussions of the Société d’économie politique. Even Bastiat de-
clared himself in favour of a State monopoly of the production of safety. As
reported in the Journal des économistes in a Chronique summing up one of
the debates, a governmental power was thought necessary for the eﬃciency of
M. Coquelin remarked that M. de Molinari disregarded the fact
that, without any supreme authority, justice cannot be implemen-
ted, and that competition — the sole remedy against fraud and
violence . . . — could not exist without this supreme authority, wi-
thout the State. Below the level of the State, competition is pos-
sible and fruitful ; above, it is impossible to implement and even
to imagine. M. Bastiat spoke along the same lines as M. Coquelin.
(Journal des économistes, Chronique, October 1849 : 315)
3.4 The State as an insurance company
Molinari was not the only economist to refer to the State as an insurance
company. Adolphe Thiers, in his book De la propriété (Thiers 1848), made a
comparison of the same kind : but in this case the aim was just to determine
the rate of taxation, 32 with no implications for the organization of the State.
Moreover, a vague parallel between the protection provided by the State and an
31. As soon as 1854, in his Cours d’économie politique, he presents the reader with an
extensive philosophical account of the nature and changing attributions of governments in
the diﬀerent stages of history.
32. This comparison was of course approved by Molinari. Thiers’s calculations were later
criticized by Gustave Fauveau (Fauveau 1864; see also Silvant 2010).
Bold ideas 33
act of insurance was quite widespread among economists. The idea of literally
transforming the State into an insurance company was instead advocated by
Girardin, with, as a consequence, an increase in its attributions. “The State
must only be a national company for mutual insurance against all the risks
susceptible of being anticipated” (1849 : 230).
Taxation is and must be nothing but an insurance premium paid by
all the members of a society called Nation, in order to assure a full
enjoyment of their rights, an eﬃcient protection of their interests
and the free exercise of their faculties. (ibid. : 229)
First published in La Presse and then as a book with many editions, his
proposal is described in the following (puzzled and confused) way in a Chro-
nique of the Journal des économistes (October 1849 : 319).
M. de Girardin published in La Presse a long work on taxation.
After having criticized all the systems of taxation, he adopts a
tax on capital, of 1 per cent — in return for which the taxpayer
will beneﬁt from protection, justice, religion, instruction, credit,
sickness and old age pension, indemniﬁcation in case of blaze, ﬂood,
hail storm, epizootic disease, bankruptcy, shipwreck ; they will also
be exempted from military service and protected from falling into
destitution. All these advantages are consigned on an insurance
policy that also serves as record book, passport, voting card, etc.
Unlike Molinari, however, Girardin did not open the ﬁeld to competing pri-
vate companies, but simply proposed that the State be reformed and behave
like a real insurance company. Hence the comment of the Journal des écono-
mistes : “This is rather original, but essentially socialist, and far too complex to
be taken as a remedy to the present situation” (ibid.). Girardin’s proposal was
widely discussed. While some pamphleteers did indeed denounce the project
as socialist (Duverne 1851), some authors, like Auguste Walras (1849a, 1850),
discussed them seriously : “this system is far superior to anything which exists.
It is an eminently liberal conception” (A. Walras 1849a : 495).
To put it brieﬂy, the existing taxation system must be abolished and repla-
ced by a single tax, the insurance premium. As a premium, it should of course
be “in proportion to the extent and probability of the risk” (ibid. : 229). A good
base for the calculation of this premium being the “capital” possessed by any
citizen, this premium would be a “tax on capital” — actually a tax on wealth.
Bold ideas 34
The rate would be uniform : one per cent (half of one per cent in the 1852
edition). As an insurance company, the State would insure citizens against all
kind of risks, including wars. As for the other activities traditionally included
in the past in the public sphere, like education or religion,33 they would have
to be ﬁnanced by speciﬁc private associations freely deciding to produce these
. . . public education as well as the expenses for religion will be again
what they never should have ceased to be, and what they are in
England and in the United States : purely individual expenses made
with receipts centralized by corporations or associations. (ibid. :
One distinctive character of the insurance premium as compared to a tra-
ditional tax is that it would be voluntarily subscribed, whereas taxation is
compulsory. But, with a typical utopian discourse, Girardin asserted that this
would not be a problem for the new State. Owing to the great advantages of
such an insurance mechanism — the wealth a citizen declares, for example,
and the protection he or she receives, being a good basis for obtaining credit,
employment, etc. — every citizen would be immediately convinced of the need
to subscribe. 34
Only a single tax must exist, the same everywhere, and so mathe-
matically just that it would be de facto compulsory while de jure
voluntary. (ibid. : 161)
The tax being an insurance premium, the free rider problem is somewhat
alleviated, except of course for what concerns the value of the wealth declared
by the citizens. Girardin states that he is convinced that an immense majority
of citizens will not be induced to cheat but, as a protection against possible
evaders, speciﬁes that the State would have a pre-emptive right on the goods
possessed by the subscribers, at the value he or she declared for the diﬀerent
33. In 1849, education is still included among public activities, but logically excluded in
1852, not being subject to an insurance premium.
34. Moreover, other countries would soon imitate France and reform their States along
similar lines. This typical utopian ﬁrm belief in the irresistible power of any alleged proﬁtable
reform is also sometimes shared by Molinari.
Bold ideas 35
Last but not least, in addition to the personal advantages that people could
get from such a system, the so-called “single tax on capital” is also supposed to
have a powerful positive macroeconomic eﬀect — and this is in fact Girardin’s
main goal. Since the “tax” is applied to all elements of wealth but leaves untou-
ched any income that people may get from that wealth, Girardin is convinced
that there will be a general incentive to exploit each of these elements pro-
ductively and to develop them in the best possible way. Active capital will
be managed even better, to get a maximum of revenue, and any hitherto idle
capital will be put to productive use. This will lead to the disappearance of
idle capital and complete the work of the French Revolution.35
The cry of our ﬁrst revolution was : equality of the citizens
in the eyes of the law ; unity of the law. The cry of our
last revolution will be : equality of capitals in the eyes of
taxation ; unity of taxation. (ibid. : 220)
4 From utopian dreams back to reality : Leroy-Beaulieu
The fact that some French liberal economists proposed utopian models of
the transformation of the State does not mean that they were not aware of
the way the real State was actually functioning. Like Say before (see above,
section 2), some of them noted the inexorable practical logic of the modern
State. During the 1849-50 debates at the Société d’économie politique, for
example, Dunoyer made an interesting intervention. “M. Dunoyer”, says the
October 1849 Chronique of the Journal des économistes, “like M. Coquelin and
M. Bastiat, thinks that M. de Molinari went astray . .. ; and that a competition
between governmental companies is chimerical because it leads to violent ﬁghts.
Now these ﬁghts would only end through force, and it is wiser to leave force
where civilisation put it, with the State” (ibid. : 316). But Dunoyer recognized
that, within a modern electoral State, a form of competition nevertheless takes
place : a competition between political parties.
35. After the fall of Napoléon III, another entrepreneur, Émile-Justin Ménier (1871 to
1874b), picked up Girardin’s ideas, although he gradually dropped the insurance side of the
project and ended up focusing only on the tax on “capital” — provoking lively discussions
at the Société d’économie politique. In 1874, his argument became close to that of Broglie :
taxes represent “the overhead costs of the exploitation of the capital of the nation” (Ménier
1874a : 10).
Bold ideas 36
M. Dunoyer believes .. . that competition in fact works its way into
government through the interplay of the representative institutions.
In France for example all the parties really compete with each other,
and each of them oﬀers its services to the public who actually
chooses every time it votes. (ibid.)
In a way, this fact was also acknowledged by Molinari, who stressed its
negative consequences for the actual action of the State. After the French
Revolution, the formation of governments was either based on an electoral
system or simply resulted from coups d’État, provoking the changeover of
power between “political associations”. With what result ? Molinari asks :
The exploitation of the State is left to an association that, enjoying
only a temporary possession, is interested to get from it, during this
limited period of time, the maximum of beneﬁts and advantages —
even at the price of sacriﬁcing the future, which does not belong
to this association, for the present, which is its own. Hence the
irresistible trend of growth in the attributions of the State, with
all the beneﬁts attached to their exploitation, a tendency enhan-
ced by the necessities of the competition between the associations
organized with the aim of conquering the State or having its exploi-
tation granted to them. Moreover, the temporary administrators,
whatever can be the errors, mistakes and even crimes of their ad-
ministration, do not have to suﬀer thereof : the only risk they run
is, at the end of their administration, to see the State granted to
somebody else. (Molinari 1884 : 361-2 ; see also 388)
This line of thought was taken up and powerfully developed by Paul Leroy-
Beaulieu. This author is usually remembered in public economics for his cele-
brated Traité de la science des ﬁnances, ﬁrst published in 1876 (see for example
Musgrave and Peacock 1958). Contrary to what happened in Germany and
Italy, the use of the phrase “science des ﬁnances” was a kind of innovation in
France, where the expression had a rather bad reputation, probably because
the term “ﬁnance”, at the level of the State, reminded people of the awful mis-
management of public ﬁnances during the Absolute Monarchy. For diﬀerent
reasons, the judgments of such diﬀerent authors as Cherbuliez and Léon Wal-
ras for instance — who both symptomatically refer to the German term “Fi-
nanzwissenschaft” — are ﬁnal and negative. 36 The success of Leroy-Beaulieu’s
36. In the German literature, under the heading of “science des ﬁnances”, one only ﬁnds
“an administrative empiricism to which it is impossible to apply the method and rigorous
Bold ideas 37
Traité, on the other hand, established the term in the Faculties of Law. 37 The
ﬁeld of the “science des ﬁnances” is accurately deﬁned and restricted. It only
concerns the determination of the optimal management rules for all kinds of
public revenues — this being said in opposition to Karl Heinrich Rau, Adolf
Wagner or Lorenz von Stein.
It would have been easy to speak of the essential and secondary
attributions of the State, of the functions it has to be in charge of
and those it must leave to the citizens and free associations. But in
our opinion this kind of research does not belong to the science of
ﬁnance ; it belongs to political economy or even to politics. (Leroy-
Beaulieu 1876, I : 2)
Everything that concerns public expenditure thus constitutes a distinct
ﬁeld of inquiry : it deals with the functions of the State and is held to be a spe-
cial chapter of a treatise of political economy. But a look at Leroy-Beaulieu’s
successful Traité théorique et pratique d’économie politique (ﬁrst edition : 1896)
is disappointing : his approach to the State and its functions is mainly traditio-
nal and non-innovative. In fact, Leroy-Beaulieu is convinced that to list a priori
the functions of the State is an almost impossible task, because there is nothing
that the State can do that cannot also be done by private associations. The
opposing view results from the wrong belief that, except for the State, “nothing
could be created that is not inspired by a selﬁsh interest in the form of pecu-
niary interest” (Leroy-Beaulieu 1890 : 946) and that, consequently, no strictly
non-proﬁtable undertaking could be carried out by any private individual or
organization. The analysis is also historical :
. . . each of these functions has been fulﬁlled, in some country and
at a given period, by private persons at the same time as by the
State. For instance, we know that in Spain, a private association,
the Santa Hermandad, was formed to keep law and order ; in En-
gland, today, the association of Special Constables i.e., voluntary,
language of political economy” (Cherbuliez 1848 : 387n). “Finanzwissenschaft” is just “a kind
of ﬁscal law that will be shown by the side of Canon law in the future museums of social
archaeology” (L. Walras 1896 : 408).
37. Until then only a very few books were entitled “science of ﬁnance” : Charles Ganilh’s
1825 De la science des ﬁnances et du ministère de M. le comte de Villèle, René Gandillot’s
(a lawyer) 1840 Essai sur la science des ﬁnances and the latter’s 1875 Principes de la science
des ﬁnances. In 1841, a translation of Ludwig Heinrich von Jacob’s Staatsﬁnanzwissenschaft
was published : Science des ﬁnances, exposée théoriquement et pratiquement.
Bold ideas 38
temporary and non-paid policemen, has not totally disappeared.
(Leroy-Beaulieu 1876, I : 3 ; see also 1890 : 948-9)
The spreading of the phrase “science des ﬁnances” would be a very poor
achievement indeed, were not the name of Leroy-Beaulieu worth remembering
for another — unfortunately hitherto neglected — reason. In 1889 he publi-
shed an important study, L’État moderne et ses fonctions — the outcome of
his lectures at the Collège de France in 1883-84 — and, one year later, the en-
try “État” in the Nouveau dictionnaire d’économie politique edited by Joseph
Chailley and Léon Say. There, far from any theoretical “dream”, he described
accurately the logic and implications of the actual modern electoral State.
His real interest lies not at all in what the State should be and how it
should behave according to political economy, but in what it actually is. There
is nothing like an ideal State, or a “State in itself”, just as there is nothing like
a “man in himself”. “Some questions cannot be conﬁned to the absolute, and
necessarily entail a relative and contingent aspect” (Leroy-Beaulieu 1889 : 4).
“It seems to me that philosophers do not return to earth suﬃciently” (ibid. :
2). In this perspective, Leroy-Beaulieu heavily criticizes the German authors
(Rau, Stein, Wagner, Schäﬄe, Bluntschli) who tried to develop a theory of an
ideal State, and only produced “an idolatry for the State” (ibid. : 14).
Not only do we not kneel before the idol, but we analyze the metal
it is made of, and the structural defects it suﬀers from. May it be
possible to reduce the number of its worshippers and save Western
civilisation from the threat of a new servitude. (ibid. : x)
A closer look at the idol reveals a creature made of poor alloy. The “modern
State” as it actually exists is a speciﬁc political structure with two basic charac-
teristics (1889 : v-vi) : it is a democratic State based on regular elections ; and
it confers substantial power to the government because of the disappearance
of almost all the traditional intermediary links between the citizens and it-
self, such as the nobility, the Church, etc. More speciﬁcally, four major general
consequences are stressed throughout L’État moderne.
In the ﬁrst place, the State — being no abstract entity — does not think
or speak by itself : it is the men in power who think and speak for the State.
Now, who are they? Ordinary men — as Say already stressed. They do not
show any speciﬁc diﬀerence or superior capacity compared to other ordinary
Bold ideas 39
men in society.
Experience proves that the State is a body left in the hands of
certain people, that the State . . . thinks and wants only through
the thought and will of the men in charge of the body. . . . Those
people who succeed one another and eliminate each other more or
less rapidly . .. do not have a diﬀerent physical and mental structure
than all other people. They do not enjoy any natural superiority,
be it innate or instilled by the profession itself. The functions of the
State do not necessarily enlighten the mind nor reﬁne the hearts.
The Church can teach that a weak man, when assuming priesthood,
is transformed and enjoys the divine grace. A democratic society
cannot claim that men in power .. . beneﬁt from any kind of special
grace and would not dare to maintain that the Holy Spirit descends
upon them. (Leroy-Beaulieu 1889 : 29)
In the second place, the State is not impartial. The government is always in
the hands of the party that won the last election. The modern electoral State
is not an expression of a dispassionate reason or will. Rather, it ampliﬁes all
the passions and fashions prevailing in the society when elections take place.
No democracy, Leroy-Beaulieu stresses, “can arrive at a conception of a general
and permanent interest and give it preference over the private and transitory
interests” (Leroy-Beaulieu 1889 : vii ; see also ibid. : 426). Moreover, the time-
horizon of a government is short — four or ﬁve years. Consequently, politicians
try to implement the programme for which they have been elected as fast as
possible, using the law, regulations and of course public ﬁnance.
While public ﬁnance forms, at the theoretical level, an independent
science, it is unfortunately, in practice, the humble servant and
almost the slave of an arbitrary .. . master : politics (Leroy-Beaulieu
1876 : xx)
Thirdly, civil servants and politicians are not under the pressure of com-
petition — this being said in opposition to Dunoyer’s suggestion that political
elections could be considered as a kind of competition. They are therefore of-
ten ineﬃcient. They tend moreover to increase their ﬁeld of action — as Say
noted — and, in addition, they systematically choose the most expensive po-
licies because these are likely to win them consideration and votes from the
Finally, Leroy-Beaulieu asserted, the democratic electoral State is most of-
ten against any novel policy. Politicians, being under the pressure of all kinds
Bold ideas 40
of lobbies, are induced to protect old and established interests against innova-
tions. Such a State can only be a factor of conservatism (Leroy-Beaulieu 1889 :
431-2 ; 1890 : 951-3). In the same way, under the pressure of uneducated vo-
ters and self-interested lobbies, there is a strong incentive to protectionism and
chauvinism, a marked hostility to foreign workers, and even, as a consequence,
a propensity towards antisemitism (Leroy-Beaulieu 1889 : 424 & sq.).
These are only some of the consequences resulting from the constitution of
the modern State. Throughout L’État moderne et ses fonctions, Leroy-Beaulieu
carefully analyzes the various actual policies of the modern State, from the in-
terventions in public works and colonisation to those directed at public relief,
education and religion. No doubt, the book deserves a more detailed analysis.
But our tour d’horizon of the attitudes of these 19th-century liberal econo-
mists in France would have been incomplete without mentioning it. It marks
an obvious break with the main traditions of thought in public economics of
the time, while at the same time representing a continuation and powerful de-
velopment of a trend of thought already present in the French literature since
Jean-Baptiste Say at the turn of the century.
While not always strictly rigorous and analytically coherent — but then
who else could claim to be exempt from such shortcomings at that time ? —
the work of Say constituted a matrix from which much of 19th-century French
political economy ensued. As this paper has tried to show, this is also true in the
ﬁeld of public economics. In very diﬀerent and sometimes incompatible ways,
the liberal economists analysed here — Destutt de Tracy, Dunoyer, Broglie,
Molinari, Girardin, Leroy-Beaulieu — each developed certain aspects of Say’s
thought. With an interesting result : a variety of theoretical approaches to the
nature and functions of the State — from the most utopian to the more realist
— now, for the most part, part and parcel of the various current theories of
the public economy.
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