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Galiani, Necker and Turgot. A Debate on Economic Reform and Policy in 18th Century France

  • Université Panthéon-Assas, Paris, France
Galiani, Necker and Turgot. A debate on
economic reform and policy in 18th Century
Gilbert Faccarello
‘Nil repente, rien tout à coup . . . Je le répète et le répéterai sans cesse.’
Galiani, Dialogues sur le commerce des blés, 1770.
‘Je dirais volontiers à celui que vous aimez [Turgot], “Tu ne cede malis:
sed contra audentior ito”;1mais il se le dit à lui-même.’ Voltaire to
Condorcet, 26 April 1775.
In 17th and 18th century France, the question of the transition to a market
economy was permanently on the agenda in various forms. Although the de-
bates were often rather confused, the main issues at stake were formulated
Panthéon-Assas University, Paris. Email: Essay pub-
lished in Gilbert Faccarello (ed.), Studies in the History of French Political Economy. From
Bodin to Walras, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 120-185. An abridged version of the first part
of this essay was published in The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought,1
(3), Autumn 1994, 519-550.
1[Quam tua te fortuna sinet]. Virgil, Aeneid, VI, 95.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 2
more and more clearly and the great controversies of that period marked the
emergence of many of the most important ideas later integrated into the main
corpuses of economic doctrines. The climax occured during the final decades
of the 18th century. Three important attempts were made at that time to fill
the gap between theory and practice and to achieve the transition to a market
economy. The first, 1763-1764, was limited to agriculture; the second, well
known and much wider in scope, was led by A. R. J. Turgot and took place
between August 1774 and May 1776; the third, still wider, occured fifteen years
later during the French Revolution. While the first and the second failed, the
third proved more successful and decisive. Recently, the revolutionary period
has attracted the attention of scholars (Servet 1989; Faccarello, 1989, 1993;
Faccarello and Steiner, 1990). By contrast, this paper aims at analysing some
ideas expressed or simply reconsidered during the early 1770s.
Even today there are few dispassionate analyses of this period, especially
in so far as Turgot’s policy is concerned.2As a result, however, one fact stands
out. Among the various different arguments put forward to explain Turgot’s
1774-1776 failure to transform the French economy into a general market econ-
omy, one explanation curiously seems to be accepted almost unanimously by
the opponents as well as the followers of Turgot’s reforms: the process of tran-
sition, it is contended, was interrupted mainly because of the alleged hastiness
and clumsiness of the Contrôleur général.3Turgot is supposed to have acted
without the slightest prudence, as a mere doctrinaire whose ambition was to
force reality into his beautiful schemes of thought. This is also why, strangely
enough, he has sometimes been contrasted to J.-J. Rousseau: commentators
stressed the fact that, when Rousseau had the opportunity of proposing a plan
for concrete reforms, in his essays on Corsica or on Poland for example, unlike
Turgot, he was extremely cautious; and they stress the fact that he displayed
an attitude which was in striking contrast to the one that might have been
expected on the basis of the bold ideas set out in his most theoretical works
such as the Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité and the Contrat social (see for
example Sorel 1908: 174-176).
2There is a great body of historical and theoretical writing on Turgot. For theoreti-
cal aspects not dealt with in this chapter, the reader may refer to the texts listed in the
bibliography (Faccarello, 1990, 1992b, 1996; Groenewegen, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1983)
3The Contrôleur général des finances was the French minister of finance.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 3
It is likely however that commentators, whatever their initial theoretical
bent, have been trapped by arguments which were essentially formulated be-
fore Turgot’s ministerial experience and which, as a matter of fact, originated
mainly within the reformers’ camp itself, in the writings of F. Galiani and
J. Necker. This chapter first analyses these arguments concerning the objec-
tives and methods of a transition to a market economy. Galiani’s and Necker’s
positions in this respect have been too often confused with the conservative
attitude (cf. for example Morellet 1770: 1-2): it is time to realize that they
were authentic reformers4and that they were trying to promote a prudent
strategy for reform (part I: ‘Nil repente!’).
This chapter then examines Turgot’s writing on the subject and restitutes
a more precise image — one which is perhaps more surprising — of the thought
of the author of Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses. In
particular it appears that many of the critiques addressed to him, directly or
indirectly, missed the mark; that he was not the intransigent doctrinarian that
his adversaries portrayed him as; and that, on some points, his thought was
not very different from Galiani’s or Necker’s (part II: ‘Tu ne cede malis’).
For a clear understanding of the argument, and by way of a preliminary
introduction, it is appropriate to place these debates in context.
1The context of the debate
At the end of the 17th century, during the darkest days of the reign of Louis
XIV, the debate on the necessity of abandoning the detailed regulatory policies
of the Monarchy and of allowing free competition in all markets was given a
powerful launch by Boisguilbert. It received a great and decisive impetus from
the 1750s onwards, reflected in a striking increase in the literature on the sub-
ject. It is well known that one aspect in particular was especially controversial,
that is, the functioning of the grain market. Boisguilbert’s free trade ideas and
their theoretical underpinnings were nevertheless more and more accepted and
they eventually formed the analytical basis on which Physiocratic theories were
4The word ‘reformer’ is more appropriate here than the all too frequent ‘liberal’: the
latter constitutes an anachronism and inevitably conveys 19th and 20th centuries ideas which
do not fit the period prior to the French Revolution.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 4
built. They also provided the foundations for the theories of authors who, like
Turgot, without necessarily sharing all the opinions of the ‘secte’, played an
important role in the fight for free trade and the repeal of all — or almost
all — the legal and regulatory rules (of an enormous variety) which literally
shackled the French economy.
Economic policy and enlightened opinion: some basic facts
This fight for free competition met the favour of the majority of enlightened
people and of general opinion at the end of the 1750s and the beginning of the
1760s. One book in particular rekindled the debate: Claude-Jacques Herbert’s
Essai sur la police générale des grains (1753), which for years proved to be the
main reference.5The movement was also strongly backed by the prevailing
agromania and supported by the first members of the newly-founded Physio-
cratic school. Eventually, liberalization measures were taken.6First, H.L.J.-B.
Bertin, at that time Contrôleur général des finances, convinced of the necessity
for urgent economic reforms, proposed a ‘Déclaration’ allowing free domestic
grain trade which was adopted by the Conseil on 25 May 1763. Bertin soon
had to resign (1763) as Contrôleur général but his fall was not a disgrace. He
remained a member of the cabinet until 1780 and thus continued to have some
influence on economic policy. The new minister of finances C.C.F. de L’Averdy,
whose nomination permitted the registration of the Déclaration by the Paris
Parliament,7pursued the work of his predecessor. On 18 July 1764 an ‘Édit du
Conseil’ instituted a regime of free foreign trade for grain subject however to
certain limitations. While the stipulated restrictions were added by L’Averdy,
the substance of the new law was in fact due to Trudaine de Montigny, Turgot
and Dupont.
5Six editions of this book were published between 1753 and 1757. Beginning as a short
study (53 pages in-8°in 1753) the Essai turned into a much bigger book from the 4th edition
(1754) onwards. It was still very frequently referred to at the beginning of the 1760s.
6A law prepared by Daniel Trudaine and C. J. M. Vincent de Gournay in particular,
and promulgated in September 1754, is sometimes seen as the first measure of liberalization
(Weulersse, 1910, vol. I: 32). However it does not deserve this evaluation (Depitre 1910:
XXXVIII-XXXIX; Kaplan 1976, chap. III, § 1).
7It should be noted that the parliaments — the most important of which was that of
Paris, whose jurisdiction was extremely wide — were Courts of Justice, and that positions
were purchased.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 5
Thus one of the most important objectives of those in favour of free trade
seemed to have been reached, though only in part. In fact, some impediments
were voluntarily or involuntarily maintained8and these constituted permanent
obstacles to free competition. In the meantime persistent high prices, partly
due to bad harvests, prevailed. Some argued that this could be attributed to
the 1763 and 1764 laws. On the other hand followers of free trade ideas blamed
the remaining obstacles which, they asserted, were preventing the achievement
of free competition and the realization of its advantageous effects. The fear of
food shortages along with the agitation and recriminations of the people did
not stop but rather increased during these years. Following a well-established
tradition, this situation provided the Parliaments with an ideal field to contest
royal authority.9At the end of 1769 the nomination of Joseph-Marie Terray10
to the Contrôle général inaugurated a period of retreat as far as economic policy
was concerned, and a year later, on 23 December 1770, an ‘Arrêt du conseil’
practically repealed all the liberal measures promulgated during the preceding
decade.11 Things then remained unchanged until Terray was dismissed and
replaced by Turgot four years later. A new policy was then implemented
from September 1774 until May 1776, framed by the ‘Arrêt du Conseil’ of 13
septembre 1774 which re-established internal free grain trade and by the six
edicts of March 1776, the two main ones of which established the freedom
of labour by abolishing the ‘jurandes’ (the trade communities) and the royal
As regards the reception of economic theory, a similar evolution took place.
General opinion had undergone a great process of change and was progressively
turning again in favour of state intervention and regulation of the grain trade.
Physiocracy was no longer fashionable and, once its novelty attraction had
faded, the dogmatic discourse of the Économistes began to bore and above
8For example many rules and privileges, especially concerning the supply of food to
towns, were not removed.
9On the important question of the role of the Parliaments during this period see Egret
(1970) and Kaplan (1976).
10 21 December 1769. Terray took the place of Etienne Maynon d’Invau (J. C. Ph. Tru-
daine de Montigny’s father in law) who himself replaced L’Averdy in 1768.
11 On all these events which marked the last two decades of the reign of Louis XV, see the
classic study by Weulersse (1910, vol. I: book I, and vol. II: conclusions of book V) and the
books by Kaplan (1976, 1984).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 6
all irritate greatly not only all those who represented enlightened opinion but
also authors who, like Turgot, were in close theoretical sympathy with Quesnay,
Mirabeau, Dupont and Baudeau. The journal of Physiocracy, the Éphémérides
du citoyen, was short of articles and experienced increasing editorial difficulties:
this is why at the end of 1772 the government did it a kind of involuntary favour
by ordering that the publication should stop.12
In this context, attacks against the ‘secte’ increased from the middle of the
1760s, contesting various theoretical points or discussing the very foundations
of liberal ideas or the way in which the doctrine could or should be applied
to the economy. However these publications were dissimilar and written from
highly different points of view. Some constituted nothing more than a mere
reaction in defense of the old rules governing markets and the traditional in-
tervention of the French government in economic affairs, especially as far as
food was concerned. On a different basis, others attacked instead the very aim
of the free-trade doctrine: the overall transition to a market economy.
Rift within the reformers’ camp
A third group of writings is more interesting for our concern. Their authors
broadly shared the preoccupations of the liberal current of thought and were
themselves reformers. But they disagreed with the Physiocrats and their
friends over the interpretation of the first principles of the doctrine, and above
all with the way in which their opponents were supposed to conceive the im-
plementation of laissez-faire: it was their contention that the Physiocrats and
Turgot were nothing more than unrepentant and dangerous doctrinaires ad-
vocating a direct, immediate and concessionless application of their clearcut
ideas of unlimited economic freedom. Of course this set of writings gave rise
to controversies in which not only the Physiocrats were involved (P.-S. Dupont
and N. Baudeau in the first place) but also Turgot, Morellet and Condorcet.
Among the authors of this third group, two especially are interesting: Ferdi-
nando Galiani and Jacques Necker, who, through their careful analyses and the
important role they played for different reasons, allow us to grasp the nature
12 See G. Weulersse (1959, chap. I). After Turgot’s nomination to the Contrôle général,
and under the title: Nouvelles éphémérides économiques, the journal was published again
from December 1774 to March 1776 (Weulersse 1950).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 7
and the strength of the arguments. On the one hand the Neapolitan abbé13
possessed a decisive influence on enlightened opinion of the late 1760s and the
early 1770s: Diderot himself provoked the composition of Galiani’s Dialogues
sur le commerce des blés (1770) and, with the aid of Louise d’Épinay, im-
proved its French and took care of its printing after Galiani’s recall to Naples
for diplomatic reasons (see Galiani 1769). On the other hand Necker, the
Genevan banker, was not only later to be in charge of French finances at cru-
cial moments in the history of the Ancien Régime but also published important
writings in the field of economics and politics;14 for our period and subject,
two of his books are of particular importance: Éloge de Jean-Baptiste Colbert
(1773)15 and De la législation et du commerce des grains (1775);16 to which
we can add the celebrated Compte-rendu au Roi (1781) and, for its long ‘In-
troduction’, the voluminous treatise (and best-seller of the time) entitled De
l’Administration des finances de la France (1784).
Thus the camp of reformers was more or less clearly split into two parts.17
Hostilities broke out, two episodes of which are worth noting since they give a
good idea of the prevailing intellectual climate of these years. The first concerns
13 The bibliography on Galiani’s life and work is immense (see for example L. Guerci,
1975a) and of variable interest. As far as the problems dealt with here are concerned,
the main references are to be found in the selected references appended to this paper. A
summary of the present knowledge on Galiani’s life can be found in Diaz (1975). Galiani’s
correspondence is an essential complement to the study of his writings. Unfortunately, a
reliable and complete edition of this correspondence does not yet exist: on this point, see
for example Nicolini (1964), Bédarida (1975) and Guerci (1975c); Dulac and Maggetti are
however currently publishing the letters exchanged between Galiani and Madame d’Épinay
(see Galiani/d’Épinay, 1992-1997).
14 See Égret 1975 and Harris 1979; see also Grange 1974.
15 The book won the prize of the French Academy and this literary prize greatly contributed
to the intellectual and political fame of the author. Buffon, for example, publicly praised
the Éloge, which somewhat irritated Galiani who claimed priority for his Dialogues as far
as objections to the unlimited freedom of trade were concerned (see Galiani’s letter to Mme
d’Épinay, 22 January 1774, in Galiani 1881, vol. II: 289).
16 More than a year after the publication of the book — and just after the nomination
of its author as Directeur du Trésor royal — Galiani wrote a letter to Necker to emphasize
their — almost — complete community of views: ‘Know that everything you do I will have
the sweet illusion, I, of having done it myself. There is . . . such a unison in our minds that
for everything you have said on the subject of political economy, it has always appeared to
me that I should have said it, that I could have, and that I had thought it. This then is my
estimation of your unrivalled book on corn that you wished to have’ (Galiani 1975: 1135).
17 In fact, Morellet fought hard against his former friend Galiani and wrote seriously to
him that he considered the Dialogues as ‘the most dangerous writing ever published against
free trade’ (1 May 1770, in Morellet 1991: 132).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 8
Galiani’s Dialogues which were initially prevented from being published. How-
ever, after Terray’s nomination to the Contrôle général the book could come
out on the market and even be distributed with the aid of the goverment; at
the same time the authorities sent Morellet’s 1770 Réfutation of Galiani (writ-
ten at the instigation of Trudaine) to the Bastille where it remained until the
advent of Turgot.18 The second episode deals with Necker’s 1775 book which
was published at the very moment when extensive riots, known as the ‘guerre
des farines’ (‘Flour War’), were breaking out all over the country, demand-
ing traditional grain market regulation and thus threatening Turgot’s policy;
on that occasion Turgot provoked a new polemical essay (Morellet 1775) and
Condorcet published his first economic writings.19
These considerations highlight the differences between those who believed
in the necessity of a transition to a market economy. Various positions were
advocated and authors did not necessarily stick to the opinions adopted by
them at one time. Diderot, for example, was first a supporter of many of
Quesnay’s views20 and, in 1767, an enthusiastic proponent of Pierre-Paul Le
Mercier de la Rivière’s book: L’ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques;
one year later, however, he was extolling Galiani’s ideas and, as a reply to
Morellet’s Réfutation, worked on an ‘Apologie de l’abbé Galiani’ (Diderot 1770)
which remained unpublished at the time:21 all this did not however prevent
18 Other attacks on Galiani’s Dialogues came from the proponents of an unlimited freedom
of trade. Les Éphémérides du citoyen, of course, took an important part in the debate. In
1770, moreover, two critiques were published: the abbé Roubaud’s Récréations économiques,
ou lettres . . . à M. le Chevalier de Zanobi, principal interlocuteur des ‘Dialogues sur le
commerce des blés’, and Le Mercier de la Rivière’s De l’intérêt général de l’Etat . . . avec
la réfutation d’un nouveau système publié en forme de ‘Dialogues sur le commerce des blés’.
Galiani immediately thought to make fun of Le Mercier de la Rivière’s book and wrote a
parody which however remained unpublished at the time (Galiani 1770d). On these debates,
see the historical accounts by Nicolini (1959: 423-519), Koch (1968b: 316-341) and Kaplan
19 Condorcet’s Lettres sur le commerce des grains (1775) were probably deliberately in-
tended for publication, as an antidote, at the same time as Necker’s book. In this year,
1775, two other contributions by Condorcet showed the vivacity of his reply: ‘Monopole
et monopoleur’ and Lettre d’un laboureur de Picardie à M. N. [Necker], auteur prohibitif à
Paris; they precede a much longer work: Réflexions sur le commerce des blés (1776).
20 In the Encyclopédie, the article ‘Laboureur’ (1765) is usually attributed to Diderot.
21 He did however publish an article (Diderot 1771) to introduce Galiani and his Dialogues
to the enlightened European public. On the relationships between Diderot and Galiani, see
Nicolini (1959: 400-410) and the well documented article by Dieckmann (1975); see also the
contributions by Venturi (1960: 184 & sq.) and Koch (1968b).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 9
him from continuing to collaborate occasionally on the Éphémérides and to
discuss Physiocratic ideas calmly. Turgot’s attitude, on the contrary, proved
much more inflexible and Condorcet’s struggle against Necker was merciless.22
Part I. ‘Nil Repente!’
2The relativity of the principles of political economy
A transition to a market economy constitutes first and foremost an economic
reform. Hence, the discourse of the proponents of a total and rapid liberaliza-
tion of economic structures and exchanges was conducted in terms of stability
and efficiency, especially as regards the main market of the time, that of agri-
cultural products. Not only was freedom supposed to stabilize the price of
‘corn’, stabilizing it at a profitable level and eliminating grain crises; it was
also supposed to provoke the adoption of better production methods and to
determine a progressive and cumulative increase in general wealth. Concepts
of liberty, property and, as a consequence, free competition formed the basis of
the construction. But a question inevitably arose: was it wise to rely blindly on
these concepts? Could these principles be applied uncritically in an attempt to
reshape the existing economic order? Galiani and Necker in particular did not
think so; in their opinion, these concepts should be understood in a relative
way and implemented with the greatest care.
On the fundamental principles of the free trade doctrine
This opinion was first grounded in the conviction that circumstances can occur
in which the basic tenets of political economy prove to be conflicting. It is
22 Voltaire’s attitude is also typical in this respect. While he made fun of some aspects of
Physiocratic writings in general and of Le Mercier de la Rivière’s 1767 book in particular,
and while he found Galiani’s book witty and, in substance, agreed with the main ideas of
liberal doctrine (see for example his letters to Grimm and to Turgot, both dated 12 January
1770), he was greatly irritated, on the contrary, by Necker’s 1775 study, the publication of
which induced him to end his relationship with the banker (until — of course — Necker’s
nomination as Directeur du Trésor royal!). On Voltaire and Galiani, see also Pomeau (1975).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 10
especially untrue, Galiani and Necker noted taking up an old idea, that private
interests and public good always go pari passu.
Property and liberty, Galiani asserted in his Dialogues through one of the
protagonists, the Chevalier de Zanobi, are certainly ‘sacred rights for men’
(1770: 189). Nothing should trouble them, he continued, except ‘ties which
link us to society’ or, in other words, except that which concerns ‘the general
interest or damage’ with which politics deals. If nothing harms private justice
and the general interest, then (but only then) man
benefits from all his rights, is free and once more becomes an owner:
I know of no power on earth which can deprive him. Neither the
caprices of a despot nor the speculations of a metaphysician, nei-
ther the insane cries of the multitude nor the ill-founded fears of a
government . . . have any legitimate right . . . to interfere in our
business. (ibid.)
The nuances of this discourse are apparently not innocuous and the stress
put on the ‘ties which link us to society’ and on ‘the general interest’ is grasped
by the person the Chevalier addresses and who exclaims: ‘Do you hear the ex-
ceptions he added to rights of property and of liberty?’ They can, he remarks,
‘lead us a long way’. But, as a matter of fact, they only led Galiani to propose
a moderate foreign trade regulation. His aim, he often stressed to his corre-
spondents,23 was not to forbid foreign grain trade; but, owing to the uncertain
existence of a permanent exportable agricultural surplus (a recurrent problem
in the Dialogues), simply to ‘subordinate’ French foreign grain trade to the do-
mestic circulation through a system of taxes on imports and exports of ‘corn’
and of some derived foodstuffs.24
Necker approved of this. Has trade to be free? Yes, he answered, because
nothing can ‘equal the activity of self-interest’ and because, for their happiness,
23 See for example his letters to Morellet, 26 May 1770 (in Galiani 1881, vol. I: 155-157),
and to Suard, 15 December 1770 (ibid.: 321).
24 Galiani’s interventionism is extremely moderate (see also his early position in favour
of the non fare: 1758: 340). In his opinion public granaries do not constitute a solution
to the problem because, in a country like France, they are synonymous with despotism and
inefficiency. See Galiani’s long and witty letter to Morellet, 26 May 1770 (in 1881, vol. I:
151-160). In a later text, however, Galiani drew a distinction between two very different
kinds of public granaries: still rejecting the usual annona, he stressed the usefulness, in the
case of Genoa, of some kind of magazino di precauzione (Galiani 1773: 736-739).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 11
men must not be ‘unnecessarily hampered’. But, he specified, this principle
does not form ‘an infallible guideline’ and one must not give up the idea of
‘putting it within limits if the public good requires an exception’ (1773: 33).
Here again, it must be said, this ‘limit’ is not very strong (1775: parts III and
IV)25 even if it proved at times more noticeable than Galiani’s: while Necker
accepted a slight regulation of the foreign grain trade, he also admitted, for
example, direct government intervention on the grain market in case of serious
crisis (ibid., part III: ch. XII, and part IV: ch. VI-IX), which Galiani always
refused for an large country like France (Galiani 1770b for example).
It must also be said, however, that such a discourse can be found in the
writings of radical reformers when, for example, they deal with externalities.
But the proponents of a prudent strategy for reform tried to go further and
to integrate these statements in a broader context. An attempt (see Necker
1775) was to put forward a purely social and conventional concept of property.
Morellet considered this line of thought extremely dangerous and susceptible
to justifying all kinds of arbitrary decisions (1770: 98-111; 1775: 12 & sq.;
1821: 173). The ‘property argument’, however, was not so decisive in so far as
this conception of the foundations of property could perfectly well be shared
by a radical reformer as well. Other considerations were consequently needed
to back up the initial qualification of the free trade doctrine.
In this respect, Necker developed another argument based on the idea of
the incompleteness of economic theory. In his opinion, the kind of restrictions
described above were also grounded in the fact that economics was by that time
a recent field of study the object of which, moreover, raised new and difficult
questions because of its complexity. ‘There is only one truth . . . in political
economy as in every other science’, he acknowledged; ‘but who can be sure of
attaining it? Who can grasp completely this troubled mass of feelings, passions
and wills’ (1775: 149) which motivate human beings in economic behaviour?
Who is capable of establishing causality links out of great amounts of economic
facts and data? ‘Sometimes one sees entirely different consequences induced
25 Morellet himself did not stint in exploiting the ‘contradiction’ he believed he had un-
covered between Galiani’s and Necker’s principles, which according to him was dangerous
for the free trade doctrine, and the concrete proposals of these authors, far removed from
those the reader might expect after such entries into theoretical matters. He made this ‘con-
tradiction’ the main axe of his critique of Necker (Morellet 1775). It should nevertheless be
pointed out that Morellet curiously minimised the interventionism of the Genevan banker.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 12
by the same principles; sometimes these consequences provoke such reactions
that they seem to act as a primary cause . . . ; eventually one sees contrary
events to be the effects of the same axioms’ (ibid.: 8). One can thus easily
understand why, in this context, theoretical thinking and the enunciation of
practical rules are not easy tasks.
In reaction against the old administrative rules, it is true, some principles
had indeed been established, which lay precisely at the foundations of the free-
trade doctrine. They were however still incomplete and highly sketchy, Necker
argued, and, because of the other missing pieces of this great theoretical puzzle
of economics, they were likely to be incorrectly understood.
For example, fundamental passions which produce important consequences
for market behaviour were still left aside by the theoreticians who wrongly
thought that they could be neglected and thus only focused their attention on a
small set of alleged fundamental principles (ibid.: 151): they ‘too often neglect
all the details’ whereas the latter contribute decisively to the overall working of
the economy and, moreover, like all the ‘circumstances’ often invoked by him,
usually alter the functionning of these ‘huge forces’ selected at the beginning.
In this way, Necker concluded, difficulties were by no means overcome but only
set aside.
Of course these statements at first sound inappropriate insofar as a powerful
passion lies at the heart of the free-trade doctrine: ‘cupidity’, or selfishness.
But, as a matter of fact, Necker was criticizing here the neglect of all the other
passions such as the common and irrepressible terror of starvation which always
gave rise to violence, riots and plunders, and which inevitably broke out on the
markets in times of anxiety and troubles. The same was said of the speculative
devices, ploys and trickeries of some merchants, which, in given circumstances,
were supposed to hold in check the equilibrating market forces.26
We should therefore be wary of great words such as liberty and property,
Necker insisted (ibid.: part I, ch. xxvi-xxvii): ‘the wider the meaning they
have, the more easily one is led into error, because one cannot decide to impose
26 See also Diderot (1770: 93-94) for an elegant formulation of this common idea: ‘How
is it proved that an unlimited freedom establishes invariable prices? This is only true in
abstraction, disregarding the knaveries, the passions, all the trickeries of avidity and all the
trickeries of fear’. On the role of merchants in the domestic grain trade, see Necker’s long
analysis (1775, part II, ch. I-V: 77-89).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 13
an exception on them’ (ibid.: 67). He consequently warned the proponents of
radical reforms that it would be wrong to render absolute the basic principles of
economics and that ‘there are truths which are likely to turn into errors’ (ibid.:
150). One must not forget the necessary links that these ‘truths’ have with
each other and the reciprocal limitations they entail. Just like good and evil,
truth and error are relative notions which ‘depend on the degree of wisdom or
exaggeration one confers to ideas; a single word alone simply cannot express
the modifications and nuances, and everytime one advocates a single word or
an exclusive principle, one runs the risk of being mistaken and going too far’
(ibid.: 74). Necker’s arguments remained however at a general level and the
theoretical developments he hoped for are unclear.
Galiani, for his part, similarly criticized the over general ideas that cre-
ate belief in a reality simple in its mechanism and ideal in its automatisms.
‘Now, general theories and nothing are almost the same thing’, he wrote to L.
d’Épinay. ‘The Économistes believed that with four rough, vague words and a
dozen general arguments they knew everything, and I proved to them that they
knew nothing’ (6 November 1773, in 1881, vol. II: 274-275). His methodolog-
ical remarks, nevertheless, outline a rather more precise problématique than
that of Necker.
The reader initially risks being led astray by the metaphors and vocab-
ulary used. The appeals to mathematics and to the language of the exact
sciences to formulate correctly and resolve the problems treated by the moral
and political sciences27 can lead to confusion for they use a vocabulary that
is today out of date (the notion of function, for example, is designated by the
expressions ‘undetermined equation’ or ‘undefined equation’); they also tes-
tify to philosophical reminiscences (controversies concerning the calculation of
maximis and minimis and the principle of least action28). They nevertheless
affirm or reaffirm two important propositions: first, that every political, eco-
nomic or moral problem is a problem of maximisation (or of minimisation)
under constraint; and, second, that if the general theories are useful in provid-
ing a framework for the argument, they do not allow for precise measures of
27 See for example Galiani 1770: 205; 1776; 1782: 15-16n, 17-18, 22, 35 n.1, 266-267 n.2;
see also Galiani’s letter to L. d’Épinay, 6 November 1773, in 1881, vol. II: 276.
28 Controversies in which writings by Leibniz and by Maupertuis in particular played an
important role.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 14
economic policy to be dictated as long as a certain number of concrete data
remain unknown.
The first proposition stems from the opinion according to which, since
‘there is no good that is not allied to some bad’ (Galiani 1770: 204), politics,
or a ‘problem of political economy’, is ‘the science of doing the greatest good
to men with the least pain possible, depending on the circumstances’.29 Is it
a case of performing here what is mathematically impossible, in other words a
combined and simultaneous maximisation and minimisation? Examples prove
that it is nothing of the sort30 and that it is a problem of extrema under
constraint. It is thus necessary to attend to the formulation with care; ‘when
in a problem there are several unknowns’, the author continued, ‘the equation
becomes indeterminate, or belongs to the class of problems we call maximis
and minimis, and such in fact are all political problems’ (1770: 205); ‘every
political problem is first of all only resolved by an undefined equation that only
finds itself determined when you apply it to particular cases’ (in 1881, vol. II:
These passages have a precise meaning and in fact return to the second
proposition mentioned above. ‘It is not because a problem is indeterminate
that it cannot be resolved’, Galiani emphasized. ‘It is resolved by means of a
general equation, itself also indeterminate, composed of several unknowns and
comprising all cases. When the unknowns . . . are specified in the particular
circumstances of cases, this equation adapts itself to each circumstance and
resolves the cases’ (1782: 35 n.). The general ‘indeterminate’ or ‘undefined’
equation represents here what, today, we call the theoretical model (or its
reduced form): a model that can only indicate precise measures of economic
policy if each time one specifies its environment, in other words if one states and
determines concretely its share of constraints and parameters.31 Furthermore
29 To L. d’Épinay, 6 November 1773, in 1881, vol. II: 276. ‘Every moral question . . . is
a composite problem always amounting to how, in a given case, one can obtain the greatest
good for oneself at the cost of the smallest possible injury to others, or again how one can
obtain the greatest good for other men at the cost of the least trouble to oneself’ (1782:
30 See Galiani, 1782: 22. See also Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. The entry
‘maximis and minimis’ is to be found in vol. 10, published in 1775.
31 In a sense, this conception is taken up later by A. T. Vandermonde (see Faccarello
1989: 90). Diderot (1770: 87) interpreted Galiani’s critique of general principles — and
their defense by Morellet — as an important methodological opposition between a mod-
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 15
herein resides all the complexity of the operation as well as the main difficulty
presented by the ‘problems of political economy’, for it is still necessary to
select the pertinent elements and to know how to evaluate them.
Galiani returned several times to this question. In a dissertation dedicated
to Genoa, he defined political economy as a science that amounts ‘to applying
very simple general theories to very complicated specific cases’, and declared
that he who believes he possesses this science ‘through only having understood
the theory, is a fool’ (1773: 735): one must above all know how to implement
and apply these theories, which call upon a thorough and detailed knowledge
of each situation envisaged (ibid.). ‘You ask’, Galiani wrote to L. d’Épinay (6
November 1773, in 1881, vol. II: 276),
if it is good to grant total freedom to the export of corn? This
general problem is only resolved by an undefined equation. You
then ask if free export in France should be granted for the year 1773.
Here the problem is determined, since you determine the country
and time; and the same equation, applied to the determined case,
will sometimes give you the affirmative . . . and at other times the
Four basic qualifications
Now, is it possible to go further and to explain more concretely why some of
the ‘truths’ of the free trade doctrine are likely to turn into errors and why the
basic concepts of political economy should not be interpreted as timeless truths
which could be valid whatever the place and the period? The considerations
here deal ultimately with the parameters and the constraints just mentioned,
that is with the concrete and specific features presented by the economic, social
and political environment in which the economic policy of the transition process
has to be worked out and implemented. They entail important practical and
theoretical consequences which, in Galiani’s and Necker’s opinion, eventually
result in a serious qualifying of the (unlimited) free trade doctrine: ‘in the field
ern empirical and scientific attitude (Galiani’s) which starts from specific facts to discover
more general concepts and laws, and a dangerous theoretical apriorism (Morellet’s). This
clearcut opposition is obviously not true (especially if it is noted that most radical reformers
based their theory on a form of empiricism: that of Locke and of Condillac). On Galiani’s
epistemological approach, see also his 1767 manuscript De l’opinion.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 16
of political economy, a single change makes an immense difference’ (Galiani
1770: 20).
The first necessary and significant qualification consists in a — so to speak
— geopolitical determination of the limits within which the basic concepts
of economics ought to be understood. As far as corn trade is concerned, for
example, and following Galiani’s developments, most of these limits can in fact
be discovered if we consider two sets of constraints: first, the area covered by
the country and its geographical and political situation compared with that
of the surrounding states; second, the nature and the quantities of disposable
resources in the country, and above all the situation of the corn-growing land
with respect to communication routes and to the borders of the state.32 Briefly
stated: ‘a good legislation is always the one which suits the constitution, the
forces and the nature of each country’ (1770: 237; see also ibid.: 86).33
A small sovereignty like Geneva, for example, did not possess any fertile
land and was surrounded by large and powerful states which could suddenly
and rapidly starve it through blockade. In such a small country, Galiani as-
serted, the grain trade is necessarily a highly political question. As a conse-
quence, this strategic trade should not be left to private enterprise and the
government should take charge of it. The legislator could do so quite easily
and without waste since the small number of citizens allows an exact forecast
of needs and an efficient management of public stocks. ‘When [corn] supply
concerns politics, it ceases to be the object of trade. The [public] corn granary
will doubtless be expensive, but it will be a necessary expense, as is that of the
troops and like all those that are important to the safety of the state’ (1770:
42). On the contrary, a vast state like France with abundant land and a large
population should not adopt this kind of policy: in such a country the grain
32 The analysis appears in various parts of the Dialogues. See for example ibid.: 20-22, 35
& sq., etc. It is important to note that Galiani’s position is not one of historicism. It mainly
consists in an analysis conducted with a set of criteria: two political criteria respectively
linked to sovereignty and to the form of government (see hereafter); and a geographical
criterion based on spatial economics (on this last point see Dockès, 1969, part II, chap. V).
33 As a result of some general analogies between the developments of Galiani’s theory and
the constructions of Vico or of Montesquieu, on the other hand, attempts have been made
by commentators to link Galiani’s thought to his Neapolitan, French or Scotch philosophical
environment: see for example Croce 1909, Nicolini 1952, Tagliacozzo 1968 and Larrère 1992;
these points of view are however partial and controversial and the question still needs to be
studied seriously.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 17
trade can be left without harm to private initiative which always proves more
rapid and more efficient than a public administration. Government should
also avoid intervening in markets. Its only preoccupation should be to ensure
liberty and to institute a foreign grain trade regulation if, for example, corn-
growing land is located on the boundaries of the state. But it has to avoid the
implementation of this type of regulation if this land is situated in the interior
of the country, and provided that the existence of an exportable grain surplus
is ascertained.34
Necker took up this argument in a rather allusive way.35 He insisted how-
ever on a second noticeable limitation to the basic principles. He expressed
the opinion that if the liberal foundations of economic policies are eventually
always preferable to regulation, the grain trade constitutes the only exception
to this general rule. It would certainly be a nonsense, he admitted, to regulate
the majority of market transactions: ‘this would replace the active and zeal-
ous glance of self-interest with the apathetic one of administration; this would
mean showing the merchants a road they could find themselves perfectly well
and whose choice, depending on an infinity of combinations, can never be made
by the legislator’ (1775: 73). The legislator has to confine himself to ‘installing
barriers at the edges of known precipices and then to allowing people stroll as
they like within the common space’ (ibid.). But if price and quantity move-
ments of most commodities are not generally of great importance, the case
of agricultural products is fundamentally different because they must provide
food and work for the nation through their production, transformation and
marketing. And it is Necker’s opinion that this position is tightly bound to
the only indelible prejudice of the people. ‘What a principle! . . . Thus
people’s prejudices make the rule! They will doubtless make it each time that
prejudices are part and parcel of their own nature’. But, Necker soon added,
‘one must not be afraid of this truth; the people will always have only one
vigorous and powerful feeling, the only one which cannot be defeated by the
administration: that which is connected with their subsistence’ (ibid.: 62).
34 Following the same line of thought, the case of the province of Genoa (Italy) is also
examined in a further memorandum (Galiani 1773).
35 ‘A grain regulation’, he wrote, ‘which in a country apparently results from the laws of
nature would turn upside down another country with less fertile land, a different situation
and governed by different customs’ (Necker 1775: 8; but see also 26-27).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 18
A third qualification of the understanding of the basic principles of political
economy is still more fundamental. It deals with a delicate theoretical point:
the analysis of disequilibria and of the stability of economic equilibrium. The
argument, developed by Galiani, focuses on the working of the forces and the
length of the period of time necessary to return to the point of equilibrium
after a disruptive shock has taken place. In agreement with the free-trade doc-
trine, Galiani asserted in substance that the stability of equilibrium is certain,
provided free competition prevails. He stressed immediately, however, that
this process of return to a state of equilibrium is complex and always lasts a
long time. The time needed may be longer than that men can endure: hence
it is not surprising if important problems are likely to arise in the meantime.
Nature, Galiani insisted, ‘does not take care of us . . . and we do have
to mind her’ (1770: 209). ‘Without doubt’, he explained, she ‘always comes
back faithfully to the laws her Creator gave her to last eternally. Without
doubt, she places everything once again in equilibrium’ (ibid.: 209): this is
‘a brilliant idea in the mind of a metaphysician’ (ibid.: 210). Unfortunately,
however, ‘the length of the return periods’ is never taken into account by this
‘metaphysician’ and this is obviously a big mistake because, as for us, ‘we
cannot wait’ (ibid.). Obstacles frequently arise in cases of urgency; needs are
pressing and man’s constitution is weak: every ‘practitioner’ knows that well.
As a consequence, Galiani stressed, if nothing is more true than the fact ‘that
free trade will spread corn everywhere there are consumers and money’, this is
true ‘in theory alone because men aim at gain’. But if ‘the theorem goes well,
the problem goes very badly’, he added:
be careful that, in practice, it takes time to post a letter in order
to spread the news that a town is short of corn to a region where
there is plenty of grain. It also takes time before grain arrives; and
if this period lasts fifteen days and your stocks are only sufficient
for a week, this town remains eight days without bread and for this
insect called man eight days of fasting are more than enough to
die.’ (ibid.: 211; see also 165-166)
It is thus impossible to trust in nature and in its automatic mechanisms. On
the contrary, ‘our task in this world is to fight her’ (ibid.: 210). Political action
consists precisely in avoiding or in overcoming all destabilizing shocks and in
maintaining an equilibrium ‘which would be that of art, contrary to that of
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 19
nature’ (ibid.: 238): ‘art corrects nature in almost all respects and . . . with
time and care it sometimes succeeds in defeating and in controlling her’ (ibid.:
How then to rely on a liberalization policy conceived and led by theoreti-
cians who neglect these essential aspects of things? This would inevitably mean
taking the risk of great evils. From this point of view, however, Galiani did not
deduce radical consequences (other writers did it instead) and in the end his
critique remained extremely moderate:36 we know that, as a proponent of free
internal grain trade,37 he only asked for a slight regulation of foreign trade.
On this point also Necker made this critique his own (Necker 1773: 32-33) as
well as part of the policy recommendation.
From this analysis there follows eventually a fourth qualification of the ba-
sic principles of economics. In Galiani’s and Necker’s opinion the errors at the
origin of the (mistaken) conclusions drawn by the advocates of an alleged con-
cessionless and cautionless free-trade doctrine result from a misapprehension
of facts and a lack of experience. This point will be mentioned again below
when dealing with the causes of reform failures; it nevertheless entails theo-
retical aspects which are worth noting here. As a matter of fact, would the
Économistes otherwise have based their propositions on average prices ‘which
exist only in reasoning’ (Galiani 1770: 211), i.e. Quesnay’s ‘prix communs’,
instead of taking into consideration the only prices which matter, the actual
rates of exchange? Would they otherwise have been so ignorant of the genuine
characteristics of agricultural countries?38 And would they have also so greatly
overestimated the resulting advantages of free trade? On this last point as on
the others, only a moderate conclusion can be drawn: ‘free trade is a good
thing because one must side with liberty each time it is possible to do so and
36 Galiani’s general position is restated in an interesting memorandum to Sartine (Galiani
1770c) in which he warned the French government that the repeal of all the liberal decisions
taken in the 1760s and the resulting ban on grain exports was a folly. See also Galiani’s
letter to Baudouin, 28 November 1772 (in 1881, vol. II: 141 & sq).
37 See especially his very firm position in 1770: 224-225. The memorandum referred to in
the preceding footnote is also of great interest in this respect: see in particular the (liberal)
measures Galiani advised to be taken in case of a grain crisis. See also his letter to L.
d’Épinay, 13 November 1773, in Galiani 1881, vol. II: 280.
38 ‘Neither you nor your Écrivains have ever seen agricultural countries and your descrip-
tion [of such a country] no more corresponds to the truth than the shepherds trimmed with
ribbons, Hylas and Philène, resemble our dirty herdsmen’ (Galiani 1770: 104).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 20
each time this liberty will produce some benefit; but the benefits we can expect
are much less than those imagined on this subject by the lively imagination of
the Écrivains’ (ibid.: 225).
3First threats to reform: vested interests, habits
and public opinion
It is Galiani’s opinion that the French authors made a mistake when they
termed ‘science économique’ the new field of economics: they should have in-
stead named it, he asserted, ‘science politique’ (Galiani 1773: 736).39 Similarly,
to analyse the transition process to a market economy as a mere technical ques-
tion of stabilization, regulation and efficiency would also be a serious mistake.
Indeed, as for all major reforms, this process brings into play a determined
social and political balance. Moreover, in the present case of a transition to
impersonal regulation through market prices and mechanisms, the problem
was also in the end eminently political and could imply nothing less than a
modification in — or a change of — the regime. The contemporaries often
understood what was at stake and expressed it in diverse forms.
Market economy, grain trade and political regimes
In his own way Galiani was clear about this. ‘If you succeed in modifying
the corn administration too much in France’, he wrote to J.-B. A. Suard, ‘you
alter the form and the constitution of government: this change being either
the cause or the consequence of the entire freedom to export’ (8 September
1770, in Galiani 1881, vol. I: 245). In the Dialogues, the considerations on
the emblematic functioning of the grain market are also unambiguous. Corn,
the author argued, was indeed likely to be considered in two different ways.
Like all commodities, ‘it belongs to trade and economic laws’; as a ‘necessary’,
however, and consequently ‘major concern in the civil order of society’, ‘it
39 In his ‘Sermon prononcé le jour de l’an 1770’ included in his Correspondance littéraire,
Friedrich Melchior von Grimm declared, speaking of the Dialogues: ‘there is no one here
who has not perceived that this book is not so much a book on the corn trade as a work
on the science of goverment in general, a luminous and new model of the way in which each
question of State must be envisaged and elaborated’. In Germany, for example, the first
translation of Galiani’s 1770 book was entitled: Dialoge über die Regierungskunst (1777).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 21
belongs to politics and to the “raison d’État” ’ (1770: 33-34). Of course, the
two conceptions cannot in practice co-exist simultaneously without damage.
How, then, to decide which is the better adapted to the country?
At this point the geopolitical reasoning reappears. ‘In the small [sovereign-
ties] corn is a matter that belongs entirely to the sphere of politics’, Galiani
asserted. ‘In large ones, it could be only a trade concern’ (ibid.: 35-36). But
why could it be so? Because the dimension and the situation of the state are
only part of the story. The geopolitical criterion has to be completed here in
a decisive way by further political considerations. The nature of the political
regime prevailing in the country also has — and perhaps above all — to be
taken into account: ‘in all government, corn legislation is in tune with the
spirit of the government’ (to Suard, 8 September 1770, in 1881, vol. I: 244).
For example, are the inhabitants subject to an absolute despotic power?
Or, on the other hand, do they have political rights, do they enjoy autonomy?
In the first case, they are serfs or slaves; in the second, they are free. In each of
them, Galiani continued, a particular relation to life or to survival inevitably
takes shape. The master or the despot are always supposed to feed the slaves
or the subjects, and this food is the only thing that these slaves or subjects
can ask for and will effectively demand. ‘Any animal . . . that gives up or
loses its freedom, . . . is in the same instant released from the responsibility
of feeding itself. This law is as general as it is eternal’ (ibid.: 216). In the
other kinds of states, on the other hand, governments do not owe the free man
anything but the very conditions of the exercise of that freedom. ‘Thus . . .
let us establish that the varying degrees of concern that sovereigns have shown
for [corn] supply’ have always been related ‘to the varying degrees of freedom
that they accord their subjects’ (1770: 218).
So it was Galiani’s contention that the edict of 1764, while open to sharp
criticism from an economic point of view (see ibid., eighth dialogue), was nev-
ertheless of great political relevance.40 After ‘the reciprocal defiance of the
people and the sovereign’ (ibid.: 226) which formed the foundation of the for-
mer policies, he wrote, confidence eventually came as the essential cog in the
40 In his view it marked the transition of French people to adulthood: ‘they were minors
who had to be fed. Now they are adults, emancipated, they must think about feeding
themselves, and their free industry must be the source of their fortune and their opulence’
(Galiani 1770: 220).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 22
machine of the state. And since ‘the pivot has changed’, ‘the entire machine
must be changed’ (ibid.). But, it might be asked, to what extent? Once private
enterprise is allowed in the grain market, should the government grant entire
freedom of trade or should it try to regulate it one way or another?
As a matter of fact, the French monarchical regime was neither despotic nor
democratic: it represented a case halfway between these two extremes, which
Galiani once called a ‘limited government’.41 In such a regime, only limited
changes are possible. This is why, while enthusiastically accepting the new age
of confidence and the free internal trade it implied, Galiani advocated a foreign
trade regulation. ‘Under a despot’, he wrote to Suard (8 September 1770, in
Galiani 1881, vol. I: 245), ‘free [grain] export is impossible; the tyrant is too
afraid of the cries of his starving slaves. In a democracy, freedom to export
is natural and inescapable: governing and governed people being the same,
confidence is boundless. Under a mixed or temperate government, freedom can
only be of a modified and temperate kind’. As a corollary, Galiani stressed,
a complete change in French grain regulation and an alteration in ‘the form
and the constitution of government’ inevitably go hand in hand, ‘this change
being either the cause or the consequence of the complete freedom to export’.
To L. d’Épinay, he merely gave a rough outline of his thought: ‘The monarchy
essentially hinges on the inequality in estates; the inequality in estates on a
low price of food; and a low price of food on constraints’. Complete economic
freedom was to raise the price of corn;42 it therefore was notably to increase
the wealth of the peasantry who could thus resist the power of the monarchy
and provoke a transition to a republican form of government.43
The fragility of social equilibrium
Whatever one may think of this view, the debate was necessarily broadened.
Free-trade ideas now not only included clear political considerations that con-
temporaries could not be completely unaware of; but, leaving their strictly
41 To Suard, 15 December 1770, in Galiani 1881, vol. I: 320. The expression is Suard’s:
see his letter to Galiani, 14 October 1770, in Nicolini 1959, ‘Appendice decima’: 553.
42 If only because, for different reasons, the exportable grain surplus was supposed to
represent quite a small amount.
43 2 January 1773, in Galiani 1881, vol. II: 154. See also 22 January 1774, ibid.: 290.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 23
economic field, they also turned to a general discourse on reform. The tran-
sition to a market economy thus appeared as a particular instance of a wider
problem: the determination of the best way of introducing major and success-
ful changes. As a consequence two kinds of discourse, economic and political,
were intrinsically intertwined.
Any new economic policy, any outstanding reform, the authors stressed
with different degrees of emphasis, necessarily affect the entire social struc-
ture. This structure is complex and its composition as well as its equilibrium
are the results of history. ‘In this immense machine of the political state, . .
. everything is connected’, noted Galiani (1770a: 245); this is why, he added,
‘political science is so difficult’ (ibid.: 246). Society is but a fragile mixture
of divergent interests, Necker insisted, founded ‘on a gentle reciprocity of con-
cessions and sacrifices’ (Necker 1773: 34). In this context, the measures for
economic liberalization may be seen as perturbing shocks that have extensive
repercussions throughout the nation. They disturb the prevailing equilibrium
with the risk, Galiani stressed, ‘of seeing the entire machine overturned’ (1770:
Economic policy, for example, may well help agriculture if it were ‘out of
equilibrium’: but certainly not by disrupting the other sectors, which would
inevitably happen if the measures were to bring about a rise in the price of
corn. ‘The upheavals break the links and the springs, and the machine is
destroyed. Do you know that I consider this sudden increase in the value of
corn as the most violent and most dangerous upheaval that one can give a
state?’ (ibid.: 246). From this point of view, a free foreign-trade policy is
worse than a revaluation of specie in terms of a unit of account. Indeed, once
the devaluation of the unit is known, everyone can take account of this in
transactions and, if possible, pass the cost on. But a persistent price increase
induced by free exports introduces a period of serious uncertainties and troubles
from which many — if not most — will suffer. For ‘who can calculate the
change occurring in corn? It varies in accordance with harvests and with
exports. One can see that it is more expensive, but by how much? . . . One just
doesn’t know. So it is impossible to get appropriate compensations. A lengthy
succession of years, attempts and tests are needed for such a calculation to be
made by all men’ (ibid.: 250). In the end, Galiani concluded, ‘after a terrible
upheaval and a whole generation of suffering, bitterness and worry, nobody will
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 24
have gained anything nor will anything have been done except many pieces of
this great machine broken or dislocated’ (ibid.: 249). Galiani’s discourse was
rather general. Necker, while sharing the same conclusions, tried (1775: 37-42)
instead to describe precisely what happened during the disequilibrium period
and to show that all the groups in society were not affected in the same way
by the perturbing shock: there were in fact losers and winners, even if gains
were only momentary.
Sometimes however, Galiani admitted, gains can occur in the long run and
eventually benefit the greatest part of the population; but the point is that
the welfare of future generations never justifies the torments suffered by the
present one. In his letter to Suard (8 September 1770) in which he stressed the
political consequences of an important change in grain administration, Galiani
commented in his usual provocative way:
a change in the constitution is a beautiful thing when it is done,
but a nasty one to do. It greatly worries two or three generations
and only benefits posterity. Posterity is only a possible being, and
we are actual beings. Must actual beings put themselves out for
the possible ones, and be unhappy? No. Therefore, keep your
government and your grain. (in Galiani 1881, vol. I: 245-246)
We should therefore mistrust apparently simple remedies such as the un-
limited freedom of trade, Necker also insisted: ‘the social architecture refuses
this unity of means and this simplicity of conception’ (1775: 68). This is why,
also, an absolute and permanent prohibition of foreign grain trade is just as
reprehensible, especially if it is noted that an extremist policy sooner or later
necessarily generates its opposite and that ‘the change from entire liberty to
total prohibition is an abrupt and violent change, contrary to the principles of
any good policy’ (Galiani 1770: 251).
It is necessary to renounce the concern with the people’s happiness,
it is necessary to cease to be interested in maintaining the inner
calm and prosperity of the State, or it is necessary to position
one’s reflection between these two extremes, continual prohibition
and freedom. (Necker 1775: 122)
Thus, on account of its multiple but sometimes not easily foreseable results,
any reform necessarily encounters obstacles that are likely to delay it or even
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 25
to cancel its effects. The first obstructions naturally originate in the different
ways ‘the various classes in society’ consider the grain issue; ‘without intending
to be unjust, men almost always pay attention to their own interest’ (Necker,
1775: 8) and react negatively when these interests are damaged. This state
of things is of course greatly complicated when vested interests of all kinds
consciously try to thwart reforms and to maintain the previous (and, for them,
advantageous) economic order. These situations were too frequent and too
obvious to deserve a special analysis: Galiani and Necker merely alluded to
them in their books. But it is interesting to note that, in a previous memoran-
dum written and sent to the Neapolitan Foreign minister Bernardo Tanucci in
1765, Galiani’s analysis of the French reactions against Bertin’s and L’Averdy’s
liberalization edicts is mainly led, precisely, in terms of vested interests.44
The other obstacles come from the inertia of the social structure, which
mainly results from habits and prejudices. Galiani first took the dictum lit-
erally whereby habit is man’s second nature, and he stressed that this habit
provokes spontaneous reactions against any innovation. Man, he wrote, is but
‘a ductile material through habit . . . ; out of habit one gives his strengths, his
nature . . . an extension which initially seemed impossible; and what is more
remarkable, as soon as he has done this, he finds that it is quite natural . . .
, that it is his physical state’ (1770a: 204). This is why the author made fun
of theoreticians who neglected this essential aspect of things and showed too
much confidence in the power of reason.45 But this is also why the reformer
could be led to despair: ‘Oh! how many efforts, worries and sacrifices are still
necessary for the administrator . . . when he wishes to make men abandon
their habits!’ (Necker 1775: 149). Fortunately, however, this resisting factor
also involves hope. A habit takes root and, therefore, one only needs to know
how to introduce it: that is precisely part of the art of a legislator.
44 Galiani’s 1765 memorandum, along with his correspondence with Tanucci (see especially
the letters he wrote in 1764), raise the problem of a possible evolution of his thought. This
question cannot however be dealt with here; but see for example F. Nicolini (1959: XI-XII)
and Ph. Koch (1968a: 13-23).
45 In a letter to L. d’Épinay, dated 24 May, 1777, Galiani announces humorously that he
had written a work during a coach trip. ‘It is done and is perfect, as I have done the titles
of the chapters. You only have to fill them in, which is very easy, since they fill themselves.
The idea at the origin of this work came after reading Grotius (Oh! what a raving man!)’
(in Galiani 1881, vol. II: 508-509). The general title of the ‘work’ is significant: De l’Instinct
et des habitudes de l’homme, ou principes du droit de la nature et des gens.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 26
The strength of public opinion
The political expression that connotated possible resistance to — or more
rarely, as will be seen below, wide acceptance of — reforms was first ‘opinion’
and then ‘public opinion’, supposedly deriving from the ‘people’ or from the
‘public’. Towards the middle of the 18th century, the concept of public opinion
emerged with some force in France from the enduring religious and economic
controversies46 which progressively undermined the authority and the legiti-
macy of the king. We know to what extent the notions of public and public
opinion, whose content and meaning have greatly evolved, were poorly defined,
and that anyone could read into them whatever they wanted.47 But whatever
the moving and changing sociological foundations were, the essential point was
that, progressively, opinion or public opinion became a sort of unavoidable in-
terlocutor or a kind of tribunal before which affairs had to be debated, the
favours of which one hoped for and which one could always try to convince or
to manipulate: in short, a new source of power, of political legitimacy. ‘This
superiority of public opinion is especially felt in a monarchical state’, wrote
Necker lucidly, ‘
because in it the members of society do not have any role to play
in the making of laws; they therefore put all their strength in opin-
ion: they make it into the representative of their wishes and their
thoughts; and they turn it into a tribunal that one is obliged to re-
spect although there be neither soldiers nor constables; but because
it has sovereign control over the two major springs of perfected so-
ciety, esteem and scorn. (1775: 87)
46 After the pathbreaking book by Habermas (1962), contemporary historical studies on
the nature and significance of public opinion have emerged. For our subject, an interesting
contribution is Baker’s study (1987, 1990). On the ‘public sphere’, see also Habermas (1990),
Baker (1992) and Calhoun (1992). Farge (1992) illustrates the formation and the perception
of French public opinion through some historical (religious and political) events and Kaplan
(1982) studies people’s fears over grain markets; the contributions by Ozouf (1987) and
Chartier (1990: ch. II) are also of some interest
47 Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who analysed the strength of public opinion in his celebrated
Tableaux de Paris (1782-1788), nevertheless made fun of ‘Monsieur le Public’: ‘Does the
public exist? What is the public? Through what medium does it express its will?’ Mercier
wondered how a painter could ever represent this ‘undefinable mixture’ and described this
‘Public’ as a man extravagantly dressed with pieces of different costumes pertaining to all
kinds of social groups or classes. He concluded ironically: ‘You see that this man must think
as he is dressed’ (in Mercier 1978: 349-350).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 27
Public opinion thus constituted an effective political force that no one (and
especially not the reformer) could ignore. Economists in France were well aware
of this. Since the times when Boisguilbert and Vauban, having given up the
hope of convincing the men in power, had published their work to publicize
their views, they started progressively appealing and resorting to it.48 As a
matter of fact Quesnay and the Physiocrats paid considerable attention to
opinion49 and Turgot and Condorcet were also highly concerned by this issue
(below, Part II). Of course the theme is not absent from Galiani’s writings
(even if he did not employ the term)50 and it is also touched upon by Necker,
first very succinctly in his 1773 Éloge and then much more extensively in his
1775 book and subsequent writings. For our purposes, it is thus essential to
note the weight that public opinion took on for the reformer.
What does this force express? The analysis can in fact differ considerably
depending on the field (economics, politics, religion) under study. A first idea
that comes to mind is traditional. Public opinion can be opposed to genuine
knowledge: it is then seen as highly uncertain and changing and constitutes
an ideal vehicle for all the prejudices diffused in society or at least for all
ideas that have not been thought out maturely. It therefore takes on the old
meaning of opinion, is sometimes synonymous with error, irrationality, and,
in this case, the ‘public’ is often the entire people themselves or, at least,
the greatest (and uneducated) part of them. However, a second and very
different idea might also be put forward. Far from proceeding from — and
leading to — error, public opinion may be enlightened and express a rational
thought, a truth. The ‘public’ is then restricted mainly to the ‘enlightened’
public; the borderline between enlightened and unenlightened people of course
48 Secrecy over public affairs was a traditional and important rule for the French monar-
chy. Its transgression was considered as an offence. As late as 1764, a Déclaration du Roi
prohibited ‘the printing, selling or peddling’ of any writing concerning the finance adminis-
49 An anecdote illustrates well the spirit of the times. To a speaker who was arguing that
it was the halberds, that is the armed force, that led the kingdom, Quesnay asked: ‘And
who leads the halberd, Sir ?’ As the speaker did not reply, Quesnay added: ‘It is opinion, it
is on opinion that one must work’ (cited in Hecht 1958: 241).
50 As far as we know, Galiani wrote of the ‘feelings’ of ‘the people’. In the Dialogues, he
mentioned the ‘public’ (1770: 128) as referring to enlightened opinion. It should be noted
that Galiani once began writing a book entitled De l’opinion; as was the case for many other
of his writing projects, however, only a few pages were completed and the work remained
largely unfinished (see Galiani 1767).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 28
remains uncertain, implicit, and, moreover, fluctuates with the problems and
the authors considered. It can also be said that, in this context, its sociological
characterization is of no importance. This second meaning apparently became
widespread in French political debates from 1770 to 1780 onwards.
These two broad conceptions may of course be stated with all kinds of
nuances, and their possible qualifications are likely to assume a great relevance
because they may induce important differences in the nature of feasible reforms
and their timetables.
Of course the various meanings of opinion and public opinion can be found
in the economic writings of this time (and indeed at times co-exist in a single
text). The first meaning noted above often occurs and effectively mainly refers
to the mass of the uneducated people. In Galiani’s Dialogues, and in a rather
fleeting way, it is linked to the state of servitude (or ‘minority’) of the people.
In such a case, as already noted, the sovereign implicitly committed himself
to ‘feeding’ the people whatever the circumstances. If a problem arose and
food was in short supply, the people revolted, ‘suspected fraud and abuses’.
And how could such suspicions not arise, since the sovereign is apparently
omnipotent? ‘When man has been divested of everything’, Galiani commented,
‘he acquires the right to judge from events’ (1770: 218). Necker’s 1773 position
was not fundamentally different. ‘The multitude of men is quite wild’, he
wrote: ‘it is eager to love and to hate’, it lets itself be moved ‘only by simple
passions’; without being capable of judging anything whatsoever, ‘it needs a
man to whom it can ascribe its happiness or sadness. Circumstances, a word
whose empire is great in the eyes of the careful observer, is a word the multitude
never understands’ (1773: 60).
The second meaning of public opinion noted above is far more difficult
to find in the writings of Galiani and Necker. It seems touched on in the
Dialogues where a rather positive picture of people’s sentiments, affections
and instincts can also be found. But this impression is actually induced by a
different conception. As a matter of fact, the people ‘do not need to reason’, the
author claimed: ‘they only need to feel and to experience’ (1770: 178). But
these feelings nonetheless express a truth and, provided they pay attention
to them, the politician and the legislator may rectify — or simply take —
a decision in an adapted way. Expressions coming from the people, Galiani
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 29
explained, are likely to point out when a measure overshoots acceptable limits,
and thus indicate when and why a reform will not be accepted: they quite
simply express the fact that the bad effects it produces outstrip the good ones.
This limit can, of course, be calculated, but only the ‘wise man’ can do that.
‘The people feel it by instinct. The man in charge of public responsibility
perceives it with time. The modern writer [i. e. the Physiocrat] never notices
it’ (ibid.: 205). And to the President in the Dialogues who commented: ‘As
wise men are extremely rare I see that you attach a greater importance to the
sensations of the people and of the practices of the persons in charge [of public
responsibilities] than to the opinions of authors’ (ibid.), the Chevalier de Zanobi
(i.e. Galiani) merely replied: ‘If you understand me, keep the secret’. The
argument is surely polemical, but it would certainly be a mistake to consider
it only from this point of view.
Galiani’s conception differs therefore from the concept of ‘enlightened opin-
ion’ to which reference is made in the last decades of the 18th century, on
which we traditionally call when we consider political and religious questions
and which marks the truly positive side of public opinion. The overall option
of the Dialogues is different: the truth that the feelings of the people express
is not entirely rational, does not result basically from a debate in the public
sphere and eventually originates in ‘instinct’,51 or in ‘nature’. In the end, this
option refers chiefly to Galiani’s peculiar ideas on ‘nature’ and on education52
as an extension of ‘nature’. ‘There is more nature in this world and less viola-
tion of its laws than you suppose’, he wrote in his provocative Dialogue sur les
femmes (Galiani 1772: 635). ‘A lot has been said on education and, as usual,
it is still a book to be written. A great part of education is an instinct and is
therefore nature herself, a necessity, an organic law of our species’ (ibid.: 639).
Necker seemed however to adopt the most positive and modern meaning of
public opinion when he compared it to a tribunal. The same impression prevails
51 ‘The people are not absurd and stupid like the Ecrivains, always lavish with their praises,
do them the honour of repeating them at any moment. But they are sensitive and, when
their necessities of life are affected, they cry’ (ibid.: 162); ‘they are great calculators through
instinct’ (ibid.: 179). See also 1770c: 61-62: ‘Do not think that the boorish peasants in the
country, the churls in the towns, the farmers, etc., are stupid because they do not speak
French correctly . . . These people judge cleverly, calculate exactly and make accurate
predictions as to the effects and the duration of a law which affects them’.
52 For some comments on this point, see Guerci 1975b.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 30
when he claimed that public opinion may be — and even is — more enlightened
than the law since it is the heir of centuries of learned thought and experience:
‘it is more enlightened, because whereas the law may be the work of a single
man who can be mistaken, opinion is the result of the thought of nations and
centuries’ (1775: 87). But this characterization was not predominant in his
writings of the 1770s.53 A slightly different view in fact prevailed which can
be considered as a kind of halfway house between the two clearcut definitions
we started from. This third way, whilst emphasizing the negative aspects
of opinion, nevertheless makes it play a moderating and regulating role in
society, as distant from enlightened reason as was the conception in Galiani’s
Dialogues.54 For even if they are often of an irrational kind, Necker explained,
the movements of public opinion are not vain; they often have their roots in
an instinctive defence against the ‘abuses’ linked to property rights in a regime
of unlimited free trade. Opinion thereby plays the role of a ‘salutary brake’,
an opportune counterweight. The unlimited freedom of trade, Necker wrote,
could only really exist
so long as the opinion fighting against it will prevent its being used
according to its own [sole] interest. Without this salutary brake one
would experience how dangerous it is to incite all the citizens to
participate in the corn trade; we shall see what remarkable move-
ments of prices will be the effect of this unbound freedom, if one
could practice this with confidence; if all the rich and active men in
France could calmly listen to their cupidity without fearing either
public scorn or the movements of the people. (1775: 87)
The times are thus definitely over in which opinion, ‘the queen of the world’,
was merely seen as entirely determined by the laws.55 Since it constituted
53 It is instead developed in his 1784 book (see especially vol. I, ‘Introduction’: xxiii-xxv,
lxii-lxiv and lxviii-lxxii for example). Of great interest is also Necker’s analysis of the nature
and strength of opinion in connection with the nature of the political regime (on this point,
see Baker 1987, 1990).
54 On the ‘instinct’ of the people, see 1775: 8. In 1784 (1784: xli) Necker also referred to
‘a kind of [infallible] instinct’ which he still supposed to be effective in the multitude.
55 See for example Herbert (1753: 10): ‘Opinion is the queen of the world, and the law
is the mother of opinion. Awkward regulations, repeated prohibitions, increased formalities
will induce in the minds of all kinds of nations ideas of constraint and of timidity which
. . . influence their actions and their thoughts: and the differences we observe between
the peoples in a region are only the result of the nature of laws and of the habit of the
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 31
an autonomous force that was at once physical (riots!), moral and political,
opinion was now conceived of as a possible and dreadful obstacle facing the
reformer. Whether it was the refuge of errors and prejudices, or the place
where a ‘regulating’ instinct was expressed, or even the site of a kind of wisdom
accumulated over time and which made it ‘more enlightened’ than the law, it
in any case turned out to be stronger than the law because it imbued everyone
from within: ‘it is stronger because it is present everywhere, because it exercises
its empire in society and even within families’ (Necker 1775: 87). The reformer
should consequently pay a great deal of attention to it for, Necker specified,
when this force expresses itself it rarely does so with calm and serenity.
It is rare that it is moderate in its decrees; it is rare that it stops
where it should do so; the impulsion that it needs to become a
powerful force and resist obstacles almost always throws it beyond
its goal . . . It could be said that public opinion can only act on
mores by means of its own excess. (ibid.: 89)
4Second threats to reform: sectarianism and enthu-
It can happen, however, that an influential fraction of the opinion wishes for a
rapid passage to a regime of free competition. This opinion is not thus judged
any the wiser by our authors: it has merely passed from one extreme to the
other and, at the least obstacle, will return in favour of the opposite opinion.
Galiani stressed this inconsistency.56 However, more importantly — and it is
this point which must concern us at present — the obstacles raised in the way
of the reforms can in fact come as much from supporters of these reforms as
from the adversaries.
The hasty acceptance of over-general ideas
In contrast to the state of opinion which blocks everything through lack of
knowledge and daring, the roots of which are immersed in diffuse ways in
vested interests, concern for primary needs, history, or tradition, this second
56 See also Necker’s stigmatization of ‘the French fancy’ (1775: 120).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 32
possible state had identifiable and recent causes. It was the achievement of
the propaganda by the proponents of an unlimited freedom of trade. It was
they who impeded the view that reality is infinitely more nuanced than their
schemas maintained, that men have not always lived in error and, finally, that
‘there are liberties which cover the slavery of the multitude, and prohibitions
that only serve as an opportunity to exercise its faculties and forces’ (Necker
1775: 73).
How can one explain this contrived state? Certainly not, Galiani asserted,
on the grounds of benefits induced from the policy of the liberalization of trade
sanctioned by the laws of 1763 and 1764; for, on the contrary, it was prosperity
and the sense of security it engendered that carried the liberal theory and
provided it with supporters. Is the sea calm and the wind good ? The voyage
is a pleasant one.
Sailors never talk of leaving their sails to the wind’s mercy unless
they see a vast calm. The general good fortune of Europe, the
particular good fortune of France has given birth to the principle
of allowing nature to take its course . . . The ideas formulated
in the minds of the Écrivains, the freedom to broadcast them, the
ease they have met in persuading, . . . are the effect of the calm,
of prosperity. (1770: 212)
Next, in order to understand the emergence and the vogue of slogans in
support of an unlimited freedom, it was again necessary to remember, Necker
observed, that political economy was a new science. In the confusion of ideas
that inevitably prevails at this stage, are not the authors naturally inclined
to succomb to ‘these illusions of self-love, which persuade us we have seen
everything, once we have looked for a few moments; and which wreathe us
with laurel at the beginning of our careers, dispensing us from making them’
(1775: 151)? Party spirit easily finds a hold here and creates itself as a partial
arbitrator ‘who believes even more than he doesn’t know’ (ibid.: 10).
Finally, the general ideas the radical reformers are fond of are often attrac-
tive ones and it is this that can constitute their force and cause their diffusion.
They are simple too, at least in appearance, since they allow themselves to be
summed up in a word or slogan: this is a second major attraction. Confused
sentiments play a part in their acceptance, deriving from somewhat irrational
bases, that can prevail in the opinion at a given moment and mean certain
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 33
appellations or slogans are instinctively preferred to others (‘what sentiment
made us hate, our spirit banished’, ibid.: 153), thus tending to dictate ill-
adapted choices. Freedom of trade presents itself precisely under this guise.
For what reason? Rightly or wrongly, the regime of competition is often assimi-
lated to that of personal freedom and well-being, while that of regulation finds
itself indissolubly tied to the idea of physical and political constraint. ‘The
unlimited love of liberty in political economy and the exaggerated hate for
prohibition’, Necker continued, ‘go back to man’s childhood; born in weakness
. . . , struck by the long spectacle of his servitude . . . , the name of liberty
must enchant his first thoughts, and that of prohibition appears to him as the
sound of his chains’ (ibid.: 72-73). Thus, out of force of habit, the ‘general
words that have so often made us happy or unhappy still dominate our opinion
and enslave our vote’ (ibid.: 72). For these reasons, received ideas connected
to concepts of freedom and competition — or else those, just as received, that
are diametrically opposed to them — ‘will always have a major advantage over
those’, more apposite but more complex, ‘which need to be explained’ (ibid.).
The destructive effects of enthusiasm and haste
The good intentions of the radical authors, it has to be pointed out, are not
generally called into question, at least in public: this is a leitmotiv that is
to be found again, despite some exceptions, in the literature of the following
decades. Galiani for example, even if he privately treated his opponents as a
‘veritable sect of cranks’ or ‘poor stupid fanatics’,57 nonetheless accepted that
‘it is the heart . . . that has outlined the ideas of their imagination’ (1770a:
175). Necker repeated the appraisal, though perhaps in a form that was more
politic than sincere.58
It is nonetheless the case that these same good intentions are at the origin of
a formidable danger: the Économistes are supposed to be victims of a sentiment
that connects to the fanaticism of virtue. ‘Virtue, the desire to do good, is a
passion in us as all other ones’ the Chevalier de Zanobi explains. It is rare,
57 To L. d’Épinay (28 April 1770, in Galiani and Épinay, 1992-1997, vol. I: 165) and to
Suard (8 September 1770, in Galiani, 1881, vol. I: 248) respectively. It is true that Galiani’s
letters circulated, with his consent — though within a very restricted circle.
58 He inserted, here and there, treacherous comments. Are there not, he declared, ‘char-
latans for all sciences and for all projects’ ?
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 34
‘but when it is encountered, it is too violent. It is even more violent than any
other’. No contrary passion comes to oppose it and ‘while the spur to good
animates us, no rein of remorse halts us’ (Galiani 1770: 206).
From this flows ‘enthusiasm’: in other words, plainly put, the fanaticism
or sectarianism of the radical reformers;59 enthusiasm even more dangerous as
it is communicative: ‘one persuades others by the heat of the address, and
because one is a virtuous man’ (ibid.). The ‘rogues’, Galiani emphasised, who
‘sooner or later . . . reveal themselves’ are to be feared less than the honest,
virtuous man who goes astray: ‘he holds himself in good faith, he wants good
and the whole world trusts him on this; but unfortunately he is mistaken as to
the means of procuring this for men’ (ibid.). The generality of the concepts,
the simplicity of the ideas, their emotional potential do the rest and it is thus
that ‘whole nations [are] deceived by the zeal of a few men’ (ibid.: 61).
Finally, enthusiasm sweeps away all reflection, skipping over the stages. It
‘wants to do everything and to do everything at once’, it ‘never knows how
to wait’ (ibid.: 208): ‘enthusiasm and administration are two contradictory
words’. From this, it is enough for the radical theoretician to become an ‘ad-
ministrator’, or for his ideas to be adopted by a ‘mediocre administrator’,60 for
serious complications to arise, leading to a head-on collision with the interests
and habits of the different social groups. On this point, Necker’s judgment was
ironic from the start. Confronted with his own errors, he stated, the radical
theoretician will never be at the end of his reserves and will ask, for example,
for ‘one or two centuries’ to see the real impact of the measures taken; and
‘if the upturned society refuses this experience, it is accused of impatience; it
alone becomes culpable, and the principle still keeps its glory or its pretensions’
(1775: 38).
59 I am for [liberty] and not against . . . But I am in favour of it without fanaticism,
for fanaticism, or enthusiasm, has never appeared to me good for anything except causing
a riot. This is the only difference between the Économistes and myself, their principles and
mine’ (to Morellet, 26 May 1770, in Galiani 1881, vol. I: 158).
60 The ‘mediocre administrator’ possesses a lazy turn of spirit; he ‘adopts one or two
principles, and submits all his conduct to them; born to obedience and imitation he makes
himself a slave of a sole master . . . ; he refers everything back to him, and he believes he
has the secret of the universe; anxious to govern, and unable to follow the varieties of nature,
he orders her to be simple’ (Necker 1773: 37).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 35
If we add to the tableau the lack of experience and poor knowledge of the
terrain and men that Galiani and Necker attributed to their opponents, one
easily ascertains that all these combined features reveal themselves to be fatal.
The riots of the spring of 1775 were not totally calmed before Galiani judged
severely those in charge of the economic policy.
I hope that this event will have taught M. Turgot and M. l’abbé
Morellet to know men and the world, which is not that of the writ-
ings of the Économistes. [M. Turgot] will have seen that uprisings
occasioned by high prices are not impossible . . . He calculated ev-
erything and only forgot the ill-nature of men, and the desire that
plagues men in office. (to L. d’Épinay, 27 May 1775, in Galiani
1881, vol. II: 406)
Other more concrete points connected to the liberalization policy illustrate
in a tangible way, according to Galiani and Necker, the arrant maladroitness
— if not blindness — of the authors they criticize.
Let us consider once again the liberal policy on corn.61 Was it not ex-
tremely badly conceived? In their haste to set up free circulation and free
exchange, did not the upholders of an unlimited free trade reveal proof of
naivety in forgetting the borders, in thinking that it was enough for a country
to abolish all impediments to external trade without bothering to ascertain if
this measure could be followed by an identical act on the part of its partners in
international trade? It would have been necessary, Galiani noted, ‘to make cer-
tain of reciprocal treatment’. But, he remarked ironically, ‘it seemed evident
to the Économistes that the evidence of their evidence would make evident to
all nations the evident advantage of free export, and that all would adopt it.
None followed, none prepared to do so’ (1770a: 263).
In the same way, the choice of the moment to implement the policy is also
crucial: one should act during a period of abundance and calm, avoiding a
period in which, for various reasons, there is a shortage of grain everywhere!
However, at the time of the 1764 edict, ‘England, the only country in Europe
which freely allowed export, protected itself . . . Poland, this great granary
of the North tormented by its internal troubles almost stopped its trade . . .
61 Other critiques were formulated on the abolition of the jurandes and the policy of the
freedom of work (see for example Galiani, letter to L. d’Épinay, 13 April 1776). They are
however less pertinent.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 36
Turkey went to war’ and forbade export. ‘Once these three great doors were
closed, all the people buying grain fell back on France. She had to confront
the whole of Europe’s needs. This is the cause of the present difficulty’ (ibid.:
The same caution obviously applies to internal trade. ‘It is . . . in line with
wisdom never to make a new law on grain, when one foresees that circumstances
will inevitably cause a price movement, contrary to public wishes’ reiterated
Necker after Turgot’s decision to liberalize domestic grain trade. For men
‘will not take the trouble to separate out what comes from harvests and what
belongs to the law’. As a result, in similar circumstances, it is better ‘to modify
a little what exists, or moderate its abuses with administrative power’. A new
law can only be introduced subsequently, when ‘the circumstances that can
deliver it to public opinion, or at least protect it at its birth against the affront
of the event’ present themselves (1775: 149).
One immediately thinks here, of course, of the periods of bad harvest.
But other circumstances can also act in an even more crucial manner. For
example, to pick up a theme that was important at the time, it is well known
that the grain trade cannot occur without merchants: it is on them and on
their activity that the circulation of corn rests, and therefore the success of
the self-regulation of the market. But, constantly suspected of ‘monopolist’
practices and speculations at the expense of the people, this profession was
unfortunately branded and discredited, Necker noted with emphasis, picking
up a theme dear to Herbert.63 A simple decree of liberalization or a system
of premiums was not enough to give it back the character of respectability
which, alone, was likely to induce the possessor of capital to adopt this trade;
it was thus insufficient to assemble the necessary conditions for competition:
‘it is in vain for the law to encourage a traffic over which opinion throws its
scorn’ (1775: 87). Acting on opinion was thus indispensable, but any change
of mentality in such a sensitive area could only be extremely slow. A long
62 See also Galiani’s letter to Suard, 15 December 1770, in Galiani 1881, vol. I: 323-324;
and Necker 1775: 35.
63 See Herbert (1753: 4-7, 13-17). It is Herbert’s opinion that the various laws and
regulations promulgated in France since the 16th century and which explicitly targeted the
merchants — to say the least — as bad citizens, were greatly responsible for this state of
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 37
transition period was imperative and the problem could not be resolved from
one day to the next.
Finally, and above all, one must not envisage employing force to repair the
damage of an imprudent policy, as Turgot did at the time Necker published
his lines. One can rightly say ‘that the principles of justice are unvarying, that
one must never submit them to the passions of men, and that, if the people
don’t hear reason, it is necessary to bring them to it by force’ (1775: 61). But
what is force in these circumstances, and what actually withholds it? Public
authority is nothing when confronted with the rock of contrary opinion. ‘From
this moment it has no power; all error . . . adhering to human nature must
be treated as reason’ (ibid.: 62; see also 1781: 97-98).
5The wisdom of a legislator
Not one of these lessons was retained by the Économistes. They wanted to bend
‘the dominant passion of the people’, but this is a task doomed to failure: ‘it
is . . . the system that one must combine with this passion which is thus
as data in administration’ (Necker 1775: 62). It is on this same theme that
the commentators of the time had welcomed favourably the Dialogues sur le
commerce des blés. Louis Petit de Bachaumont’s notes in his Mémoires secrets
pour servir à l’histoire de la République des Lettres en France, dated 9 February
1770, certainly reflect the main choice of the enlightened public. According to
Bachaumont, after so many years of dogmatic debate, Galiani finally proved
that ‘as regards administration, as for all the rest, one can, spiritedly, equally
uphold the pro and con . . . and that the best legislator is the one who
accommodates himself to the times, to the places, to the circumstances, and
whose versatile wisdom, following events, knows how to yield to things’ (see
also Diderot 1770: 90-91).
As a consequence, the legislator must first of all examine the lasting nature
of the socio-psychological situation thus depicted. Must he reform this before
anything else ? Can he do this, and how ?
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 38
A strategy of prudence
On this point, Galiani’s position seems moderately optimistic. Since, from
one point of view, man allows itself to be guided by habit, a slow process of
apprenticeship is possible provided one does not scare him. ‘People . . . feel,
they experience, they hold on to memories; and distrusting innovations, they
similarly distrust the reasons one brings them. But once confidence is gained’,
they can shed their prejudices (1770: 227). From another point of view, the
production and diffusion of knowledge can accelerate learning from experience.
This is where the ‘true philosopher’ comes on stage: he accelerates ‘the time
of corrections. He can well spare a nation attempts and trials made at its own
expense’ (ibid.: 87). It is however important to remember that, for the author
of the Dialogues, a large part of the education of men and women resides in
‘nature’, is an ‘instinct’, and that the evolution of behaviour, if this is not
totally ruled out, could only be extremely slow.
Necker was even more pessimistic, at least in 1773-1775. If for him, as we
have already seen, public opinion ‘is the result of the thinking of nations and
centuries’, there is a place for apprenticeship though this could also only be
accomplished over a long period! As to the instruction and the education of the
masses, one should not count on this. ‘One must write, the light will come’,
he exclaimed, mocking the Physiocrats; ‘with this light, all the passions of
the people will change, and perhaps we will be near the happy moment when
the power of evidence will govern the universe’ (1775: 62). But, he added,
‘once this evidence is established between all men who think and argue . .
. , it will never have power over the people, whose roughness, blindness and
ignorance . . . will never change’ (ibid.). The inevitable inequality of fortune,
in fact, will always prohibit the instruction of those who possess nothing and
who must spend their lives working.64 It is an illusion to believe that the
present action can be rationally expounded to the people and to count on
their motivated allegiance: ‘the principles on which one bases the greater part
of economic institutions, are so abstract, that the wisdom of these laws can
never be demonstrated generally, and they will always need to be defended
64 And even if this instruction one day becomes possible, Necker added, ‘is it really certain
that this growth of enlightenment will give owners an advantage?’ (ibid.: 63).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 39
by time and success’ (ibid.: 149). This discourse was however subsequently
Be this as it may, if fundamental modifications are at least very slow on all
fronts, the reformer must possess as primary qualities prudence and modera-
tion; qualities to which he can add, ultimately, cynicism.
The man propelled by the ‘esprit d’administration’ must have an eye on
the state of the forces facing him, their potential co-operation, acceptance,
resistance or revolt, constantly keeping an ear open to opinion. In his Éloge to
Colbert, Necker traced the portrait of the wise administrator. He drew up an
impressive list of the required qualities for the function (1773: 8-9) and defined
in these terms the task he assigned him:
to examine institutions and practices; to see where their advantages
end, or their abuses begin; to reform the one without destroying the
other; to conceive a scheme and lead all circumstances to its goal;
to form new plans, and to advance them without upheaval, with-
out shocking the practical habits and spirits of men, and without
producing new resistances by over-zealousness. (ibid.: 47)
These qualities are also currency for Galiani for whom the surest path
between two points, the shortest in terms of efficiency, is almost never the
straight line. ‘It is not enough to know to what end one wants to bring things’
he indeed specified, ‘one has to know how to get them there’, and this is where
the crucial savoir-faire of the statesman situates itself; ‘it is always a question
of avoiding movements . . . [that are] over precipitate; you need to extend the
path and waste time’ (1770: 208).
A metaphor illustrates the subject in an eloquent way. The science of the
management of men, the Chevalier de Zanobi affirms, is like that of working a
vessel: it consists in
this sole and unique, very simple and very short principle, nil re-
pente, nothing suddenly. To steer the course well one has to go
65 Necker altered his discourse some years later, after his first ministerial experience (1784,
vol. I, ‘Introduction’): the favour he curried from public opinion has certainly something to
do with this. This opinion is then conceived of as enlightened and can even form a guide for
reforming action. It judges the administrator in his action and is earned through confidence
(key word for Necker), which is itself to a great extent . . . the result of prudence and
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 40
about. This is good, but if you tack too tightly, water enters
through the port-holes, the vessel is engulfed by waves and it is
all over. You lose the purpose, the means, you lose everything, you
perish. (ibid.)
Let us change metaphor. Doesn’t the doctor know one must always respect
the convalescence of a patient? Doesn’t he arrange for the avoidance of the
sudden transferal ‘to the open air after a long stay in a hermetically closed
room’? Things are not different in political economy and the edict of 1764
authorizing external trade in corn is an example: ‘too much freedom given too
soon’. ‘Abruptly giving someone the freedom to provide for his own food when
for a long period he has not been used to concerning himself with this is a fatal
present’ (ibid.: 228). Nil repente, hammered the author. ‘I repeat it and I will
repeat it endlessly’ (ibid.).
The risk of prudence: the way to renouncement
One nevertheless feels that the position of the prudent legislator, calmly pro-
ceeding, circumspectly but surely on the way to reform, however seductive it
is, is extremely hypothetical. Can this type of man really be found ? And will
not the procedure such as it is depicted here become entangled in the end in
the moving marshes of ‘circumstances’, until it loses its reason and soul?
The authors accepted the first question and repeatedly stressed the fact
that a true reformer must concentrate within him capacities and qualities to an
exceptional degree. The great man, Galiani advised, ‘must combine qualities
that are opposed, extreme, almost impossible to couple; he must have the
fervent desire for good of the virtuous man, combined with the calm and as it
were indifference of the wicked’ (1770: 206). If he must ‘fervently want’, he
must not less ‘calmly discuss’ and ‘patiently wait’, which, the author specified,
would be a miracle. ‘Nature often creates a perfect thing; but two together is
rarer work’ (ibid.: 207). The portrait of the statesman propelled by the ‘esprit
d’administration’ depicted by Necker in 1773 is just as eloquent66 (1773: 9-11).
This type of man is all the more exceptional since the required qualities are
given: the ‘esprit d’administration’ cannot be learned. ‘It is the view, given
66 Even if the aim of the operation consisted in the event of showing that this type of man
can exist: if Colbert was one of these, does not the Éloge suggest that Necker was another?
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 41
by nature, that gauges the measure; and for this view, there are no lessons’
(1773: 11; see also ibid.: 13).
The second question is even more important. If the social body bends,
amends, distorts and modifies what theory establishes according to an ideal
type, if the principles ‘bow on application: the circumstances, the time, ev-
erything can modify them’ (Necker 1773: 11; and ibid.: 53, note), doesn’t
the good administrator risk being transformed into a good manager, in other
words finally ceasing to be a reformer? Doesn’t he risk even more being left
with only one ‘quality’, albeit very ordinary: the cynicism of men in office? ‘In
vain do you praise your Chevalier for moving away from enthusiasm’, Morellet
wrote to Galiani. ‘My dear abbé, do you know that this maxim is precisely
the one tyrants preach’ (1 May 1770, in Morellet 1991: 128)? Suard himself,
close to Necker and to Galiani, found the prudence of the Dialogues disabling:
‘is it really true that it is necessary never to attempt any change in an imper-
fect government, for fear of civil war? . . . Would not the fear of inflaming
civil war through wanting to reform some abuses . . . lead to perpetuating
the barbarities of the most barbaric laws?’ (to Galiani, 14 October 1770, in
Galiani 1770b: 553-554).
When Turgot acceded to the ministry, Galiani expressed his doubts as to
his chances of success. If Turgot continues in power, he wrote, ‘he will prove
what to this day has been problematical: whether a perfectly honest man, all
truth, all reason, all philosophy, can be Contrôleur général. I am of those who
doubt this possibility, and I have conceived a hatred and scorn for humankind
so unequivocal that my heart, whilst wishing him well, cannot prevent itself
from trembling’ (to Bombelles, 29 October 1774, in 1881, vol. II: 360). At the
time of the riots which followed the liberalization policy, he asserted that the
‘first problem to solve’ for a reformer is to stay in office, and even to ‘work
unceasingly to stay in office so as to do good to people longer’. This is why —
the logic of the argument goes far — ‘if some good that he would have liked
to do exposes him to losing it, he must sacrifice this outright for his existence’
(to L. d’Épinay, 27 May 1775, ibid.: 405-406).
The dilemma seems inevitable. In the course of the events that marked
French politics, the serenity of the Dialogues disappeared allowing an embit-
tered cynicism to penetrate. Our period, unfortunately, ‘makes the cures as
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 42
intolerable to us as the ills’ Galiani lamented. Thus the portrait of the good
statesman indeed perceptibly changes!
I believe . . . that the dullest man would be the greatest man
of our age, since he would leave all the ills in existence (which is
what is required), while always giving himself the appearance of
curing them (which is required too). Turgot, who seriously wanted
to cure, has been overthrown; Terray, who frankly said he wanted
to cure nothing, has been cursed; a dull man would say everything
Turgot said, and would do everything Terray did, and this would
work miraculously. (9 November 1776, ibid.: 481)
Nonetheless Galiani warmly greeted Necker’s coming to power, and his
prudence: the Directeur général des finances was right to begin ‘with dull
routine ideas’; all this permitted the thought ‘that he will stay in office for a
long time, that he will do as good a job there as it is possible to do’.67 A few
years later, however, Necker suffered the fate of Turgot; the cynicism faded
allowing despair to appear:
the resignation of M. Necker puts me in such a bad mood . . . Is it
possible to find neither enlightened century, nor amenable nation,
nor sovereign courage, nor time, nor moment, where the great man
can remain in office! . . . Must there be an eternal law . . .
delivering men to the wicked and the idiots, and forever excluding
the heroes. If this law exists, we must bend our backs and stoop
our heads; if it does not exist, I will curse the parliaments, the
intendants, the schemers, the intriguers and the understanding-
nothing for having committed this massacre. (9 June 1781, ibid.:
The cup is full. The strategy of prudence had not, or not yet, led to total
surrender, to the abandoning of all idea of reform amongst its promoters, but
its efficiency was no longer as obvious and one might fear the outcome to
be counterproductive. Necker, perhaps, had had a foreboding of this when
he commented that ‘the various administrators of the chose publique tend
sometimes to an . . . excess’, contrary to that of the over-rash reformer;
‘used to endlessly negociating the passions of men, often forced to struggle
against their blindness and their violence, they have all the timorousness of
67 To L. d’Épinay, 8 February 1777, ibid.: 495. See also Galiani’s judgment on Sartine (1
June 1776, ibid.: 446).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 43
the experience, and take fright too easily at complaints and changes’ (1775: 9).
Significantly, he repeated the warning after his first dismissal, castigating the
‘pliability of character that drives an administrator to pervert his own work, by
consenting to exceptions or to modifications that alter its spirit and principles’
(1784: xlii).
Is a clear assessment possible on such bases, and does not the strategy of
prudence escape all control by nature? How to estimate in advance an act in
the course of which each step can just as well be interpreted as the pursuit
of reforming action or as the abandoning of the appointed goal? No further
theoretical discourse on the transition is possible a priori if everything rests on
the confidence placed in a man and his supposed capacity to navigate according
to the circumstances.
It is necessary, in other respects, to recognize that, in placing an insis-
tent accent on the qualities necessary for a statesman, in allowing it to be
understood that the grand theoretical schemas — the ‘systems’ — are often
misleading, Galiani and Necker spread confusion and did not ease the task of
their readers. Do they not give the impression — in truth erroneous — that
they set at nothing any theoretical schema and thus deprive the reforming
action of any guide or guard?
Nonetheless one would be wrong, considering their arguments, to employ
an anachronistic typology and to tax their discourse as ‘reactionary’.68 Even if
their styles, their thinking and their developments were sometimes divergent,
they both were sincere reformers, plainly preoccupied with their questions —
important and, it is true, not often dealt with — of how to implement the
projected reforms in concrete terms. It is thus necessary to believe Galiani
when he replied to Suard’s anxieties by declaring again his intentions:
Is it necessary to perpetuate the barbarity of the most barbarous
laws, etc.? No, what is needed is to change them step by step. I
have propounded the greatest extension of the step France could
take in leaving its vicious system . . . The Économistes have
proposed one greater than the nature of legs; they have tripped
68 It would be misleading, for example, to use here Hirschman’s 1990 typology. It must
be noted also that, to be credible and efficient, all kinds of ‘reactionary rhetoric’ necessarily
employ arguments that are true in some (but not in all) circumstances.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 44
and broken their noses. (15 December 1770, in Galiani 1881, vol.
I: 322)
Now, it remains to be shown69 why, in the case of Turgot — and contrary
to what is usually asserted — part of the critiques directed at the radical
reformers miss their mark; and how the positions one normally thinks of as so
opposed are in reality, in spite of theoretical choices that are at times divergent,
close on a number of points.
Part II. ‘Tu Ne Cede Malis’
What could lay Turgot open to the criticisms developed in the preceding
pages? It is evidently the most radical formulas that almost always retain
the commentators’ attention. Certainly, in this respect, some examples are
The first example is taken from the correspondence with Dupont, which
is full of striking phrases. Does Turgot not declare himself the advocate of
the ‘all or nothing, all the time’ (20 December 1768, III: 24) thus giving the
image of a man who is all of a piece and extremely rigid? ‘They recommend
moderation. A pleasing policy!’ he exclaims when speaking of the duc de
Choiseul’s partisans. ‘Moderation is good in terms of calm discussion, but
when rascals excite people at their pleasure with lies, it is necessary to unmask
them’ (ibid). Does Turgot not also begin to dream of being in control of the
government in order to act according to his wishes without wasting precious
energy and time explaining and justifying himself?70
69 There could, of course, be more to say concerning the theoretical and political aspects
raised here. The essential, however, has been to display the crystallizing of the main ideas and
themes at the turning-point of the 1770s. What remains would be to show that our authors,
in certain aspects of their discourses, found themselves in good company: are not the themes
developed in the last two sections also, in a way, those of Adam Smith? See Stewart 1794:
316-319, where Necker is quoted in this respect. See also the major recent writings on Smith
(and primarily the works of D. Winch, K. Haakonssen and R. F. Teichgraeber).
70 ‘If I were to engage in action, I would have to be absolute master because then I would
only have to see and act in consequence. Instead, it is necessary for me now to persuade
in order to obtain action, and I must sweat blood and water in order to present clearly a
thousand details that are evident to me at a glance, but which are long to prove’ (16 July
1771, III: 491; cf. 11 September 1775, IV: 676).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 45
A letter to J. Tucker written just before the ministerial experience could
serve as another article with which to convict him. In it, Turgot renews his
liberal profession of faith in a dogmatic fashion. ‘My principles on this matter’,
he wrote concerning the grain trade, ‘are indefinite freedom to import . . .
without any entry duties; the same indefinite freedom to export . . . without
any exit duties or limitation even during the times of scarcity; freedom within
the country to sell what one wishes, when and where one likes’ (10 Decem-
ber 1773, III: 614-615). Moreover he specifies that these principles must be
extended ‘to trade in all kinds of commodities’ (ibid.: 615).
Is this not ultimately the same Turgot who declared to the king, while
presenting the projects of edicts that were going to precipitate his fall: ‘when
something is recognized as being right, when it is absolutely necessary, we must
not stop because of difficulties: they must be overcome’ (1776a: 150), for if
an operation’s usefulness is recognized, ‘it can never be done too early’ (ibid.:
Such affirmations, isolated from their context, can certainly be troubling.
Symptomatic in this respect is the attitude of Bertin, scalded by a decade
of polemics and resistance of all kinds. At the time of Turgot’s rise to the
ministry, the artisan of the 1763 reform wrote to the new Contrôleur général
to warn him that
I have only one worry . . . which is based precisely on your zeal for
the good . . . I exhort you to put the slowness of prudence in your
step; I would go so far as to suggest . . . that you mask your views
and opinions . . . [A]s much as you can, maintain the appearance,
if not of turning your back to your goal, at least of walking with
very slow steps. (1774, in Turgot 1913-23, IV: 200)
As we know, the Contrôleur général did not exactly follow this advice, even if
his first measure, the Arrêt — so much awaited and so feared — of 13 Septem-
ber 1774 was prudent, restricting itself to re-establishing only free domestic
grain trade.71
71 Michelet later elaborated this measure in a lyrical manner as ‘La Marseillaise des blés’.
Indeed, Turgot’s adversaries, who expected a much more daring policy were taken unawares.
Turgot had intended to re-establish a free external grain trade, but gave up this idea (see
Schelle, in Turgot, 1913-1923, IV: 201 n.).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 46
Finally, during the course of his ministerial period he gave the impression
of acting in a very authoritarian manner, carried along by his reformist zeal;
he behaved also in a way that ran counter to other principles that he had put
forward until then, especially concerning the freedom of the press, sacrificing
them, in a sense, to free trade.72 The repression that he ordered at the time
of the ‘guerre des farines’ is well-known. During the same period, also, he
reproached Necker for publishing his 1775 text La législation et le commerce
des grains, although he had allowed him to print it.73 It was as if, in retrospect,
he regretted his liberal attitude; the same scenario reoccured one year later
when he attempted to censor and prosecute others who had openly criticized
his policy of abolishing the ‘jurandes’.74
These facts, however, should not lead to confusion. They should, in no
way prevent us from judging calmly his conception, both before and after
1774, of the definition and enactment of a policy of liberalizing the economy.
To understand his position, his anti-dogmatic mind and the status accorded
to theoretical reasoning must first be analysed.
6Against the sectarian spirit: scientific independence
and the strategy of communication
The most aggressive reproach addressed to the advocates of free trade was that
of being ‘men with systems’, ‘enthusiasts’, i.e. sectarians. It is well-known how
Turgot always refused, both for Gournay and himself, the designation of ‘man
with a system’ (Turgot 1759: 618-620). ‘Enthusiasm’ sometimes appeared
suspect to him although he occasionally excused it among ‘people of good will’.
Like Galiani he disliked intensely the ‘sectarian spirit’. This was constant for
him, and on this point, his attitude towards the Physiocrats was unambiguous.
Of course, the affirmation that ‘although I belong to no sect, I would choose
72 Although his attitude at the time of the ‘guerre des farines’ conformed to his principles,
as we shall see below.
73 See Turgot’s letter to Necker, April 25, 1775 (IV: 412) and Necker’s response (ibid.). On
this episode, see also Morellet’s narrative, which is sympathetic to Necker (Morellet, 1821:
74 See Turgot’s letter to Miromesnil (1776, V: 255-256) and Miromesnil’s response (ibid.:
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 47
the latter [Physiocracy] if I were to take one’ (to Dupont, 25 September 1767,
II: 667) is well-known and seems benevolent. The esteem that Turgot had for
Quesnay and, to a lesser extent, for Mirabeau, ‘the two patriarchs among the
economists’, did not, however, blind him; his irritation toward ‘the sectarian
spirit’75 and ‘economic intolerance’ (13 October 1767, II: 672) did not lessen.76
What reproaches addressed to Quesnay and his friends serve as the basis
of this judgment? From numerous remarks of Turgot’s, some themes emerge,
all of which are related to the Physiocrats’ attitudes and the type of reason-
ing they used against those who did not follow all of their ideas. For our
topic, we will confine ourselves to reproaches other than the purely analyti-
cal ones concerning economic theory, political philosophy, and property rights.
Turgot’s constant opposition, however, to the Physiocratic ideas concerning
‘tutelary authority’77 and ‘legal despotism’78 are worth mentionning here for
they formed an important obstacle to the reception of the rest — and for
Turgot the essential part — of the Physiocratic message.
The reasons for a critique
A first reproach concerns the Physiocrats’s line of reasoning. Logic, Turgot
affirms, is not ‘the Économistes’ strong point’; in general, they want ‘to go
too quickly’ and do not analyze ‘the meaning of words scrupulously enough’.
Moreover, this is not the only problem, as he notes when denouncing the
‘failure to examine the principal circumstances’ of the questions dealt with
(to Dupont, 29 October 1771, III: 498). A second reproach arises from this
concerning a misunderstanding of the facts, with the inevitable inexactitudes
75 To Dupont, 5 August 1768, III: 13; 15 February 1771, III: 474. See also 21 June 1771,
III: 488.
76 ‘I am sorry . . . that you rejected the reproach of sectarian tone in such a way as to
prove all the more that it is just’, he wrote to Dupont. ‘Moreover, as it is just and all too
just, it is necessary not to respond to it, but rather to work at no longer deserving it’ (26
December 1769, III: 77).
77 ‘MM. les Économistes cannot get rid of their tic about tutelary authority, which dishon-
ors their doctrine, and is of the most inconsequent inconsequence to their dogma of evidence’
(to Dupont, 21 December 1770, III: 398); see also the letters dated 14 and 25 March 1774
(ibid.: 662-663).
78 ‘I had wanted to give my Augsburg Confession on the great article of legal despotism,
the doctrine of which does not cease to sully the works of economists and should only be
found in those of Linguet’: to Dupont, 10 May 1771, III: 486-487.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 48
of calculation that result — calculations whose false precision irritates Turgot.
‘Factual inexactitudes’, Turgot wrote to Dupont, are the ‘Économistes’ original
sin’ (14 December 1770, III: 395). ‘MM. les Économistes, do you never grow
tired of speaking of facts about which you are mistaken at every moment,
when you could rely on demonstrative arguments?’ (15 October 1771, III:
497). Three other grounds for complaint are, however, much more serious, for
they touch the mainspring of intellectual progress and activity.
In the first place, Turgot stigmatizes the Physiocrats’ attitude, which con-
sists in parading belief in an allegedly complete system, refusing any evolution
of thought or masking such an evolution when it occurs.79 For this reason, it
is necessary to force ‘the economists to explain themselves’ and this is why a
book like Graslin’s Essai analytique is welcome: ‘they are far from having said
everything, and there would be no harm if, when, after having cleared some
corner of the scrub, they admitted it . . . and gave up believing that they
have always spoken the same way; this damned sectarian spirit!’ (to Dupont,
13 October 1767, II: 672).
In the second place, the unconditional submission to the ideas expressed by
Quesnay ends in the refusal to think for oneself — whereas the greatest freedom
must be the rule in scientific matters. If, for example, the ‘Discours prélimi-
naire’ that Dupont placed at the beginning of Physiocratie (1767) seemed to
Turgot to be neither complete nor exact, and if its ideas were, in his opinion,
presented in a manner that was too systematic and sketchy, the cause of the
problems was Dupont’s ‘subjection to the master’s ideas’.80 ‘All of you wish
that Quesnay and his first disciples had said everything. On the one hand,
you prohibit yourselves from examining a multitude of issues that he did not
discuss, and when you do speak about them, you always try to bring them
back to what the masters said’.81 Did Dupont not see that the ‘disciples’ great
respect’ made ‘them speak nonsense their entire lives’ (15 February 1771, III:
79 ‘Woe betide . . . the nations in which, by an blind zeal for the sciences, we close them
up within the limits of current knowledge by seeking to fix them’, Turgot wrote in his second
discourse at the Sorbonne (1750: 221).
80 18 November 1767, II: 677; cf. also 20 February 1766, II: 506-507.
81 7 May 1771, III: 484, cf. also 9 October 1772, III: 568.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 49
474), for as respectable as their masters were, one cannot ‘make an exception
to the rule that says that they must not exist in scientific matters.’82
Finally, Turgot rebelled against the approach that consisted in simply an-
nexing well-known people, without their knowledge, to the Physiocratic move-
ment in order to force their patronage — while censoring any aspects of their
thought that did not fit the tenets of the sect. In 1768, therefore, Turgot rose
up against the ‘annexation’ of Benjamin Franklin to Physiocracy (5 August
1768, III: 13). A little more than a year later, upon the publication of Réflex-
ions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses in the Éphémérides, he
protested vigorously against Dupont’s surreptitious censorship.
It is true that the sectarian attitude reflected the discipline’s youth, or
at least, its unfinished state and still considerable ignorance. Are not systems
comparable to mausoleums, ‘monuments to the pride of the great and to human
misery’, and do they not serve ‘only to cover the shame of our ignorance’ (1751:
340-341)? The areas where the sciences ‘were first enlightened’, Turgot affirms,
are not the ones where they have made the most progress. The
respect that the brilliance of novelty imprints upon men for the
nascent philosophy tends to perpetuate the first opinions: the sec-
tarian spirit joins in; and this spirit is natural to the first philoso-
phers, because pride is nourished by ignorance, because the less
one knows, the less one doubts; the less one has discovered, the
less one sees what remains to be discovered. (1750: 221)
A prophetic judgment: more than twenty years later, his analysis had not
changed and it applied perfectly to Physiocracy. The ‘économistique’ sect is
a sect ‘inasmuch as it is wrong’, he wrote to Dupont: ‘for one never creates a
sect because one speaks the truth, but only because what one says is false’ (25
March 1774, III: 663).
The definition of a communication strategy
The sectarian attitude naturally engenders enthusiasm. On this point again,
Turgot seems to agree with Galiani and Necker, except that he sometimes
82 18 November 1767, II: 677. In order to argue well, Turgot insists, ‘it is necessary to
begin by creating a tabula rasa’, but it is true that ‘this is antipathetic to any sectarian
spirit’ (15 February 1771, III: 474).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 50
treated those who were guilty of it with a certain indulgence. Is not this
‘enthusiastic tone’ ‘excusable in itself’ and does it not arise ‘from an honest
motive’ (1770: 270)? Are not those who condemn it playing into the hands of
the enemies of reform? ‘I do not like to see him’, he writes about Galiani,
always so prudent, so much an enemy of enthusiasm, so much in
agreement . . . with all these people . . . who are so comfortable
with allowing the world to go on as it is, because it is going so well
for them . . . Oh! of course all such people dislike enthusiasm and
refer to everything that attacks the infallibility of those in power
as ‘enthusiasm’. (to J. de Lespinasse, 26 January 1770, III: 421)
However, Turgot is no less critical of this ‘enthusiasm’, especially since as a
result of it the Physiocrats harmed the cause of free trade, which they intended
to promote. Thus they ‘have been able to prejudice a part of the public against
them’ (1770: 270). ‘Enthusiasm harms those who are capable of giving in to
good reasons’ (to Dupont, 10 May 1765, II: 439) but who are disturbed by
excess. In the scientific as in the political domain, it is apparently important
to adopt rules favoring good communication.
In the first place, it is fitting to use a moderate tone and to avoid decla-
mations and insults since the adversaries will naturally respond in the same
tone.83 This problem of communication is that of all the Physiocrats, and their
attitude toward the artisan class is symptomatic in this respect: is not this
class called sterile ‘in such a way as to sting the vanity of industrious people’
(to Dupont, 20 February, 1766, II: 508), whereas another, more neutral term,
could have cut short all useless polemic? ‘This is a matter of not explaining
and of choosing terms badly’ Turgot concludes. ‘To be right is not enough; it
is also necessary to be polite.’ The lesson is valid, moreover, for all authors
whose behavior is, in his eyes, equally exaggerated.84
83 ‘It is true that these men have a somewhat sour tone’, Turgot wrote to Dupont, alluding
to a rejoinder that the latter had received; ‘they seem to have taken ill humor against yours,
and it would not be bad if this example were to enjoin you to temper a bit the cutting style
for which you are reproached’ (10 May 1765, II: 438).
84 His animosity toward Linguet, whose work he disapproved of for both its content and its
form, is well-known. ‘I hate despotism as much as anyone else; but it is not by declamations
that it must be attacked; it is by establishing the rights of men demonstratively. One
will deserve better from the nations by attacking these abuses with clarity and courage
and especially by concerning humanity, than by delivering eloquent insults’ (to Condorcet,
December 1773, III: 639-640).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 51
The conclusion that emerges also constitutes a strategy of reform. For
while it is true that those in charge of the government ‘are rightly shocked by
violent expressions which everyone understands’, it is no less true that they
‘attach only a modest importance to the uncertain or distant consequences of
philosophical truths that are often disputed’ (to Condorcet, December 1773,
III: 640). The new ideas can therefore make their way on the condition of
being presented discreetly and steadily. ‘When one does not insult, it is rare
for one to offend . . . With an honest tone, one can say anything, and this is
still more the case when one combines it with the weight of reason and some
slight precautions that are not difficult to take’ (ibid).
Let us return, however, to the rules for good communication that Turgot
set forth to Dupont. In the second place, it is necessary to ‘explain adversaries
in their own terms, and not to judge them constantly in the light of one’s own
principles. The ‘small attention’ that consists in ‘discussing one’s opponent’s
incidental sentences with minute logic and interpreting them not according to
the tacit suppositions that he makes, but according to the interpreter’s own
principles’ results in dialogues of the deaf (20 February 1766, II: 510). In-
stead, it is necessary to unravel the logic specific to the discourses. ‘This art of
explaining adversaries in their own terms and of unravelling the tacit supposi-
tions that sometimes preside, without their knowledge, over their reasoning .
. . is the art of abridging disputes’ (ibid.,: 511).
Thirdly, it is fitting to treat the opponents’ pride gently by respecting their
rhythm of thought and by not treating them with contempt if they discuss or
do not know a newly-established truth. ‘However obvious a truth may be’,
Turgot warns, ‘it can be unknown to very enlightened people . . . Teachers of
economic science seem not to have paid attention to the necessity of tolerating
this human weakness’ (10 May 1765, II: 438). As in theology, he continues, it is
necessary, therefore, to distinguish between ‘negative’ and ‘positive ignorance’;
only the latter, which is ‘proud and opinionated’, deserves condemnation.
Fourthly, again in order not to humiliate adversaries, one must not hesitate
to give in on the form when the latter surrender on the essentials. ‘Polemical
relentlessness’, which was common in the Éphémérides, is very harmful (29 Au-
gust 1771, III: 495). The conclusion always goes in the direction of moderation.
‘Always to be right is a great wrong.’ (ibid.).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 52
Fifthly and finally, it is necessary to explain one’s ideas and acts endlessly.
Hence Turgot’s constant efforts at explanation during his intendance at Limo-
ges; and later the long preambles that he added to the edicts that marked his
policies, and which he always believed necessary to maintain.85 Hence also his
constant effort to inform the authorities in charge of enacting his policy.86
This analysis in no way remained a dead letter. We know that Turgot
stopped collaborating on Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, probably in
1759, after having written several articles. Condorcet should be believed when
he affirms that Turgot did not act out of weakness (the enterprise was con-
demned by the authorities) but because ‘the Encyclopédie was alleged even-
tually to be a sectarian book’; according to Turgot, to insert the truths that
had to be spread into a work branded with this accusation, whether well- or
ill-founded, was in some way harmful to these truths.87
7Reforms, the ‘reading and thinking public’ and
public order
Is it possible to specify who is aimed at by this strategy of communication?
For whatever the subject debated in political economy was, what we call today
the ‘scientific community’ was then only nascent, constituting an insufficient
target. In addition, it was necessary to address all those who took a part,
directly or indirectly, in defining and instituting any given policy.
85 See his reflections to the king in January 1776 (V: 153 and 159) concerning the preambles
to the government edicts for suppressing ‘corvées’ and ‘jurandes’.
86 See, for example, the circular notifying the ‘Arrêt du Conseil’ to the Intendants, the one
to the Procureurs généraux, and the one to the Presidents of the Chambres de Commerce,
all of which are dated 19 September 1774. See also the circular to the Intendants sending
them Morellet’s refutation of Galiani (10 December 1774, IV: 228-229).
87 Whatever a sect’s origin may be, ‘all the individuals who belong to it answer for the
errors and faults of all the others. The necessity of remaining united obliges them to be silent
about, or to hide the truths that would wound men whose votes or adherence are useful.
They are obliged to form . . . a body of doctrine; and the opinions that are included in
it and adopted without examination, become, in the long run, true prejudices. Friendship
stops with individuals, but the hatred and envy that each of them excites extends itself to
the entire sect. If this sect is formed by the most enlightened men in the nation, if the object
of its zeal is to defend the truths that are most important to the public happiness, the evil
is still greater. Anything true and useful that is proposed is rejected without examination’
(Condorcet 1786: 26).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 53
Unlike Galiani, and well before Necker’s evolution on this theme, Turgot
accepted the new ideas concerning public opinion and its role as a ‘tribunal’.
‘I know, Sir, that you do not adopt my ideas on the necessity of discusing
this matter [the grain trade] with the tribunal of the public’, he wrote to the
Contrôleur général, Terray, ‘but here is a point upon which I am too strongly
convinced not to keep to my opinion’ (1770: 268).
Turgot was aware, however, that the public was not a homogeneous entity.
He distinguished schematically three different kinds of people forming so many
different kind of public, on three levels of a simplified social scale.
Social stratification and public opinion
At the bottom of this scale are the ‘people’, who are ignorant and suspicious.
In 1762, Turgot wrote to the author of a project for a mutual assistance so-
ciety, which would have been of great use to the very poor, that the attempt
would not succeed. ‘However evident the Association’s advantages may be, it
is necessary, in order to be convinced, to reflect and to compare the future
with the present’, and the people are incapable of doing so. This is the case
because of their ignorance and their ‘habit of living from day to day’; ‘the kind
of apathy’ into which poverty plunges them by ‘taking from them the idea of
a better state’; and ‘some sort of vague mistrust of a people who fear every-
thing because they see nothing, who do not imagine that one could dream of
doing them a good that they had never thought of, and who perhaps became
skeptical by dint of having been cheated’ (II: 235: cf. the letter to Condorcet,
16 July 1771, III: 523). It is not the people who must be addressed, at least as
a priority. But while, in these conditions, working for the people is a difficult
task, it is however necessary to maintain this goal, even if one exposes oneself
to their ingratitude.88
At the other end of the social scale are the privileged — the ‘robe’ and the
‘épée’, the clergy, and those involved in finance. These people are generally
well-educated, but caste prejudices and short-term interests often make their
judgment bad. What is the use therefore to trying to convince them as a
88 ‘The People . . . are so easy to deceive that I will perhaps incur their hatred by the
very measures that I will take to defend them against vexation’ (to the king, 24 August 1774,
IV: 112).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 54
group? Turgot responded with the most absolute skepticism to Dupont, who
wrote a tragedy with the hope of persuading princes and all those in power by
spreading Physiocratic ideas in an attractive and didactic form. In his opinion,
it had only a ‘small merit’ to which he ‘attached no price’.89
Finally, in the middle of the social scale — a necessarily elastic ‘middle’ —
are people whose position shelters them from an incessant concern with mere
needs, and who, by their instruction, have acquired the habit of becoming in-
formed, reading, and discussing; in short, they use their reason. They compose
the enlightened class of the population. It is their opinion that matters, for
they are the ones who form the true ‘public’, the strategic place of action; ‘it
is to the reading and thinking public that we must speak; they are the ones
whom we must please and the only ones we need persuade; all the flattery for
the people in power, all the small detours needed to try not to shock them, are
a waste of time’ (to Dupont, 16 July 1771, III: 491). This is ‘a general rule’
(12 April 1771, III: 482).
To enlighten the public means in the long run to propagate the ideas of the
Enlightenment both towards the bottom and especially towards the top of the
social scale. For what do princes who do not use their reason do, if not follow
the dominant opinion? They ‘will truly be convinced only of what everyone
surrounding them is convinced of, i.e. truths that have become . . . popular’
(12 April 1771: 481). This is a lesson that Turgot never tired of repeating. ‘It
is always necessary for the public to be enlightened; it is the only means of
lifting that opposition that is born on all sides by misunderstood interests’ (20
February 1766, II: 514-515).
Nicolas Baudeau summarized the situation and the policy to be followed
well when commenting thus on the Arrêt of September 1774 on the liberaliza-
tion of the internal grain trade:
the two extremities of the people understand nothing at all: namely
those of the court and the first rank of the city, and those of the
base populace. I have noticed for a long time a great conformity
89 ‘I know of no time that is more completely lost’, he commented, ‘than that spent
in instructing princes who are no longer children . . . If the princes are men, they will
understand books written for men and do not need one to deliver fables to them, as one would
with children. If they are only princes, they will repeat the fable without understanding it’
(12 April 1771, III: 481; cf. 7 May 1771, III: 483).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 55
of penchants and opinions between these two extremes; only the
middle rank is enlightened and virtuous. A good government and
the good instruction that results from it tend more and more to
cut off from these extremes and to swell the middle class.90
The fundamental role of instruction and education
Since ‘it is to the reading and thinking public that we must speak’, it is impor-
tant not only that this part of the population be the largest possible, but also
that it be the best instructed and educated. Here, Turgot, unlike Galiani and
Necker, but like many philosophers of his century, demonstrates an unshakeable
confidence in the powers of education and instruction, and in the continuous
growth of the Enlightenment: a confidence that he theorizes through the new
ideas of human perfectibility and progress.91 In these respects, the situation in
France seemed quite good to him. A letter to Price, written after his disgrace,
demonstrates this optimism. France is a nation, he states, ‘that is much more
enlightened than is generally believed among you and where it is perhaps easier
even than with you to lead the public to reasonable ideas’ (22 March 1778, V:
From this perspective, the central role was devolved to the scholar and the
man of letters. For one can claim to speak to the public only in an adult
manner, through the language of reason. The public will eventually be per-
suaded ‘only by good reasons that convince good minds . . . ; reasons must
be given and presented with simplicity’ (to Dupont, 12 April 1771, III: 482).
By the same token, however, this public, so dreaded by men in power, depends
on those who are the source of the Enlightenment: and while it is true that
‘the public . . . masters powerful men’, it is no less true that it ‘is, in turn,
mastered by enlightened men’ (ibid.).
90 22 September 1774, quoted by Schelle, in Turgot 1913-1923, IV: 222.
91 In Europe, ‘a new doctrine that has to strike the final blow to the already reeling edifice
of prejudices is developing: it is that of the indefinite perfectibility of the human species,
a doctrine whose first and most illustrious apostles have been Turgot, Price, and Priestly’
(Condorcet 1795: 166). Turgot and Condorcet’s optimism was certainly accentuated by the
awareness of living in a period in which the influence of Enlightenment ‘on opinion, and
of opinion on nations and their heads’, had suddenly ‘ceased being slow and imperceptible’
(Condorcet, ibid.: 149).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 56
Here again, Turgot expressed these convictions early on, in his second dis-
course at the Sorbonne for example. He went to greater length on this subject
in a letter to Madame de Graffigny (1751, in 1913-23, I: 241-255), concerning
the second edition of her Lettres d’une péruvienne. Turgot began by criticizing
the customary education of the time,92 which he claimed was ‘only a store
of very frivolous rules for teaching very frivolous things’ and offered to teach
children ‘the art of judging for themselves, of inspiring in them this impartial-
ity that banishes from society, if not humor, at least the disagreements that
humor occasions!’ Men would be happier, he exclaimed, ‘if they had acquired
from childhood shrewdness in giving opinions and docility in receiving and fol-
lowing them’ (ibid.: 252-253). Is this vision utopian? Turgot revolted against
those who claimed that it was. History testifies abundantly to the power of
‘public education’ and ‘mores’, whose influence over people no longer has to
be proven. Why not conceive of this well-directed influence as being at the
service of justice and virtue?’93 ‘I believe that nature has put the seed of all
the virtues in everyone’s heart . . . ; that education — a very adroit edu-
cation — can develop them and make most men virtuous’ (ibid.).94 In this
context, reason itself, probably by instruction and the habit of reflection, will
further education. The evolution may be slow (‘I know that humankind drags
itself along slowly to take the smallest steps’) but it is no less certain: ‘each
generation must learn a bit of it, and it is thus up to books to be the tutor of
nations’ (ibid.).
Throughout his life, Turgot preserved this faith in the written as the in-
destructible vector of the progress of enlightenment. In his correspondence
with Dupont, he returned several times to the problem of his effectiveness as
a man of action compared with that of a good author. According to him, this
92 See also the letter to Hume, 25 March 1767, in which Turgot praised Rousseau.
93 ‘What! this empire would lose its strength by relying on the kingdom of virtue! What!
Malabar women were persuaded to burn themselves after the death of their husbands, and
men could not be persuaded to be just, gentle, and obliging! What! this power that struggles
with so much violence, that surmounts our heart’s propensity with so much superiority, will
not be able to support it! Error and cowardice!’ (ibid.: 253).
94 ‘A fortunate arrangement of the brain fibers, more or less strength and delicacy in the
organs of senses and memory . . . are probably the only difference that nature creates
among men . . . Everything else is the effect of education’ (1748, I: 131). This emphasis on
the power of education allows Turgot to reject the ‘theories of climate’ (cf. ibid.: 139-140;
cf. also 1751a: 304).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 57
action is very limited and restricted to only small, momentary benefits, while
the good that a man of letters can spread is lasting and almost irreversible.95
He repeats this to Condorcet. By study, he writes, one can be ‘a thousand
times more useful to men than in all our subordinate places, where one worries
oneself, often without success, in order to achieve some small good . . . All of
this small good is transitory, and the enlightenment that a man of letters can
spread must sooner or later destroy all the artificial evils of the human species’
(24 June 1772, III: 573). The progress of enlightenment is so ineluctable at
this point that even censorship cannot prevent it: ‘I am not convinced that
there is nothing useful to do, even without the freedom of the press, which
the good books can do without, because they are able to break through. The
most difficult thing will always be to write them’ (to Dupont, 6 March 1778,
V: 544).
One question, however, remains unanswered: how to act toward those who
do not think, who are not accustomed or do not have the leisure to do so,
in short, toward those who do not belong to the true ‘public’? The power of
reason obviously loses a large part of its strength here. However the situation
is not desperate since the development of free trade also inevitably generates
an equalizing of fortunes (the progressive diminution of the least and most
favoured classes) and a development of the middle classes, which is precisely
where a love of study and the use of reason are found. In other words it creates
its own support.96
It is true that these effects are progressive and take a long time to come to
fruition. In the interval, the problems engendered by the extreme classes are
raised for reformers in a very acute way. The most privileged classes have the
power of decision and for the time being they can appeal to opinion: ‘perhaps
the secret specific interests of powerful people will join the prejudices of the
multitude in order to stop the efforts of the truly wise men and of the true
citizens’ (to Price, 22 March 1778, V: 539). As for the most disadvantaged
classes, they also have the strength, and, at the very least, an ill-will and
95 2 July 1771, III: 490; 16 July 1771, III: 491; 9 August 1771, III: 493.
96 Cf. Condorcet, for example, 1786: 196-197; or again 1795: 216: ‘the equality of fortunes
necessarily contributes to that of instruction’. ‘It is easy to prove that fortunes tend naturally
to equality, and that their excessive disproportion either cannot exist or must cease promptly
if civil laws do not establish an artificial means of perpetuating . . . them’ (ibid.: 211).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 58
a certain inertia. ‘The best devised project must encounter obstacles in the
coarsest minds of this class of men. How can they be defeated? By experience
or success? And what will happen if success depends on the assistance of these
same men?’ (1762, II: 235).
Public order
All reform is disturbing in the short term, for some people always derive ad-
vantages from abuses. Because of ‘the habitual state of war of all the parts of
society against each other’ (to Condorcet, 16 July 1771, III: 523) these distur-
bances necessarily engender reactions connected with prejudices and threat-
ened interests. Turgot knew all this and indeed it was so obvious that he never
approached the subject except incidentally. But, what should be done in the
case of serious trouble? How should the government react when public order is
no longer respected? Turgot’s behaviour as minister has often been judged very
severely in this matter; perhaps it would be helpful to see that this behaviour
was not improvised, but rather arose from careful consideration. The question
had been approached in 1771 during an exchange of letters with Condorcet on
the subject of criminal justice.
Public order is no longer respected in riots. The government’s authority is
ridiculed, laws lose all their strength, and society finds itself in a ‘state of war’.
Turgot is inflexible in this matter: ‘The seditious gathering of the people and
the tyranny that it exercises on these occasions’ are for him ‘one of the pests
that is most to be feared . . . , one that must most be repressed’ (ibid.: 535).
This is why, in such circumstances, justice must not allow itself to be forgiving,
simply because of the large number of disturbers or ‘the nearly involuntary
error that has led them, for the most part, and that excuses them’; these
considerations can be taken into account only by the king and the government,
which alone may accord mercy, except to the leaders.97 The future of society
and its cohesion depend on this firm attitude.
97 ‘It is necessary that the people . . . do not hope to escape from the government’s
justice, but rather that they put all their hope in the government’s bounty. It is especially
necessary that the hidden heads of the sedition, those who have misled . . . the people, be
known and punished’ (ibid.).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 59
There is, however, a second important instance in which, without distur-
bance, the logic of the laws can be twisted, authority ridiculed, and the social
bond threatened. This situation is produced when powerful individuals, or an
entire group, intentionaly use forms established by law in order to dispute and
obstruct the legitimate authority’s decisions. Society’s functioning is therefore
blocked, for any rational discussion becomes impossible; this blockage remains
so long as the government itself scrupulously respects the legal forms that, at
the time of their establishment, had not foreseen this type of situation. When-
ever minds are divided, then forms are nothing, and one is precisely in the state
of war’ (ibid.: 536). Turgot emphasized that this does not mean that justice
is not ‘sacred’, even in the state of war; it means only that
superstitious respect for forms will impede any activity of the gov-
ernment whenever the latter cannot freely dispose of them . . .
When those who apply them have bad faith and are guided by
party spirit or hidden interests, it is too easy to take advantage
of them and to make arbitrary applications of them; from then
on, they are no longer any more than weapons in the hand of the
rogues, and all the more formidable since they impress the people
by a false appearance of justice. (ibid.)
The typical example taken by Turgot is that of the ill-will of the Parlia-
ments, from which he himself was to suffer several years later. ‘I . . . say that
the government has and can have no means of defeating their persistence if it
wishes to observe all the established forms scrupulously . . . It is therefore
necessary, in these extraordinary cases . . . to judge only by the basics, i.e.
by the principles of natural law and the public interest’ (ibid.).
Turgot was perfectly aware of the inherent danger of this solution. A
government can make good use of it, but also bad use, for if it is in a position
to have the forms at its disposal, the latter will become ‘the most terrible
instrument of its tyranny’ (ibid). The fact of ‘judging only by the basics’
therefore constitutes ‘a fatal extremity, and . . . the legislator must act
in such a way that it be necessary to use it only rarely’ (ibid.). In a crisis,
however, it remains the only safe path.98
98 Here again, Turgot places his confidence in education and the general progress of morals
— albeit in a disenchanted tone: ‘one must not give up hope that one day the progress of
reason will establish just laws everywhere and will make men as happy as they can be, and
will thus forestall all the revolutions. Amen!’ (III: 537).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 60
Turgot’s ministerial period involved plenty of events that allowed him to
put his principles to work, from the repression of the ‘guerre des farines’ to the
Lit de justice in the spring of 1776. From his entry to the ministry, foreseeing
the difficulties, and in parallel with the re-establishment of free domestic grain
trade, Turgot tried to take several preventative measures. ‘You must be careful
to avoid, and even to forestall any movement and any obstacle that could come
from the people, who are too unenlightened about their own interests’, he wrote
to the intendants.
You must obtain and maintain, for this important object, some
precise correspondence, in order to understand the mood of the
people in the different districts of your Généralité. I am convinced
that, if they become overheated, you will neglect no means of calm-
ing them and discovering the instigators before they lead to some
commotion. (19 September 1774, IV: 211)
8The status of theoretical reasoning
We know the theoretical developments set out in Turgot’s principal writings,99
how they belong to the tradition deriving from Boisguilbert, and how they
repeat numerous themes developed by Quesnay, while nevertheless engendering
a current of thought distinct from Physiocracy. It is not the place to return to
these issues here. It is however important to emphasize the status of Turgot’s
approach, and its differences with Galiani and Necker’s lines of reasoning. This
difference did not appear clearly at the time, and this probably contributed to
confusions in the debates.
Galiani, or ‘the art of those who wish to confuse clear things’
A good point of departure is Turgot’s evaluation of the 1770 Dialogues. We
know that Turgot sometimes enjoyed anti-Physiocratic writings and that he
found in them certain curative virtues, particularly their anti-dogmatism. Al-
though Galiani’s book seemed dangerous to him, he found it amusing and
worthy of being refuted (to Dupont, 2 February 1770, III: 373). He had ex-
pressed this opinion in substance in a letter to Morellet (17 January 1770),
99 On this subject, see footnote 2 above.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 61
judging the reply to be a difficult exercise in which it was important to put
all sectarianism aside; this is why Baudeau would not have been able to un-
dertake the matter, for he would have responded ‘too much as an Économiste’
(III: 420). In a letter from Turgot to Julie de Lespinasse (26 January 1770)
we read that Galiani’s Dialogues come ‘from a poorly employed mind’ and
unfortunately give ‘support to all the fools and rascals attached to the old
system’.100 The Neapolitan abbé is accused of having deployed his habitual
art of confusing clear things (ibid., III: 420).
Galiani does so by immediately approaching the problems in all their com-
plexity. ‘This art consists in never beginning at the beginning, in presenting
the subject in all its complications, or through some fact that is only an ex-
ception or through some isolated, foreign, subsidiary fact that is not related
to the question and has no place in the solution’. Such, for example, is the
case of Geneva, which the Dialogues examine first. By proceeding in this way,
Galiani was like someone who, in order to write ‘a book on the means that
men employ to obtain their subsistence, would devote a first chapter to legless
men, or he would be like a geometer who, in discussing the properties of tri-
angles, would begin with white triangles, as supposedly the simplest, in order
to discuss blue triangles next’ (ibid.). In other words, Galiani’s error lies in
examining only the particular cases of situations that are presented by con-
stituted governments and are necessarily very different. Now, Turgot’s radical
affirmation (its meaning will have to be grasped) is that ‘whoever does not
forget that there are political states separated from each other and constituted
in various ways will never treat any question of political economy well’ (ibid.:
In addition Galiani’s analyses were located in Montesquieu’s tradition of
thought which Turgot rejected, claiming that it offered an erroneous theory of
‘counterpowers’ and denied the existence of truths that are valid in all times
and places.101
100 It should be noted that Turgot does not count Galiani among these fools and rascals, and
recognizes that the author of the Dialogues ‘moves far’ from the old system in his conclusions
(III: 420).
101 Turgot often alludes to this in his letters. Condorcet summarises the aspect of the
problem concerning us here in these terms: ‘The political writers must endeavour to establish
what these laws should be and to find out ways to make them as simple and as perfect as one
could hope; rather than defining what laws are more appropriate to one degree of latitude
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 62
In fact for Turgot the correct method consisted in developing theoretical
principles in their simplicity and generality, and of introducing complications
only later (the constraints dear to Galiani and Necker). It is indeed an illusion
to wish to reach conclusions for economic policy immediately without proceed-
ing by stages. To use a modern vocabulary, Turgot seems to say that Galiani is
not aware that his model is tributary to the fundamental theoretical analyses
that it must presuppose.
Turgot never abandoned this position. The first operation to be effecteded
is to reduce the theoretical questions to their simplest terms (II: 310-311). This
is what he makes clear in a draft letter on taxation destined to Bertin, then
Contrôleur général, who had consulted the intendants on this matter. Turgot
thought that he could not answer these questions directly without developing
the principles themselves (1763: 294). It is only by proceeding thus, he affirms,
that the best possible state of things can be defined; it is this optimum, in the
etymological sense of the term, that must be aimed at from the beginning.
This is precisely the task of theory. Once the optimum is known, there will
always be time to determine the way to realize it — progressive or not, slow
or fast, direct or indirect. In Turgot’s terms,
it is always the best with which one must be concerned in the-
ory. To neglect this research, on the pretext that this better is
impracticable in current circumstances, is to wish to resolve two
questions at the same time: it is to give up the advantage of rais-
ing questions in the simplicity that alone can allow them to be
demonstrated; it is also to throw oneself without a thread into an
inextricable labyrinth and to wish to disentangle all the roads at
the same time, or rather, it is to close one’s eyes voluntarily to the
light, thus making it impossible to find it. (ibid.; cf. also 1759:
The hypotheses of ‘full prosperity’, ‘general competition’, etc. (cf. III:
310-311) which served as the foundation of the arguments of the advocates of
free trade partook precisely of such a method, which is, moreover, valid for
all fields where theoretical reasoning plays a role. ‘After having thus resolved
the problem in its greatest simplicity, and by bringing the fewest elements
than another, what institutions are better at exalting certain passions, favouring the interests
of some classes, supporting different kinds of tyrannies, and perpetuating more or less absurd
prejudices’ (1786a: 198-199).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 63
possible into it’, Turgot wrote concerning criminal justice, ‘there will be time to
consider the modifications in the results that will be required by the successive
introduction of various elements that can complicate it’ (17 May 1771, III:
It is also from this point of view that the already quoted necessity of ab-
stracting from particular political states can be understood. There are two
reasons for this. First, the necessities claimed to be inherent in the small
states, to which Galiani devoted such space, are only an illusion: it is, indeed
a mistake to suppose that a small state can resist its imposing neighbours with
the help of its public granary, when its military strength certainly does not
have the weight to do so; formulated in this way, this question is therefore no
longer a matter of economic theory.102 Second, however, and more fundamen-
tally for what concerns us here, because Turgot advanced the idea that, in the
natural order, the sizes of the different states would not differ perceptibly from
each other: every danger of inequality, every pretension to superiority being
thus removed.103
Science and art
In adopting this methodology, Turgot was perfectly aware of the important
distinction that must be made between theoretical developments and the def-
inition of an economic policy in a given context. Economic theory is not
applicable directly without mediation. It is much easier ‘to see the good in the
theory than to conform to it in practice’, Turgot confessed to Dupont. In theo-
retical reasoning, ‘things are arranged as they should be’; in practice, however,
‘one depends upon a thousand external circumstances that can be infinitely
102 This can be deduced from Turgot’s commentary on notes from Gournay (Turgot 1753-
1754: 373).
103 To Price, 22 March 1778, V: 537. ‘The supposed interests of possessing more or less
territory vanish through the principle that the territory does not belong to the nations, but
to the individuals owning the land; the question of knowing if a given district or a given
village must belong to a particular province or state must not be decided by the supposed
interest of this province or state, but by that of the inhabitants of the district or village,
coming together for affairs and business at the place where it is easiest for them to go. This
interest can be measured by the length of the path that a man must make from his residence
in order to deal with more important affairs, without too much harm to his day-to-day
affairs; this can serve as a natural and physical measurement of the extent of the jurisdiction
of these states, and can establish among all of them an equilibrium of extent and strength
that removes any danger of inequality or superiority’ (ibid.).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 64
complicated, that give rise to difficulties and even impossibilities relating to
matters that one would like most. Reason combats reason; even duties combat
duties’ (14 July 1772, III: 562).104
Here again, the position is not new. Did not Turgot, in the letter already
cited to Madame de Graffigny (1751), while complaining about serious incon-
veniences induced, in morality and metaphysics, by the distance from nature,
criticize ‘these general ideas of which men are the dupes, which are true be-
cause they have come from nature, but which are embraced with a rigidity
that makes them false, because we stop combining them with circumstance’
(I: 246). In his ‘Éloge de Vincent de Gournay’, he is just as clear. Contrary to
the unjust accusations to which he had been subjected, Gournay was perfectly
aware of the care that must be taken in putting a policy of reform to work;
‘he knew the extent to which all changes must be prepared, and the way in
which shocks that are too sudden are dangerous’. However, he simply thought
— and Turgot agreed with him — ‘that the caution should be in the action
and not in speculation’ (1759, I: 621; cf. also ibid.: 601).
The conclusion is therefore clear. Inasmuch as theoretical reasoning must
be clear and unambiguous, so too a reform program must be prudent. On this
point, Turgot’s conception is not very far from that of Galiani and Necker,
for the formulation of a general policy makes it necessary to take history and
the complexity of the society for which it is formulated into account. It is
symptomatic that Turgot makes this old theme his own. It is remarkable
as well to note the kinship between certain ideas developed here and those
he expressed on the sectarian spirit; like the impression of holding a simple
and definitive truth, a systematic plan for legislation can be conceived — and
especially implemented — only in nascent, still unenlightened societies. ‘[T]o
be a systematic legislator, it is necessary to be able to flatter oneself that one
has foreseen everything, and such confidence can be found only in very ignorant
minds’ (1751c, I: 330). To a more evolved nation, one cannot give, as Solon
said, ‘the best laws, but only the best that they can bear’ (1751b, I: 326).
104 ‘I know very well that buying and selling always go together in the long run; but be
careful here, for this proposition, which is obvious in principle, is subject to limitations in
fact. Everything tends to the level, but nothing is in fact level, not even the sea’ (20 February
1766, II: 510).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 65
It is necessary, therefore, to treat certain mentalities and interests cau-
tiously, in order not to create direct shocks in the immediate future. Two
examples can be found in Turgot, both dealing with taxation and showing,
incidentally, the second — if not secondary — characteristic that, unlike many
of his Physiocratic friends, he attributed to this field in relation to free trade.
This is why he proposed gradual reforms that would establish directly neither
the single territorial tax nor an exact imputation of the public spending to
those to whom it profits.105 Once he had come to power, the general reform
of taxation was not one of his priorities.
The other example is that of the exemptions benefiting the privileged or-
ders. There again, nothing was pressing. While it was necessary to destroy
the most recent and unjust abuses (such as the ‘corvée des chemins’) and, of
course, not to increase the number of privileges, suppressing others was not
the most urgent task for reform, for ‘prejudices and former possessions must
be handled with caution’ (1776b: 192). ‘I know as well as any other that one
must not always do the best possible; while one must not give up correcting
the flaws of an old constitution, it is necessary to work slowly, recognizing the
extent to which public opinion and the course of events make changes possible’
(ibid.: 184).106
On this point, as on many others, the lesson was understood perfectly by
Turgot’s disciple, Condorcet.107 It is remarkable to see how the theme of the
relation between theory and practice runs almost constantly throughout his
writings, and how a formula summarizes the point perfectly: ‘It is not enough
105 To Terray, 9 November 1772, III: 558-559: ‘for what concerns the principles to be
followed in establishing taxation, the ideas are, in general, not fixed well enough for such a
considerable change to be proposed. In the meantime, and since it is necessary that there be
city toll duties, it is necessary at least that these duties be established in a way that involves
the fewest inconveniences’; cf. also the letter to Hume, 7 September 1766, II: 503.
106 ‘It is always necessary to prefer the gentlest means in order to reach the proposed goal’
(to the minister of war, 8 January 1773, III: 606).
107 Condorcet’s summary of Turgot’s method reflects his own: ‘When reforming laws, one
must avoid: (1) anything that can disturb the public peace; (2) anything that would produce
shocks that are too great for a large number of citizens; (3) anything that collides directly
with generally held prejudices and uses. Sometimes a law cannot produce all the good that
it promises, or even cannot be executed, for opinion will rise up strongly against it; it is
necessary then to begin by changing the opinion’ (1786a: 212).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 66
to do good; it must be done well’.108 This also illustrates well the apparently
obvious idea that ‘the truths of theory are necessarily modified in practice’
(1795: 186). The objective of the policy is indicated by theory, but the way
to attain it depends each time on the particular circumstances of the cases
studied. ‘The general principles of political economy are proven rigorously
and are subject to no real exception. If they cannot be followed in practice,
by extending their consequences to all particular cases, it is mainly because
the majority of men allow themselves to be guided by prejudices contrary to
these principles’ (Condorcet, 1786b; cf. also, for example, 1786a: 181). In
order not to disturb the social order needlessly, and for changes, even the
most important, to be accomplished with the fewest shocks possible and to be
assured of success, it is necessary to ‘imitate a wise architect who, when obliged
to destroy a building, and knowing how its parts are connected, demolishes it
in such a way that its fall not be dangerous’ (1779: 373).
In other terms, which are still more striking and full of meaning from the
pen of a permanent, indisputable, and relentless defender of the morality of the
Enlightenment and of justice: ‘It is always useful to understand one’s rights,
but it is not always wise to make the most of them, and not every way of
making the most of them is legitimate’ (ibid.: 378) — a formula that must not
be misunderstood. Many concrete examples illustrate this topic. One might,
for instance, refer to the writings on taxes (Condorcet 1790, 1793). In this
context, however, the most striking case is undoubtedly Condorcet’s pamphlet
against slavery (1781).
This attitude culminates, in Condorcet, in the distinction between ‘sci-
ence’ and ‘art’, which was made clearly for the first time in the prospectus
of the Journal d’instruction sociale (1793a), and which is present as well in
the preparatory texts for the Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de
l’esprit humain (B.N. MS, N. a. fr. 4586, ff. 55-62).109
All sciences have a practical part. From each of them, there results
an art whose rules are a consequence of the science’s principles.
This art has the goal of combining and choosing the means of ex-
108 1779: 373; in French the formula is more striking: ‘Il ne suffit pas de faire le bien, il
faut le bien faire’.
109 I owe the latter reference to Pierre Crépel. The manuscript is to be published in a
critical edition of the Tableau, the main part of which is formed by the Esquisse.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 67
ecuting surely what the principles have made us recognize as true,
correct, and useful. Thus . . . the art of administering has the
science of public economy as its basis. (1793a: 606)
9The economics of the transition period
Even if these considerations are important, they must not, however, endanger
the central points of the desired economic and social change. In order not
to become trapped in compromise, the transition policy requires a minimal
number of clear reforms — and this emphasis is very unlike that of Galiani and
Necker. This boldness, as measured as it may be, and as difficult as it often
is to achieve,110 concerns the ‘hard kernel’ without which the word ‘reform’
loses its meaning: free trade. It is for want of being sufficiently coherent in
this field, Turgot affirms, that the measures of 1763 and 1764 had only an
extremely limited effectiveness.111
In an important series of letters to Terray on the grain trade (30 October - 2
December 1770) we find Turgot’s essential ideas on the economic mechanisms of
the transition period. Given the composition date and the subjects discussed,
it is possible to consider these letters as an answer, on a completely different
level from Morellet’s, to Galiani’s arguments in his Dialogues, arguments that
Turgot could legitimately believe that the new Contrôleur général had made
his own.
Contrary to some advocates of free trade, and especially to Boisguilbert’s
insistent statements that ‘it takes only a moment to put things in their nat-
ural order and the kingdom in a state of full prosperity’, Turgot emphasized
that the passage to an economy of free competition and the benefits that are
supposed to result from it cannot be produced from one day to the next. ‘This
110 ‘A prodigious wisdom and an address no less great are necessary in order for any
specific decisions which all seem involved and mastered by special circumstances, not to be,
nevertheless, in disagreement either with the fundamental principles nor with the general
plan’ (1751b: 326-327).
111 1770: 271; 1776a: 154, 155, and 156. ‘The truth is that this freedom had not really been
established at all, since obstacles to trade still persisted, obstacles strong enough to turn the
merchants away from forming speculations for provisioning the interior of the kingdom; trade
was separated from the cities that, by their location and size, were naturally intended to
become its center; finally, it remained forbidden in the capital and in a district of twenty
leagues in diameter around the capital’ (1776: 155).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 68
revolution may be slow’ (1770: 311), he specifies in guise of a warning, and
certain adjustments will be made ‘only slowly and by degrees’ (ibid.: 340).
The theme is taken up again several pages further on:
it is important not to be mistaken in advance about what can be
expected from free trade. It has been said a hundred times . . . that
this freedom would be an assured remedy against the frequency of
scarcity; but it has not been said . . . that it must produce this
effect during the first years of its establishment. It is therefore
necessary not to ask of freedom what it has not promised . . .
One day, it must ensure the subsistence of the people, in spite of
the inequalities of the soil and the seasons; but this debt must be
required of it only when it falls due. (ibid.: 347-348)
The reason for these delays in achieving the positive effects of free trade is
simple: these effects must themselves be born and developed during a period
of economic transition, the length of which depend on particular circumstances.
But however long it may be the economic logic of the transition remains
the same, and rests fundamentally on improving the farmers’ lot and on an
entire series of fundamental conditions connected to this goal. The reasoning
also presupposes a double distinction: first, one that had been traditional since
Quesnay’s articles in the Encyclopédie, the distinction between large-scale and
small-scale farming (‘grande culture’ and ‘petite culture’); next, as an answer
to Galiani, one between provinces and localities that are near important paths
of communication (ports, rivers, and principal roads), and the ‘mediterranean’
provinces (i.e., those in the kingdom’s interior), which are badly served.
The basis of this argument had been developed by Boisguilbert and com-
pleted by Quesnay. The climatic risks are not important in the terrible fluc-
tuations of grain prices, fluctuations that, in turn, ruin the buyers (during
famines and periods of high prices) and the sellers (in periods of abundance
when prices fall). The compartmentalization and segmentation of the market
due to regulations are, along with the play of the agents’ expectations, at the
origin of these phenomena, which can therefore disappear only in a regime of
internal and external free competition that stabilizes expectations and prices.
Quesnay adds to this an analysis in terms of ‘prix communs’ (the buyer’s ‘prix
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 69
commun’ and the seller’s ‘prix commun’)112 and insists on the fact implicit
in Boisguilbert that free trade stabilizes the price at the level reached in the
world market, which Turgot calls the ‘general market’ price.113
Under a regulatory regime land situated in one or the other type of province
is not in the same situation: it will therefore not react in the same way to a
policy of liberalization. This is what determines the duration and complexity
of the transition process.
The mechanisms of the transition
In the regulated system, all things being equal (particularly the quality of the
soil) the land is not exploited in the same way in the different regions of the
kingdom. In general, the ‘mediterranean’ provinces are poor and cultivated by
sharecroppers (‘métayers’) under the system of small-scale farming (‘petite cul-
ture’), whereas the rich regions are the domain of large-scale farming (‘grande
culture’) worked by farmers (‘fermiers’). ‘Now why, if both are equally fer-
tile, is the cultivation less profitable in the provinces inside the kingdom than
in those within reach of the capital and the maritime markets? The obvious
reason is that the commodities do not have the same value there’ (1770: 310).
On average, indeed, and in a system of regulated markets, Turgot affirms,
the behaviour of the grain price is not the same in the interior provinces as
elsewhere. In the interior, where the circulation of commodities is limited
and poor, price fluctuations engender an insufficient level of the seller’s ‘prix
commun’, which is ‘constantly far lower than the ‘general market’ price; it is
therefore not surprising to see that ‘large-scale farming . . . could not be
established there’ (ibid.; see also ibid.: 340).
The situation is different for the other provinces and the large centres
of population. Since these provinces are better situated, the circulation of
commodities is easier there, in spite of the obstacle of the regulations; and
112 Recent developments on Quesnay’s theory of prices can be found in Vaggi (1987) and
Steiner (1994).
113 ‘Prix du marché général’. This price, according to Turgot, is ‘the ordinary price in the
ports in Holland’ (1770: 339), i.e., the price on the world market. Some pages previously
(ibid.: 310) Turgot had defined this price a little differently, but in a way that ultimately
rejoins the other definition, as the ‘prix commun of the capital and the ports’.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 70
although the seller’s ‘prix commun’ is still lower than that of the ‘general
market’, it is, nevertheless, higher than in the ‘mediterranean’ regions, and
it therefore allows the farmers to remain in activity (ibid.). In the big cities,
the large consumption is a supplementary support of the price.114 This is the
reason why, in short,
while the places most favoured by easy access, and which are most
within reach of supplies, suffer, like the others, from the bad reg-
ulations to which they are subjected . . . this misfortune is more
frequent and serious for the inhabitants of provinces which are far
from the sea and navigable rivers. (ibid.: 343)
If, in addition, the buyer’s ‘prix commun’ is taken into account, matters
do not improve: it is slightly lower than the ‘general market’ price in the
provinces using large-scale farming, but the gap is far more perceptible in the
‘mediterranean provinces’; ‘the inequality of prices is larger and more damaging
to the people because of . . . the low price to which the consumers are
accustomed’ (ibid.).
In this context, the immediate consequences of a liberalization policy differ
according to regions. Quesnay affirmed that free trade stabilizes the price of
grain at the level reached by the world market, one that is slightly higher than
the buyer’s ‘prix commun’ but substantially above the seller’s ‘prix commun’,
therefore allowing an optimal management of all the land by the system of
large-scale farming. Although Turgot emphasizes the situation’s primary and
fundamental advantage, he also provides nuances, in terms of the regional
disparities that have just been described. For however certain the advantage
may be, the speed of its concretization depends on the location.
The provinces with large-scale farming being most directly in contact with
the ‘general market’, the ‘general market’ price is soon established. Conse-
quently, while awaiting the renewal of leases, farmers realize higher profits
than those that served as the basis for previous determinations of farm-rent.
Seeing this, they seek to increase their profits still more. With this in mind
they convert their surplus profits into capital, and can proceed in two comple-
114 Cf. ibid.: ‘the immense consumption in the capital and the concentration of expenses in
this part of the kingdom has always sustained a mean price that is slightly below the general
market price for consumers and which has not been low enough for the sellers [Turgot wrote
“above” by mistake] in order that the cultivation by the farmer not be able to sustain itself’.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 71
mentary ways, intensive or extensive: invest this capital in the land that they
already cultivate or devote it to increasing the area of the land, thus increasing
the demand for land to cultivate.
In parallel, the profession becomes attractive, and more people enter it;
such, indeed, would be the case if it were only a matter of the sons of these
same farmers, who, seeing a change of situation, no longer dream of attaining
a different condition to their fathers. Competition, therefore, becomes more
intense and pushes the farmers to raise their bid during the discussions for
new leases. As time passes, rent increases and, in the long run, the result
of the process is the alignment of the farmers’ profit rates with the general
rate (probably modified in comparison with the economy’s initial equilibrium);
the excess profits are cancelled out, the individual lot of the farmers does
not improve perceptibly, although, on the other hand, all of agriculture is
invigorated and production increases (ibid.: 306-307).115
In the poor provinces, the transition process is not fundamentally different,
but is much slower. Indeed in this type of region farmers are rare, even non-
existent. The raising of prices, on the other hand, makes itself felt more slowly,
because of the isolation of these regions and their distance from the ‘general
market’: it takes place just as much there, but gradually, starting in the areas
that border the rich provinces.
A double evolution then becomes perceptible. On the one hand, the first
effects of a progressive rise of the grain price are felt by the sharecroppers and
the landowners, who share the fruits of the cultivation with them. With two
consequences: first, the landowners improve their land and want to rent it in
order to live better themselves; second, the sharecroppers, finding themselves
richer, wish to become farmers in their own right. On the other hand, the
115 ‘If all the provinces resembled . . . provinces managed by farmers’, Turgot summarizes,
‘the growth of farming would follow the progression I have just indicated. The first profits
that the farmers made until the renewal of their leases would be converted into capital;
transferred then onto the land, they would give rise to new profits by increasing production.
The enriched farmers would seek to extend the size of their land holding; their children would
devote themselves to their fathers’ trades . . . Everyone would want to obtain farms, and
with each of these farmers competing with each other, the price of rent would be raised . . .
As the amount of land to be rented would not increase, the raising of the rents would be all
the more considerable, and the farmer’s remaining profits all the more reduced, to the level,
nevertheless, of the interest of capital newly spent in farming; for if the reduction of [profits]
[Turgot wrote ‘fermages’ by mistake] had reached this point once, the surplus capital would
flow into other uses, and would be used to revitalize other branches of trade’ (ibid.: 307-308).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 72
transformation of sharecropping farms into farms is accelerated by the com-
petition from enriched farmers who have come from neighbouring provinces
seeking land to rent (ibid.: 310-312).
This is the way that large-scale farming is extended and small-scale farming
retreats, especially from points of contact between rich and poor provinces.
In the provinces closest to those that have farmers, the revolution
will be still quicker, because men of this valuable kind cannot fail to
become more numerous through the growth of capital from farming;
the farmers, progressively pushed by competition, will rush to land
that had formerly been used only by sharecroppers. (ibid.: 312)
It is thus also that the establishment of the ‘general market’ price becomes
generalized and stabilized, and that there is a perceptible increase in produc-
tion throughout the kingdom. The reserve of land constituted by the poor
provinces, will, eventually, even if it slows down the realization of the bene-
fits of free trade, nevertheless allow a more durable existence for the excess
profits in the rich provinces. The bulk of the farms to be rented in the inte-
rior provinces, indeed, diminishes the competition between the farmers who
are already established, and somewhat restrains increases in the price of leases
(ibid.: 308). Farmers therefore grow richer and, all things being equal, the
mass of new capital constituted in agriculture increases .
The question of the grain price
The analysis remains to be completed by examining an important question
that has already been considered in part, namely the evolution of grain prices,
a point which Galiani, as well as the adversaries of free trade, emphasized: this
evolution in fact constitutes an important mechanism in the process of transi-
tion to a market economy. Moreover Galiani had depicted the increase of the
price of corn in apocalyptic terms and here Turgot marks his disagreement. It
is important, nevertheless, to note that, here again, while in some ways repeat-
ing Boisguilbert’s and Quesnay’s analyses of this theme, he also completes the
analysis decisively. Certainly he admits that, apart from the costs of trans-
portation, the ‘general market’ price will become establishsed everywhere after
the liberalization of markets. However, to calm the apprehension of readers of
the Dialogues, he stressed two essential points.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 73
In the first place, according the distinction between the two types of provinces,
he qualified the quantitative importance of the increase in the mean price of
In normal times, this increase is more perceptible in the poor provinces,
since it is there that the buyer and seller’s ‘prix communs’ are most distant
from the ‘general market’ price. Since, nevertheless, this rise must also be
slower, it creates time for adaptation and allows the process to occur without
shocks. ‘It takes time for trade to improve; communications will be established
and trade will increase gradually, and the mean prices [“prix moyens”] will only
rise progressively in proportion as all the other advantages of freedom develop’
(ibid.: 340). As for the rich provinces, as we have seen, the ‘prix commun’ of
grain was already high for the buyer: the difference is not too perceptible for
him, but remains essential for the seller.
Nevertheless, another possibility can also be considered. Because of excep-
tionally bad climatic circumstances (an unfortunate series of years of scarcity)
and the persistent obstacles to free grain trade, the mean price that effectively
prevails116 is already high and sometimes even higher than the ‘general mar-
ket’ price. This phenomenon is more perceptible in the poor regions; ‘the rise
in prices that occurs in the famine years causes the mean price to be not as
far below the price in the capital, and even the general market price, as one
would imagine’ (ibid.: 340). In such circumstances, consequently, the effective
measures of liberalization could only provoke a lowering — or, at the worst,
a very weak rise or even a simple maintenance — of the prices: ‘the natural
effect of freedom must be to lower the mean price whenever it is higher than
the general market price’ (ibid.: 338).
This was in fact the situation of the ‘mediterranean’ provinces at the be-
ginning of the 1770s. Turgot could therefore be reassuring on the subject of
the announced and expected ‘revolution’ in grain prices: this revolution, he
affirmed, ‘has already occurred’. ‘In truth’, he adds,
if it is a good, one owes it, in part, to a great evil. It is to be pre-
sumed, as I already said first, that following the ordinary course
116 Turgot reasons here in terms of the effective mean prices, and no longer in terms of ‘prix
communs’: an exceptional series of similar years, indeed, make the concept of ‘prix commun’
less operative for examining a concrete situation.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 74
of events, it would have been slower. But the circumstances, af-
ter the re-establishment of freedom,117 brought five out of six bad
years, and grain rose to a very high price in the kingdom, and to
an excessive price in some of the provinces. The forcing up of the
price, far from being an effect of freedom, must, on the contrary,
be attributed to the facts both that that freedom, from the time
it was established, had been restricted and combatted, and that it
had not been established long enough yet for trade to rise . . .
Whatever it be, the people have been accustomed to an excessive
price for several years; thus there will be at least the advantage
that, with the return of abundance, grain will not fall to the price
that it had held before freedom, but to one approaching what free-
dom would have given it: the people, who will experience a quite
perceptible relief, will not dream of complaining about a rise in
price, which will be perceived as such only when compared with an
already forgotten period. (ibid.: 341-342)
In these reflections, Turgot responds in advance to the criticisms that would
be made of him for having — as minister — immediately re-established free
domestic grain trade, during a period of bad harvests, instead of having had
the patience to wait for better times.
By the same stroke, also — and this fundamental point seems to have been
neglected — he states that all periods are equally valid for instituting large-
scale reforms, provided that one maintains one’s course and takes appropriate
measures (see below). Both advantages and disadvantages are indeed just as
present in a situation of repeated good harvests, as in a situation of persistent
poverty: only their nature changes, and it is precisely the good administrator’s
task to adapt his policy to it.
Aside from the preceding considerations, another more fundamental reason
allows the transition period to be considered calmly. Turgot affirms that the
rise in the price of grain, which was denounced so vigorously by the adversaries
of free trade, as well as by the ‘moderates’, could not last. In his opinion, this
increase could only be produced at the beginning of the adjustment period.
Next, he announces, under free trade the mean price must go down, simply
because the ‘general market’ price must decrease. In the case of France, Turgot
refuses what we designate today as the ‘small country’ hypothesis and thinks,
in a manner that was reasonable for his time, that free trade would provoke
117 In 1763-1764.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 75
a noticeable increase in French agricultural production, a perceptible induced
growth in grain supply on the international market, and therefore a lowering
of the price on the ‘general market.’
The increase of cultivation in France, its increase in production, its
export, its decreased import, in a word, its supply in the general
market, will be too considerable for the price not to be lowered.
It is an additional competitor in the general providing for needs,
one whose supply will, without any doubt, be strong enough to
influence the market price. (ibid.: 339)
In any case, Turgot specifies, it is necessary to compare the evolution of
prices with the immense and essential advantages linked to their regulariza-
tion. Although there is no doubt that the price in the ‘general market’ will
ultimately be lowered, the advantage of its decrease is almost nil compared to
its stabilization (ibid.).
10 The necessary conditions for the success of the
transition to the market economy
The play of mechanisms that has just been described and which, in the long
run, ensures the transition’s success, is not, however, certain: it depends on
the realisation of a series of conditions, some of which have already appeared
in outline.118
The merchants’ freedom and security
A first condition lies in ensuring the merchants’ freedom and security so that
possessors of capital can adopt this profession without fear and grain can circu-
late smoothly, thus unifying the national space and creating a bridge between
good and bad years.
Do we believe that, by hindering trade through degrading difficul-
ties, by intimidating warehousing, by announcing that one regards
118 I am neglecting certain aspects, which were however approached polemically by Galiani:
the question of the necessary reciprocity of concessions in international trade, for example.
Turgot was conscious of this necessity, as certain passages from a letter to the comte de
Saint-Germain, the then minister of war, show (November 1775, IV: 483-485).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 76
grain to be less sacred as property than any other asset, by sub-
mitting it to the will and the ignorant or interested inspection of a
crowd of judges or subordinate administrators, we will ensure that
more of it will be warehoused? If there were people who still en-
tered this trade, doubtless they would count these new risks and
their shame among their costs, and they would make the consumers
pay for them. There will not, however, be any of them, for to carry
out this trade in such a way as to fill the needs of a suffering people,
there must be huge advances, large capital, and rich and accredited
merchants; now, the latter are not made to record to a registry of
police; they do not put their fortune at the mercy of a judge, or
even of the government. (1770: 323)
It is therefore necessary to break with decades of temporization and sus-
picion. This condition is not achieved automatically: first because the harass-
ments of which the merchants are victims in a system of regulation wound and
even destroy their respectability; and next because their security and freedom
depend crucially on the government’s authority and the credibility of its policy,
not only toward the ‘people’, but also toward the merchants themselves.
Once in government, Turgot immediately dealt with the lot of the mer-
chants, on whom he saw that his policy depended. He was also careful, starting
with the ‘Arrêt du Conseil’ of 13 September 1774, to multiply his interventions
with the provincial authorities and the chambres de commerce, in order, with-
out losing time, to get rid of the old regulatory reflexes, to explain the new
orientation and to make sure that no one — neither the ‘people’ nor the in-
tendants, the procureurs généraux, and the judges — disturbed it.119
Nominal and real wages
The accomplishment of a second condition is of just as much primary impor-
tance for the success of the transition: it is necessary that, everywhere, changes
in nominal wages follow those of the price of corn. In approaching this ques-
tion in his Lettres to Terray, Turgot intended to answer not only Galiani’s
119 See, in particular, the circular notifying the intendants of the ‘Arrêt du Conseil’, 19
September 1774, IV: 210-211; the circular to the Procureurs généraux, 19 September 1774,
IV: 212-213; the circular to the Presidents of the Chambres de commerce, 19 September
1774, IV: 214-215; the letter to Bethmann, Imperial Consul and merchant in Bordeaux,
31 October 1774, IV: 227-228; the ‘Arrêt du Conseil’, 24 April 1775, ordering subsidies on
importing by sea, IV: 407-408; or again the circular to the Intendants, 28 April 1775, IV:
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 77
criticisms, but also those of everyone who refused the transition to a market
economy in the name of the survival of the ‘people’.
Turgot immediately reaffirmed the inevitable adjustment of the nominal
wages on the grain price and argued that this change could occur without any
lengthy delay, which would be detrimental to the wage-earners. ‘A similar
increase [in the grain price] is not strong enough to put the people in distress
and to prevent them from waiting without trouble for wages to be brought up
to this level’ (1770: 341). The process appeared to him to be without problem
for the rich provinces, where in a regulated system the buyer’s common price is
not very far from the ‘general market’ price, and where, the wage adjustment
is therefore already established. But the different case of the poor provinces
also did not overly disturb Turgot; he believed that the change would also end
up occurring smoothly. The wage-earners from these provinces have nothing to
fear. ‘There can be doubt about their situation only for the passing moment.
Now, in the natural course of things, this passage must be very smooth and
tolerable’ (ibid., 340). Why does he show such confidence? Two factors noted
above are in play here.
In the first place, as we have seen, at the time when Turgot was writing, the
price of corn was not as far below the normal market price as it was ordinarily,
because of the repeated periods of scarcity. Since the ‘revolution’ in prices
had already taken place because of a series of bad harvests and the continued
impediments to free trade, wages would have to follow. The people, Turgot
repeated, would therefore not suffer; ‘the revolution has been accomplished no
less in relation to the increase of the price of wages than in relation to that of
the grain price’ (ibid.: 342).
In the second place the slowness of the change in the ‘mediterranean’
provinces’ price system allows a smooth evolution, which the functioning of the
labour market in these provinces would reinforce. This market is connected
with that of the wealthy regions through seasonal migration. If the grain price
rise, what would happen if the employers from poor regions refused a rise of
nominal wages? The migratory flux would increase. The workers would leave
these provinces and seek employment in the wealthy neighboring provinces,
thereby provoking the raising of wages in the ‘mediterranean’ provinces, and
this raise would be facilitated by the new wealth of both the owners and share-
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 78
croppers. ‘If, therefore, wages were not in common proportion with the value of
subsistences, the number of workers would diminish, and the landowners [sic]
would be forced to pay them more in order to keep them: they would resist
this necessary increase all the less since the growth of their incomes, doubly
founded upon the equalization and the raising of the price, would allow them
both to get the laborers to work more and to pay them better’ (III: 341). One
might suppose therefore that the processes would be all the more rapid when
the region was on the border between rich and poor provinces.
Turgot recognized however that the picture could sometimes include shad-
ows. A disturbing effect could thwart the evolution, namely the possible main-
tenance of a real — and therefore monetary — wage specific to the ‘mediter-
ranean’ provinces, different from the one prevailing in the rich provinces. This
is why the transition also required a generalization of a single type of labour
consumption throughout the territory, a consumption founded on corn (which
could be called the ‘real wage of abundance’). In the poor interior provinces,
indeed, the grain price could well be stabilized at the level of the ‘general mar-
ket’ price; this would not shelter the population from scarcity as long as their
real wage was composed principally not of grain, but of ‘chestnuts, rapes, and
of a bad black wheat gruel’, and as long as ‘their [monetary] wages and their
means of subsistence are regulated, in large part, by the price of these wretched
commodities’ (ibid.: 346). Each time a bad harvest occured in this domain,
a famine was unavoidable because the trade of these commodities was non-
existent (‘considering their low value and the difficulty of transporting them’)
and the monetary wages do not allow workers to subsist on grain, especially
when the latter is expensive.
For then the void cannot but be replaced by grain, because chest-
nuts and black wheat cannot be found to import, and because the
value of these commodities could not pay back the transportation
costs. Grain is always expensive since it must be transported from
a distance; consequently, the subsistence foods are necessarily at a
price excessively above the means of a people for whom grain, even
at a low price, is a kind of luxury that they are not in a condition
to obtain. (ibid.: 346-347)
In such circumstances, free trade could, therefore, see its benefits realized fully
only after the population concerned had modified its habits of consumption.
‘Now it takes time to reach this goal’ (ibid.: 346).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 79
The question of the poor is linked to that of wages. How can they be aided
while avoiding a fall back into the rut of interventionism on the grain market,
a fall that would disrupt the progress of the liberalization policy? The orders
given to the intendants in 1774 specified the steps to be taken. ‘Public works’
are to be multiplied by setting up ‘charity workshops . . . in places where
famine has made itself felt most strongly’ and if the gravity of the situation
requires it, subsidies will be given ‘to all the merchants who have introduced,
in places outside the reach of ordinary trade, grain that has come from abroad,
and the good quality of which has been ascertained’.120 The measures taken
in the spring of 1775 were similar.121
The liberalization of trade in the other branches of activity
A third condition was important for the success of the transition. Although
the liberalization of the grain market was necessary, it might prove to be in-
sufficient. Free trade must also be established in all other sectors — not to
speak of the abolition of every obstacle (tolls and other taxes, for example)
which impede the circulation of commodities and raise their prices: these were
constant preoccupations up to the six edicts of March 1776.122 Freedom of
labour, i.e., above all the abolition of the ‘jurandes’, must come to reinforce
the general movement of deregulation. The competition that must then be es-
tablished in the different trades would provoke, Turgot foresaw, a decrease in
the price of goods, especially bread; in the cities, this decrease would counter-
balance the possible increase in prices during the transitional period and soften
or even improve the lot of wage-earners. ‘I shall not finish without pointing
out to you’, Turgot insisted, placing himself on his adversary’s ground, ‘that
if it were true that freedom would produce an increase in the grain price, and
that this increase would be entirely at the consumer’s expense, it would still
120 19 September 1774, IV: 212; cf. the circular to the Procureurs généraux, same date,
ibid.: 213-214.
121 ‘Even women and children are admitted to all these works, whether in Paris or in the
provinces, in order to employ those who are the least accustomed to finding work and earning
wages; since a profit and wages are offered to all the persons in each family, the resources
are distributed in proportion to needs’ (‘Arrêt du Conseil’, 24 April 1775, ordering subsidies
for importing by sea, IV: 408-409. For developments on this theme, see Turgot 1775a and b,
and Joël 1984).
122 See, for example, the ‘Arrêt du Conseil’ for 22 April 1775, IV: 404-406.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 80
provide a gain for these consumers, by lowering the price of bread more than
they could lose by the increase in the grain price’ (1770: 349).123 The trades
communities, he repeated in 1776, are a powerful obstacle to the lowering of
the prices of ‘commodities necessary to the people’s subsistence’. ‘Since the
price of grain varies from 20 to 26 pounds per ‘setier’ today, and the largest
part of good wheat is at 24 pounds, the people should have excellent bread
at 2 sous 2deniers per pound. It is still worth 2 sous 9deniers. The same
obstacles can be found for the price of meat’ (1776a: 160). The abolition of
the ‘jurandes’ and ‘the most free competition’ of labour were therefore also
necessary for the success of the reforms.
A remodelling of the political system
Finally, there was a fourth condition necessary for ensuring a lasting success
of the process of transition to a market economy. It refered to an extensive
reorganization of the state’s administrative apparatus, which implied, when
all is said and done, a change of political system, thus confirming Galiani’s
intuitions — or fears.
It was not that Turgot thought that reform had necessarily found an obsta-
cle in monarchical institutions. On the contrary, he believed that the achieve-
ment of certain important reforms could be facilitated by a powerful central
authority.124 A margin for action therefore existed. As he explained to Con-
dorcet in 1773,
it is necessary to distinguish among degrees of despotism; there
are a multitude of despotic abuses in which the princes have no
interest at all . . . There is no form of government that does not
have disadvantages that the governments themselves would like to
123 ‘This is perhaps not to overvalue too greatly the surcharge on the price of bread resulting
from all these causes, to evaluate it to the third part of the price that it has for the consumer.
Even if it were only a fourth or fifth, it would be enough for their only suspension to allow
the consumers to bear, without any harm, an increase in the grain price’ (1770: 351).
124 ‘From this point of view, monarchies have some great advantages: (1) The monarch has
and can have no interest in making bad laws . . . (2) He can often act in conformity with
the opinion of civilized men, without waiting for it to sway the general opinion, and he must
oppose less resistance to the natural order, which tends to make this opinion conform more
and more to the truth. (3) Finally, we can hope in this constitution that bad laws will be
attacked with less caution, according to a more regular and better devised plan’ (Condorcet
1786a: 211-212; see also ibid.: 120).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 81
remedy or abuses that almost all of them propose to reform, at
least at another time. One can therefore serve them while treating
questions of the public good (III: 639-640)
A change as important as the passage to a market economy, however, is
better achieved if it is understood and supported by a good part of the agents
involved. These agents must also be in a position to participage in making
decisions that concern them (such as the just distribution of taxes) and to
advise the government effectively about everything relating to the economic
domain. This is why Turgot elaborated an ambitious plan for a system of As-
semblées municipales, which, had it been adopted, would certainly have upset
the French administrative and political structure.125 He hoped to create, at
the level of the villages, districts, provinces, and finally the country, a pyramid
of assemblies that would deal with the economic and judiciary questions within
their jurisdiction, each of them being responsible for designating the members
of the immediately higher assembly. The system was elective. The electors
were landowners and their voices counted in proportion to the value of their
property, according to a certain threshold.126 Elections would have to take
place, and the assemblies would be held, without any distinction between the
three estates of the realm. In parallel, a Council of Public Instruction would
have been instituted and a vast educational programme set up: an educational
system of which the state would be in charge, and which would have had the
function of transforming the subjects into enlightened citizens.
One of the major functions of this pyramid of assemblies, other than mak-
ing the social body homogeneous on a mainly economic basis, would certainly
have been to channel enlightened opinion and make it better understood by
125 The Mémoire sur les municipalités, which is included in Turgot’s collected works, was
in fact composed by Dupont at Turgot’s request. The result was not judged satisfying. ‘I
am sorry, my dear Dupont, that you wasted time in writing your views with a superfluous
perfection. I only needed an outline. I have thought too much about this matter, for fifteen
years, not to have a mass of ideas about which you could not have guessed, and it would have
been a lucky chance if we had agreed on everything. It follows from this that the definitive
version will probably have to be re-done’ (to Dupont, 23 September 1775, IV: 676). On
the vicissitudes of this text, see Schelle’s remarks (in Turgot, IV: 568-574). Since Dupont
cannot be considered the most faithful witness, it is also interesting to consult the testimony
of Condorcet (1786a) and Véri (1933), which Schelle also uses (IV: 621-628).
126 Below this threshold, landowners could form groups in order to be able to vote; thus
they would collectively have had one or more voices, for example, as soon as the addition of
their domains had reached or surpassed this threshold.
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 82
the government than would otherwise have been the case with an elusive and
unstable ‘public’. As Condorcet notes, it would have formed and expressed
the ‘general wish of the nation’; and Turgot would have let the king know
‘that this general wish, about which, with such means, one could not be mis-
taken, and which would rarely go astray, would be a more certain guide than
public opinion, which is an obstacle common to all the absolute governments,
the resistance of which is less constant, but also less calm, often as powerful,
sometimes harmful, and always dangerous’ (1786a: 123).
In this area as well, however, the course that Turgot proposed was very
prudent, and all the more gradual since the political stakes were important.
The different levels of assemblies would not have been instituted at the same
time.127 Only the first two grades would have been created at first, in order
both to allow them the time to learn how to conduct themselves well, and
to allow the work of national education to begin to have effects. Once this
had been accomplished, however, it would have been necessary to go further
and to institute first the ‘municipal’ provincial assemblies, and then, later on,
the general (or national) assembly. At the time of these two final stages, the
process would have changed its appearance radically and would have inevitably
implied a partial transferral of power from the king to the assemblies.
Turgot, according to the convergent testimonies of Condorcet and Véri, was
aware of the problem and divided between his desire to see this transformation
accomplished and his fidelity to the king. He explained his position after his
disgrace, at the time of Necker’s attempt to institute provincial assemblies.128
‘Whatever restraint one institutes at the beginning’, he declared to Véri,
there is no doubt that with time the assemblies will acquire, by
their establishment in each province, and by the possibility that
they will communicate with each other, a degree of strength that
will certainly alter the monarchical constitution that presently ex-
ists. As citizen, I was very comfortable with it; but acting as the
127 They would not be instituted everywhere, for only the ‘Pays d’élection’ would have
applied the reform. Turgot counted on success there in order to extend the policy to the
‘Pays d’État’ afterwards.
128 Turgot’s partisans accused Necker of taking inspiration from his predecessor, while
diluting the reform. One function to be played by the provincial assemblies was at least
common to both projects: to capture, educate, and channel ‘public opinion’ (cf. for example,
Necker 1781: 75).
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 83
king’s minister, I had scruples about using his confidence to weaken
the extent of his authority. It was not that I did not have the de-
sign, but I wanted to wait until the king was older, and had the
experience and maturity to judge for himself. (in Véri 1933, vol.
II: 147)
The ’Guerre des farines’ in 1775 and his disgrace in the spring of 1776 did not
allow Turgot to present his ideas to the king, and this part of the program
went unheeded.
In the great debate about the move to a market economy and, in particular,
about the degree of laissez-faire that could or should be accepted in economic
matters, it is therefore evident that the various positions are more nuanced
and complex than they might first appear, or than an interpretative tradition
suggests. More specifically, in between the sometimes extreme prudence of
Galiani and especially Necker, and the dogmatism of Quesnay and his main
disciples, Turgot engaged in an intermediary position which is in many ways
comparable to that of Adam Smith. Among the authors of the time, Turgot
is distinctive not only on account of his analytical powers and his conceptual
rigour, but also by being the only thinker to put forward in such a detailed
manner an argument which attempted to link a long term perspective to the
short term evolution of the economy; in other words, he was unique for his
thorough reflections about the period of transition. It is also true that he was
the only author to assume the two roles of theoretician and statesman.
All the same, the image presented in his demonstration may perhaps seem
to us to be all too perfect. Is not the dynamic as he describes it, as excluding
any major clashes, based on too unrealistic hypotheses, particularly in rela-
tion to the stumbling block of the era, namely the functioning of the labour
market? In responding to Galiani, Turgot attempted to come to terms with
the adjustment period, arguing that the economic and social costs of the tran-
sition would be essentially negligible, at least in so far as the principal social
classes were concerned: the individual interests directly linked to the old order
could well be sacrificed. He displayed for the first time in its complete form,
a type of reasoning which would later achieve success amongst the ‘free trade’
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 84
advocates, reassuring them in their faith in the automatic and optimal nature
of market adjustments.
We know that this kind of approach frequently attracted critics. For exam-
ple, to cite only one of the most well-known: ‘...this long run is a misleading
guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set them-
selves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell
us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again’ (Keynes 1923:
65). This comment is reminiscent of many of Galiani’s remarks. However, the
fact was that in the eighteenth century, even more than in the 1920s, no solid
alternative schema was proposed, and Turgot’s reasoning appears to be by far
the most precise and most coherent of those on offer. Ultimately Galiani and
Necker do not have much to say about the functioning of the economy in the
short run, especially during periods of great change. Nevertheless they did
have the advantage of emphasising a point which was the Achilles’ heel of the
radical reformers, as Turgot understood perfectly clearly. In the context of the
debate about the grain trade, a long-lasting theoretical split was being put in
Finally, the debate also emphasised the limits of economic discourse and
the theoretical approach as such in the formulation of a social and economic
policy. While Galiani and Necker still confused the two levels of theory and
practice, Turgot started to make a distinction which at last became clear with
Condorcet: the distinction which exists between science and art and which is
particularly relevant during a period of transition. The main theoreticians later
made use of this distinction either implicitly or explicitly. Smith emphasised
the difficulty on several occasions: ‘in what manner the natural system of
perfect liberty and justice ought gradually to be restored, we must leave to the
wisdom of future statesmen and legislators to determine’ (1776: 606).129 But
129 Cf. ibid.: 468: ‘The recovery of a great foreign market will generally more than com-
pensate the transitory inconveniency of paying dearer during a short time for some sorts
of goods. To judge whether . . . retaliations are likely to produce such an effect, does
not, perhaps, belong so much to the science of a legislator, whose deliberations ought to be
governed by general principles which are always the same, as to the skill of that insidious
and crafty animal, vulgarly called a statesman or politician, whose councils are directed by
the momentary fluctuations of affairs.’
Galiani, Necker and Turgot 85
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... The first consists in a French adaptation of the English "science of trade" and is illustrated by such different authors as Jean-François Melon (1675-1738), Nicolas Dutot (also spelled Du Tot, 1684-1741), Montesquieu, or the members of the circle of Vincent de Gournay (see, for example, Murphy 1986Murphy , 1998Skornicki 2006 ;, the main figure of which was Véron de Forbonnais. The second (see, for example, Faccarello 1986Faccarello [1999Faccarello ], 1998Faccarello , 2006Faccarello , 2009Steiner 1998 ;Théré 2008, 2011 ;Steiner, 2008a, 2012) includes those who fought in favour of the "liberté du commerce", from Boisguilbert and the foundation of "laissez-faire" at the end of the seventeenth century, to the developments of Quesnay, Turgot and Condorcet -to whom some independent authors such as Graslin can be added. Both currents of thought aimed at a deep change in French politics and proposed new political philosophies centred on economic policies for a prosperous economy, mainly in the context, first of the great economic difficulties during the reign of Louis XIV and the Régence, and then of a mounting rivalry with Great Britain, the Seven Years War (1756-63) and the loss by France of some parts of its overseas empire -with, permanently, the structural question of the financing of the state and the huge public debt. ...
... Lively polemics took place between them, for example, between Forbonnais and the Physiocrats. One of the most famous was launched by Galiani's attack, on the part of "commerce politique", against "philosophie économique", with the publication of his 1770 Dialogues sur le commerce des blés and the reaction of Turgot (Faccarello 1998). However, many attacks on the laissez-faire approach came also from other corners, for example, from Mably or Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet (1736-1794) (see, for example, Orain 2015). ...
... He developed in fact a powerful approach of his own which can be termed "sensationist political economy" (Faccarello 1992(Faccarello , 2006. His theoretical principles are presented in five fundamental texts: (1) a short treatise, Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses, writ- (Faccarello 1998). Important aspects of his theories are also to be found in his correspondence and in other writings. ...
... Elaborating upon the hitherto common -but rather vague -supply and demand framework, he developed, on the supply side, a systematic approach in terms of capital competition and, on the demand side, a subjective theory of value and prices -what allowed him also to reconsider the doctrine of usury and propose the first economic theory of the rate of interest. He also proposed some views on the successive stages of development of societies and on the origin and effect of the division of labour (Meek 1971(Meek , 1973; he put forward the main themes of what was to be called public economics, based on market failures and on the quid pro quo approach (Faccarello 2006); and he engaged in a polemic with Galiani on how to efficiently reform a society and implement a transition from a regulated to a free-trade economy (Faccarello 1998). The secondary literature is abundant. ...
... Had economic policy been based on free trade, then, with the same average prices over a period of five years, interests would have converged since the King-Davenant effect would have disappeared: low prices would have been associated with good harvests and profits for the farmers, and high prices with bad harvests and losses for the farmers. This approach was taken up by Turgot: in his 1770 Lettres au contrôleur général, he developed the case for free competition as the best means to cover the needs of the population, instead of the usual policy of market restriction and public storage (Faccarello 1998). Connecting Boisguilbert's "price of proportion" with Quesnay analysis of the grain trade, he claimed that the customer is mainly interested in the stability of prices since wages on the labour market are then "in proportion" with the price of grain. ...
Full-text available
In this chapter, we focus on the French economists that, all along the eighteenth century, formed what we call “philosophie économique”. In Section 2, this current of thought is precisely defined: a review of the troops shows how its members (Boisguilbert, Quesnay, Turgot, Condorcet and Say) refer to a new view on the nature and role of self-interest, and why, in their opinion, self-interest is supposed to reach positive results, both at the individual and collective levels. Section 3 deals with how, in this approach, the Legislator is supposed to act in this new environment, trying to use self-interest as a means of government, and how it is supposed to make decisions. Section 4 concludes, stressing the fact that, parallel to the recognition of the positive role of self-interest, more and more critical voices arose to stress at the same time the limits of this approach and the essential role played by other important elements—religion, morals, altruism—neglected by “philosophie économique”.
... Self-interest and French 'Philosophie économique ' 1695-1830 15 in his 1770 Lettres au contrôleur général, he developed the case for free competition as the best means to cover the needs of the population, instead of the usual policy of market restriction and public storage (Faccarello 1998). Connecting Boisguilbert's "price of proportion" with Quesnay analysis of the grain trade, he claimed that the customer is mainly interested in the stability of prices since wages on the labour market are then "in proportion"