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The enigmatic Mr Graslin. A Rousseauist bedrock for Classical economics?

  • Université Panthéon-Assas, Paris, France


Drawing inspiration from aspects of the sensationist philosophy of the time and also the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Joseph-Louis Graslin (1727-1790) — a fierce critic of Physiocracy — developed a remarkably coherent political economy based on a “three stages” theory of society, a labour theory of normal prices and distribution, and a concept of vertically-integrated sectors. He also put forward some ideas — the role of needs in the determination of market prices, a process of gravitation towards equilibrium, a quid pro quo theory of taxation — which attracted Turgot’s attention. Had it not been neglected, Graslin’s approach could well have formed a possible foundation for Classical economics — broadly defined as proposing a system of equilibrium “natural” prices based on the conditions of production, with market prices oscillating around them. In the present article I first explore Graslin’s basic motivation (section 2). I then deal with his “three stages” theory of society, which lies at the core of his analytical argument (section 3). Then follows an analysis of his principle ideas in respect of needs, wealth and value (sections 4), production equilibrium and prices (section 5), and finally public economics (section 6).
The Enigmatic Mr Graslin.
A Rousseauist Bedrock for Classical
Gilbert Faccarello
Abstract. Drawing inspiration from aspects of the sensationist
philosophy of the time and also the political philosophy of Jean-
Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Joseph-Louis Graslin (1727-1790) — a fier-
ce critic of Physiocracy — developed a remarkably coherent poli-
tical economy based on a “three stages” theory of society, a la-
bour theory of normal prices and distribution, and a concept of
vertically-integrated sectors. He also put forward some ideas —
the role of needs in the determination of market prices, a process of
gravitation towards equilibrium, a quid pro quo theory of taxation
— which attracted Turgot’s attention. Had it not been neglected,
Graslin’s approach could well have formed a possible foundation
for Classical economics — broadly defined as proposing a system
of equilibrium “natural” prices based on the conditions of produc-
tion, with market prices oscillating around them. In the present
article I first explore Graslin’s basic motivation (section 2). I then
deal with his “three stages” theory of society, which lies at the core
of his analytical argument (section 3). Then follows an analysis of
his principle ideas in respect of needs, wealth and value (sections
4), production equilibrium and prices (section 5), and finally public
economics (section 6).
Panthéon-Assas University, Paris. Email: Homepage: Published in The European Journal of the History of Economic
Thought,16 (1), 2009, pp. 1-40.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 2
We have a memoir of 436 pages destined to overturn economic doctrine in
its entirety, and, to incite you to work, I very much feel to make you fear it
have the prize. This work is not without merit nor without profundity. . .
Turgot to Dupont (3 January 1767)
Graslin’s reputation never was what it should have been because he put
so much emphasis upon criticism of the Physiocrats — which is in fact the
best ever proffered — that his readers were apt to overlook his positive
Joseph Alois Schumpeter (1954 : 175)
1A puzzle
The name of Jean-Joseph-Louis Graslin (1727-1790) is well-known to scho-
lars engaged in the study of the development of economic theory in later 18th
century France; sometimes it is also cited in textbooks. His body of work is not
however extensive and consists of only three texts, all written and published
during the years of “high theory” 1765-1768 (see also Dubois 1911, Faccarello
2008, Goutte 2008, Orain 2008a). They are :
(a) a polemical correspondence with some Physiocrats — in particular Nicolas
Baudeau (Graslin 1767-68). This was first published in different journals in
1767-68 and partly republished twice as a book (1777, 1779). This polemic arose
from Graslin’s critique of an aspect of L’Ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés
politiques (1767) 1by Pierre-Paul Le Mercier de la Rivière : the correspondence
was initiated before the publication of Graslin’s book the same year ;
(b) one book (Graslin 1767), Essai analytique sur la richesse et sur l’impôt,
resulting from Graslin’s participation in a competition organised by A. R. J.
Turgot and the Société Royale d’Agriculture of Limoges on the ultimate effects
of “indirect taxes” (in the Physiocratic sense) : Graslin did not get the prize
but he was awarded a “special distinction” for his contribution, most probably
because Turgot was favourably impressed by his submission ;
(c) a short pamphlet (Graslin 1768), known as his Dissertation de Saint-
Pétersbourg ; this is Graslin’s contribution to another competition, organised
by the Société d’Œconomie et d’Agriculture of Saint Petersburg, on the ques-
1. Graslin’s critique deals with an example in which Le Mercier de la Rivière illustrated
the Physiocratic idea that agriculture is the unique source of produit net.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 3
tion of the desirability of peasant private property in land. His submission failed
once more to win the prize, but he was awarded an “honourable mention”.
Nevertheless, despite positive assessment of his work by both Turgot and
Schumpeter, 2Graslin’s position in the history of economic thought is rather
curious. The secondary literature on his work only amounts to a couple of
books and articles, most of them published a long time ago. 3Moreover, and
more strikingly, there is no agreement on the theoretical significance of his
writings, nor on what his contribution really was. Schematically, only the anti-
Physiocratic aspects of his publications are usually mentioned, while his own
positive theoretical contributions are either neglected, or dealt with elliptically.
The case of Schumpeter is particularly striking in this respect : he criticised
commentators for having neglected Graslin’s work, but he himself failed to say
anything very precise about the arguments that Graslin put forward (Schum-
peter 1954 : 175). Hence Graslin is for the most part seen as a mere “precursor”
of the many important authors who succeeded him (Faccarello 2008), a notably
inadequate perspective.
This state of affairs can probably be blamed on the rather obscure style
of the author. His book is not easy to read ; and this is in part due to his use
of an unusual and idiosyncratic vocabulary. In some respects the Physiocrats
were in a similar position : economic terminology and language were still in
flux at that time. But Graslin’s style and concepts were adopted neither by the
Physiocratic authors whom he criticized, nor by the opponents of Physiocracy,
with the result that his writings remained isolated and poorly understood.
Commentators have themselves contributed to this neglect and misunders-
tanding by focusing only on his celebrated 1767 Essai analytique, and occa-
sionally also on his polemical correspondence with Baudeau ; whereas his 1768
pamphlet has largely been ignored. This lack of interest is unfortunate since,
in my opinion, the Dissertation provides a key through which his ideas might
be properly understood. Here Graslin’s particular approach stands out quite
clearly without being swamped by a flood of anti-Physiocratic polemical argu-
ments. It therefore comes as no surprise that for most readers, whether these
2. Turgot (1767 and 1769 : 88) was of course also critical.
3. There is however presently a revival of interest in Graslin’s work : see Orain (2006,
2008b), Faccarello (2008), Goutte (2008) and Klotz (2008).
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 4
be his contemporaries or later commentators, his ideas have remained obscure
or incomprehensible, and his system regarded as basically flawed.4
The question therefore remains : who “really” is the enigmatic Mr Graslin ?
What was his “message” ? The recent contributions by Orain (2006, 2008b) are
of special interest here : they are the first serious theoretical attempt to provide
a coherent view of Graslin’s writing. Notwithstanding the usual emphasis on
controversies with the Physiocrats, the image of Graslin that emerges from
this interpretation is rather “modern”, aware of the capital/labour relationship
and seen from a Walrasian perspective. The interpretation I propose in the
present paper (see also Faccarello 2008) offers an alternative. In particular, the
importance I attach to the Dissertation de Saint Pétersbourg, on the one hand,
and to the philosophical contextualisation of Graslin’s ideas on the other, and
the exclusive emphasis I put on Graslin’s positive theoretical approach, led me
to quite different conclusions.
This paper shows that Graslin’s writings embody a framework whose origi-
nality should by rights lend him greater prominence among the economists and
philosophes of the time. Drawing inspiration from aspects of the sensationist
philosophy developed by Condillac, Bonnet and Maupertuis, and also the po-
litical philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,5Graslin developed a remarkably
coherent political economy based on a “three stages” theory of society, a labour
theory of normal prices and distribution, and a concept of vertically-integrated
sectors. He also put forward some ideas (the role of needs in the determination
of market prices, a process of gravitation towards equilibrium, a quid pro quo
theory of taxation) which attracted Turgot’s attention, despite there being one
important shortcoming : Graslin’s lack of understanding of the concept of ca-
pital. Moreover, had it not been so neglected, Graslin’s approach could well
have formed a possible foundation for Classical economics — broadly defined
4. This latter accusation is lent support by the fact that his critique is founded upon a
gross misunderstanding of a key Physiocratic concept, arguing that the Physiocrats mista-
kenly equated wealth with the net product of the land.
5. I disregard here the possible influence of Locke’s writings, for which there is no decisive
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 5
as proposing a system of equilibrium “natural” prices based on the conditions
of production, with market prices oscillating around them. 6
In the following pages I shall first of all explore Graslin’s basic motivation
(section 2). I will then deal with his “three stages” theory of society, which lies
at the core of his analytical argument (section 3). Then follows an analysis of
his principle ideas in respect of needs, wealth and value (sections 4), production
equilibrium and prices (section 5), and finally public economics (section 6).
2Graslin’s approach
Unlike many contemporary authors who refused to recognize the new do-
main of political economy that the Physiocrats claimed to have created, Gras-
lin enthusiastically welcomed the “science of political economy”, or “economic
science”. He began his book by declaring that this science was “the most im-
portant of all sciences because its object is the power and happiness of nations”
(Graslin 1767 : 1) — paraphrasing Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis’s “Éloge
de M. de Montesquieu” (Maupertuis 1755 : 416). He concluded his Essai ana-
lytique with the same reference, stressing the novelty presented by this field of
inquiry : “I have sought to develop the principles of the science of wealth : a
science so novel to us, says M. de Maupertuis, that it does not yet have a name
(Graslin 1767 : 209 ; see Maupertuis : ibid.). The only point he opposed was an
equivalence (in the understanding of his contemporaries) between “economic
science” and “Physiocracy” ; he accordingly refused to adopt the position of an
I tell you that anti-Économiste is not the correct word, and one
should say anti-Quénéiste,anti-Miraboliste, for one can oppose par-
ticular opinions on economic science without becoming an enemy
of this science. (Graslin 1767-68 : 29-30)
Graslin (like the Physiocrats) does not however claim that the new science
is an autonomous field of study, entirely separate from the more traditional
spheres of morals and politics. On the contrary : the dedication to his book
6. It is interesting to note that in the course of the controversy over Graslin’s 1767 book,
an anonymous article articulated an important move in the emergence of the theory of
differential rent. See [Anonymous] 1768 : 194ff and Van den Berg 2000 : 191ff.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 6
described his studies as belonging to “political philosophy” — but a political
philosophy enlightened by Cartesian reason. This was supposed to confer a
high level of certainty upon the arguments put forward by the new science :
“Economic Science, if based on its true elements, is susceptible of exact and
precise reasoning, just as in the Mathematical Sciences” (Graslin 1767 : 37n).
2.1 In the background : Sensationist philosophy
The problem is of course the identification and elaboration of these “true
elements”, avoiding moreover the problems which this reference to mathema-
tics can engender — a reference intended to emphasize the need for rigorous
analytical argument. Graslin warns of the danger of succumbing to the idea
that a high degree of certainty is achieved when a discourse is based purely
on numbers and statistics — a dangerous illusion inherent in almost all Phy-
siocratic writing. Statistics lacking the support of incontrovertible theoretical
definitions and arguments are at once meaningless and misleading. This point
is clearly emphasised in the discourse with which Essai analytique opens :
It is thought that, to lend weight to modern opinions, it is enough
to prop them up with calculations ; but this is mistaken. Calcula-
tions are merely arguments made explicit by means of signs which
one manipulates. But just as the more exact arguments are not
conclusive if they are not based on clear principles, the more exact
calculations do not prove anything if they are not the consequence
of some truth which is already known. Hence where scientific mat-
ters are concerned, to calculate is nothing less than to combine abs-
tract signs in accordance with a given law; it is a shorthand method
for finding the results of principles which are precisely analysed; it
compares the relationships of quantities embodied in things ; rela-
tionships which calculation assumes to exist, but which it does not
create. (Graslin 1767, Dedication ; see also 1767-68 : 5)
This methodological statement was a clear signal to Graslin’s contempo-
raries : reference was indeed made to sensationism. The important arguments
made by Étienne Bonnot de Condillac during the previous two decades in
Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines (1746) and Traité des sensa-
tions (1754) were by this time quite familiar. All knowledge derives from the
sensations of the external world that we experience; we cannot know the (hy-
pothetical) ultimate nature of things, only the relationships existing between
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 7
them ; and any science is a science of signs — “une langue bien faite” according
to a celebrated phrase by Condillac — which depends upon accurate definitions
established by the application of analytical method.
The very title of Graslin’s book refers to this by using the phrase “essai
analytique”, and we shall see below how this is worked out in Graslin’s theory.
For the time being, we must note that Condillac is not the only author to
whom reference could be made. Maupertuis, whom Graslin cites approvingly,
also developed this approach in some of his writings — especially in his celebra-
ted philosophical essays : Essai de philosophie morale (1749) and Lettres sur
différents sujets (1753). But note should also be made of the famous naturalist
and philosopher from Geneva, Charles Bonnet; and it is not without interest
that his principal ideas, 7in some respects close to those of Condillac, were
published in 1760 under the title Essai analytique sur les facultés de l’âme
Graslin being, to my knowledge, the only philosophe to use the same phrase,
“essai analytique”, seven years later.8
2.2 In the foreground : Jean-Jacques Rousseau
There was another contemporary author who exerted an important in-
fluence on Graslin : Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This is not so obvious if we only
pay attention to the 1767 book and the 1767-68 exchange with Baudeau, as
almost all commentators have done. It is however quite apparent in the Dis-
sertation where Graslin refers to “a Modern philosopher” in such a way that
the allusion could not be misread :
A Modern philosopher asserts that, following the order of nature,
land does not belong to anybody and the fruits belong to all. (Gras-
lin 1768 : 115)
This is a clear reference to the famous first paragraph of the second part of
Rousseau’s Discours sur l’inégalité (1755), in which we can read : “you are lost
7. Bonnet also published an Essai de psychologie five years earlier (Bonnet 1755).
8. According to the catalogue of the Bibliothèqe nationale de France (BnF), only one
book was published before Bonnet’s treatise with “essai analytique” in its title : a technical
book, Essai analytique sur les eaux de Bousang, by J. Lemaire (1750). From the 1780s on,
however, the phrase was sometimes used in titles of technical as well as political books —
the Essai analytique sur les lois naturelles de l’ordre social (1800) by Louis de Bonald, who
refers to Bonnet, being the most celebrated.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 8
if you forget that the fruits are everyone’s and the Earth no one’s.” (Rousseau
1755 : 161) We know how Rousseau, a few pages further, asserted that the
natural origin of the property of the land lies in cultivation i.e., in labour —
the origin indeed of any property :
From the cultivation of land, its division necessarily followed; and
from property, once recognized, the first rules of justice necessarily
followed .. . This origin is all the more natural as it is impossible to
conceive the idea of nascent property in any other way than in terms
of manual labor : for it is not clear what, more than his labor, man
can put into things he has not made, in order to appropriate them.
Since labor alone gives the Cultivator the right to the product of
the land he has tilled, it consequently also gives him a right to the
land, at least until the harvest, and thus from one year to the next,
which, as it makes for continuous possession, is easily transformed
into property. (ibid. : 169)
This is precisely the passage that attracted Graslin’s attention. “The phi-
losopher that I have just quoted”, he writes in the Dissertation, “says that the
right of the cultivator to the product of the land he cultivates gives him a right
to the land, at least until harvest; and so from one year to the next : and
this continuous possession is easily transformed into property.” (Graslin 1768 :
116). And he adds : “But this idea, while quite true, must be expanded and
elaborated” (ibid.)
Rousseau’s above statement thus forms the starting point of Graslin’s in-
vestigation. As will be seen below, the development of the basic idea of a legiti-
mate right to property founded on labour — labour is “the only legitimate title
which allows men to share in the recurring benefits of nature” (ibid. : 125) —
prompted reflection on the various ways in which the productive organization
of society could be arranged so that it might be in conformity with distributive
justice : a subject with which Rousseau, investigating the origin of inequality,
does not deal. But it also had to be shown that the realization of distributive
justice does not necessarily conflict with productive efficiency, and that both
requirements can indeed, under certain circumstances, be jointly satisfied.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 9
2.3 Three methodological issues
Some other textual allusions to Rousseau can also be found in Graslin’s
work. The most important are methodological. I will deal here with three of
The first involves the method Rousseau adopted in his inquiry into the
origin of inequality. Probably inspired by Condillac’s very striking approach
— the famous statue in his Traité des sensations — Rousseau declared that
the only correct way to begin his inquiry was to study the very nature of man,
“setting aside all the facts” :
Let us . .. begin by setting aside all the facts, for they do not af-
fect the question. The Inquiries that may be pursued regarding this
Subject ought not be taken as historical truths, but only for hypo-
thetical and conditional reasonings ; better suited to elucidate the
Nature of things than to show their genuine origin, and comparable
to those our Physicists daily make regarding the formation of the
World. (Rousseau 1755 : 132)
Graslin makes a similar statement. To provide a general answer to the
question posed by the Société Œconomique of Saint Petersburg, he writes :
I understood that the question required more philosophical inves-
tigation and that its true solution depends on principles that are
not confined to any time or any place. Therefore I set facts aside
. .. in order to look into the very laws of nature for principles which
should be as permanent as is nature. (Graslin 1768 : 112)
The second important methodological aspect concerns the judgment that
we can form about the evolution of societies. We know how Rousseau in his two
Discourses — on the effects of the sciences and arts on the mores (1750) and
on the origin of inequality (1755) — forcefully denounced all of the negative
effects introduced by civilisation into society, and the degree to which he seemed
to praise the “noble savage”, being immediately accused by all and sundry of
proposing the unrealistic policy of a return to a state of nature ! Rousseau
of course condemned this gross misinterpretation of his thought, and always
insisted that, once an evolutionary development had occurred, return to a
previous order of things was an impossibility. One can only accept the fact
of such an evolution and seek to adapt to the present state of things, which
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 10
is feasible since nature always offers us, together with the causes of evil, the
means to render them tolerable. The remedy lies already in the evil (Starobinski
1989). 9Are mores corrupted by sciences and arts? It is impossible to restore
them to their original simplicity and purity : but sciences and arts give us the
means to make the corruption tolerable.
It is with sorrow that I shall state a great and fatal truth. .. . never
has a people, once corrupted, been known to return to virtue. You
would in vain aspire to destroy the sources of evil; . . . in vain even
return men to their first equality .. . : their hearts, once spoiled,
will be so forever . .. When the sickness is incurable, the Physician
administers palliatives .. . Wise legislators ought to imitate his pru-
dence ; and since, with sick Peoples, they can no longer adopt the
most excellent polity, they should at least give them, as Solon did,
the best they can tolerate. (Rousseau 1751 : 50-1)
Graslin’s approach is the same. Any evolution is irreversible, and the evil
it brings with it can only be cut short by the remedies that this evolution itself
always generates — and conversely, whenever an evolution is positive, it also
entails some powerful negative element : we shall see some example below. It
is interesting to note in this perspective how Graslin speaks of Gabriel Bonnot
de Mably, Condillac’s brother and himself a well-known political philosopher.
Mably was struggling against Physiocratic free trade policy and proposed a
return to a more simple society based on virtue and pure mores — following
the example of Greek and Roman antiquity. Referring to Mably’s Entretiens de
Phocion sur le rapport de la morale avec la politique (1763), Graslin declares
himself an admirer of “this masterwork of the wisest and most sublime politics”
(Graslin 1767 : 191), and to be mindful of the “only true politics” of a return
to pure mores and virtue. But he immediately emphasises that these ideas are
unfortunately only “fruitless speculations” and that their implementation would
entail “insuperable difficulties” (ibid.). 10 And then, paraphrasing Rousseau : 11
“The Legislator of Athens said that he gave his fellow citizens not the best
possible laws, but the best they could tolerate” (Graslin 1767 : 198).
9. This attitude was also that of some Jansenist thinkers one century earlier, such as
Pierre Nicole and Jean Domat (see Faccarello 1986 : 26-7).
10. Condillac’s attitude vis-à-vis his brother’s ideas is very different : see Orain 2003.
11. The reference to Solon is of course not uncommon at that time. But here Graslin, as
can be seen in the French original quotations, uses Rousseau’s words.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 11
The third methodological issue concerns the judgment we can form on the
state of things once an irreversible evolution has taken place. In the preface
of Discours sur l’inégalité, Rousseau stresses the fact that the rules of natural
right vanish with the destruction of the state of nature, and thus cannot be
maintained in a state of society. However, they will be replaced by another set
of rules which aim at the same objective :
. .. reason is subsequently forced to re-establish [all the rules of
natural right] on other foundations, when by its successive deve-
lopments it has succeeded in stifling Nature. (Rousseau 1755 : 127)
As Jean Starobinski rightly remarks, “the civilized man cannot live in
conformity with natural right; he must endeavour to be faithful to it on a
basis of convergence or analogy. Reasonable motivations, the requirements of
moral sentiment, tend towards the same aim (self-preservation, respect for the
lives of others) as the spontaneous movement of nature. .. . One can say that
for Rousseau the task of society is to preserve what it repudiates.” (Starobinski
in Rousseau 1964 : 1299) As will be seen, likewise for Graslin, once the natural
order is destroyed society can spontaneously find some kind of organization
which leads to the same result — which preserves what is denied — but only
given some particular circumstances.
3A ‘three stages’ theory of society
3.1 The state of nature
In a state of nature, men are isolated from one another and do not form any
kind of society. There is no private ownership of land, and the fruits that the
earth spontaneously yields belong to all. Labour alone can break this initial
indivisibility, and this is the only legitimate mode of appropriation. The right
of property in land originates in the work of preparation, maintenance and
cultivation of the land, lasting at least as long as the activity of the cultivator.
Here each individual receives the fruits of his labour, and each cultivates only
the area sufficient for his maintenance and that of his family : any additional
cultivation would in fact be pointless, since everybody lives autarchically. Here,
according to Graslin, is the “order dictated by nature”, the “natural state” of
humankind; and in this condition, the property of one person does not in any
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 12
way infringe the property of another. Graslin also lays emphasis upon a fact
that seems obvious here, but will be of great importance for the elaboration of
his theory : economic activity is given its purpose by human need. “Enjoyment”,
he writes, “is the objective of the work of all people” (Graslin 1768 : 136) —
in Rousseau’s words : “love of well-being is the sole spring of human actions”
(1755 : 163).
This state of nature is not a state of society, and for the sake of simplicity
Graslin even supposes that there exists only one need and thus one product,
corn. Since all produce the same good there is no prospect of any regular
connection between men. For this connection to be established at least two
needs have to exist, and thus two goods. Graslin supposes that, in addition to
corn, an implement for ploughing is made. But this is not of course enough
for a regular connection to form among men and in fact Graslin first supposes
(1768 : 125) that every cultivator produces the necessary quantities of the
two goods. He supposes that everyone, on his own land, spends 3
4of his total
working time on cultivation, and 1
4on the production of ploughing implements.
The multiplicity of needs is therefore a necessary but not sufficient condition
for men to form regular relationships, i.e. to form a society.
3.2 Division of labour
As Rousseau had already emphasised (1755 : 168-9) society first emerges
when men begin to specialize in some branch of production, giving rise to a
division of labour : “Metallurgy and agriculture were the two arts the inven-
tion of which brought about this great revolution. For the Poet it is gold and
silver; but for the Philosopher it is iron and wheat that civilized men, and
ruined Mankind” (ibid. : 168). Producers, Graslin remarks, quickly notice the
positive effects of specialization : dividing up work is more efficient and the
same quantities of goods necessary to fulfil need can in this way be produced
with less labour. According to him :
All men being obliged . . . to work personally in order to obtain the
objects of their needs ; and each of them seeking to obtain more with
less labour ; they soon understood . .. that, if each of them devoted
himself to the production of one object, he would acquire more
aptitude and ability, to the advantage of all. Hence the division of
productive labour . . . This order directly derives from natural and
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 13
primitive law, because each only labours — and more profitably —
for his own well-being. (Graslin 1767 : 97)
Graslin lays emphasis on this point, both in Essai analytique (1767 : 80,
97) and, time and again, in his Dissertation (1768 : 117-8, 134, 137-8, 140).
Consequently, taking his example, instead of each spending 3
4of their total
labour time on the production of corn and 1
4on the production of ploughing
implements, persons will specialize in one of the two kinds of productive acti-
vity and will finally form two productive classes : 3
4of the former cultivators
will form the agricultural class, and 1
4that of craft industry.
The beneficial effects of the division of labour thus permit men to form a
society. But what kind of society ? This division of labour permits productive
efficiency. But what about justice ? For in the new state of things only one class
— the cultivators — owns the land. To respond to these questions, Graslin
develops a “three stages” theory of society, starting from a stage closest to the
state of nature and ending with that most opposed to it, the “inverted state of
society”, with, in between, an intermediary case : the “state of relationships”.
3.3 The perfect state of society
The first kind of society — called by Graslin “a full and perfect order of
society” (1768 : 118) — is the extension of the natural order and results from
a conscious collaboration between men. There is “a general and unanimous
convention” (ibid.) which, prior to any production, regulates it according to
the needs of all the people. This kind of social agreement or contract fixes the
amounts to be produced by the different classes so that needs might be fulfilled
— a generalization to society of the self-organization of an isolated man in a
state of nature.
This represents a planned society in which all needs are necessarily fulfilled.
This is why, even if land is owned only by some of the people, the cultivators,
the rules of distribution are eventually the same as those in a state of nature :
directly or indirectly, labour is still the only means for the appropriation of final
products. Everybody “will have an equal right to production” i.e., everybody
will get the same quantity of final product as before — which in Graslin’s first
simple example will be corn :
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 14
. .. a general and unanimous convention, formed and maintained
by the reciprocal interest of each contracting person, can only have
for its basis the advantage of all ; an advantage which consists, for
each individual, in providing his share of labour with a less effort,
and retaining the same right to production. (ibid.)
In Graslin’s eyes, this is an ideal state of society : he sometimes calls it
simply “the state of society” (ibid.). It is however only possible — echoing
Rousseau’s Contrat social (1763) — “for a small number of associated men”
(1768 : 118).
Note finally that this state of society might be difficult to maintain once
the structure of production becomes more complex. The division of labour,
permitting fulfilment of the prime need (as above) with less labour, also fa-
cilitates the emergence of other needs and other goods to meet them (ibid. :
138), therefore giving rise to a more complex organisation of production. This
is reinforced by the emergence of technical progress, analysed by Graslin in
terms of labour-saving inventions (ibid. : 128-133). This feature, inducing a
process of growth, can represent an additional problem for the maintenance of
the simple and ideal state of society. Graslin does not however explicitly draw
attention to this point — he primarily analyses the processes of growth and
technical progress in the context of the “state of relationships” — but instead
lays emphasis upon another point, both analytical and polemical, which is in
his eyes of material importance.
Suppose, he says, that the production of ploughing implements can in turn
be subdivided into two activities : the production of raw material, and the
manufacturing of the instruments. The structure of production is slightly more
complicated, but at the aggregate level nothing changes because there is only
one final need and thus one final good : corn. But suppose now that final needs
multiply — with a parallel multiplication of specialized activities devoted to
the cultivation and manufacturing of diversified means of production. How
many classes will result from this process ? One has now, Graslin insists (ibid. :
135), to define a class in a rigorous manner. Production being directed to the
satisfaction of final needs of the people, each of these needs will define a class :
. .. one necessarily must gather in the same class men — either
cultivators or labourers [craftsmen] — who are directly or indirectly
involved in the production of the object of each need. (ibid. : 136)
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 15
If, for example, the activity of a man directly or indirectly contributes to
the production of several final consumption goods, then this activity will be
divided in proportion and each fraction will be attributed accordingly to the
different classes defined by these goods (ibid. : 140-1).
Graslin consequently sets up vertically-integrated sectors. We can now bet-
ter understand his critique of the Physiocratic theory of produit net and his
opposition to the tripartite division of society which lies at the basis of the
Tableau économique — the “hieroglyphic Table” as he calls it (1767 : 82) —, a
tripartite division which was in his view simply nonsensical (1768 : 137).
3.4 The state of relationships
A second kind of society emerges when the number of citizens is great and “a
general and unanimous convention” is no longer possible. Decisions to produce
such and such a good in such and such a quantity are now taken at the indivi-
dual level of each producer and the social connection is established a posteriori,
indirectly and unconsciously, through exchange of products in markets. This
second kind of society is thus a market economy — what Graslin calls a “state
of relationships between men” (1768 : 188), the term “relationships” meaning
of course commercial or exchange relationships. In Essai analytique he also
uses the phrase “univers commerçant” i.e., “commercial universe” (1767 : 135)
— which of course sounds rather like the “commercial society” of the Scottish
enlightenment — defined as “the whole set of men exchanging with each other
the objects of their needs” (ibid.).
[In] a state of relationships and exchanges .. . each class, each in-
dividual gives the object of others’ need in exchange for the object
of his own need; and . . . the interest of each in particular being
that of receiving more and giving less, the interest of any one is
certainly not the same as the interest of any other. (1768 : 142)
At this point, Graslin must perform a dual task : (i) he has to analyse these
exchanges forming the basis of society, showing how they are determined and
to what kind of equilibrium they lead ; (ii) he must also compare this market-
based society with the “perfect order of society” that it replaces, and with the
state of nature. As we shall see in the following sections, Graslin’s aim is to
show that the “commercial universe” can be as just and efficient as the order
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 16
based on a previous agreement or convention, and therefore also as just and
efficient the natural order. It is as efficient because the movements of prices in
markets permits, as in the case of a convention-based society, the regulation
of production such that it fulfils the final needs of citizens, hence leading to
an economic and social equilibrium. It is as just, since the distribution of the
final product between the members of society coincides with what would have
resulted had society been regulated by a “general and unanimous convention”
— or, even better, had men remained in the former state of nature. “There is
no convention that each class or each individual can refer to; but the equality
in the situation of individuals in the one or the other class will always arise
from the very nature of things” (Graslin 1768 : 118).
Suffice it here to show that the order of relationships, in the prin-
ciple of its institution, is only the replacement of the natural order
in which each man received the objects of all his needs by means
of his own labour ; therefore .. . the works of men must balance
between classes, so that each individual in all classes gets an equal
portion of the general labour. [i.e., an equal portion of the final
product] (ibid. : 138)
As before, therefore, society preserves what it denies. And, through the
exchanges of the products, everything results as if the craftsmen were also
landowners. “The right that labourers [craftsmen] acquire in the products of
land through the instruments that they own, without which the others cannot
do, effectively makes them co-owners of the land” (1768 : 125).
Finally, three points must be stressed. The first, to be dealt with in grea-
ter detail below, is that even if Graslin here portrays a market economy, the
production structure is not based on capital. This type of economy is what
Marx will later call “simple commodity production”, an economy in which all
producers are independent and wage-labour does not exist.
Second, this state of relationships “can but very incorrectly be called a
state of society in the full meaning of the word” (ibid. : 141) because the social
body “is merely a combination of individual interests, very different from each
other” (ibid. : 142). This is precisely the task of the new science of political
economy : to show how these a priori diverging interests harmonize and form
an equilibrium. This is also Graslin’s task : “The different relationships that
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 17
men have between them in this state must be elaborated and most thoroughly
detailed.” (ibid. : 119).
A third important point : there is in the state of relationships another
important difference with the previous ideal society : the emergence of the
State as a tutelary power. We should note how Graslin introduces it : simply
as a special activity, at the same level of all other activities, whose aim is to
produce a specific good, “protection”, fulfilling a need expressed by the people
(ibid. : 141). From this point of view, Graslin emphasises in the Dissertation,
the State behaves like any other class and, like them, it has a private interest
(ibid. : 142). Its aim is not therefore a priori to realize the general interest of
society : true, it contributes to its realization, but in the same way that any
other class does.
The protective power itself, while instituted for the safety and pea-
cefulness of all, has its own private interest in the order of relation-
ships. This interest is tied to the interest of all, in this sense it is
essential for people that this power be in a condition to perform
its function. But this can also be said of the interest of any class
because, in the same way, it is essential for all other classes that
each one in particular be in the condition to provide the object in
its charge. (ibid.)
3.5 The inverted order of society
The social and economic order just outlined, suited to an extended State
and based on market exchange, does not however yet describe the kind of
society in which Graslin was living. To deal with the existing state of things
Graslin introduces a third stage, the “inverted order” of society, in which some
people can have an income and spend money without working : all kinds of
rentiers, that is, owners of accumulated wealth.
How did this new stage of society emerge? The evolutionary process has
this time nothing to do with the extension of community. In the Dissertation,
Graslin alludes to the idea that it could be related to the characteristics of
human nature, but then adds that this is not the subject of his investigation
(1768 : 138). Regarding some other passages, however, the following sketch can
be proposed.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 18
We noted above that, even in the perfect state of society, a kind of selfish
attitude was the rule : each man was trying to obtain a greater quantity of the
product with less labour, and this gave rise to the division of labour. At the
same time, pursuing the objective of improving his own well-being, each man
was also improving the well-being of his fellow-citizens. The same self-interested
attitude however engenders a disadvantageous evolutionary development, and
eventually undermines the equivalent of the law of nature still prevailing in
the first two states of society in one of two modes — planning or markets
— and which at the same time allowed efficiency in production and justice
in distribution. The law which implicitly stated that each could only receive
from society the exact amount that he gave to it, based on the principle of
. .. was destined, by virtue of this same principle, to be undercut
because each sought to increase his claim on the wealth of others
and to reduce his outlay, which was the original entitlement to
this claim. Thousands of circumstances favoured this inequality in
distribution, and in the end some found themselves in possession of
claims on the whole without having contributed to it : for example,
the owners of funds, real or fictitious; I mean those who only bring
to society their needs and their expenses. (Graslin 1767 : 99)
The owners of real or fictitious funds are, roughly speaking, the landowners
— those who do not themselves cultivate their estate — and owners of money
who lend it at interest. We must also note that the evolutionary development
brought about by self-interest was promoted, as Graslin states (ibid. : 80),
by the unequal fertility of land and/or by the fact that some good, being
momentarily scarce, could be exchanged with greater profit. Force and violence
must also have played a role : in the Dissertation, Graslin mentions slavery as
an institution which, like idle landownership, destroys the just order of things
(1768 : 143). But the invention of money is also listed by Graslin among the
instruments of the transition (1767 : 80) : and it is probably, in his eyes, one of
the most powerful factors of inequality between men (ibid. : 77n). Here we find
once more the law of ambivalence : “. . . this is one of the most striking proofs
that abuses almost always go, pari passu, with the best institutions.” (ibid.)
Money was at the beginning a beneficial institution — just as the selfish
attitude was — in that it facilitated exchange and thus the well-being of all.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 19
But it also eventually permitted the easy accumulation of wealth, and thus
favoured a transition to the inverted, unequal state of society :
. .. not only rents in money but also rental charges in kind could
only emerge from the invention of representative specie : .. . the
purchases of land do not have any other origin . . . ; it is probably
there the most potent cause of inequality between men. (ibid.)
The major negative consequence of this evolution is of course that, while
the inverted order of society is still a market society regulated through prices
and markets, it is no longer just — the different kinds of rentier sharing in
production without giving anything in exchange, without working themselves.
Income distribution is thus modified, and Graslin (1768 : 144ff) analyses this
change as a negative shock in technical progress — a technical regress. Each
producer, cultivator or craftsman, is now obliged to work more in order to
fulfil his needs : he is forced to provide surplus labour. If he cannot work
longer (ibid. : 146) the only solution for him is to spend less time on his own
needs, to reduce them and/or fall into a state of indigence.
[W]hat a disorder, that the three quarters of men can hardly earn
their living, while the labour of each of them is twenty times as
great as it would be with an equal distribution. (1767-68 : 61)
This condition will necessarily be exacerbated by the extension of the right
of the rentier to the product of the productive classes, and with the formation
and propagation of new needs and commodities following from increased leisure
(1767 : 24, 99-100). As a matter of fact, the production of all kinds of luxury
goods will divert some labour from the production of the objects of more
basic needs, thus presenting an even greater impediment to the satisfaction of
producers’ former needs ; while these producers will also develop new needs for
luxuries, the satisfaction of which needs they will never be capable of fulfilling
(ibid. : 100).
We know however that, in Graslin’s perspective, as in Rousseau’s, there is
no going back to a previous order of things. The former stage in the evolution
of societies — the “state of relationships” — was “either purely hypothetical, or
has not existed for a long time ; it will never be seen again” (Graslin 1767-68 :
55). All that the legislator can do is manage the inverted order with a view to
ameliorating negative economic and social effects.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 20
Note that, despite some ambiguous formulations, the “inverted order” of
societies is, like the “state of relationships”, a market-based society, but not
a capitalist economy. Privileged people are rentiers. This is clearly stated by
Graslin in Essai analytique when he tries to define more precisely the economic
and social structure. Here he opposes the “property owners” to the “labourers”
— but this opposition is that of the rentiers against all kinds of producers :
cultivators, craftsmen, together with all those who, now, render services.
In order to generalize and simplify our reasoning, let us call property
owners the citizen who owns either real funds such as land, town
houses, country houses .. . to which we can add all kind of furniture,
instruments .. . which can be rented out .. . ; or fictitious funds, such
as annuities, and the charges 12 which yield a fixed income without
labour ; and let us call labourers all those whose wealth inheres
in their person and consists either in their physical or intellectual
skills, or in their mechanical labour, or finally in their personal
services. (1767 : 177)
This is not to say that Graslin does not recognise the existence of entrepre-
neurs and wage labour, but there is no place for theses categories in his scheme.
Wage earners are assimilated to craftsmen. As for entrepreneurs, Graslin sees
them as a kind of intermediary case between the rentiers, who do not work
and only have privilèges, and the “labourers” who do not have any privilège
and work. Only one portion of the revenue of entrepreneurs originates in their
activity, and in this respect they are “labourers” : but the other portion results
from privilèges. This is what Graslin maintains in his controversy with Bau-
deau. After the rentiers, he writes, “come the mixed estates, in between the
privileged classes and the labouring classes ; they perform various functions
useful to society but their remuneration is greater than what they would re-
ceive if there were an equality in the sharing of tasks and rewards” (Graslin
1767-68 : 55). And, he goes on :
I put in this class the Entrepreneurs of Manufactures, of Trade,
etc., because it is impossible to take up these professions without
possessing an estate, i.e., external to the individual ; and because
there is moreover a very significant disproportion between their
right to the whole [product of] labour and their personal activity,
12. In the French Old Regime meaning.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 21
this right being either granted by privileges or generated by lack of
competition. (ibid.)
Contrary to Turgot, who had just completed his remarkable Réflexions sur
la production et la distribution des richesses (1766), Graslin simply does not
understand the concepts of capital, profit and wage-labour. 13
4Needs, wealth and value
The new economic science is defined as “the relationships that things have
between themselves as a consequence of those that men have between them”
(1768 : 136). 14 The most fundamental concepts are, in Graslin’s eyes, those of
“need” and “wealth”.
4.1 Wealth and value
The Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert defines a need as “an unplea-
sant feeling caused by the absence .. . of an object. Hence : 1we have two
kinds of need ; some needs refer to the body and are called appetites ; the others
to the mind, and are called desires ; 2since they are caused by the absence of
an object, they can only be fulfilled by its presence”. This definition conforms
to the sensationist approach (see for example Bonnet 1760 : 135) and is also
Needs are thus understood in a socio-physiological way. Men do have va-
rious needs which are classified according to their degree of priority : simple
food and clothing come first ; they are necessary needs induced by physiologi-
cal life. Then come less urgent needs, followed by the agreeable, the refined,
the sophisticated, etc. (Graslin 1767 : 13). The closer needs are to the prime
necessities of life, the more “superior” they are said to be (ibid. : 19) — and
the more “inferior” they are, the further they are from such necessities. Their
13. In particular, he does not understand the Physiocratic concept of avances (see for
example Graslin 1767 : 89, 106). Graslin, it is true, uses sometimes the word “capital” (e.g.
ibid : 77n) but in the traditional sense of a money-capital yielding an interest.
14. This science is “an inquiry on the relationships men have between them and the objects
of their needs” (1767 : epistle dedicatory). Graslin also writes of “the relationship between
man and things, and things between themselves” (1767 : 2).
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 22
origin is of no concern : once a need is known, it must be fulfilled by the pro-
duction of a specific object. 15 Finally, in each state of society, characterized
by a certain degree of economic development and a given social structure, a
certain number of needs are known, and people seek to fulfil them.
Two basic assumptions are important here : (i) every human being has the
same needs as his fellow-citizen : needs are felt in a uniform way ; and (ii) once a
need is felt, it is fulfilled in an objective manner by a certain quantity of a good.
Beyond this point of saturation, demand is price-inelastic : “That portion of an
object which exceeds the extent of the need . .. has no value” (Graslin 1767 :
63n). 16 As a consequence, exchanges are exchanges of surpluses : “Everybody
will give what is for him superfluous in order to have what he needs” (ibid. :
In this perspective, “wealth” has an obvious initial meaning. According to
Graslin it is simply composed of all objects or services which can fulfil a need,
whatever it may be. Two elements, however, make the picture more complex :
the role of markets, and a second definition of wealth.
Let us first consider the role of markets. After characterizing wealth in such
a very broad way, Graslin tries to make his definition more precise, introducing
the concept of value and considering the link between wealth and value.
A first kind of value, he asserts, is “relative value”. This is simply the ex-
changeability of an object of a need, its relative price when compared to another
object. The “fundamental principle”, Graslin writes, is that “need is the only
cause of the value of things, which is their quality as wealth” (ibid. : 115 ; see
also 1767-68 : 25). Value and wealth are closely-related concepts : “wealth” is
something which can fulfil a need and has an exchangeable value.
Wealth is all the things destined for the satisfaction of our needs,
whatever the nature of these things, and whatever their origin.
Only need gives things their value, in other words their quality
as wealth; but the word value, being relative, expresses, for each
15. “If we were to call needs only those necessary and invariable appetites, we should then
have to look for an expression which would be common to all appetites, of whatever kind”
(1767 : 19n).
16. This hypothesis of a price-inelasticity of demand was of course widespread at that time,
but, in the precise context of Graslin’s writings, we shall see below how it is susceptible to
be explained on a philosophical basis.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 23
object of a need, a relationship with all other objects of needs [. . .].
If therefore we would wish to have a precise and exact definition
of wealth, I would say that it consists of all the objects of need for
which there exist relative values. (1767 : 13 — Graslin’s emphasis)
How are these relative values determined? This problem will be examined
more thoroughly below. Let us accept for the time being a first simple answer
given by Graslin : relative values depend on the interaction of supply and
demand. They result “from the comparison of the different degrees of need in
themselves, and of the more or less important difficulty in meeting them on
account of the scarcity or abundance of the thing which is the object of each
need.” (ibid. : 13)
Relative value, however, is not the only concept of value. Graslin sometimes
tends to play down the reference to markets and introduces a second concept :
“absolute value”. The reason for this is the existence of “objects of needs” such
as air, water, and light possessing no cost of production, no scarcity and conse-
quently no market and no relative value : they are free goods. But are they
not also “real objects of need, and consequently wealth” (ibid. : 136) ? The
usefulness of these objects being without doubt, Graslin writes, they possess
an “absolute value” : the “well-being” generated by satisfaction of the need.
It is only incorrectly that I call these things wealth after having
restricted the meaning of this word to a value relationship of one
thing with all others. These objects of need have only, for each
man, an absolute value, without any relationship; for, besides the
fact that every man possesses them constantly, these things .. .
are always in excess quantity with respect to the extent of the
general need : the value of any individual portion is so modest that
it is almost nothing ; hence no comparison is possible from which
a relation could result, forming the venal or relative value or the
quality as wealth. (ibid. : 36n — Graslin’s emphasis)
Water, air, and light are not the sole examples of such objects. Take, for
example, the value of the trees in the forests of Cayenne, in the French equa-
torial colony of Guiana. “This element of wealth is like the air .. .. Their total
quantity .. . is in no proportion with the number of consumers, and . .. is in a
way infinite .. . ; and its value is accordingly absolutely imperceptible.” (ibid. :
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 24
Of course, the quality of being an absolute value is not limited to non-
produced objects : it is in fact a property of any element of wealth — this is
what Graslin also calls “direct value” (ibid. : 37n). The quality of being a free
good also depends on the circumstances. Consider again water, Graslin goes
on : “in a boat on the open sea, or in deserts”, this good will have a relative
value because it is then scarce, with a finite proportion between its available
quantity and the extent of the need (ibid. : 37).
The analysis of free goods is not however Graslin’s sole theoretical refine-
ment. So that he might render his analysis of relative values more complete he
develops in some very striking passages (ibid. : 42ff) concepts of complemen-
tarity and substitutability.
We must distinguish things which are of different species, the col-
lection of which makes one single object of need . .. (such as the
stone, the lime, the wood and the slate, etc., which go into the buil-
ding of a house ; such are also .. . the raw material and the industry
of the labourer) ; from the things which, although of different na-
ture, are only related to one part of the need, since they have one
and the same use in fulfilling the need : such as the slate, the tile,
the thatch, etc. (ibid. : 42)
For what concerns substitutable goods i.e., “things which are different but
relate to the same portion of a need”, “the value of the one necessarily influences
that of the other, just as a part — great or small — that we subtract from
the whole influences the size of the remaining part” (ibid. : 44). In the case of
complementary goods i.e., things “which are the objects of different parts of
the same need”, their quantities vary in the same way and “the value of the
one cannot have any influence on the value of the other” (ibid.).
4.2 A second definition of wealth and the postulate of inva-
As is not uncommon in the French language of the time, a word may have
two related meanings. “Need” can for example indicate a desire for something,
but also the fulfilment of this desire i.e., the satisfaction felt on the occasion
of the act of consumption. The same is true for “wealth” : it may also mean
the satisfaction generated by the fulfilment of the needs. This is important for
an understanding of some puzzling passages, those pages in which Graslin put
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 25
forward what we can call his “postulate of invariance” — a principle which
is, according to him, “one of the first and the most fruitful of the system of
wealth” (1767 : 18n).
This postulate states that, at the individual and hence also at the collective
level, the total amount of wealth is constant.
[A] man who would possess the objects of all the needs he feels, in
quantities proportionate to his consumption, would be as wealthy
as it is possible to be ; and consequently, as wealthy as any other
man who, having more needs, would also possess the objects of all
his needs. As a consequence, either in a state of the most primitive
simplicity where .. . there are only a few needs, or in a state of the
highest development of sciences and arts where there is an infinity
of needs, the objects of the sole existing needs are always the whole
amount of wealth; and consequently the quantity of wealth is not
greater in the latest era than in the first. (ibid. : 17)
This may look very strange to a modern reader. Graslin also states that
the total amount of needs (ibid. : 17n), or of values (ibid.), is constant for an
individual, as is his or her “well-being” — “well-being is always equal, either for
the same man in two different circumstances or for two different men” (ibid. :
37n) — which of course seems an equally strange assertion. In the case of
values, it must be noted that he is speaking of absolute value, which we know
to be a synonym for satisfaction. And if we note further, as above, that “wealth”
and “need” can both also mean “satisfaction” gained from final consumption,
then the postulate becomes clear : it is the total amount of satisfaction that a
person derives from the fulfilment of all 17 his or her needs — the total well-
being — that is said to be constant. The individual capacity for enjoyment,
embedded in human nature, is given. Now that the meaning of the postulate
of invariance is clearly stated, what of its relevance? Given that this principle
is counter-intuitive, what kind of argument is put forward to support it?
The satisfaction of a need depends on the intensity with which this need
is felt : which in turn depends on the number of needs a person feels. If this
number is small, the intensity of each need is strong, as is also their satisfaction.
If, on the contrary, this number is great, the intensity of each need is smaller,
17. “When I say that well-being is always equal, I think it unnecessary to observe that, by
the well-being of a man, I only mean the total amount of goods which are goods for him,
independently of their possession or deprivation.” (1767 : 37n)
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 26
and so is the satisfaction : “a greater quantity of goods, or objects of need, can
but provoke the diminution of the energy of each of them or its share in the
well-being (ibid.). This, according to Graslin, “explains” why the total amount
of wealth is constant :
. .. in the same way, a greater quantity of the fractions of a unity
diminishes the size of each of these fractions which, taken together,
still form a unity and therefore have a constant sum. (ibid. : 17n)
But Graslin simply supposes here what he wishes to prove — he starts from
a given amount, divides it alternatively with different numbers and “concludes”
that, if, in each case, one adds the different fractions, the result is the amount
that one started with. On the other hand, taking the total capacity for enjoy-
ment to be unity is purely conventional, and does not constitute any kind of
explanation of the above postulate — just as the choice of a numéraire does
not prove that the value of a commodity is constant.
4.3 Graslin and Maupertuis
The problem therefore remains : why does he make this assumption ? Is it
necessary ? What part does it really play in Graslin’s theory? An answer will
be proposed below. For the time being, it is enough to disclose the probable
origin of the postulate : the philosophy of Maupertuis — especially the ideas
proposed in two celebrated essays : Essai de philosophie morale (Maupertuis
1749) and “Lettre III. Sur le bonheur” (in Maupertuis 1753).
To put it briefly, Maupertuis puts forward an arithmetical statement of the
good and evil that generates happiness or unhappiness. The Essai de philoso-
phie morale defines the “happiness” (or “unhappiness”) of an individual as the
resultant of the algebraic sum18 of the good and the evil that he or she felt :
“Happiness is the resulting sum of the good which is left after all evil has been
subtracted. Unhappiness is the resulting sum of the evil which remains after
all good has been subtracted” (Maupertuis 1749 : 197). But how are good and
evil apprehended ? By means of their durations, multiplied by their intensities :
18. Graslin also thinks in an algebraic way, for example when he states that the interest
of the rentier, being in direct opposition to that of the general interest, “must be considered
to be a negative quantity in the calculation of the public good” (Graslin 1768 : 151).
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 27
. .. the estimation of the happy or unhappy moments is the product
of the intensity of the pleasure or pain, and the duration. (ibid. :
While the duration can easily be measured, this is not the case for the
intensity. But Maupertuis asserts that, even if an exact measure of intensity
is lacking, everyone can nevertheless have an approximate idea of the different
intensities and is able to compare and rank them (ibid. : 196). On this basis
he then asserts in “Sur le bonheur” that for each individual — hence for a
community — there exists a given quantity of happiness which does not greatly
depend on good or bad circumstances :
Maybe everybody has not observed . .. that for each person there
is a certain sum of happiness whose dependence on good or bad
fortune is slight. (Maupertuis 1753 : 225)
Maupertuis is of course aware of the paradoxical character of his proposi-
tion. The only justification, he thinks, can be found in introspection.
Think of the different states of the soul; examine whether, in the
situations that we considered to be the happiest, we did not en-
dure some pain from objects to which, in other less satisfactory
situations, one would not have paid the least attention; whether,
in situations that we feared to be the most unfortunate, we did
not find resources, we did not gain some pleasures which, in our
happiest times, would not usually have born down upon our soul.
There is for each man a certain measure of satisfaction and sorrow
that imagination always fills. (ibid. : 225-6)
In other words, every happy moment also entails a certain proportionate
dose of unhappiness ; and conversely. Of course, Maupertuis admits, there are
exceptional circumstances with equally exceptional pleasures or pains ; but
they do not last (ibid. : 226) and the individual returns to a kind of normal
permanent state (ibid. : 226-7).
One can however seek to go further and connect these aspects of Mauper-
tuis’s ideas to the philosophical discussions which followed the publication of
his 1749 essay — and also to the more recent interest in the evolution and
role of the concepts of pleasure and pain from Locke to Bentham. Part of the
discussion has focused on the nature of pleasure (see Guidi 1993, 2007). Sup-
pose that pleasures and pains cannot be considered on the same level, in a
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 28
kind of “symmetrical” fashion, because a pleasure is seen as the extinction of
a pain ; suppose further that, as a consequence, pleasure logically stops when
the pain disappears ; then we arrive in substance at the position of one of the
main protagonists in the debate : Pietro Verri, as expressed in his celebrated
Discorso sull’indole del piacere e del dolore (Verri 1773). If then we replace
“pain” with “need”, and “pleasure” with “satisfaction of a need” — which is in
the logic of Essai analytique — we get Graslin’s hypothesis of the objective
saturation of needs and the subsequent idea of an inelasticity of demand once
the saturation point is reached.
Moreover, following this line of reasoning, the total quantity of pleasure/sa-
tisfaction is obviously limited by the quantity of pain/need. If all pains are
relieved — if all needs are satisfied — then the outcome, in terms of well-
being, is constant and . .. nil. The outcome is different from zero only if some
pains are not alleviated, or not totally relieved; but, in this situation, the
outcome is negative. Hence Verri’s — but also Maupertuis’s — “pessimism”.
Here, searching for the greatest pleasure means the minimization of pain : we
are dealing with algebraic values.
Of course, Verri’s essay was published after Graslin’s — but he did publish
Meditazioni sulla felicità (Verri 1763) ten years before his Discorso on pain
and pleasure. These remarks have nonetheless been introduced to show the
terms and substance of some lively contemporary discussion : it is no wonder
then that Graslin, who knew of and appreciated Maupertuis’s writings, could
probably also take inspiration from them and subsequent debates to express
his own ideas. In any case his hypotheses, when re-placed in their context,
no longer look so strange as they had at first sight appeared. Consider the
following excerpt, for example. Does it not represent a kind of echo to the
ideas just outlined ?
. .. the possibility of greater wealth does not exceed the extent
of needs, whatever their kind and their number ; . .. if expenditure
remains below, the interval which remains unfilled is the measure of
indigence ; so that one would do as much for wealth by diminishing
the number of needs as in extending the limits of expenditure.
(1767 : 107)
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 29
5Production, equilibrium and prices
Graslin’s analysis does not stop at this point. The notion of equilibrium
has now to be introduced, and the concept of price must be reconsidered accor-
dingly. It is here that, in a very striking manner, Graslin could be considered
to be one source for the Classical approach.
5.1 Equilibrium
What happens at the individual level can be transposed to the aggregate
level. It can also be said, asserts Maupertuis in his “Éloge de M. de Montes-
quieu”, that “the real happiness of a society is the sum which remains after the
deduction of all the individual misfortunes” (1755 : 404). Hence the problem
for a legislator :
The problem that a Legislator must solve is the following : A mul-
titude of men being assembled, provide it with the greatest possible
amount of happiness. It is on this principle that all systems of le-
gislation must be based. (ibid. : 407).
Graslin’s aim is similar. As the wealth of anyone is at its maximum when all
his or her needs are satisfied, the same will be true at the aggregate level. And
when the needs of all citizens are satisfied and the supply of the various goods
exactly meets the demand, society is at an equilibrium — the best possible
situation it can reach.
The nation . .. is the collection of many different and even opposed
interests because he who is an owner has to give something to
the other who needs it. The wealth of the former lying in a greater
scarcity of this thing, and that of the latter in its greater abundance,
the wealth of a State can only be in the equilibrium of these two
sums of wealth, in other words in the conciliation of these two
opposed interests. In order to have greater wealth in the State, the
thing must be in a quantity exactly proportionate to the extent
of the need. And a State in which need and the different things
that are their respective objects would exist in such an equilibrium
would be at its maximum level of wealth. (1767 : 64)
We must however be aware of a logical consequence implied by this de-
finition. If, for a given population, some needs cannot be fulfilled, totally or
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 30
partially, the resulting market equilibrium can only be suboptimal. The maxi-
mum degree of happiness in society cannot thus be reached in that “inverted
order of society” where, as we know, labourers are inevitably in a state of
The above definition of a global equilibrium in a “state of relationships”
allows us to return to a question posed in the previous section but for the
time being left unanswered : that of the relative values of commodities. We
accepted, on a provisional basis, their determination through the interaction
of supply and demand. They fluctuate whenever the equilibrium is not reached
— production is not planned, but results from individual producers taking their
decisions independently from one another.
Now it is interesting to note that at the aggregate level Graslin calls the
individual relative price “partial value”. And he contrasts this partial value of a
commodity with the total value that the mass of this commodity possesses with
respect to the mass of every other commodity in the economy. The total masses
of the ncommodities possess, Graslin states, a relative price which is supposed
to be constant as long as needs and techniques do not change, whatever the
real amount of commodities composing each mass. In other words, needs (and
techniques) being given, the relative price of the mass of commodity iin terms
of the mass of commodity jwill remain the same, even if, for example, the
production of commodity isuddenly doubles.
[P]rinciple : all the individual elements of one same thing, whatever
their quantity, having for their object only one of the needs, have
together the same value. This value .. . of the thing considered from
the point of view of the species, and independently of the quantity
of its individual elements, cannot change as long as needs are in the
same proportion ; but the partial value of this thing must diminish
absolutely with the increase in the number of its parts. (ibid. :
14) 19
Here again Graslin seems to express his ideas in a somewhat surprising
way. But all he does is “simply” state the following propositions : (i) for a
given demand for total quantities of different goods and for given techniques of
production, there exists a set of natural relative prices ; (ii) the fluctuations in
the production of single commodities cause variations of the individual relative
19. See also for example Graslin 1767 : 15, 26.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 31
values — the market prices — which themselves gravitate around the respective
natural prices.
Let us examine these two propositions in turn. The argument is here stated
in the context of the “state of relationships” : the case of the inverted order of
society will be dealt with briefly at the end of this section.
5.2 Natural prices
Graslin’s first proposition concerning the existence of natural prices is ra-
ther obscured in Essai analytique, but is stated much more clearly in Disser-
tation. What are these natural prices ? How are they determined? In order to
answer these questions, let us go back to the first simple model put forward
by Graslin and already noted above when the analysis of the division of la-
bour was introduced (section 3). If in the natural order cultivators devoted
4of their labour time to cultivation, and 1
4to the production of “ploughing
implements”, 20 the transition to a society will see the entire population even-
tually divided 21 between two activities : 3
4of it remaining in agriculture and
devoting all their time to cultivation, and 1
4working now in craft industry; the
two goods, corn and “ploughing implements”, are produced in the same total
quantities as before — needs are the same — but the labour time provided by
each producer is now reduced owing to the beneficial effects of the division of
Remaining at the aggregate level, Graslin supposes the following exchange.
Craftsmen, on the one hand, do not have any use for the tools they make :
their whole production is destined for the cultivators. The latter, on the other
hand, only give up 1
4of the production of corn in exchange, keeping 3
4of the
corn produced. The exchange ratio between the activities is thus the following :
the total production of ploughing implements = a quarter of the production of
corn. This ratio is an equilibrium price : all the needs are satisfied; there is
no excess supply, neither of the final consumption good nor of tools ; and the
process can go on forever. This ratio is also just : it allows everyone to obtain
20. Strictly speaking, in modern terms we have to suppose that these “ploughing imple-
ments” are in fact a kind of circulating capital (absence of fixed capital).
21. Note that, in this simple example, the two activities are subdivisions of a single
vertically-integrated sector.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 32
the same quantity of corn as before, when each citizen was also landowner and
producing his circulating capital in his own account.
Now, the cultivators being in need of all the implements, and the
labourers [craftsmen] being in need only of a part of the production
[of corn], the exchange would take place in this proportion ; and
this exchange, in which a [sub]class seems to give all the fruit of its
labour, and the other a part only, is of the most perfect equality
. .. , the unique object of the work of every man .. . being to get
an equal portion of the production [of corn]. (1768 : 119)
How are we to interpret this ratio ? Graslin (ibid. : 125-7) develops an
argument in terms of exchanges of equilibrium quantities of labour between the
subclasses and a distinction, for each activity, between the labour employed
“for itself — i.e., in production for its own use — and the labour “which is
only for relationship or exchange” (ibid. : 126). Here Graslin’s analysis is a bit
tortuous, both because of the lack of any prior theoretical reference and because
he encounters a difficulty when dealing with the presence, in agriculture, of
means of production that are not produced in this sphere of activity (ibid. :
But even if his mode of expression is unconvincing, the result is clear : the
equilibrium exchange ratios between commodities are determined by labour
values. Different goods exchange against each other according to the direct
and indirect quantities of labour necessary for their production. This is the
case in the example above. The ploughing implements are manufactured by
4of the total labour force (the level of employment in the craft industry),
with no means of production other than labour. The corn is produced by 3
the total labour force (the level of employment in agriculture) using circulating
capital itself produced by 1
4of the labour force. In terms of incorporated labour,
the total quantity of corn is therefore worth four times the total quantity of
ploughing implements — which gives the natural price noted earlier.
Of course, Graslin writes in a more general context, the various kinds of
work are different. But these differences can be dealt with if the degrees of
pain involved is taken into account : the different kinds of labour must thus be
weighted according to their more or less painful character :
. .. he who is in charge of the less painful work, must have a greater
quantity thereof. It is a compensation which results from the order
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 33
of relationships where the situation of a man can be neither better
nor worse than that of any other. (ibid. : 134)
Finally, what is valid for the equilibrium quantities is also true for the single
elements : “the parts of each [different] thing must exchange against each other
in this same proportion” (ibid. : 127) 22 — an assertion which is not to be taken
literally 23 but which means that, once the natural ratios of exchange between
total quantities are known, as well as these quantities, the natural prices of the
individual commodities are also ipso facto determined.
Graslin then makes his analysis more complex : first by introducing a degree
of labour-saving technical progress in one of the two subclasses of the simple
model (ibid. : 128-133) ; then by subdividing each process into further activities
(ibid. : 134) ; and eventually by multiplying the needs and thus dealing with
classes proper (ibid. : 135ff) — the vertically-integrated sectors. As far as the
calculation of natural prices is concerned, detailed analysis of the effects of
a technical invention leads to the same result as before : equilibrium relative
prices are labour values.24 Likewise with the general rule that Graslin puts
forward for the calculation of natural prices in the case of a multiplicity of
needs and final goods (ibid. : 138-140).
If one wished to fix exactly the proportion in which these exchanges
of labour, & of the fruits of labour, must take place between all
classes it would be necessary to know the proportion of all the men
who form a class to the total amount of men .. . The share of the
fruits of the labour of all others that each class must receive will be
in proportion to the number of men that it includes with respect
to all men taken together; & it would provide for each of the other
classes a share of the fruits of its own labour in proportion to the
portion that each class makes up of the mass of all men. (ibid. :
22. In Essai analytique, Graslin expresses the same idea in the following way : “the objects
of the different needs, considered in their specie, and leaving aside the quantity of their
individual portions, relate proportionally by value in a manner conforming to the proportion
between needs ; . . . the individual portions of these objects conform to the proportions of
the global values of things” (Graslin 1767 : 26). He adds however : “but they have moreover
value proportions peculiar to themselves and which originate in their scarcity or abundance”
(ibid.). These second “value proportions” refer of course to market prices (see below).
23. It is instead to be taken literally if we understand “the parts of each [different] thing”
as meaning “proportional parts”.
24. There are some problems with the arithmetic of these examples (see Graslin 1768, 2008
edition) but the general conclusion is not affected.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 34
5.3 The gravitation of market prices
What happens when the effective supply of a good differs from that which is
necessary to fulfil needs ? The effective individual value of the good, determined
by supply and demand, will differ from the natural price. It will fluctuate but,
for given needs and techniques, price and quantity are supposed to eventually
equal once again their natural values. How does Graslin describe this process
of gravitation ante litteram ? This process works through the mobility of the
only factor of production : labour. And the principle which lies at the basis of
this process is again the selfish hypothesis :
. .. men always [move] towards the activity which procures the grea-
test right to the work of others, either because of the intensity of
the need or because of the scarcity of the object. (1767 : 98)
This is explained by Graslin in his Dissertation (1768 : 121-2). 25 Suppose
that, for whatever reason, production of various goods is disrupted. The rela-
tive market prices of the commodities in excess supply fall, while the reverse
happens for those in excess demand. People engaged in the first activities see
the purchasing power of their commodity — “the right to the work of others”
— diminish in terms of other commodities ; while the opposite occurs for those
working in the activities related to the second case. Some labourers therefore
move from the first activities into the second, production alters and the ex-
cesses in supply and in demand are reduced, thus prompting new and inverse
movements in market prices. An equilibrium is eventually reached — a new
“natural” equilibrium or the previous one, depending upon whether anything
changed in needs and/or techniques.
The order that I present here is not fictitious .. . It will always
sustain itself through the sole law of relationships, because it will
always happen that some of the persons in one class will move
into another class where there is a greater advantage; and, sharing
this advantage, they will make it diminish for everyone . .. This
enduring liberty for each individual to move from one class into
another whenever he anticipates therein a better situation; and the
disadvantage that always results for a class of its too great increase;
25. Graslin liked Richard Cantillon’s ideas. It is not impossible that this process is de-
veloped from some ideas to be found in Essai sur la nature du commerce en général (see
Cantillon 1755 : 14-5, 18).
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 35
would tend perpetually to place these two classes in equilibrium.
In discussing this process Graslin considers a possible difficulty : in moving
from industry to agriculture, labourers are supposed to find land. But what if
it is all appropriated ? His treatment is inconclusive. 26 The question of rent,
here only implicitly posed, is not considered by Graslin.
Three final points are worth noting. In the first place, we can now unders-
tand the analytical role played by the hypotheses of the saturation of the needs
and the “postulate of invariance” (above, section 4). The movements of prices
in markets are simple to analyse in the above case; these hypotheses simply
ensure that, during a process of gravitation, prices tend towards the natural
rates of exchange — even when labour-saving inventions allow the emergence
and satisfaction of new needs.
In the second place, we must note that one factor may interfere with this
process of gravitation : foreign trade, which is analyzed in Essai analytique.
We know that, because of the hypothesis of the saturation of needs, the fall
of the price of some commodities cannot increase their sales when an equili-
brium situation is disrupted — while the increase in the price of some other
commodities can provoke a fall in their demand.27 Foreign trade can play an
important role during the period of disequilibrium when the process of migra-
tion of labour readjusts the levels of productions : this gives the commodities
in excess supply a market and allows those in excess demand to be imported,
thus smoothing the process of transition. “The overabundance of commodities,
even of first necessity, is, for an agricultural nation, only wealth because of
the need of other nations : without this foreign need, the quantity which is in
excess of the national need is absolutely without value” (1767 : 63) ; 28 which
means that, in spite of the decrease of the market price, this excess of the
commodity would be wasted, the demand for it being price inelastic.
26. “I suppose here, in truth, that the total amount of population will not exceed the
quantity of productions that can be produced by the land : for, otherwise, this would create
a great disorder, the consequences of which can neither be foreseen nor calculated.” (Graslin
1768 : 124)
27. This effect depends on the rank of the need the commodity is fulfilling.
28. See also Graslin 1767 : 66, 69. In other respects, Graslin’s ideas on foreign trade policy
are traditional (see for example his system of subsidies and duties, ibid. : 196ff).
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 36
In the third place, we have to specify what happens in the “inverted order of
society”. It has already been noted at the end of section 3 that the existence of
rentiers prompts a deterioration of the condition of the labourers, who now live
in a state of indigence. Markets are still regulated by prices; but in addition to
the fact that the outcome is of course no longer just, how does such regulation
now function? Graslin alludes only very briefly to this when dealing with the
determination of prices and the process of gravitation. His verdict is to be
found in his controversy with Baudeau (Graslin 1767-68 : 53-62).
He there analyses the case of an equilibrium disrupted by labour-saving
technical progress. In the “state of relationships”, thanks to the mechanism of
gravitation, this progress allows all the labourers to satisfy the same needs
as before while using less labour, or produce for new needs that they had
discovered. But “this is no longer the case today; a barrier now exists between
those whose wealth is reduced, through the workings of fate, solely to their
labour, and those called the rich in the usual sense of the phrase” (ibid. :
56). In these circumstances, Graslin argues, the same process leads to the
degradation of the producers’ situation. Because of the subsequent migration of
labour to different activities, the labour-saving invention provokes an increase
in the number of labourers in all branches (and an insufficient diminution
in the branch where the invention was introduced). The result is, as Graslin
stresses, “that their individual rights [to final goods] will be diminished, and
will decrease until they are reduced to beggary” (ibid. : 57). This in spite of
the fact that some labourers can prompt new needs among the rich by offering
new commodities, thus creating new activities and diminishing excess supplies
It is not clear in Graslin’s text why such an outcome has to happen, and why
the process of gravitation cannot have the same effect as before. We understand
that the relative wealth of the rentier increases with respect to that of the
labourers : technical progress probably happens in sectors producing goods
consumed by rentiers alone, thus increasing the real value of rental incomes.
The rentiers can also enjoy new luxury goods : the producers on the other
hand cannot afford them and their poverty increases. But the emphasis that
Graslin puts on the fact that competition between labourers must reduce them
to beggary while on the other hand benefiting the rentier (ibid. : 60) appears
to suppose something other than simply a movement of prices in the presence
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 37
of excess supplies of commodities. It suggests the presence of wage-labour in a
labour market, a fall in real wages due to an excess supply of labour, and the
idea that the creation of new needs and accordingly new commodities and new
jobs are all insufficient to offset the negative impact of labour-saving technical
progress. This is however never openly developed in the text, owing to Graslin’s
blindness to the relationship between capital and labour.
Note eventually that on this point, as on all others, Graslin’s attitude is
not backward-looking : just as it is impossible to revert to a former state of
society, any attempt to stop technical progress or to prohibit the introduction
of labour-saving inventions in an open economy is, he writes, vain because of
the existence of competition from other nations (ibid. : 61-2).
6Public economics
We have already noted that, for Graslin, the State originally arose simply
as a branch of the overall division of labour, to provide for the need on the
part of the people of safety and justice (section 3.4). From this perspective,
Graslin insists, the State contributes to the production of wealth, and those
who claim that the financing of the public activity implies a diminution of the
citizens’ wealth are simply wrong : “The need for protection, which is one of the
most important needs of men in society, lends a genuine value to the protective
power, which is accordingly a part of the wealth of the nation.” (Graslin 1767 :
Those who, directly or indirectly, work for the State hence form a class
because they all contribute to the production of this service of protection : the
public sector is, on this point, no different from any other activity. And, as for
any other class, the right that the members of this particular class can have
to the product of the labour of other vertically-integrated sectors is based “on
the total number of men that the [tutelary] power employs for the functions
entrusted to it” (Graslin 1768 : 141). As a consequence the natural price for
protection is determined in the same way as any other natural price.
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 38
6.1 A quid pro quo approach to taxation
This price has some specific features which should be noted, the first being
that it is paid as a tax. 29 Taxation is thus conceived by Graslin in the quid pro
quo tradition : it is the equivalent paid for the services of the State (1767 : 25).
“Taxes consist in the exchange of the element of wealth which is protection
against the other items of wealth, according to the relative values of each”
(ibid. : 173). 30 Moreover this is its unique function ; in particular, taxation
can by no means be a corrective device for the distribution of income : “the
aim of taxation cannot be to bring about some degree of equality in the wealth
of people” (ibid. : 180).
But why is this price imposed upon citizens ? According to Graslin, one ini-
tial reason is that protection is a good for which there is no rivalry in consump-
tion, and no possible exclusion in markets ; it is not possible to exclude from
the benefit of protection those people who do not wish to pay the price but
who at the same time feel the need for this public good. Here, like Turgot and
Condorcet at around the same time (Faccarello 2006), Graslin perfectly sums
up the free rider problem.
Observe that this exchange cannot be free like the exchange bet-
ween all other objects of needs. . . . From the moment society is
formed, each member is not free to contribute or not, nor to fix
what he wants to give in exchange for protection; because he is
not free to either surrender this object of need, or be given less
of it since all people enjoy it in common and indivisibly [. ..] ; and
because nobody can be deprived of it when all others are enjoying
it. And, as each citizen would find it profitable to receive without
giving anything, no-one would hurry to participate passively in the
exchange, since they would always be certain to be included in
it actively. As a consequence a law must decide the amount that
everyone has to give ; and this law is taxation. (1767 : 152-3)
There is also a second reason why the price for protection must be a tax.
As a matter of fact Graslin considers people to have a psychological propen-
sity to underestimate the strength of their need for protection, and hence the
29. On Graslin’s ideas concerning taxation, see also Seligman (1894 : 194-5, 243-5) and
Orain (2006 : 13ff ; 2008b : 141ff ).
30. Just taxation must follow the principles of exchange (see Graslin 1767 : 153).
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 39
price they should pay in order to fulfil it. This is firstly because people receive
the services of the protection of the State without really knowing all the ad-
vantages they receive from such protection (ibid. : 154-5). Secondly, citizens
underestimate their need for protection, because people “receive in advance the
element of wealth they pay for through taxation” (ibid. : 173) — and this, in
Graslin’s eyes, constitutes a significant difference with respect to an ordinary
exchange in markets where one has first to pay the price in order to get the
object (ibid. : 173).
These two reasons not only bring about an under-estimation of the need for
public goods, but also, probably, the temptation to be — partially or totally
— a free rider. People “believe that they give without receiving [anything in
exchange], they only feel the privation and they suffer from it.” (ibid. : 155)
6.2 The requirements of just taxation
If societies were still in a “state of relationships” levying a tax in order
to finance the public sector would have been an easy task. In fact, all the
citizens would have been in a similar state of wealth, with roughly speaking
the same needs, and would have paid approximately the same price — and
it is in this context that Graslin stresses the quid pro quo approach, denying
any redistributive role to taxation. In the “inverted order of society”, things are
different. There are here very important differences in the levels of the citizens’
wealth, and the distribution of income is not just. Taxation has to be modified
It is in the essence of this law [taxation as the price for public
services] that it follows the changes that our constitutions and an
infinity of circumstances brought to the primitive state of men . ..
The very order of nature being inverted by the social order, in which
some contribute much more to total wealth than they receive from
it ; those who receive from this wealth more than they contribute
must be responsible for purchasing that wealth shared by the whole
society [protection] ; and this in proportion to the benefit each of
them derives from it. (1767 : 173)
People thus will not have to pay the same price for public activity. Graslin
follows here the ideas eloquently expressed by Montesquieu in De l’Esprit des
lois (1748 : book XIII) who stated that, in taxation, proportionality is unjust
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 40
and progressiveness has to be the rule. The poor will not pay anything, and
the rich will pay in proportion to the benefits they receive from this activity.
In a sense, taxation now involves more than a little “corrective justice”. But
determination of the tax level still follows the rules of commutative justice.
Graslin does not however merely quote Montesquieu frequently : he also
tries to justify his point of view (1767 : 150ff). As for the labourer who produces
wealth without really benefiting from it and who often does not even fulfil
his basic needs, exemption is a law of natural justice : “In vain the social
law demands that he must bear his share of the common burden. The law of
nature is prior to it” (ibid. : 164). This exemption necessarily renders taxation
But as far as rentiers are concerned, progressiveness is also the rule : “the
general law of taxation states that tax must increase in a proportion which is
always greater with respect to the wealth of the taxpayer; i.e., it must be more
than doubled if wealth is double.” (ibid. : 160). An initial reason lies in the
fact that citizens do not all consume the same quantity of the public service of
protection : “protection . .. is not the same object of need for each citizen taken
individually” (ibid. : 152), and this is another difference presented by the need
for protection vis-à-vis any other basic need which is satisfied more or less in
the same way, independently of the person who feels it. The more a citizen is
wealthy, the more he consumes of the public good : “[. ..] the rich presents a
greater surface to protection than the well-off citizen : in some respects he takes
more of this object of need because of his rank in society, his possessions and
his enjoyments” (ibid. : 150). This argument is not however decisive, because
such a rich man would actually pay more even if there were a proportional tax.
Conclusive instead is the reference to the sacrifice caused by the tax to the
But the rich man, who would give one tenth of his revenue, would
give, i.e., would only be deprived of the objects of his last needs ; the
citizen who is simply well-off and only has objects of necessity and
utility, and who would give a tenth of his fortune, would perhaps
give half of his objects of utility. The latter would thus give more
while receiving less. (ibid.)
What is stated here is a justification of a progressive tax, which will give
rise to the principle of the “equal absolute sacrifice”, as it will later be called —
The enigmatic Mr Graslin 41
an argument also proposed by Condorcet and Horace Say during the French
Revolution (Faccarello 2006 : 26-30).
While justice in taxation implies progressiveness, taxation must not howe-
ver be levied as an income tax. Graslin (1767 : 156ff) insists on the fact that
such a tax is difficult to levy, will depend on the competence and honesty of the
employees in charge of it, induce people to hide their true income or wealth,
and will eventually give rise to arbitrary decisions and even “suffocate indus-
try” (ibid. : 158). Moreover, as reported above, citizens always underestimate
the value of the public service of protection and think they are paying too
much. This is the reason why Graslin, adapting Montesquieu, declares himself
strongly in favour of a progressive system of taxes on final commodities (ibid. :
The first law for this tax is that . . . the objects of first necessity
be exempt from it. . . . The second law is that the tax on things
must not be proportionate to their relative value .. . but be all the
more heavy on each object of need, the more distant this need is
from necessity; which has to distribute taxation among taxpayers
according to a progressively increasing ratio, which is the sole rule
of equity. (ibid. : 164; see also 183)
This, according to Graslin, is the sole way of implementing a just, flexible
and production-friendly taxation system (see ibid. : 166-9) which would be in
addition less painful (ibid. : 154-5) because taxes would be concealed in the
prices of many commodities, and people would never know exactly what the
total amount was that they were personally paying. 31
[Anonymous] (1768). ‘Examen d’un Ouvrage intitulé Essai analytique sur la Richesse
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31. To be more comprehensive, we have also to mention Graslin’s detailed discussion of
the case in which rentiers freely work in the State administration — a way to return to the
society their unearned income, partly or totally. See Graslin 1768 : 147ff.
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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. ...
... Diderot, for example, praised the Physiocrats before supporting Galiani, and Turgot, one of the most important theoretician of laissez-faire, was a former member of the Vincent de Gournay circle -his 1759 "Eulogy of Vincent de Gournay" powerfully contributed to create the erroneous picture of Vincent de Gournay as an adept of laissez-faire. And while "philosophie économique" can be considered as the origin of the subjective theory of value, which developed later in France with Dupuit and Walras, an author such as Graslin (Graslin 1767(Graslin [1911(Graslin ], 1768(Graslin [2008) also proposed a Rousseauist approach involving a labour theory of normal prices and distribution and the idea of a gravitation of market prices around natural prices that, a decade before Smith, led the foundations of (British) classical political economy (Faccarello 2009). ...
... Some studies recognize Graslin's Essai Analytique as a pioneering work in classical economics (Desmars [1900(Desmars [ ]1973Faccarello 2008Faccarello , 2009), a forerunner of Ricardo (Dubois 1911, ix), of Walras's equilibrium theory (Orain 2006, 964), and of Veblen's division between the propertied class and working class (Maherzi 2008, 21). Furthermore, Graslin is considered to be a neo-mercantilist in the same way as Melon and Forbonnais (Dubois 1911, xix). ...
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J.-J.-L. Graslin, an ‘anti-economist’, who fundamentally criticized physiocratic doctrine, and N. Baudeau, described as a ‘blind enthusiast’ of Physiocracy, started an open controversy in journals over the value of the processing industry in 1767. The purpose of this paper is to clarify the historical significance of their short-term controversy and Graslin’s far-sighted subjective theory of value confronting Physiocracy. As with other physiocrats, Baudeau insisted on the sterility of industry because it does not produce any net product. Baudeau argued that the value of a processed product was composed of two values: the value of materials and that of food for labour. By contrast, Graslin maintained that the value of labour must be considered separately from the value of food for labour. According to Graslin, labour that processes raw materials generates new value beyond the value of those materials, in the same way that agricultural labour generates value; therefore, the former type of labour is not sterile. The controversy symbolizes a preliminary confrontation between the upcoming cost theory of value and the subsequent subjective theory of value. On the latter, Graslin produces a table similar to Carl Menger’s table of needs satisfaction.
Susan Buck-Morss’s argument that the Haitian Revolution embodied the most universal aspect of the French Revolution, namely the quest for universal freedom, relies on the supposed references to Haiti in the master–slave dialogue in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The revolution’s lodgement at the core of this foundational text of Enlightenment universalism is, for her, about as convincing a demonstration as one can have of the universal significance of the Haitian Revolution. Marxists have opposed her venture, and demonstrated their hostility to post-colonial thinking, principally by claiming that the master–slave is an expression of European class conflict. This paper agrees with Buck-Morss that the Haitian Revolution critically affirmed the principle of universal freedom and, indeed, pushed the revolution in France and Europe in a radical direction. A better affirmation of the universal significance of the Haitian Revolution than the thoughts of Hegel is possible. The latter do not actually provide such affirmation, because racism, Eurocentrism and a hostility to political radicalism are fundamental aspects of Hegel’s thought. The alternative affirmation can be found in Marxist analysis. This paper outlines such an analysis, and concludes that post-colonialism of Buck-Morss’s sort is no substitute for the perspective provided by historical materialism.
This paper discusses F. V. D. de Forbonnais’s and J.-J.-L. Graslin’s value theories and examines their explanations of ‘the diamond-water paradox’. They criticized the physiocrat’s conceptual distinction between ‘productiveness’ and ‘sterility’ and discussed each theory of value. Forbonnais explained ‘the diamond-water paradox’ according to the assumption that ‘the natural order’ normally governed value of different goods based on essential utility for our existence. The capriciousness of the rich tends to weaken the function of the natural order. This behaviour is the cause of the high value of diamonds independently from the essential utility. Thus, Forbonnais emphasized the natural order and utility; nevertheless, Graslin’s explanation of the paradox was founded on the concepts of need, utility and scarcity from a subjective point of view, which has clear links to the marginalist revolution in the 1870s. Graslin provided a detailed explanation of the interaction between utility and scarcity, before Adam Smith’s distinction between what is called ‘value in use’ and ‘value in exchange’.
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Like many authors of his time, Smith assumes a greater sensitivity to adverse than to prosperous events. Though neglected by commentators, with the exception of Ashraf et al. (2005), the influence that he attaches to prosperity and adversity on happiness deserves special attention, particularly from an analytical point of view. This paper aims at bringing out the implications of such an asymmetry for his work and for current developments concerning decision and welfare. Since the argument that comes to justify this asymmetry, in the Theory of Moral sentiments, is not clear, both in its structure and in its content, the first step consists in a clarification of Smith's position resting, principally, on the History of Astronomy, which introduces the concepts of ‘custom’ and ‘surprise’. Next, Smith's argument is discussed in a more formal framework, through alternative approaches of what might be considered a Smithian happiness function: reference-dependent models with loss aversion or standard cardinal utility-like functions. Textual evidences leads to favour the last alternative. This also leads to non-trivial conclusions concerning the way Smith views individual happiness.
This article presents the fiscal theories of Forbonnais (1722 to 1800) and Graslin (1727 to 1790) as a common system. A system that is the first to clearly establish the notion of progressive taxation upon goods inversely proportional with their utility. Thanks to the collation of the works of these two men with the inventories of their libraries and their arithmetic skills, this article is able to reveal their real backgrounds and influences. Finally, the progressive taxation would allow a new allocation of the factors of production that would be the key point for a whole reform of the French Kingdom.
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In nineteenth-century France, the nature and functions of the State were an almost constant subject of debate among liberal economists. The aim of this paper is to analyse and restate some hitherto neglected discussions and to discover some bold ideas that could form the hallmarks of a French approach to the question. The enquiry starts at the turn of the century with the seminal work of J.-B. Say and writings by A.L.C. Destutt de Tracy, who both shaped the liberal reflection on public economics during this period. But the works of these authors suffered from important ambiguities. It is shown how subsequent liberal economists - Ch. Dunoyer, V. de Broglie, G. de Molinari, E. de Girardin, P. Leroy-Beaulieu - tried to deal with some of the unresolved questions and, mainly on the basis of Say's work, developed original approaches focusing on the productivity of public spending, the role of the State as a factor of production, utopian views of the State as a private company, and finally the inexorable political and administrative logic of the modern electoral State.
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This paper examines some ideas developed in the field of public economics by French Sensationist political economists, from Turgot and Condorcet to the young Jean-Baptiste Say. An ideal-typical account of their position is based on the fact that issues raised by public expenditure and revenue are not dealt with independently. Instead, a strong link between the two sides of the budget is emphasized, an approach arising out of political considerations concerning human rights and equity. Following on from this they develop a theory of public expenditure based on public goods - national and local - and externalities, and a theory of taxation culminating in a justification of progressive taxation. The central section of the paper forms a kind of pivotal point in the analysis, showing how the above political and ethical requirements of the theory lead to the first estimation of the optimal amount of public expenditure and revenue - involving an equilibrium at the margin.
The Jean-Joseph Graslin’s Essai analytique sur la richesse et sur l’impôt [1767] is at the same time one of the most brilliant critical analysis of physiocracy and the synthesis of a systematic thought which announces the sensualist political economy of the end of the Ancien Régime. The author, who argues in terms of needs and utility, describes a generalized trade economy in which the prices of goods and the means of production are determined by market forces. Refusing the logical framework of Quesnay and his disciples, Graslin defines an “equilibrium” which includes social inequalities and taxation. Classification JEL : B11, B31
Possibly the earliest contribution to the theory of differential rent is contained in C.-F.-J. d'Auxiron's Principes de tout gouvernement (1766). Two years later, in 1768, another discussion of the phenomenon of extensive differential rent appeared in the physiocratic periodical Ephemerides du citoyen, probably written by J.-N.-M. de Saint-Peravy. This article, while remaining a short and isolated contribution, indicates how differential payments for the use of land can be incorporated within a value theory in which normal prices reflect necessary costs of production and how differential rent can be reconciled with the explanation of rent as a return on capital.
In the conception of history of the abbe de Condillac, one thing is really original. He establishes a causal relation between the functioning of the human mind and the history of societies. First, the understanding of humankind is not disordered: society develops, stages follow one another. But the commercial stage leads societies to divide into classes, the landowners are interested only in frivolous, luxurious objects: they have become denatured. Their behaviour entails society in a long phase of decline. However, this course is not inevitable. Condillac wishes to reform the individual in order to modify society and he proposes economic safeguards capable of reducing disparities. Life is simple, but history is not halted.