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Republicanism and the French Revolution: An Intellectual History of Jean-Baptiste Say’s Political Economy

Author(s):Whatmore, Richard
Reviewer(s):Baumol, William

Published by EH.NET (May 2001)

Richard Whatmore, Republicanism and the French Revolution: An Intellectual

History of Jean-Baptiste Say’s Political Economy. Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2000. xiv + 248 pp.$70 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-924115-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by William Baumol, Department of Economics, New York


The central objective of this book is to describe, both in light of the

writings of contemporaries and from internal evidence in Jean-Baptiste Say’s

own writings, the underlying orientation of that author — the political

philosophy by which he was guided. The author, a lecturer at the University of

Sussex, is extraordinarily well informed about the pertinent literature of the

time, and perhaps tells us more about this material than some readers may want

to know. But, on the basis of those writings, he offers us insights into Say’s

predilections and, in particular, his views on political and social issues,

that are likely to have escaped even careful readers of Say’s best-known

writings. In particular, the author emphasizes that Say was not a liberal in

the tradition of the British classical economists, nor a full-fledged follower

of the path of Adam Smith (though he points out in the very first page of

Chapter 1 that Jean-Baptiste’s own son, Horace Say, asserted that, contrary to

Whatmore, such was indeed his father’s orientation). Here, we are told, Say’s

position also did not favor full democracy or even the constitutional royalist

regime of the United Kingdom at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Instead, Say’s position was consistent and avid “republicanism.”

The term, however, is used in a sense very different from ours. The author

describes eighteenth century “republican political economy” in the following

passage: Republican political economy demanded the establishment and

maintenance of a moderate level of wealth for all citizens. Ranks had to be

abolished to prevent aristocracy or inequality from recurring. The sovereignty

of the [propertied] people was to be coupled with the decentralization of

political and administrative power to the citizens of a locality. Despite

this, the republic was to remain a unified state. Its laws would embody the

public good and its patriotic citizenry would be dedicated to defending and

maintaining the state. The modern republic was a commercial society in the

sense that wealth derived from trade and industry was to be encouraged as an

antidote to the poverty of the state and the citizenry. Commercialization was

to be welcomed as long as it remained compatible with republican morality and

an egalitarian social structure. A republic was therefore not solely to be

created by making laws that prevented domination and abolished monarchy, as

many eighteenth-century British radicals supposed. Far more important was the

creation of a republican political culture based on a blend of commercial with

traditionally conceived virtuous manners. Without cultural transformation any

projected political innovations would be doomed to failure. (p. 31)

Implicit in this passage are the other goals that the author claims to have

been Say’s — severely reduced inequality with moderate wealth for all,

dedication to virtue and good manners on the part of the population, and

education of the public as well as the members of government to the need for

and benefits of such behavior, as well as the requirements of a

well-functioning economy that is a necessary condition for achievement of

these goals.

All of this is entirely plausible, though the author provides us with

remarkably little in Say’s writings, at least after he had attained maturity,

that makes these points explicitly. But Whatmore goes further than this. He

implies that this is what Say’s Trait? and his other writings in

economics are, essentially, all about. Even Say’s law is not to be properly

understood without this information: “In consequence, it ismisleading to group

him [Say] with exponents of classical political economy in Britain, as many

historians of economic thought continue to do. Say’s conception of utility

must be seen as a product of a French discussion about public virtue rather

than a partially-formed building block of a new science. Say’s ‘Law’, by

contrast with the use made of it by British Ricardians, was intended to combat

fears of ‘general gluts’ by the introduction of specific ranks and manners”

(p. 218).

In taking this position, it seems clear to me, the author goes too far.

Rereading of the Trait? surely indicates that the author intended the

book to be a work of political economy in the standard sense, and one

completely divorced from political connotations. Indeed, Say emphasizes this

in the first page of his introduction: “Since the time of Adam Smith, it

appears to me, these two very distinct inquiries have been uniformly

separated, the term political economy being now confined to the science

which treats of wealth, and that of politics, to designate the

relations existing between a government and its people, and the relations of

different states to each other” ( A Treatise of Political Economy,

American translation of the fourth edition of the Trait?, Philadelphia,

1834, pp. xv-xvi).

This is not to deny that Whatmore’s observations are illuminating. They do

help us to understand Say as author, just as Jacob Viner’s emphasis (The

Role of Providence in the Social Order, Princeton: Princeton University

Press, 1972, p. 81) of the religious connotation of Adam Smith’s invisible

hand passage (“invisible hand” being a common eighteenth-century reference to

the hand of Providence) helps us to understand what Smith meant in this

passage. But a claim that The Wealth of Nations is therefore to be

interpreted as predominantly a religious tract would surely be misleading. And

it seems to me equally misleading to interpret the Trait? as a manual

of republicanism rather than, primarily, as a work of political economy, as

the title of the book tells us, and as Say tells us the term was

conventionally interpreted at the time.

William J. Baumol, Professor of Economics, New York University. is currently

working on a book investigating the explanation of the superior growth record

of free-market economies and, most recently, is co-author with Ralph Gomory of

Global Trade and Conflicting National Interests, MIT Press, 2001.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century