Eighteenth Century Economics: Turgot, Beccaria and Smith and Their Contemporaries

By Peter Groenewegen | Go to book overview

6

The French connection

Some case studies of French influences on British economics in the eighteenth century

French contributions in the eighteenth century hold a unique place in the history of economics, in the sense that for substantial segments of that century they dominated thinking in the subject. Part of this dominance was associated with the Enlightenment, during which French thought reigned supreme over virtually every field of scientific endeavour. With special reference to economics, the leading position of French thought in the eighteenth century is explained by a number of factors. As shown by Hutchison, 1 part of the explanation lies in the relative decline in importance of English economics from the end of the seventeenth century, a position not recovered until almost a century after the Scottish ascendancy which began in the middle of the eighteenth century. More importantly, especially during the 1750s and 1760s, were the theoretical developments in French economics largely associated with physiocracy. These placed it in the forefront of economic theory over these two decades. The varying importance of French economics over the eighteenth century can be demonstrated statistically using data on the relative rate of publication and similar measures. 2 It can also be illustrated by using case studies of selected British writers, as a device for assessing the degree of French economic influence on such writers in greater depth. The last is the method adopted in this chapter to highlight the influence of French economics on the English-speaking writers in the eighteenth century.

The case studies have been selected to illustrate both the specific forms French influence took in the eighteenth century and the differing degrees of its importance. The first deals with Richard Cantillon, an economist of British birth but French nationality and writing on economics, probably in France and in French, in the late 1720s. 3 Cantillon’s case is interesting since despite his undoubted French connections, the major influences on his economics are English, reflecting the dominance of English thinking at the time. However, the identifiable French influences on his work are intriguing. The second case study concerns David Hume, another writer with very good French connections, having spent his initial period as writer (1734-7) in France. Hume’s economic essays, written approximately two decades after Cantillon’s Essai, reflect the type of French economic influence existing at this time. His main period of residence in France, as secretary to the British Embassy in Paris (1763-6), during

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