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

By Peter Groenewegen | Go to book overview

12

The physiocrats

The origins of scientific political economy and the single tax

In Book II, chapter IV of his The Science of Political Economy, Henry George (1898, p. 148) argued that the physiocrats were ‘the first developers in modern times of something like a true science of political economy’. George’s claim did not arise from a profound study of either the history of economic thought or of physiocratic writings. There is abundant evidence that his knowledge of the history of economics was rather slender, and on his own confession he had himself never read any of the works of Quesnay or his followers. For him, they were ‘fellow travellers’ and anticipators of his own ideas, and their importance arose from the fact that in the previous century they had arrived at proposals very similar to this own.

George’s account of how he first gained knowledge of the doctrines of the physiocrats (George, 1898, pp. 163-4) is revealing because it explains the subjective basis for his admiration of their work.

In what is most important, I have come closer to the views of Quesnay and his followers than did Adam Smith, who knew the men personally. But in any case there was certainly no derivation from them. I well recall the day when, checking my horse on a rise that overlooks San Francisco Bay, the commonplace reply of a passing teamster to a commonplace question, crys-tallized, as by lightning-flash, my brooding thoughts into coherency, and I there and then recognized the natural order - one of those experiences that make those who have had them feel thereafter that they can vaguely appreciate what mystics and poets have called the ‘ecstatic vision’. Yet at that time I had never heard of the physiocrats, or even read a line of Adam Smith.

Afterwards, with the great idea of the natural order in my head, I printed a little book ‘Our Land and Land Policy’, in which I urged that all taxes should be laid on the value of land, irrespective of improvements. Casually meeting on a San Francisco street a scholarly lawyer, A.B. Douthitt, we stopped to chat, and he told me that what I had in my little book proposed was what the French ‘Economists’ a hundred years before had proposed.

-222-

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