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

By Peter Groenewegen | Go to book overview

18

Turgot

Forerunner of neo-classical economics?

In his many, highly laudatory comments on the economics of Turgot, J. A. Schumpeter (1959) clearly indicated that he regarded Turgot as an economist writing in advance of his time because he anticipated much of what became important in the economic discussion of the period after the ‘marginal revolution’. In particular, Turgot is argued to have close affinities with the Austrian variant of this ‘new’ economics. For example, Turgot’s description of the market mechanism is suggested to be ‘very similar to that of Böhm-Bawerk’ (Schumpeter, 1959, p. 307), his interest and capital theory are argued to have ‘clearly foreshadowed much of the best thought in the last decades of the nineteenth century’ 1 (ibid., p. 332) while last but not least, the use of marginal analysis is attributed to him in the context of his famous statement of the ‘law of variable proportions’ (ibid., pp. 260-1). Finally, at the conclusion of his reader’s guide to Turgot’s ‘Reflections on the Production and Distribution of Wealth’, Schumpeter gives what can be regarded as his greatest praise:

there are practically no definite errors to be found in this first of all the treatises on Value and Distribution that were to become so popular in the later decades of the nineteenth century. It is not too much to say that analytic economics took a century to get where it could have got in twenty years after the publication of Turgot’s treatise had its contents been properly understood and absorbed by an alert profession.

(ibid. p. 249)

Schumpeter’s views on the ‘modern’ nature of Turgot’s economics have been developed by a number of other authors, especially in the context of his theory of value. Kauder (1953) in his analysis of the genesis of the marginal utility theory, argued that Turgot’s explanation of isolated exchange ‘is almost identical’ with that presented over a century later by Menger and by Wicksell but that, as was the case with other writers of the Italo-French school of the eighteenth century, Turgot wrote on the subject of value ‘in vain’ and his writings were ‘soon forgotten’ (Kauder, 1953, pp. 646-67, 650). Similarly, Yamakawa (1959) described Turgot’s ‘attempt to formulate value theory based on the subjective valuation’ as ‘one of the most significant contributions’ he made to

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