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

By Peter Groenewegen | Go to book overview

19

Turgot’s place in the history ofeconomic thought

A bicentenary estimate 1

The bicentenary of Turgot’s death, which occurred on 18 March 1781 at his house in Paris on the Rue de Bourbon, provides an opportunity for the assessment of Turgot’s place in the history of economics. In such an assessment, two questions ought to be considered in some detail. The first concerns the quality of his contributions to economics, such as the presentation of new techniques of analysis, new concepts, or new propositions. The second question relates to the influence exerted by his work on his contemporaries and successors, either because that work acted as an authority which guided the direction of further investigation, or because it was a source of considerable controversy which stimulated fresh thought and analysis. In particular, if influence on later generations of economists is considered to be large, the author ought to be assured of an important place in the history of economic thought. 2

Although in this context it is useful to look at the antecedents of the thought of the economist in question, this aspect of the assessment of Turgot need not be conducted here, since it has been done recently. 3 In addition, an assessment of the connection between Turgot and Adam Smith, which would have preoccupied the commemoration of the centenary of Turgot’s death in 1881, is now largely redundant, 4 while the catalogue of Turgot’s library, edited and published with consummate skill by Professor Tsuda, 5 allows an easy evaluation of the written sources in economics available to Turgot.

Because there are therefore so many recent interpretations of Turgot’s economics which place his work in the context of the eighteenth century, this chapter concentrates on the two factors identified by Robbins as relevant to assessing a person’s more permanent place in the history of economic thought. In the first section, a quick survey of Turgot’s major contributions to economics is presented. The second section presents an evaluation of his influence on nineteenth-century economists, subdivided into three subsections: influence on the British and French political economy school of the early nineteenth century, influence on the mid-nineteenth-century school of French liberalism, and third, influence on some early marginalists who were familiar with his work. 6 A final section presents some brief conclusions.

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