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

By Peter Groenewegen | Go to book overview

20

Turgot and Adam Smith1

Tout ce qu’il y a de vrai dans ce livre estimable (Richesse des Nations), mais pénible à lire … se trouve dans les Réflexions de Turgot … tout ce qu’Adam Smith y a ajouté manque d’exactitude et même de fondement.

(Du Pont de Nemours)

This essay (Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth) may be considered as the germ of the treatise on the Wealth of Nations written by the celebrated Smith.

(Condorcet)

The opinions of Du Pont de Nemours and Condorcet quoted above 2 on the possible relationship between Turgot’s ‘Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth’ and Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations started what is probably the oldest controversy in the history of economic thought. Time and time again this question has intrigued scholars of various nationalities, and new hypotheses are still being put forward to explain it. 3 This chapter intends to review the controversy, to appraise the evidence, and to give some conclusions on the subject of what has been called the ‘Smith-Turgot myth’. 4

Before proceeding with this inquiry, it is useful to classify the evidence on which the myth has been based. This may be divided into two basic parts. First of all, there is the internal evidence obtained by comparing the text of Turgot’s ‘Reflections’ with that of Smith’s Wealth of Nations; second, there is the historical evidence which is based on the personal acquaintance of the two authors, the alleged correspondence between them, and the availability of Turgot’s economic writing to Adam Smith during the period preceding the publication of the Wealth of Nations. The discussion of these two types of evidence will form the basis for what follows in this chapter.


I

The historical evidence can be dealt with relatively briefly, because it has often been discussed in the past. 5 Nevertheless, a summary of this evidence is important since the origin of the controversy lay undoubtedly in the fact that the two

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