Studies in the History of French Political Economy: From Bodin to Walras

By Gilbert Faccarello | Go to book overview

11

FRENCH ECONOMISTS AND MARGINALISM (1871-1918)

Yves Breton

The French economics community of the latter half of the nineteenth century welcomed neither the first marginalist writings of W. S. Jevons, C. Menger and L. Walras nor, in general, the theoretical investigations to which they gave rise. The work of Augustin Cournot and Jules Dupuit, it is true, might have been expected to pave the way in changing attitudes, but, until the end of the 1860s, the French economists showed little interest in these contributions.

Elsewhere, however, the new methods of analysis gave rise to research which put the entire classical theoretical corpus into question. As we know, A. Marshall, F. Y. Edgeworth, P. H. Wicksteed, W. Smart, J. B. Clark, V. Pareto, E.von Böhm-Bawerk, F.von Wieser, R. Auspitz and R. Lieben, during the period 1880-1890, contributed the essentials of what was to become known as the ‘second marginalist revolution’.

Just how distant from this movement were the French economists, during the five decades from 1871 to the end of the First World War? How, and by what means, were the new theories diffused in France? When did they begin to be reflected in the teaching of political economy? What place were they given in treatises in political economy and specialist journals? Were marginalist theories used in an effective way by the French economists of the period, and what reception did the latter give to marginalism’s various theoretical currents?

Consideration of these questions suggests that we distinguish three moments. During the first, from 1871 to 1880, marginalist ideas were largely ignored by the representatives of the Liberal School of Political Economy then dominant in French economics. The second, from 1881 to 1899, begins with the publication by Charles Gide of an article on the theory of value developed by Jevons a decade earlier in his Theory of Political Economy; several years later, in 1887, the same Gide was instrumental in the creation of the Revue d’économie politique, which played a determining role in the diffusion of the new theoretical ideas. Finally, during the third moment (1900-1918), the main marginalist propositions were the subject of controversy.

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