Why Does Jean-Baptiste Say Think Economics Is Worth Studying?

By Jacoud, Gilles | History of Economics Review, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Why Does Jean-Baptiste Say Think Economics Is Worth Studying?


Jacoud, Gilles, History of Economics Review


Abstract: Jean-Baptiste Say sought to make the subject of political economy known to a wide public and taught it right up to the last few weeks of his life. The object of this article is to understand why, according to Say, political economy is worth studying. It is worthwhile, because as he explains from 1800 onwards, it is capable of making men more virtuous and societies more civilised. In order to do this, it must establish irrefutable truths. According to him this is possible thanks to use of the experimental method which in political economy enables the establishment of laws as sound as those that exist in the field of physics. Once they are known, these laws help individuals to act according to their true interests, enabling them to improve their material conditions. The material affluence favoured by the knowledge of political economy contributes to men's fulfilment and makes nations more civilised.

1 Introduction

The object of this article is to understand why, according to Jean-Baptiste Say, political economy is worth studying. Such a question is all the more justified in that Say devoted most of his life to reflecting on this discipline, writing about it and teaching it.

Say's reflections on political economy begin relatively early. He is not yet twenty when in order to complete his studies in England, be witnesses the effect in England of the Eden Treaty with France in 1786 (Say 2003b, p. 61). It is at this time that an incident following the introduction of a new tax brings about the 'first of [his] reflections on political economy.' (1) Back in France, be became secretary to the financier Etienne Claviere, the future Finance Minister, and thanks to the latter discovered Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations in 1789 and developed a passion for political economy which was to remain with him until his death in 1832. (2)

This interest in political economy went with the determination to diffuse it to a wide public. Writing offered him this possibility. (3) He showed his first signs of literary talent at the age of thirteen (4) and wrote several works before publishing his Traite d'economie politique in 1803. He gave such importance to political economy that be did not hesitate to put his convictions in this field before his personal interest. When Bonaparte asked him in the second edition of the Traite, which he was then preparing, to justify the measures taken by the government, he categorically refused. This refusal caused him in 1804 to be evicted from the Tribunat, the legislative assembly of which he had been a member since 1800. (5) Anxious to remain independent, despite having four dependent children, be refused the post of director of the 'droits reunis' (6) in the Allier departement offered to him by the head of state. Defending his ideas caused him not only financial loss but also led to a ban on publication of the Traite.

This ban on publication is all the more regrettable since he pleads for wider diffusion of economic knowledge, as political economy should be 'everyone's business' (Say 1803 [2006], vol. 1, p. 58.). It was only after the collapse of the Empire that Say was able to re-edit his Traite. When the second edition appeared in 1814 Say had worked so hard on amending it that it was considered a different book. (7) His concern with reaching a wider public than the readers of the Traite by offering a 'familiar instruction designed to make common the main truths of political economy' (Say 1826 [1966], p. 3) led him to publish the Catechisme d'economie politique in 1815. He refused republication until he had completely reworked it. (8) In spite of republication of the Traite (9) and the Catechisme, (10) Say continued his efforts to 'popularise this science' (11) and make it accessible to readers 'in both hemispheres' (Say 1828 [1966], p. 533). He took a further step in this direction in 1828 when he published the Cours complet d'economie politique pratique, a work which, as its long subtitle indicates, is written for 'statesmen, property owners and capitalists, scholars, farmers, manufacturers, tradesmen and in general for all citizens'. …

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