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History of Political Economy 32.3 (2000) 696-697
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Rousseau’s Economic Philosophy:
Beyond the Market of Innocents
Rousseau’s Economic Philosophy: Beyond the Market of Innocents. By Bertil Fridén. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1998. 167 pp. $98.00.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was undoubtedly an important figure in Enlightenment thought, but what little he had to say about economics has generally been ignored or treated as an embarrassment. This book argues that his economic philosophy deserves to be taken more seriously than it has been.
Rousseau’s scattered comments on economic issues have often been seen as mutually inconsistent. Fridén adopts a tactic of gathering material from Rousseau’s diverse writings, dealing with apparent inconsistencies by what he calls a “positional reading.” Rousseau’s writings, he argues, were tailored to an immediate purpose and a planned readership. His proposals for Poland, for example, were addressed to Polish nobles (in response to a request) and therefore address the question, What changes might the nobility reasonably be expected to consider? His apparently conflicting proposals for Corsica were addressed to a nationalist movement on an island which had been ruled by outsiders and could be seen as a constitutional tabula rasa. Fridén also draws a distinction between “basic” judgments, which would not be changed whatever the facts of the case, and “non-basic” judgments, which apply to particular cases. Rousseau’s advocacy of autarchy and self-subsistence is a nonbasic judgment, since autarchy can only succeed when the population is small. A successful policy of autarchy (in Corsica, for example) would allow the population to rise over time and thus eventually compel a change in policy. Fridén is able to account for many of the apparent inconsistencies in Rousseau’s writings in this way.
Rousseau held a consistently negative view of the market. He argued, for example, that it is better to produce for oneself, since goods bought in the market may be of low quality. Fridén links this to modern information economics (e.g., [End Page 696] Akerlof’s “lemons”), but it is hard to see anything so sophisticated in Rousseau’s position. He also claimed that the market is stacked against peasants, a claim that Fridén calls “the iron law of peasant misery.” Peasants were indeed taxed very heavily in France—this was the main point of physiocratic criticism of the existing system—but Rousseau went on to argue that peasants suffered twice because they were forced to sell straight away in order to pay rent and taxes and could not hold supplies back to get a better price. What is one to make of this argument? If peasants have to sell some of their produce to pay taxes, then the market price will clearly be lower than if they had kept it for themselves. On the other hand, Rousseau’s claim that prices will be forced down simply because peasants cannot wait before selling looks weaker than Fridén is willing to admit. Whether the corn trade is competitive or monopolistic, it is hard to see why the (average of the present value of) price should depend on when (within the year) the peasant sells.
Rousseau’s most surprising and implausible claim was that corn was peculiar in that the quantity could fall without the price rising (la quantité diminue, sans que le prix en augmente). Fridén produces an ingenious but I think unsustainable rationalization. He argues that the amount peasants are forced to sell to cover rent and taxes dwarfs what they voluntarily sell on their own account. In a bad year the amount put on the market is therefore little changed and the price rises very little (although not, as Rousseau claimed, zero). The problem with this argument is that it assumes that peasants have to sell a fixed amount of corn to meet their obligations, but most peasants were sharecroppers, whose corn rent falls in proportion to the crop, while the corn equivalent of a money rent or tax falls as the price of corn rises...