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History of Political Economy 33.2 (2001) 193-218
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Jean-Baptiste Say and Spontaneous Order
Evelyn L. Forget
During the eighteenth century, a set of profoundly new ideas that would later be identified as “spontaneous order” began to emerge in British social theory. The label captures two notions. First, in any period of time during which institutions are given, the market tends toward an order in response to individual self-regarding behavior such that each individual is led by an invisible hand to advance the social interest without knowing it or desiring it. Second, and much more profoundly, spontaneous order suggests that over the centuries social institutions emerge and evolve in a gradual and unplanned way as a response to individual self-interested behavior. Those institutions survive that are, somehow, successful, while others are gradually transformed or wither away altogether.
Earlier ideas of natural order that posited a human society modeled on divine and eternal principles and operating under the oversight, if not the direction, of a deity began to be challenged by these arguments, which slowly and imperfectly and often inconsistently began to appear in the [End Page 193] context of the Scottish Enlightenment. Friedrich Hayek (1978), Knut Haakonssen (1981), and others have identified this development with Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith. From these rich sources, Hayek claims, emerged a new kind of social theory that he and others after him referred to as the “theory of spontaneous order” (see Hamowy 1987).1 The message was quickly assimilated, and by the end of the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, Josiah Tucker, William Paley, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Thomas Malthus, among many others, could all be found arguing that the various activities of any society, especially but certainly not exclusively its economic activities (Haakonssen 1981, 12–35), arise in a gradual and unplanned manner as a consequence of individual self-regarding behavior.2
Jean-Baptiste Say, while clearly aware of the writing of Smith (Forget 1993; Hashimoto 1980, 1982), builds a coherent social analysis that accepts, to some extent, the idea of spontaneous order within the context of the marketplace, but emphatically rejects the idea that social institutions evolve and develop as an unplanned response to the uncoordinated behavior of many discrete and self-interested agents. Instead, he develops a version of “organicism” that portrays society as a “social body” or single organism, and assigns a much more significant role to legislators and administrators than does, for example, Smith. This essay attempts to determine how, precisely, Say's social thought differs from the ideas of spontaneous order beginning to establish themselves in Scotland. There were rather distinct social and political differences between France and Britain during the period that might have influenced the extent to which [End Page 194] either society was receptive to these ideas, but my concern in this essay is with purely intellectual matters. What was it in Say's thinking that resisted a set of ideas, of which he was certainly aware, that was proving so attractive across the channel?
This essay addresses four questions. First, what textual evidence exists for my claim that Say did not fully incorporate the evolutionary concept of spontaneous order into his social analysis? Second, why did Say choose not to adopt such a key Smithian concept? Third, how does Say's treatment of spontaneous order relate to his well-known claims that “wealth is independent of the nature of government” and that the science of political economy is not a branch of the science of the legislator (Say 1803, ii)? And fourth, is there any evidence that Say's thought underwent a transition over his lifetime such that spontaneous order played a greater role in his more mature thought than it did in 1803?
My argument, in brief, is that Say was quite aware of the idea of spontaneous order in the marketplace, canonically represented by Smith's invisible hand. But he constrained it to the marketplace, building his society instead upon the ideas that had come to him in various forms from the physiocrats...