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History of Political Economy 33.2 (2001) 378-381

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Book Review

The Foundations of Laissez-Faire:
The Economics of Pierre de Boisguilbert

The Foundations of Laissez-Faire: The Economics of Pierre de Boisguilbert. By Gilbert Faccarello. London and New York: Routledge 1999. 198 pp. $85.00.

Consider the following:

All the commerce of the land, both wholesale and retail, and even agriculture, are governed by nothing other than the self-interest of the entrepreneurs, who have never considered rendering service nor obligating those with whom they contract through their commerce; and any innkeeper who sells wine to passers-by never intended to be useful to them, nor did the passers-by who stop with him ever travel for fear that his provisions would be wasted. It is this reciprocal utility which makes for the harmony of the world and maintains states; each man thinks of procuring the greatest degree of individual interest with the greatest ease possible, and when he travels to purchase a commodity four leagues from his home, it is because it is not sold three leagues away, or else that it is cheaper, which compensates for the longer journey.

Consistent with best practice, let us produce a lexicon of key words and phrases included in the above—self-interest, entrepreneurs, reciprocal utility, harmony of the world, greatest degree of individual interest with the greatest ease possible.

What are we dealing with? Is this extract an early draft of the Wealth of Nations, or could it be some newly discovered lecture notes from those given by Adam Smith in his Glasgow lectures? The parallels with Smith are striking. Enlightened homo [End Page 378] economicus motivated by his own self-interest produces a harmony of interest for society. Surely this must be Smith.


Well, alternatively, are we dealing with some post-Smithian writer with a utilitarian bent of mind? Wrong again. The author of this extract was writing a century earlier. If this is the case, why have we not heard about him? He was French. Ah! I see. A pity that he did not write in English. Perhaps, but did the French not invent the term laissez-faire and was this author not the first economic writer to use it? Touché. Touché, indeed. It is time to deal with Pierre de Boisguilbert, whose economic writings were edited and published in 1966, by Jacqueline Hecht.

Gilbert Faccarello has analyzed Boisguilbert's economic contributions in French (1986), and now this work has been translated into English as The Foundations of Laissez-Faire: The Economics of Pierre de Boisguilbert. This book opens up a Pandora's box showing the emerging strength of early French theorizing and the extent to which later writers such as Smith were so dependent on it. The so-called cottage industry of economic theorizing prior to the Wealth of Nations appears a great deal more sophisticated when one examines the French influence emerging through Boisguilbert, the Franco/Irish Richard Cantillon, François Quesnay, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, and a host of others. Indeed the quality of their work begs the question as to whether Smith was just reflecting the synthesis of his reading of these works or being outstandingly original. The above extract shows that when it came to analyzing the role of self-interest and its harmonious outcome for society, Boisguilbert had already expressed the approach just as eloquently.

What are the foundations of laissez-faire? Here Jansenism becomes excitingly mixed with liberalism. The stern purists of Port Royal, the center of French Jansenism, suddenly have a role to play in the development of modern capitalism. Let's mix God with mammon. The filiation stretches back to St. Augustine, but reaches its peak in the works of the Jansenistic writers Pierre Nicole and Jean Domat. These, according to Faccarello, are two of the main influences on Boisguilbert. He quotes from Nicole's De l'éducation d'un prince (1670) to show the way this Jansenistic writer influenced Boisguilbert on the role of “cupidity”: “Think what charity would be required to...


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pp. 378-381
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