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History of Political Economy 33.2 (2001) 381-382

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Book Review

The Social Economics of Jean-Baptiste Say

The Social Economics of Jean-Baptiste Say. By Evelyn L. Forget. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. xii; 311 pp. £60.00.

This volume is made up of two parts: a lengthy essay on the history of ideas, conceived in broad terms, which occupies the first 180 pages; and translations of French originals, of which the most important is Say's Olbie, an intended prize essay on the reform of public morals.

The early chapters cover a huge range of topics in intellectual history, with a particular emphasis on the modern secondary literature. This is almost entirely from the field of history, and in particular from the literature on the idéologues, which has become especially substantial in the last thirty years. Thus we have material on rationalism, psychology, physiology, the reform of the treatment of the insane, sympathy, moral education, and social order. Gender is also a theme. Thus chapter 8 “attempts to place the connection between gender and political economy into a historical context by demonstrating how a patriarchal analysis of gender and a popular justification for a market economy coexisted and reinforced one another in the writings of Jean-Baptiste Say” (92). The reader may consider, however, that there is nothing particularly remarkable in the limited comments made by Say on the role of women—not a great deal more than commonplace remarks, stressing such perhaps currently unfashionable qualities as chastity and gentleness. Indeed, as Forget concedes, there “is, of course, a danger involved in trying to discuss the analyses of gender offered by social commentators of earlier periods because it is difficult to answer the charge that one is implicitly holding these individuals responsible to the sensibilities of our own time” (96).

We have to wait until chapter 7 before we approach what would normally come under the heading of economics, and the basic thesis turns out to be this: that Say took from his association with the idéologues the idea that administrative, legislative, and educational interventions were necessary to reduce social discord, while economic equilibration should be left to the market. The idea that this is somehow special to Say is not entirely convincing. Forget acknowledges the point made by Donald Winch, that Adam Smith had a legislative program; I could find no reference to Lionel Robbins or Warren Samuels (although the index is incomplete—Ferdinando [End Page 381] Galiani is mentioned once in the text [137] but not indexed), but they earlier stressed that Smith envisaged the pursuit of economic self-interest within a framework of law, religion, and custom. All that is distinctive about Say's affirmation of the same ideas is thus its link with the idéologues. Say's appreciation of the force of these ideas must have been enhanced, too, by his firsthand and terrifying experience of the abuse of state power under Robespierre and the other revolutionaries. That Say was an economist in a distinct French tradition, with its emphasis on utility, and not the mere popularizer of Adam Smith, is not, I think, any longer in dispute. But whether his approach to the legislative framework of markets, insofar as this had French roots, resulted in anything distinctive is not so clear.

It seems fair to say that, for the most part, Say's economics seem to have owed little to the idéologue background. Thus Forget accepts that the Traité could have been written by someone who had never been in contact with that background (120; cf. 127). The treatment of value merely stresses that markets clear quickly in the absence of destabilizing government intervention (and vice versa), while the distribution theory (built around the concept of derived demand) is a straightforward corollary of the value theory. Say's most famous contribution, the law of markets, which has been most illuminatingly discussed by other writers, notably William J. Baumol, also seems independent of the peculiar French background. It is not even clear that Say's...


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