- The Political Economy of Virtue: Luxury, Patriotism, and the Origins of the French Revolution
Shovlin’s impressively learned and lucid book complicates the familiar story of the history of economic thought. During the eighteenth century, this story goes, innovative theoreticians such as the French physiocrats dismantled the customary moral constraints on acquisitive motives and began to construct an autonomous realm for the economic analysis of self-interested actors maximizing their revenues in self-regulating markets. For Shovlin, the simple dichotomies, and the tacit teleology, of this heroic narrative have limited our understanding of the full range of possibilities in the economic discourse of late old regime France. In particular, in the aftermath of the traumatic setbacks of the Seven Years’ War, an array of agricultural improvers, tax and budgetary reformers, proponents of [End Page 499] a noblesse commerçante — typically, practical men from the middling elites — published their concerns about France’s capacity to compete with England. With the physiocrats, these writers promoted the liberalization of the French economy. But these same writers also continued to worry about the traditional problem of the corruption of moeurs by luxury and the increasing disparities of wealth. These two sets of concerns met, Shovlin demonstrates, in a political economy of virtue, which imagined a program of economic growth in terms of an appeal to civic honor.
By drawing attention to this eighteenth-century political economy of virtue, Shovlin also enriches the contemporary historiography of the French Revolution by bringing together the neo-Tocquevillian emphasis on ideology with the new fiscal history’s emphasis on institutions. He argues, against François Furet’s account, that the fiscal crisis of the French state in the 1780s was more than an opening through which the legacy of absolutism — an abstract literary politics — skidded out of control toward the Terror. The fiscal crisis had its own symbolic resonance that helps to explain the violence of the Revolution’s anti-aristocratic rhetoric. At the same time, the economic arguments that the patriot writers crafted in favor of small proprietors and modest consumers contributed to the development of a new conception of the democratic public sphere. To be sure, Shovlin recognizes, with the neo-Tocquevillians, that a virtuous materialism of small proprietors and modest consumers could make a conducive setting for the democratic despotism of Bonaparte and Brumaire. But he also recognizes, with historians like Victoria Thompson and James Livesey, that the virtuous marketplace of patriot political economy could form the basis for an alternative to Anglo-American individualism and a distinctive French pathway into economic modernity.
Charles R. Sullivan is currently writing about the imaginative literature and political economy of eighteenth-century Scotland and is associate professor of history at the University of Dallas.