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History of Political Economy 36.1 (2004) 1-29
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"The Equilibrium Is Never Perfect":
The Dynamic Analysis of C.-F.-J. d'Auxiron
Richard van den Berg and Gurjeet Dhesi
During the second half of the eighteenth century the proper management of the economy became an issue of increasing public interest in France. The number of publications dealing with economic topics, defined widely, grew manifold. In many cases books and pamphlets were motivated by general concerns about rural underdevelopment, institutional ossification and social flux, fiscal mismanagement, and colonial underachievement. Men with widely different professional backgrounds joined the debate about the state of the French economy: clergymen, lawyers, administrators, military men, doctors, and engineers, among others.1
Most commentators from the period believed that the economy needed a certain amount of regulation. But given the extensive size of the economic literature of the ancien régime, it should come as no surprise that there was room for dissenters. Indeed, a small minority contended that the economy was a largely self-regulating system that did not require much government intervention beyond the guarantee of private property. It is in particular in these texts espousing the doctrine of laissez-faire that [End Page 1] theories of the emerging market economy were developed. The most famous works from this period are doubtless those of François Quesnay, who between 1756 and 1767 produced his tableaux économiques and many other articles, and the writings of Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, whose Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth was published in 1769–70.
From the same period dates a rarely noted attempt to analyze the market economy as an interrelated and self-regulating whole, namely Principes de tout gouvernement (1766) by the engineer C.-F.-J. d'Auxiron. Like his more famous contemporaries, Auxiron was primarily interested in economic growth and intersectoral exchange. Central to his highly original theory was a dynamic analysis describing the reestablishment of equilibrium after the economy experiences a sectoral disequilibrium due to an external shock. Remarkably, Auxiron employed mathematics to analyze this problem and by doing so became the first economic writer to present calculations that describe a process of oscillation toward new equilibrium values.
This article discusses Auxiron's unique analysis in the following order. Section 1 provides a biographical sketch of this largely unknown author. In section 2 the basic economic model presented in Principes is examined. A mathematical reformulation of Auxiron's model is presented in section 3. Section 4 concludes.
1. Life of an Unsuccessful Pioneer
No complete biographical account of the eventful life of Claude-François-Joseph count d'Auxiron exists. The versatility of this engineer and economist is underlined by the very fact that each of the few sources about his life recounts only a part of his achievements. Auxiron was born in Besançon on 31 May 1731, the son of Doctor Jean-Baptiste d'Auxiron and Anne-Elisabeth Maire.2 His father (c.1680–1760) neglected [End Page 2] medicine, devoting much of his time to applied mathematics.3 Auxiron was educated at the école d'artillerie in Metz, where he studied mechanics and sciences (see Jouffroy d'Abbans 1881). For some time he served in the Austrasian regiment and later as captain in the artillery regiment of the legion of Lorraine. However, unable to pursue his intellectual interests while holding these positions, he resigned from the army and settled in Paris. There he pursued with little success a somewhat adventurous career as writer and inventor. Neither rich nor well connected, he does not seem to have gained access to the more famous philosophical salons where a man of his talents could have built up a reputation. Nevertheless, he enthusiastically embarked on a variety of projects, occupying himself successively with the improvement of the water supply of Paris, economic theory, and, finally, steam navigation.
The improvement of Paris's water supply to which Auxiron devoted his earliest publication was a long-standing issue (see Figuier 1862). On 13...