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  • Economic Development in Early Modern France: The Privilege of Liberty, 1650-1820 by Jeff Horn
  • John Shovlin
Economic Development in Early Modern France: The Privilege of Liberty, 1650-1820, by Jeff Horn. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015. viii, 319 pp. $108.00 Cdn (cloth).

France was economically dynamic for much of the century preceding the French Revolution. From the Regency to the reign of Louis XVI, foreign trade expanded rapidly while colonial commerce boomed. France more than held its own as a producer and exporter of textiles, while its fashion goods dominated European markets. Major domestic shifts occurred in consumption — amounting, by some accounts, to a consumer revolution. How was this vitality sustained — or at least not blocked — by the supposedly creaking structures of French absolutism? Jeff Horn argues that what is often disparaged as the smothering interference of the Bourbon state — its tendency to foster guilds, minutely regulate industrial production, and dole out privileges — should be viewed as a carefully calibrated, and mostly successful, economic development policy.

Horn demands that we think differently about privilege. He points out that the monarchy used privileges systematically to exempt entrepreneurs from its own regulations, from the control of guilds, or from local economic directives, in order to give them the freedom to innovate. This form of intervention he terms the "privilege of liberty." Such privileges sheltered enclaves like the Faubourg Saint-Antoine in Paris or the Faubourg Saint-Sever in Rouen, which, Horn convincingly argues, were among the liveliest centres of French manufacturing in the old regime. In the foreign trade sector, the state used privileges to establish free ports, such as Marseille and Dunkirk, and low-tax zones in other ports to foster colonial re-exports. Privilege was not simply suffocating. Economic policy makers used the "privilege of liberty" to stimulate economic expansion. [End Page 333]

Privilege of the more traditional sort — what Horn rather confusingly calls the "liberty of privilege" — could also serve vital economic functions. Jean-Baptiste Colbert and his successors fostered guilds, royal manufactures, and a dense inspection regime to force woollen textile producers to raise quality standards for exports to the Ottoman Empire. This initiative was necessary to recapture French market share, and the policy proved successful. By the mid-eighteenth century, France dominated European trade to the Levant. Using privilege to foster economic development was a rational move, Horn argues, given the paucity of other policy tools available to a relatively weak state, and given the reluctance of French entrepreneurs to undertake often-necessary initiatives on their own.

Horn discerns a challenge to this successful policy regime at mid-century emanating from philosophical currents outside the administrative world that valorized a general liberty. Responding to this impulse, officials extended permission for the manufacture of printed cottons in 1758 and for the production of textiles by rural workers outside guild control in 1762. After 1775 the old system of textile inspections was largely jettisoned, manifesting new official faith in the capacity of entrepreneurs to organize production without state interference. The results were largely disappointing, Horn argues.

But understanding this policy shift as a "triumph of philosophy over expertise" is unsatisfactory (235). Horn attributes to ideas, floating free of social or political moorings, a direct (and baneful) influence on economic policy. However, as intellectual historians have shown, such ideas were often fostered by officials inside the administration and used to coax along a public expected to be suspicious of innovation. A classic instance is the commissioning of André Morellet to write a liberal critique of the Compagnie des Indes by contrôleur général Etienne Maynon d'Invau in 1769. Another is the invitation to the abbé Gabriel-Francçois Coyer to write his famous Noblesse commerçante in 1756. The key figure promoting a wider liberty in the 1750s, Jacques-Claude-Marie Vincent de Gournay, was not a philosopher but a merchant in the Spanish trade. His administrative patron, Daniel Trudaine, exemplified the pragmatic, experimental Colbertism Horn describes.

If the impetus for a policy shift came not from outside the administration but from within, what might have stimulated it? One might see the new stance as an extension of the earlier successes of the...


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