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  • Jean-Baptiste Say

Jean-Baptiste Say

Tags History of the Austrian School of EconomicsProduction Theory

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There is no security of property, where a despotic authority can possess itself of the property of the subject against his consent. Neither is there such security, where the consent is merely nominal and delusive.

Beyond some rudimentary facts, very little is available in English about the life of J.B. Say.1 He was born in Lyons, France, to middle-class Huguenot parents, and spent most of his early years in Geneva and London. As a young man, he returned to France in the employ of a life insurance company, and soon became an influential member of a group of strongly pro-free- market intellectuals.2 Indeed, Say was the first editor of La Decade Philosophique, a journal published by the group. After the Napoleonic Wars, he held a Chair of Political Economy at the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, and again, later, at the College de France. In addition to his famous Treatise, his works included Cours Complet d Economie Politique Pratique and Letters to Mr. Malthus. By means of his writing, his influence spread to Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia, Latin America, Great Britain, and the United States, in which latter country his admirers included Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. His devotion to laissez-faire principles appears to have been maintained throughout his life. Say died in Paris.

J.B. Say deserves to be remembered, especially by Austrian economists, as a pivotal figure in the history of economic thought. Yet, one finds him discussed very briefly, if at all. In fact, even Austrians have devoted little attention to Say's contributions.3

Mainstream history-of-thought texts usually mention Say only briefly, and then only in connection with his law of markets, thereby implicitly trivializing much of his work. One of the exceptions is A History of Economic Thought by Eric Roll.4 Roll treats Say with notable respect, but, unfortunately, partly because he misinterprets Say as an ancestor of modern general- equilibrium, positivistic, neoclassical economists.

In all fairness, one could argue that this lack of both attention and appreciation might be traced, at least in part, to Say himself. After all, Say did explicitly represent his work as being mainly an elaboration and popularization of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations for the benefit of continental European readers. Taking Say at his word, many economists seem never to have bothered to investigate more closely. Upon close reading of Say's principal work, A Treatise on Political Economy,5 one will find that, although Say frequently praises Smith, he also departs from Smithian doctrine on a number of important points. In fact, Say even sharply criticizes Adam Smith on more than one occasion. Rather than thinking of Say as a slight variation on Smith, it is much more accurate to recognize that these two men represent two meandering, but generally divergent, paths embedded within classical economics.

Smith leads one to David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall, Irving Fisher, John Maynard Keynes, and Milton Friedman. Say leads from A.R.J. Turgot and Richard Cantillon to Nassau Senior, Frank A. Fetter, Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard. The reader should keep in mind, however, that these two paths, or progressions, have often been circuitous and nonlinear. That is to say, J.B. Say was in a number of ways truly a precursor of the Austrian School, but one must not leap to the conclusion that he was a full-fledged Austrian who was simply ahead of his time. One should not read Say and expect, at all points, to find Mises.

  • 1. One recent book may rectify that deficiency. See R.R. Palmer, J.B. Say: An Economist in Troubled Times (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).
  • 2. This group was inspired by the work of Abb, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, and it included such men as Destutt de Tracy and Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis as well as Say.
  • 3. Of course, Murray N. Rothbard does discuss Say in detail and with great respect in Classical Economics, vol. 2, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar, 1995), pp. 3 45.
  • 4. Eric Roll, A History of Economic Thought (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, [1956] 1961).
  • 5. This was first published in French in 1803 as Traite d Economie Politique. There were five editions of this enormously popular book published during Say s life, the last being in 1826. See Jean-Baptiste Say, A Treatise on Political Economy: or the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of Wealth, C.R. Prinsep and Clement C. Biddle, trans. (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, [1880] 1971), p. 111. It has been translated into a number of other languages.

Letters to Mr. Malthus

Political Theory

04/22/1821Books
J.B. Say was a great champion of economic truth, and this is even more obvious in looking at his attempts at public persuasion.
Formats
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A Treatise on Political Economy

Political Theory

04/22/1821Books
Larry Sechrest writes of this book: "With pen and ink, Adam Smith made the entrepreneur invisible. J.B. Say brings him back to life and to the center of the stage."
Read More

All Works

Of the Demand or Market for Products

Free Markets

Blog06/28/2018

Wealth stems not from spending, but from production. Declines in production are be remedied by frugality, intelligence, activity, and freedom.

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Catechism of Political Economy

History of the Austrian School of EconomicsPrivate PropertyProduction Theory

08/30/2008Mises Daily Articles
"No benefit results from the mere expenditure of the money [on public works], nor the employment of the workmen employed on its construction; for, if this money had remained in the hands of the contributors, it would either directly or indirectly have put in activity an equal quantity of industry."
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Letters to Mr. Malthus

Political Theory

04/22/1821Books
J.B. Say was a great champion of economic truth, and this is even more obvious in looking at his attempts at public persuasion.
Formats
Read More

A Treatise on Political Economy

Political Theory

04/22/1821Books
Larry Sechrest writes of this book: "With pen and ink, Adam Smith made the entrepreneur invisible. J.B. Say brings him back to life and to the center of the stage."
Read More
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