Adam Smith and French Political Economy: Parallels and Differences

As is well known, Adam Smith spent about two years in Europe, most of it in France. It was in fact during his stay in Toulouse that he began to work on what became The Wealth of Nations (WN); but what proved decisive for the deepening of his understanding of market processes were his encounters in Paris with Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron d’Holbach), Claude Helvetius, Jean d’Alembert, André Morellet, Jacques Necker, and especially his discussions with Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot and François Quesnay. (Quesnay was universally regarded as the leader of the so-called Physiocrats, who, in addition to Quesnay, included Pierre-Paul Le Mercier de la Rivière, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours and Turgot but the latter did not rigidly subscribe to the core dogmas of that school.) Although no one denies that Smith was profoundly influenced by these encounters, the question of precisely what debt Smith owed to these thinkers is not central to my purpose here. It is, indeed, a controversial one. Roberts (1935), for example, argued that Smith drew heavily from the writings of Pierre Le Pesant de Boisguilbert whom he would have known through later writers; Du Pont de Nemours and the Marquis de Condorcet, on the other hand, suggested that anything of value in Smith’s WN could be found in what Turgot had written (Groenewegen 1968, p. 271). But this question is probably impossible to answer categorically, partly because Smith’s manuscript notes were destroyed after his death. To talk about an intellectual debt is to put the matter in terms that are too narrow and could be only of interest to erudite biographers.

What I propose to do is to paint in broader strokes the parallels—some intentional, some not—and the significant differences between Smith’s own thought and the French political economists who immediately preceded Smith (and some who immediately followed him)—what Joseph Schumpeter (1954, p. 492) called the ‘French tradition’ or, in any event, its most prominent representatives. My intention, in other words, is not to write an intellectual biography of Adam Smith but to use this investigation as a means of better appreciating the original contributions he made to economic theory and moral philosophy—as well as the less convincing aspects of his reflections—by setting them in a larger context where similar ideas where emerging. The first French political economists advanced a flurry of novel ideas, some of which were arguably more perspicacious than those of Smith. In the end, Smith’s talents in articulating a (more or less) coherent and imposing vision of the balancing of human drives and enterprising spirit stands out. But this should not prevent us from considering whether and to what extent some parts of his system turn out to have been no better and, occasionally, less well analyzed than they had been by his French contemporaries or immediate successors. Indeed some historians of economic thought, most notably Joseph Schumpeter (1954) and Murray Rothbard (1995), have gone as far as claiming that Smith did not contribute any new idea to the fledging political economy of his era. In the same vein, Henry Macleod (1896, p. 73) wryly noted that

Smith’s work and Condillac’s were published in the same year. Smith obtained universal celebrity in a very short time. Condillac’s was universally neglected, but yet in scientific spirit it is infinitely superior to Smith.

The challenge I face here is to take this charge seriously while also trying to be fair to Smith. In the next section, I trace the parallels and differences between Smith and the French political economists who preceded him in their attempts to understand markets as autonomous, spontaneous processes of coordination among myriad producers and consumers. Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ metaphor is very apt and telling but the idea behind it can be traced back much farther in time than Smith’s writings. In section II, I turn to a comparison between Smith’s labour theory of value and the French tradition’s more subjectivist approach. In section III, I underline the French political economists’ more perceptive views on the role of the entrepreneur whose presence is not quite as noticeable in Smith’s writings. Finally, in the concluding section, I identify the aspects of Smith’s political economy and moral philosophy that, on balance, stand out as unique contributions in spite of the weaknesses identified above, and briefly discuss the impact of the WN on the French political economists who read and reacted to it.