All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1998

J.-B. Say: An Economist in Troubled Times

Insight into Say's Thoughts on Economics, Politics, History, and Culture

Aaron Steelman is a reporter with Investor’s Business Daily.

Jean-Baptiste Say is best known as the formulator of “Say’s Law”—the dictum that overproduction can never be more than a transitory phenomenon—and as a popularizer of the ideas of Adam Smith. But he was much more than that. Indeed, he made important contributions to several branches of economic thought and in many ways was a more sophisticated thinker than Smith.

In J.-B. Say: An Economist in Troubled Times, R. R. Palmer, author of the monumental two-volume work Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, has collected and translated a number of Say’s writings that have never before appeared in English. Together, they lend further insight into Say’s thoughts on economics, politics, history, and culture.

The book is divided into six roughly chronological sections. Readers of The Freeman will likely find sections three and four— “The Frustrated Economist” and “The Innovative Economist”—of considerable interest, since they contain numerous selections from the first edition of Say’s Treatise on Political Economy, which was suppressed by Napoleon at the time of publication. Through these writings we learn of Say’s views on natural law, subjective value, economic regulation, free trade, and methodology.

According to Say, despots who believe they can produce a desired outcome through legislation and brute force do not understand how the world works. “Political Economy, like the exact sciences,” writes Say, “is composed of a small number of fundamental principles and a great many corollaries that follow from these principles. . . . These principles are not the work of men; they derive from the nature of things. They are not established; they are found. They govern lawmakers and princes, who never violate them with impunity.”

Say also argues that it is an error for his fellow social scientists to employ the methods of physicists, chemists, and other physical scientists. “Since values . . . are subject to human will, abilities, and needs they are within the domain of moral science. And this, let it be said in passing, is why it is superfluous to apply algebraic formulas to demonstrations in Political Economy. None of its quantities is susceptible to exact estimation.”

He warns policymakers that economic regulation often harms its intended beneficiaries, and that once one intervention is permitted, there can no longer be principled objections to others. “Nothing is more dangerous than views that lead to regulation of the use made of properties,” argues Say. “To do so is as bold as trying to regulate the innocent use that a man might make of his own hands and faculties, which are also a form of property. If the authorities can require an employer to pay a certain wage, they can require the worker to perform a certain labor. With such a system slavery reappears.”

Despite such a strong indictment of statist regulatory schemes, Say, like many of his classical liberal contemporaries, was not a pure free marketeer. Indeed, in this book we learn, for example, of his support for government schools and of French imperialism in Egypt. His writing in favor of the latter is a chauvinistic embarrassment.

Palmer’s collection captures Say’s views on many other noteworthy topics, including the British Corn Laws, the oppression of the Irish by the English, and the supposed damaging effects of population growth (which foreshadow the arguments he would make against Thomas Malthus two decades later). In addition, it contains correspondence between Say and Thomas Jefferson, Say’s most important supporter in the United States.

Jean-Baptiste Say was a great and original thinker, whose wisdom has been under-appreciated for almost two centuries. Interventionists and classical liberals alike would do well to consult this collection of his writings and remember his admonition that nations “are not nourished by the men charged with governing them, but by the men of whom nations are made. That is where the thought and the action by which society subsists are lodged.”