Chapter 11: Economic Theory as Political Philosophy: The Example of the French Enlightenment
Jean Cartelier The fact that economic theory has not developed in a political vacuum tends to be forgotten today. Specialisation in a growing number of increasingly narrower ﬁelds together with a generalised use of sophisticated quantitative techniques has progressively convinced most economists that they are not even remotely engaged either with politics or with political philosophy. Some go as far as to assert that economic theory is politically neutral, notwithstanding the fact that even the most cursory examination of the history of economic thought invalidates such a thesis. Political and social crises have frequently presented economists with the occasion not only to propose practical remedies but also to develop highly abstract theories with more or less open and strong political commitments. In the middle of the 18th century, subsistence problems, taxes and the necessity of reforming the French monarchy prompted Quesnay to develop his Tableau économique. Half a century later in England, the passage of the Corn Laws, which provided for the prohibition of corn imports and thereby the maintenance of its price – that is the coexistence of landlords and capitalists – motivated Ricardo’s original and abstract theory of the rate of proﬁt and prices of production. Even Walras’ general equilibrium theory, which models a certain idea of justice, may be considered as taking a position in the political debate in France between socialists and conservatives at the end of the 19th century. Walras is viewed sometimes as a ‘scientist reformer’,1 a description which could equally apply to Quesnay....
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