Hazel Van Dyke Roberts, Boisguilbert: economist of the reign of Louis XIV, Preface, (ed. 1935, p.vii-x). This book will be published by the éditions de l’Institut Coppet in september 2016.
The writings of Boisguilbert should have a peculiar interest for all students of the social sciences. For the political scientist there is an intimate view of the working of a political system. In a world in which it has become fashionable to decry the ineptitude of democracy, it is not amiss to see set forth the indifference to the general welfare and the corruption of absolutism and the depths to which it can sink. At the same time, principles of government are enunciated which are yet to be put into practice.
The sociologist may find a contemporary record of much of the life and poverty of the masses, a life in which the amenities of the community were disrupted by suspicion and hatred toward one’s neighbors. He may find an ideal of voluntary submission of the individual to the group, not for the purpose of subordinating the individual to the State, but to prevent the oppression of any class.
The historian who “has not read these pages scintillating with irony, this eloquent accusation where passion is placed in the service of justice and reason, knows only imperfectly the France of the seventeenth century. If history is more than the recital of battles, or the biography of princes and their ministers, or even than a picture of letter and of arts; if it wishes to see brought to life the people whose annals it retraces, and is not content with some brilliant personalities, it is indeed in Boisguilbert, as in a perfect mirror, that the image of that unhappy society must be sought. None has thrown more light on this sad past; none has better depicted, in order to flay it, in order to enlighten and to save his fellow citizens, the wretched financial system of the fatherland of the Corneilles and of the Racines, of the Pascals and of the Bossuets, that world of which it has been said with a great felicity of expression that heaven seemed to produce great men only to have bad institutions patiently accepted.”
For the economist he is an example of one who saw the significance of the details of the business of everyday life, little of which escaped his keen observation; who set forth these details with meticulous care, yet who was never lost in them; who reasoned so clearly with respect to them that they were marshaled to form a perfect whole. This whole is the magnificent conception of economic interdependence, which the world has not yet fully grasped. But there is not only the idea of economic interdependence: intimate relationship is also shown to exist between the political and economic life of a people. “However important are the qualities of the climate and the soil of a country… in determining its wealth… the skill or the errors of those who govern contribute not less to it than does nature.” Boisguilbert “merits truly, as a thinker, to be called the Christopher Columbus of the economic world.” “In his writings are found posited the expression of the fundamental principles of the science.” Indeed it may be said that the economist who has not at least a bowing acquaintance with Boisguilbert lacks a knowledge of the richest single source of his own field of thought, and the statesman who does not know him is ignorant of one who set forth some of the profoundest ideas of practical government and the noblest ideals of statesmanship.
It is not without reason that, from Mirabeau on, the few who have known Boisguilbert’s writings well have been characterized by enthusiasm for him; for “a citizen whose simplicity caused him to be neglected in a dazzling age, and to whom posterity must render the homage merited.” When Félix Cadet refers to him as “my hero” it is understandable, as is the fact that I. E. Horn’s study, L’Économie politique avant les physiocrates, is so largely devoted to him.
His writings still richly reward one for the time spent upon them. With the developing concern for the price parities and the circulation of income his thought takes on a renewed interest. There is, in truth, a curious similarity between much that is being said and written about present-day economic difficulties and what he wrote so long ago. Leaving out of consideration his language, and taking into account the economic development of his time, it is obvious that his ideas are fundamentally modern. It is this which leads me to an appreciative exposition of his writings rather than to a critical analysis of them. The latter would lead to a history of static and dynamic theory and statistical development. Indeed Boisguilbert lends himself to interpretation rather than to negative criticism. He goes the long was around at times, but, as Horn says, if he departs from the right track, he nevertheless arrives at the correct place. Again, he covers so much ground that it would appear little short of ungracious to criticize him for omissions, viewed in the light of developments in economic thought over a period of more than two centuries. Fully to be appreciated he must be considered in relation to his time, and to his purpose, which was not to write a formal exposition of economic theory, but to awaken a politically, economically, and socially decadent people.
Especial emphasis has been placed upon Boisguilbert’s own descriptions of trade restraints and their effects, because the student of economics who is not familiar with these restraints and their effects in seventeenth-century France has but the vaguest idea as to the origin of the theory of laissez faire. Properly to be appreciated it must be seen, not as of spontaneous origin, but as the expression of a protest against impossible restrictions and conditions.
In spite of efforts to eliminate repetitions, many are unavoidable. This is due to Boisguilbert’s own informal development of theory, which is interjected, as it were, in what was intended only to be an explanation of the current economic problems, and due to the fact that he saw them all as interrelated. Thus it is impossible, for instance, to separate his theories of trade and of money without some overlapping, as is the case with value, rent, and laissez faire, while they are all tied up with his theories of taxation and fiscal administration.
Because of the nature of the context, translations have been made as literal as is possible in reasonably clear English. Where any especially free translation has been resorted to the French has been given. The only liberty which has been taken which is not shown in the text is the breaking up of Boisguilbert’s interminable and involved sentences wherever this has seemed desirable and possible. Perhaps I should add that I have quoted freely because Boisguilbert’s own writings are not accessible to many readers.
Acknowledgment is gratefully made to Professor Wesley C. Mitchell for his painstaking reading of the manuscript and his suggestions, and to Professor H. Parker Willis and Professor Emeritus Edwin R. A. Seligman for their criticisms and encouragement. Professor Seligman, especially, was under no obligation to perform what may well have been an onerous task. It would have been difficult, however, not to seek his advice on a historical work dealing so largely with public finance. I have developed the material, however, in my own way, and in so far as any part of the study is controversial I absolve them of any responsibility for the views set forth.
Finally, I should be remiss if I failed to mention the fortitude of my family and of my friends, who have patiently endured Boisguilbert’s idiosyncrasies while I have been striving to understand them.
April 1, 1935
H. V. R.