Jean-Baptiste Say on the possibility of a society without government (1819)


Extract from the lessons of political economy
given in the Athénée royale. — Translated by Benoît Malbranque

 [Archives nationales, Fonds Say, Papiers. XVI.
Cours d’économie politique donnés à l’Athénée en 1819.]

… Government is not an essential part of the organization of societies. I would ask you to note that I am not saying that government is useless; I say that it is not essential; that society can exist without it; and that if the associates were willing to do their business and to let me do mine, the society might as well function without government. Public authority is therefore an accident; it is an accident made necessary by our imprudence, by our injustice which leads us to infringe on the rights of our fellow man.

Society functions so well left on its own[1], that in three or four very serious circumstances which have arisen in France over the past thirty years[2], all the levers of power have suddenly been broken (and these are experiences which make the time in which we are, so remarkable, and so favorable to the progress of moral and political sciences). In those critical moments, there was no longer any government; those who had previously held the reins were hidden or on the run: far from claiming to give any orders, they were eager to pretend they never had the right to give them. [3]Well, in no other time have the essential functions of the social body been better executed. Everything worked as usual, better than usual. The greatest evils that we have experienced happened while we were ruled, over-ruled; either by town councils, by a public safety committee[4], by prefects, or by a central and military authority.

There are in Kentucky [5], in this new province which was formed in the United States beyond the Alleganys mountains, there are townships where a family first comes to settle; then another in the suroundings of the first; then a third; finally villages are formed, houses and children are raised there; they are dressed and fed very well, better than many households can feed their own children in the rue Jean-pain-mollet [6], and yet, oh! what an awful sight! there is no government.

What! will answer a man from Europe, born, fed, raised under the paternal administration of spies and officers[7], no government! There is always a kind of mayor who corresponds with the government. — No, Sir, there is no mayor, no one who corresponds, since this establishment is hardly what the Americans call a territory, and is not yet a State suitable for admission into the Confederation.

So I did not venture too far when I said that one could conceive of a society without government; one can do more than just conceive it; one can see it: there is no other difficulty than that of the travel …


[1] Despite his constant wish for originality, Say is using here an old phrase from the physiocrats: le monde va de lui-même (the world runs by itself), also known in its Italian form Il mundo va da se. Cf. Mirabeau, Philosophie rurale, 1764, vol. I, p. 359-360; and Mercier de la Rivière, L’ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques, 1767, p. 447.

[2] During the years of the French revolution, when the political power had a curious tendancy to slip over and over again from the hands which were holding it.

[3] Louis XVIII, later king of France, left the country in 1791 and found refuge accross Europe, in Austrian Netherlands, in Westphalia, and in the Republic of Venice.

[4] Governing body during the Terreur years of the French revolution.

[5] After Virginia or Pennsylvania, Kentucky was then receiving a lot of attention. Around 1849, this interest finally faded away, temporarily replaced by the California fever.

[6] Former street in Paris (7th arrondissement).

[7] Say refers specifically to recors, public officials who were in charge of seizures and executions.

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