Overview of the French classical liberal tradition

This overview has been designed to help you, whether for the purpose of discovering the French school of political economy, or to deepen your knowledge of a particular author. While telling the story of the French school and listing its main representatives, this overview gathers a wide selection of resources in English, allowing everyone to gain new knowledge.  B.M.

Summary :


  1. The founders of the French school of political economy (1700-1750)
  2. The Physiocrats (1755-1789)
  3. Industrialists, Idéologues and the group of Coppet (1800-1830)
  4. The school of Paris (1840-1928)

The end of the french tradition


As noted by Murray Rothbard, French economists have provided a major contribution to the development of economic theory, a fact that historians, even in France, are still failing to recognize.

The French school finds its origins in a double criticism: of mercantilist ideas on the one hand, and of France’s Ancien régime economic situation on the other hand.

Mercantilism, supported in France by Colbert and Montchrétien, argues that the wealth of nations means a positive balance in foreign trade and the accumulation of gold and silver. As such, Mercantilism finds its roots in economic ignorance and national jealousy, which are expressed in the so-called Montaigne fallacy: “The profit of one man is the damage of another; no man profits but by the loss of others.” Translated into practical reality, Mercantilism pushed forward protectionism, export subsidies, and colonial exploitation.

The French economy was then at its worst, drawing the attention of reformers and humanists from the mid-seventeenth century onwards. Farming was inefficient, crafts stagnated due to over-regulation, trade was limited by tariffs and customs barriers, and the vast majority of the country’s population was living in miserable conditions.

In the seventeenth century, a few authors initiated a criticism of protectionism and interventionism, pioneering at the same time the defense of free-market and free-trade. Sully, minister of Henri IV, is a perfect example of this development. Yet it was only with Boisguilbert and Vauban that a comprehensive economic theory was put forth.

The founders of the French school of political economy (1700-1750)

The founders of the French school of political economy studied the economy from a social perspective. Boisguilbert, Vauban and d’Argenson based their entire economic reflection on the observation of the acute misery of the Ancien régime France.


21-conclusion-portrait boisguilbertNoticing that France experienced severe economic trouble since 1660, Boisguilbert noted several causes: 1- the excessive tax burden on the common people; 2- restrictions on trade (grain trade in particular). In the first area, government intervention failed and should have been more careful, in order to remove abuses and to achieve equal taxing for all ; in the second area, the attention was unnecessary because trade must be free. Thus Boisguilbert wrote: “Too little attention has been paid to the allocation of taxes, and too much attention to the corn and liqueurs trade, which was to be dealt with by nature, as everything else. ” (Factum de la France (fr), chapter 4)

Boisguilbert coinered the term “laissez-faire”, which became renowned all over the word and is still often used in the United States to designate the free-market system (“laissez-faire capitalism”). According to Boisguilbert, in the grain trade “it was only necessary to let the nature run its course, as in everything else” (“Il n’y avait qu’à laisser faire la nature, comme partout ailleurs”). Everything, he added, would be going fine, “as long as nature runs its course, which means that we set it free, and nobody gets involved in this trade except for providing protection to all and preventing violence.” (“pourvu qu’on laisse faire la nature, c’est-à-dire qu’on lui donne sa liberté, et que qui que ce soit ne se mêle à ce commerce que pour y départir protection à tous, et empêcher la violence.”)

Numerous studies were published on Boisguilbert in 19th century France but he was eventually forgotten in the early 20th century. It was thanks to Hazel Van Dyke Roberts, who published Boisguilbert, economist of the reign of Louis XIV in 1935, that he attracted a new worldwide interest. In the past few decades, his complete works have been published in France and some of his books have been translated in Chinese. Unfortunately, there is no English edition of Boisguilbert’s writings.

VAUBAN (1633-1707)

Famous marshal, builder of fortresses and citadels, Vauban was also and this is less known — an economist. He was interested in the condition of the masses, and proposed a bold tax reform in 1695 in a short memo and then in 1707 in his Royal Tithe : his idea was to replace existing taxes by a tax proportionate to income, a flat tax. His project, inspired by his conversations with Boisguilbert and the Chinese experiments on this issue, was rejected by his contemporaries and Vauban himself was persecuted.

Besides the Royal Tithe, he wrote various pieces about the economy  that were compiled in Coppet Institute’s edition  of the Economic Writings of Vauban (fr). The economic thought of Vauban are discussed in Vauban economist (fr) by G. Michel and A. Liesse.


Very influential in the eighteenth century — inspiring Quesnay, Turgot and Adam Smith — the Essay on the Nature of Commerce in General (written in 1730 and published in 1755), was forgotten for almost a century before being rediscovered by W. S. Jevons. The book was then the object of great admiration by the Austrian school of economics (Hayek and Rothbard in particular). The Essay as a whole, can be interpreted as one of the first attempts of a general theory of the economy. Cantillon aims at identifying what might be called “general laws of economics”, laws that are in the nature of things, not the particular facts of a particular country. In this research, Cantillon also introduced several key notions for understanding the economy, as the entrepreneur, central actor of a market economy, or the “Cantillon effects”, which show why inflation causes an unfair redistribution of wealth.

Cantillon’s work has received various appreciations. F. A. Hayek emphasized its qualities and called Cantillon a distant forerunner of the Austrian School of Economics. Robert Legrand resituated Cantillon halfway between Physiocracy and mercantilism in Richard Cantillon: un mercantiliste précurseur des physiocrates (fr).


Precursor of the Physiocrats, Adam Smith and the classical economists, to whom he gave the powerful maxim “laissez faire“, the Marquis d’Argenson is still unknown and its merits as an economist are not awarded to him today. Giving account of his work is not easy. D’Argenson has only published a few articles on economic matters, and it is mainly in his memoirs that we must glean his insights on the economy. His insights, however, are all of great value, showing a  common sense that economists don’t always have. Supporter of free trade, skeptical towards state regulations on industry and agriculture, the Marquis d’Argenson marked in the history of economic thought an important milestone, initiating a liberal movement that will blossom with the Physiocrats and Turgot, and then, in the nineteenth century, with the School of Paris. The Institute Coppet has republished Le marquis d’Argenson et l’économie politique au début du XVIIIe siècle (fr) by André Alem, still to this day the only work devoted to his economic thought. In english, Arthur Ogle wrote The Marquis d’Argenson; a study in criticism (Oxford, 1893) but mainly focused on d’Argenson’s political ideas. Among the few articles published by the marquis d’Argenson, his best is without question the “Lettre au Journal oeconomique sur une dissertation du marquis de Belloni” (1751), which, incidentally, was translated in English as soon as 1754 and published under the title A Letter to the author of the Journal, concerning the Dissertation upon commerce by the Marquis Belloni.


The contribution of Vincent de Gournay is not limited to his famous saying, “laissez faire, laissez passer“. Nonetheless, it is understandable: most of the writings of this economist were lost very early, and only discovered and published in 1976 by the Japanese Takumi Tsuda. The study of these new sources indicates Gournay was one of the pioneers of free-market liberalism and the main agent of its introduction into the intellectual and administrative spheres of 18th century France. Faced with the Ancien regime’s economy, paralyzed by excessive taxation, privileges and regulations, Gournay fought for the freedom of labor, free trade and equality before the law. In his writings and as an intendant of commerce, he inaugurated the trial against guilds, privileges and regulations on economic activity, while theorizing the superiority of free labor and individual initiative. Admired by Voltaire, later held in high esteem by both the Physiocrats and their opponents, Vincent de Gournay was also the mentor of the young Turgot, who continued his work and applied his ideas when he was intendant and then minister.

The reference work on Gournay has long been Vincent de Gournay (fr) by Gustave Schelle (1897), only available in French. Since the 1980s, many studies have been published on Gournay  unfortunately, none of them outside of France (and Japon). Recently, Benoit Malbranque published Vincent de Gournay : l’économie politique du laissez faire (fr), following an overview of Gournay that appeared in Les économistes bretons (fr) (Gournay was born in Saint-Malo).

Gournay managed a circle of economists known as Gournay’s group. Benoit Malbranque has recounted its story in the review Laissons Faire (fr). This circle was responsible for a lot of economic publications in France, from the first edition of Cantillon’s Essai to other works by Gournay, Forbonnais, Coyer, etc. One of those books was translated in English : Plumard d’Angeul, Remarks on the Advantages and Disadvantages of France and Great Britain with Respect to Commerce, 1754.

The Physiocrats (1755-1789)

The Physiocrats constituted the first school of economic thought in the world, and marked the birth of the science of political economy. Not content simply with having provided the scientific basis of economics, the Physiocrats also made a considerable effort for its popularization. As Murray Rothbard pointed out, they can be considerated as the first advocates of an economic theory of free trade.


The history of Physiocracy began in 1757 with the meeting of two men. On one side is François Quesnay, a surgeon who became the personal physician of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress. The other is the Marquis de Mirabeau  — the father of French revolution statesman Mirabeau, involved in the Tennis Court Oath and National Assembly  — who became famous with his book l’Ami des hommes. The two men debated and in the end Mirabeau surrendered: he acknowledged the ideas of Quesnay. Then they will write: Quesnay produced the Tableau économique (1758), a visual representation of the flow of wealth in the economy, and the two jointly published the Théorie de l’impôt (1759). After a temporary silence, due to the royal censorship their ideas of economic freedom did not please the ministers  they recruited disciples: Dupont de Nemours, Abeille, Mercier de la Riviere, The Trosne, Baudeau. They formed a school; they had their newspaper, the Éphémérides du Citoyen, and even met on tuesdays in Mirabeau’s appartments. But from 1770 onwards, their few years of success were over and they began to loose ground. The group experienced its first defections and badly resisted to criticism. Their journal did no longer appear regularly. It was the end of the active period of the movement, which, however, continued to have an impact until the French revolution.


François Quesnay (1693-1770) is described in the history of economic thought as the leader of the first school of economic thought in the world: Physiocracy. Living in Versailles, where he worked as personal physician of Madame de Pompadour, 60-year-old Quesnay left out medical issues to focus on economic (and mostly agricultural) matters. Author of economic articles in the Encylopédie, he soon became a famous thinker, waving innovative ideas and defending natural rights and economic liberalism, breaking totally with the surrounding climate. The whole adventure of this brilliant physician, who became an advisor of princes and kings, and the revered leader of a handful of economists, is told in François Quesnay : médecin de Mme de Pompadour et de Louix XV, physiocrate, by Gustave Schelle (fr), one of the leading specialists of the french economists of the Enlightenment. At the end of the nineteenth century, the economist Yves Guyot published Quesnay et la Physiocracie (fr), a selection of the best writings of Quesnay with a long introduction where he places Quesnay at the origins of economic liberalism in France.


Early physiocrat, right-hand man for François Quesnay, the Marquis de Mirabeau was forgotten and remains in the shadow of his son, the French revolution statesman Mirabeau, to which monuments, bridges, squares and avenues were dedicated. After raising to fame with L’Ami des Hommes (1756), Mirabeau met Quesnay and sided with Physiocracy, whose economic agenda he became one of the most enthusiastic supporters.

A chapter is devoted to the Marquis de Mirabeau in Les économistes français du XVIIIe siècle (fr) by Léonce de Laverne.


Born in 1739, Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours approached the Physiocrats when he was only twenty-four. He became a close associate of Francois Quesnay, who, at the sight of both his genius and his age, placed great hopes in him. He was a zealous disciple of the doctrine of the Physiocratic school, presenting and defending its principles in many writings, including two journals he edited, the Journal de l’Agriculture, du commerce et des finances and the Éphémérides du Citoyen. A man of  great intelligence, he was associated to many prominent figures, like Turgot or Jefferson. At the end of his life he was forced into exile and found happiness in the United States, where his son founded, with paternal assistance, the Dupont Company.

The best source for a first assessment of Dupont de Nemours is the chapter that Léonce de Lavergne devotes in Les économistes français du XVIIIe siècle (fr).


Physiocrat born in Orléans, Guillaume-François Le Trosne wrote many pamphlets to defend freedom of the grain trade, including letters on the benefits of free trade in grains and a pamphlet entitled La liberté du commerce des grains, toujours utile et jamais nuisible (The freedom of the grain trade, always useful and never harmful).

This author has been considered minor in the Physiocratic school, despite his vast knowledge of the issues of law and legislation, and the quality of his defense of free trade. He has been forgotten by historians, even after Jerome Mille sought to rediscover him by composing a thesis on “a forgotten physiocrat, G.-F. The Trosne” (Un physiocrate oublié : G.-F. Le Trosne). The Coppet Institute has reissued one of its brochures : De l’utilité des discussions économiques (fr) (On the usefulness of economic discussions).

(Among the Physiocrats, we must also mention Mercier de la Rivière, author of L’ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques, and who was sent by Diderot in Russia to serve Catherine II; and Nicolas Baudeau, founder of the Éphémérides du Citoyen.)


Philosopher, economist, and statesman all at once, Turgot was a highly capable and important figure of the Siècle des Lumières. Collaborator of the Enyclopédie, close friend of Voltaire, regular correspondent of Condorcet, member despite some reservations , of the Physiocratic school, Turgot was a quite uncommon personality in the French intellectual sphere of the second half of the eighteenth century. From his intendance in Limousin to his time as minister under Louis XVI, he also left, as a statesman, a great legacy.

For an overview, both short and complete, see Turgot by Léon Say, grand-son of Jean-Baptiste Say. On his life, we have a first-hand source with the Life of Mr. Turgot, written by his friend Condorcet. Some valuable biographical information is contained in the Turgot by Léon Say, mentioned above, as well as in the Turgot chapter in L. de Lavergne’s Les économistes français du XVIIIe siècle (fr). Benoit Malbranque studied more specifically the intendance years in Limousin in Le libéralisme à l’essai : Turgot intendant du Limousin (1761-1774) (fr) (Experimenting liberalism : Turgot’s intendance in Limousin).

While working on a reedition of his Complete Works (published in 1913-1924), the Coppet Institute published separately the main economic writings of Turgot: his translation of the Reflections on the Expediency of a Law for the Naturalization of Foreign Protestants by Josiah Tucker; Mémoire sur les prêts d’argent (in which Turgot  criticize the prohibition of usury), Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses; Lettres sur la liberté du commerce des grains, Mémoire sur les mines et carrières, Lettre à l’abbé de Cicé sur le papier-monnaie, Lettre à l’abbé Terray sur la marque des fers, and finally the Éloge de Gournay, suivi des Observations sur Gournay par Montaudoin de la Touche.

Industrialists, Idéologues
and the group of Coppet (1800-1830)

As Gérard Minart emphasized in an article for Laissons Faire (fr), 1776 was a decisive year in the history of political economy. That year, while Turgot became minister and reformed the french economy, and Jefferson leaded the American revolution, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith was published in London. A few years earlier, Smith was living in France and met the Physiocrats, discussing with them about their respective theories. As an economist, Adam Smith is therefore also a part of the history of the French school.

On this aspect of Adam Smith, one can read the biographical sketch (fr) written by Jean-Gustave Courcelle-Seneuil and published in the introduction to his abridged edition of the Wealth of Nations (fr). In Laissons Faire, Benoît Malbranque focused on “Adam Smith’s translations in French” (fr) and the influence that their shortcomings have had on the development of French economic thought between the late eighteenth and early XIXth century. In French, a reference on Adam Smith is the work of Albert Delatour, Adam Smith : sa vie, ses travaux, ses doctrines (fr).


Acknowledged during his lifetime as one of the greatest economists of the century, Jean-Baptiste Say dealt with major topics for understanding the economy, such as the role of the entrepreneur, the origins of economic crises and cycles, value and prices, etc.

For a first introduction to the work of J.-B. Say, one can read « Jean-Baptiste Say, théoricien des crises et de l’action humaine » (fr) by Damien Theillier and « Jean-Baptiste Say, un Français au panthéon des économistes » (fr) by Stéphane Mozejka. For a more complete study of the economic thought of Jean-Baptiste Say, Ernest Teilhac’s L’oeuvre économique de Jean-Baptiste Say still remains to this day a major reference.

The major work of Say is of course his Treatise on Political Economy, whose first edition was published in 1803.

JB Say was very closely associated with all the great figures of political economy at that time, from the physiocrat Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours to the English writers David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus and Thomas Tooke. His economic correspondence is of greatest interest for those who want to study the debates in economic theory in the first half of the 19th century.

Jean-Baptiste Say has written extensively, including on non-economic issues such as freedom of the press (De la liberté de la presse, 1789) or morality (Olbie, ou Essai sur les moyens de réformer les moeurs d’une nation, 1800). It’s nevertheless in the field of economics that he had a considerable influence.

Say was at the origins of industrialism (see below) and his economic work has spread throughout Europe and also gained access in the United States, where his Treatise on Political Economy was used as a university textbook. Say became, after his death, a major predecessor of the Austrian school, giving solid arguments in the controversy with J. M. Keynes. More recently, Ron Paul has used Jean-Baptiste Say as an authority to explain the crisis of 2008 in an article on Lew Rockwell’s website.

Who are the industrialists? There are only two ways, said Say, for a government to increase the general wealth: enforce security and respect private property, or deprive other nations. This later system “is similar to the one followed by those who abuse their power and their abilities to get rich. They do not produce, they steal the products of others.” Say’s followers, Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, (on the latter see this study by L. Liggio) will develop this idea and will make it their best weapon against despotism. It will be taken up under the name of class struggle by Marx, altering its nature. For Say, the predator is the bureaucrat, for Marx it is the bourgeois. The liberal theory of the class struggle has emerged during the period of the Restoration, from 1817 to 1819, when two young liberal intellectuals, Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, edited the newspaper “The European Censor”; from the second issue, Augustin Thierry started working closely with them. The European Censor elaborated and spread a radical version of liberalism that Comte and Dunoyer called “industrialism.”

DESTUTT DE TRACY (1754-1836)

Theorist of Ideology, Destutt de Tracy was mocked by Napoleon, who called him an ideologue, a name that remained nonetheless to characterize the doctrine and the ambition of Destutt de Tracy and his friends (such as Cabanis and Daunou). Influenced by Condillac, the ideologists developped a subjectivist methodology and defended minimal state intervention in the economy. These ideas can be found in the Treatise on Political Economy (1823) by Destutt de Tracy.

To discover the economic thought of Destutt Tracy and the industrialists, one should read “The economics of Destutt de Tracy“, an article by Timothy D. Terrell.

Destutt de Tracy was very close to Jefferson, who used his Treatise on Political Economy as a textbook in his University of Virginia. 


The Group of Coppet, led by Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant, was at the dawn of the nineteenth century, the first European think tank dedicated to the study of freedom in all its forms. Its work focused on the problems of the creation of a constitutionally limited government, free trade, imperialism and colonialism, the history of the French Revolution and Napoleon, freedom of expression, education, culture, the rise of socialism and the welfare state. To learn more about the group of Coppet, see in French the study by Alain Laurent: « Le Groupe de Coppet. Mythe et réalité. Staël, Constant, Sismondi ».

A central member of the groupe of Coppet, Benjamin Constant is best known as a philosopher than as an economist. Promoter of the individual against the State, he stressed the difference there is between the concept of freedom in ancient and in modern times. In his ill-named Commentary on Filangieri’s Work, he defended the laissez faire in economics, putting the law in its right place, and opposing heavy taxes. As a philosopher, as a man of letters and as an economist, he was always skeptical of the government intervention and criticized politicians. In the straight line of eighteenth-century liberals and of Jean-Baptiste Say, he argued that “government functions are purely negative.”

The school of Paris (1840-1928)

As noted by Michel Leter in his article of reference, the school of Paris, from Frédéric Bastiat to Yves Guyot is the indirect successor — through the ideologues of the Physiocratic school in the eighteenth century. Built on institutions like the Société d’économie politique and Guillaumin’s publishing house,  this school was represented by two generations of economists and created what David Hart called a golden age. On subjects as diverse as money, banking, wealth distribution, patents, economic cycles, education, taxation, etc., these economists provided a great contribution.


Gilbert Guillaumin was the editor of French economists of the Paris school and the (forgotten) artisan of its development. In 1835, he began publishing with the ambition to publish economic books in particular. In 1841, he participated in the creation of the Journal des économistes, being its first director and his publisher until his death. The following year, 1842, he was among those who founded the Société d’économie politique. Guillaumin has published the work of all the great French economists of his time. Besides the Journal des économistes, he undertook several major collections: the Dictionnaire de l’économie politique (with Charles Coquelin, 2 volumes), the Annales de la Société d’Economie Politique (16 volumes), and the Collection des principaux économistes (15 volumes). 


Forgotten in France, his own country, but famous in the United States, Frédéric Bastiat is a central author in the French liberal tradition. As a political thinker, he shed a new light on the role of law and the scope of government, anticipating correctly the dreadful development of interventionism, bureaucracy and socialism. As an economist, continuing the work of his master Jean-Baptiste Say, and focusing his thoughts on the consumer, as on everything that “we do not see”, Bastiat renewed the study of such important phenomena as value, exchange, or competition. He also developed a theory of social and economic harmony, a major contribution to his eyes, which refuted the very foundations of the different forms of socialism.

The influence of Frédéric Bastiat on the economic thought of his time was considerable. Since his time, he was recognized as a master by his peers. After being forgotten in his own country in the early twentieth century, he was rediscovered in the 1960s in the United States. He became one of the intellectual references of the American right, influencing especially Ronald Reagan. In the field of economic theory, he is presented as a pioneer of the Public Choice but also of the Austrian School of Economics. Henry Hazlitt particularly praised Bastiat and wrote the introduction to the American edition of the Economic Fallacies. Recently, a children’s book was even published to teach the lessons of The Law of Bastiat.


It is mainly for his book Du crédit et des banques that we know today Coquelin. In this book he continued the analysis of authors such as Dupont de Nemours, St. Aubin and Jean-Baptiste Say, and demanded the adoption of a free banking system, where banks are free to issue bank notes, like what happened in Scotland or the United States. In this regard, Coquelin is with Jean-Gustave Courcelle-Seneuil the pioneer of a theoretical reflection still ongoing and that divides Austrian economists of our time.

Specialist of banking, Charles Coquelin was also much involved in the movement of economic science of his century. In 1840, he participated with Frédéric Bastiat, Horace Say (son of Jean-Baptiste Say), and Gilbert Guillaumin, for the creation of the Journal des Économistes; in 1848, he was the co-author of the journal Jacques Bonhomme; then, in collaboration with Guillaumin, he edited the Dictionnaire de l’économie politique (1854), a wonderful sum of economic knowledge, for which he wrote many articles such as: Banking, Capital, Traffic, Commerce, Competition, Credit, commercial crises, Exchange, Political Economy, and Industry.