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Anne Robert Jacques Turgot And His Relevance To The French Revolution

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Anne Robert Jaques Turgot, baron l' Aulne, was born in Paris on May 10, 1727 to a noble French family of Normandy. Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, who had furnished the state with numerous public officials, Turgot would achieve public renown as Intendent of Limoges and later as Controller General of all France. Although Turgot ended his public career in unfortunate circumstances, being dismissed by Louis XVI for ineffectiveness, his political theories became a major influence in the remaining years of the Old Regime. The depth of Turgot's economic thought was not recognized at the time because it largely went against what the ruling aristocracy wanted to hear. His clairvoyance is much more fully noted in light of the last two centuries. Furthermore, Turgot was one of the King's last controller-generals before the French Revolution ended the monarchy. When his political and economic ideals are considered against this backdrop their importance as well as their contradictory nature become apparent.

Turgot's main contribution to economic theory is his Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Riches. Apart from this short but highly systematic account of the nature of economic development, Turgot's other relevant writings are sparse and far from cohesive. Since this paper will consider his economics with regard to his political thought, only Turgot's theories on the nature of government influence, free trade, and taxes will be examined. Furthermore, an explanation of Turgot's theory on administration will be provided. In gaining an understanding of Turgot's political and economic thought a powerful example of the problems that manifested themselves in the revolution is provided. Turgot was the model of an enlightened, reform-minded administrator and this may be glimpsed in the liberality of his economic ideas. However, while he certainly advised reforms in administration, they were simply intended so that the King could more effectively centralize political power.

Laissez-Faire and Free Trade:

As a young man Turgot was very close to Claude Marie Vincent, the Marquis de Gournay. Vincent was not only a friend but also Turgot's mentor in economics and administration. It is in tribute to Vincent that after his death Turgot developed his ideas on laissez-faire government in a paper called, the "Elegy to Gournay" (1759). Within this paper Turgot condemns the foolishness of mercantilist regulation of industry while expounding the benefits of free domestic and foreign trade following from the presence of free exchange.

In a detailed analysis of the market process, Turgot writes that self-interest is the prime mover in the market process and that in a free market the individual interest must always coincide with the general interest. It can be assumed that the buyer will purchase from the seller who will give him the lowest price for the most suitable product. Furthermore, sellers will naturally sell their best merchandise at the highest competitive price. Conversely, Turgot says that when governmental restrictions are present, consumers are compelled to buy inferior goods at higher prices. Only by free exchange can sellers be assured the profit needed to match production while at the same time providing the consumer with the best goods at the lowest prices. Governments are present not to interfere with the market but to protect citizens from injustice and to ensure national security against foreign menace.

Turgot did allow that it was possible for the consumer to get cheated by a fraudulent seller. However, Turgot says that common sense will provide the remedy because it is logical that the cheated consumer will learn from his experience and respond by not returning to the dishonest merchant. Word will spread of the sellers fraudulence and he will fall into discredit and be weeded out of the market. The market has thus solved its own problem through the logical sequence of rational consumers protecting their individual interests. On the other hand to think that government would be able to prevent such malpractice through regulation is foolish. It would certainly not be able to handle every instance of fraud and as it is compelled to regulate more and more the progress of industry would suffer.

Turgot also touched on the subject of taxation by calling for a single tax on the "net product" of the land. Turgot feelings on taxation are found in more an outline than a paper called "Plan for a Paper on Taxation in General" written in 1763. He felt that taxes on towns tended to shift backward to agriculture and illustrated how taxation crippled commerce. Taxes on capital destroyed accumulated thrift and seriously hampered industry. Turgot, therefore, advocated a single land tax. Unfortunately, Turgot's tax theories concentrated on the destructive forms and largely avoided discussing the supposed merits of the single land tax.

Turgot's preceding ideas are largely in accordance with Physiocrat teaching. The Physiocrats were a group of enlightened economic reformers whose theories of loosening government restriction and imposing a single land tax became popular in the 1760's. While Turgot is largely in agreement in this area, it is important to notice, in passing, that in other economic spheres Turgot often breaks with and improves Physiocrat doctrines. To label him just another land-productivity theorist in the mold of the Physiocrats is a grave injustice. However, for our purposes, one may make that connection.

It is fundamentally important to understand Turgot's laissez-faire ideals in conjunction with his place in history. In a time of mounting economic crisis in France, Turgot liberal economics were fresh and exciting. That they did not succeed was due not to their faultiness as a whole but rather to opposition in the parlements and bad harvests. The proposal of the single land tax was of course alarming and disagreeable to the land-owning nobility and they voiced their disapproval in the assemblies. Furthermore, bad harvests had risen grain prices and aroused popular unrest against his freeing of the grain trade from government restriction. The main idea in Turgot's theory was that if the government would allow people to pursue their own freely chosen goals economic progress would inevitably result. This idea was captured and implemented in later generations through the writings of classical economists such as Adam Smith. Turgot's economics promised a better life for the poorer classes in French society and the expansion of their freedom through weakening the central government. His political ideas promised a



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