Economic Science at the Time of the French Revolution

The Perfectibility of Human Societies: Between Utopias and Reforms

The English ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 took place with practically no bloodshed and, albeit marking a radical change in the political order, producing no drastic break in continuity for the English institutions. On the contrary, the French Revolution of 1789, and especially the radicalisation it subsequently went through, once again, and in dramatic terms, found social scientists faced with two crucial issues. First, can a change in institutions lead to a better society? Second, if the change has a cost in terms ofviolence and bloodshed, do the advantages that may be reaped justify these costs?

In the eighteenth century the tradition of the Enlightenment gave a more or less positive answer to the first question: intervention guided by reason may favour social progress, which in any case remains the direction human history tends to move in. The second question, on the other hand, was commonly left aside.

We also have different answers to the first question: the conservatives held endeavours to foster social progress futile, opposing the revolutionaries, who held radical change a necessity, also for the political institutions, often referring to Utopian models of ideal societies, frequently characterised by forms of collectivism extending not only to control over means of production but also and above all to the customs of everyday life. As a literary genre Utopian writings had been circulating since the late sixteenth century, side by side with another stream of writings providing accounts of travels in faraway lands, often invented and in fact very often romanticised, in any case illustrating forms of social organization strikingly different from the European ones. The rationalistic spirit of the Enlightenment encouraged intellectuals to consider human intelligence able to design institutional systems surpassing those inherited from history; some


went so far as to assert the right and indeed the duty to impose their implementation in the face of resistance by conservative rulers or ignorant masses.

The tradition of the Scottish sociological Enlightenment was also favourable to institutional changes: for instance, we may recall Smith’s fight against the remnants of feudalism. However, this was not a matter of a priori designs for ideal institutions but rather indications on possible improvements to the existing institutions. Trust in reason is, moreover, tempered by two elements: the liberal idea, maintained by Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that each is the best judge of his own interests; and a non-idyllic, although basically optimistic, vision of human nature, open to a certain amount of scepticism extending to the true abilities and motivations of rulers. In turn, this implied diffidence, if not hostility, towards projects for revolutionary change inspired by theoretical models of ideal societies. This position was substantially shared by the exponents of Neapolitan Enlightenment, such as Galiani and Genovesi, as also by the Tuscan intellectuals, mainly concerned with agrarian reforms, and a Milanese circle including Verri and Beccaria, and some exponents of the French Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, Turgot or the marquis of Condorcet (1743-1794).

It is in fact in pre-Revolutionary France that we have an interesting example of confrontation between reformist and conservative theses in the clash that saw Necker versus Turgot and subsequently Condorcet versus Necker.

Turgot, the Minister of Finance from 1774to 1776, tried to implement reforms aiming at abolishing feudal constraints (restrictions on free trade in agricultural produce, corporatist regulations on labour and productive processes) and improving social policies for the poor. Jacques Necker (1732-1804), a banker, political opponent of Turgot and the last Minister of Finance before the Revolution, by contrast, considered the indigence of the poor as a fact of nature resulting from the tendency of population growth to exceed the growth of production of means of subsistence.

Reacting to theses such as Necker’s, Condorcet (who belonged to the circle of the Encyclopaedists and a mathematician renowned for his foundational studies on probability theory applied to social sciences) maintained that the problems of contemporary society stemmed not from the forces of nature but from human institutions: therefore, measures of institutional reform might influence economic and civil progress. Like Smith, Condorcet supported public interventions in favour of universal education; he also advocated schemes for collective insurance against accidents and to guarantee an income to the old. More generally, like Smith, he maintained that political liberty and social integration of the poor favoured economic development. Condorcet was among those progressive intellectuals who played leading roles in the early phases of the French Revolution only to fall prey to the Terror, whose exponents saw moderate reformism as an enemy possibly even worse than conservatism itself.

As a reaction to the radicalisation of the French Revolution, there was also radicalisation in the opposition to change. The reformist currents, squeezed between the extremism of revolutionary Terror and the conservative reaction, lost ground, to recover some of it only half a century later, with the cooperative movement in England and with John Stuart Mill, but once again to find themselves hemmed in between revolutionary radicalism (Marx and perhaps more importantly the Paris Commune) and conservative reaction.

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