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Sep 1, 1978

Individualism, Property, and Revolt

“The radical thrust of the Physiocrats’ insistence on the sanctity and inviolability of private property spurred on the individualism of the French Revolution.”

“Physiocracy and the Overthrow of the Ancient Regime.” Paper delivered at the Western Society for French History, December 4–6, 1975.

Scholars have displayed a renewed interest in tracing the intellectual roots of the French Revolution back to the Enlightenment with its rational criticism and attention to individualism. Daniel Roche and Robert Darnton have done studies in this ideological kinship. But to better understand the ideological origins of the French Revolution we need to reexamine the Enlightenment armed with the methodology proposed by J.G.A. Pocock in Politics, Language, and Time (1971) and The Machiavellian Moment (1975). Pocock’s approach illuminates the subtle interplay between immediate human experience and the creation of language to express the experience. Materialist historiography has long obscured this cognitive-linguistic dimension in history.

Physiocracy’s intellectual structure is—the school of French economists who opposed mercantilism and originated the term ‘laissez-faire’—an important example of Enlightenment liberal ideology. Divergent scholars have acknowledged physiocracy’s role in overthrowing the ancien regime and begetting the liberal ideas of property as well as the content of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

One example of physiocracy’s revolutionary ferment is François Quesnay’s economic analysis, which posited the circular flow of economic life. The Physiocrats, avoiding the role of narrow economists, considered themselves exponents of the comprehensive science of man in society and espoused enlightened justice in all forms [cf. letter of du Pont de Nemours to J.B. Say, April 22, 1815]. Seeking a foundation in natural law, they wished a natural and spontaneous economy achieved by the destruction of the state’s financiers and tax-farmers.

The radical thrust of the Physiocrats’ insistence on the sanctity and inviolability of private property spurred on the individualism of the French Revolution. Reasoning that property predated political society and that the preservation of property was the only rationale for any kind of government, physiocracy was a most subversive theoretical or practical position: its property principles required abolition of the entire feudal apparatus. For the Physiocrats, individual proprietorships brooked no interference of any kind. Justice was produced by the free workings of the market.

Through the influence of Victor Riqueti (Marquis de Mirabeau père) Physiocracy, as a science of man grounded in economics, concluded that the pursuit of political self-interest creates only antisocial privilege. On the other hand, the establishment of the natural order of absolute private property and economic pursuits would create social harmony.

The Physiocrats’ new language of discourse, economics, established absolute property, economic production, and the free market as the standard. However, economics did not explain that it might require revolution to implement absolute private property. Physiocracy caused, in effect, a major theoretic revolution by locating individual decision makers as the center of the economic process.

The French agricultural societies, applying physiocratic concepts, studied peasant attitudes and economic calculations. Peasants, they discovered, left their fields uncultivated because government price controls prevented the profits that they would have reaped from absolutely private property. There was an intersection between physiocracy and peasant desire for absolute ownership of their land. Research in documents of administrative and agricultural organizations reveals wide use of the emerging economic vocabulary.

The new individualist assertion of self carried a revolutionary potential so basic that study of material self-interest becomes trivial. To carry out the dawning revolutionary implications of absolute property led to political organization and resulting self-interest of political individualism in assemblies. However, essentially un-market and un-liberal attitudes, opposed by physiocracy, flourished in the French Revolution. These attitudes led to the politicization of nineteenth-century French society by the pursuit of anti-economic or political self-interest.