The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Tracy, Destutt de (1754-1836)

Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy was an economist and a political theorist. Destutt de Tracy was a philosophe and one of the founders in the 1790s of the classical liberal republican group known as the Idéologues, which included Condorcet, Constant, Say, and Madame de Staël. He was active in politics under several regimes spanning the Revolution and the Restoration, and he was an influential author during his lifetime. When the Estates-General were called to meet in 1789, although a member of an aristocratic family that had been ennobled twice (hence his name), he joined the Third Estate and renounced his title. He was later elected to the Constituent Assembly and served in the army under the Marquis de Lafayette in 1792. During the Terror, he was imprisoned and escaped execution only because Maximilien Robespierre beat him to the scaffold. It was during his period of imprisonment that he read the works of Etienne Condillac and John Locke and began working on his theory of idéologie. During the Directory, Tracy was active in educational reform, especially in creating a national system of education. His membership in the Senate during the Consulate and Empire gave him many opportunities to express his ideological opposition to Napoleon’s illiberal regime, which culminated in 1814 with Tracy’s call for the removal of the Emperor. He was rewarded later that year with the restoration of his noble title by Louis XVIII. Nevertheless, he continued to support the liberal opposition during the restoration of Louis XVIII and Charles X. Although Tracy was active in bringing to power a more liberal, constitutional monarchy during the July Revolution of 1830, he quickly became disillusioned with the results.

Tracy coined the term ideology shortly after his appointment to the Institut National in 1796 to refer to his “science of ideas,” which attempted to create a secure foundation for all the moral and political sciences by closely examining our sensations and ideas as these interacted with our physical environment. His deductive methodology for the social sciences was to have much in common with that of the Austrian School of Economics, which emerged after 1870. For Tracy, ideology referred to a liberal social and economic philosophy that provided the basis for a strong defense of private property, individual liberty, the free market, and constitutional limits to the power of the state, preferably a republic modeled on that of the United States. For Napoleon, ideology was a term of abuse that he directed against his liberal opponents in the Institut National. It was this negative sense of the term that Marx had in mind in his writings on ideology. (He called Tracy a fischblütige Bourgeoisdoktrinär—a fish-blooded bourgeois doctrinaire.)

The impact of Tracy’s political and economic ideas was considerable. His Commentary and Review of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws (1811) was much admired by Thomas Jefferson, who translated it and had it published in America at a time when a French edition was impossible due to Napoleon’s censorship. In the Commentary, Tracy criticized Montesquieu’s defense of monarchy and supported an American-style republic that operated in the context of an economic order based on free markets. Tracy’s multivolume work, Elements of Ideology (1801–1815), is his magnum opus, the fourth volume of which appeared in 1815 and dealt with political economy. This volume also was translated and published by Jefferson in 1817. The whole work was quickly translated into the major European languages and influenced a new generation of Italian, Spanish, and Russian liberals who were involved in revolutionary activity in the early 1820s—the Carbonari in France and Italy and the Decembrists in Russia. One of Tracy’s most significant economic insights was that “society is purely and solely a continual series of exchanges,” and his broader social theory is based on working out the implications of this notion of free exchange. Within France, Tracy’s work influenced the thinking of the novelist Stendhal, the historian Augustin Thierry, and the political economists and lawyers Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer.


Further Readings

Destutt de Tracy, Antoine-Louis-Claude. A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws. Thomas Jefferson, trans. New York: Burt Franklin, 1969 [1811].

———. A Treatise on Political Economy. Thomas Jefferson, trans. Georgetown: Joseph Milligan, 1817. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1970.

Head, Brian. Ideology and Social Science: Destutt de Tracy and French Liberalism. Dordrecht: M. Nijhoff. Boston: Hingham, 1985.

Kennedy, Emmet. “‘Ideology’ from Destutt de Tracy to Marx.” Journal of the History of Ideas 40 no. 3 (1979): 353–368.

———. A Philosophe in the Age of Revolution: Destutt de Tracy and the Origins of “Ideology. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1978.

Klein, Daniel, “Deductive Economic Methodology in the French Enlightenment: Condillac and Destutt de Tracy.” History of Political Economy 17 no. 1 (1985): 51–71.

Welch, Cheryl B. Liberty and Utility: The French Idéologues and the Transformation of Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Originally published .