The humbly-born Francois Quesnay trained himself in medicine, rising to become a physician in Louis XV’s court and the leader of a sect of Enlightenment thinkers known as the Physiocrats or the economistes. The working-class boy who could not read until he was 11 was eventually elected to the Academy of Sciences and hailed as the “Confucius of Europe”, the “modern Socrates”, by his gentlemen-disciples.
Born in Méré to a family of laborers, Francois Quesnay was orphaned at thirteen. He learned to read from a household medical companion and quickly acquired a voracious appetite for more books and more learning. After a brief apprenticeship, some schooling at Saint-Côme, and marrying a Parisian grocer’s daughter (a huge step up in social status), Quesnay set himself up as a country barber-surgeon in Mantes. His (rapid) self-education and skills shone through and, recommendation upon recommendation, he gradually climbed up the greasy pole, entering into the service of local aristocrats. This gave him some time to do more reading, studying and writing.
Quesnay’s numerous tracts on surgery cemented his reputation. He was particularly keen on elevating the status of surgery into a medical science (much to the medical establishment’s horror). The King’s edict of 1743 separating surgeons from barbers and the later creation of a royal college of surgeons was partly his doing.
In 1749, on the strength of a strong recommendation, Quesnay became the personal physician of the King Louis XV’s mistress, the Madame de Pompadour. Quesnay settled in Versailles, finally entering the highest circle of power. He was elected to the Academié des sciences in 1751 and fell in with the philosophes, who curiously sought out the little country surgeon who had so bravely challenged the great doctors.
Francois Quesnay’s interest in economics arose in 1756, where, hoping to draw on his country background, he was asked to contribute several articles on farming to the Encylopèdie of Diderot and d’Alembert. Quesnay delved into the works of the Maréchal de Vauban, Pierre de Boisguilbert and Richard Cantillon and, mixing all these ingredients together, Quesnay gradually came up with his famous economic theory.
In 1757, he met the Marquis de Mirabeau, his first convert. He was followed by Mercier de la Riviere and DuPont de Nemours and several others. In 1758, Quesnay wrote his Tableau Économique – renowned for its famous “zig-zag” depiction of income flows between economic sectors – to explain his doctrine. It became the founding document of the Physiocratic sect – and the ancestor of the multisectoral input-output systems of Karl Marx, Piero Sraffa and Wassily Leontief and modern general equilibrium theory.
Francois Quesnay began with the axiom that agriculture is the only source of produit net (net product, or surplus of output above cost). He believed that manufacturing and commerce were “sterile” as (in his view), the value of their output was equal to the value of their inputs. Only land, Quesnay reasoned, produced more than went into it. The wealth of a nation, Quesnay argued, lies in the size of its net product.
Francois Quesnay opposed the mercantilist doctrines of Colbert, which still held in the French court, believing that they concentrated too much on propping up industry and commerce rather than agriculture. Influenced by Vincent de Gournay, an advocate of laissez-faire, Quesnay wished to see many of the Medieval rules governing agricultural production lifted, permitting the economy to find its “natural state”. The natural state of the economy was conceived as the balanced circular flow of income between economic sectors and thus social classes which maximized the net product. In these concepts, Quesnay saw analogies to the circulation of human blood and the homeostasis of a body.
Francois Quesnay was largely responsible for the distinction between the ordre naturel (nature’s order) and the ordre positif (positive, i.e. human-idealized, order). A good government, Quesnay argued, should follow a laissez-faire policy so that the ordre naturel could emerge.
Francois Quesnay went on to write numerous articles on economics in 1766-1768 in the Journal de l’agriculture, du commerce et de finances and in the Ephémérides du Citoyen under pseudonyms like M.N., M.H., M.A., M. de Isles, etc. (sometimes having his alter-egos enjoin in journal debates with each other). His 1766 formule article is perhaps his clearest presentation. However, it was presentations, commentaries and elucidations upon Quesnay’s system by Mirabeau (1760, 1763), Mercier de la Riviere (1767) and DuPont de Nemours (1767) that gave Quesnay’s ideas a more systematic feel. Their respect for Quesnay knew no bounds.
Major works of Francois Quesnay
– Observations sur les effets de la saignée, 1730
– l’Art de guérir par la saignée, 1736
– Essai physique sur l’oeconomie animale, 1736
– Examen impartial des contestations des médecins et des chirurgiens, (by M. de B), 1748
– Traité de la suppuration, 1749
– Traité des fièvres continues, 1753
– “Évidence”, “Fermiers”, “Grains” in Encyclopèdie of Diderot and d’Alembert, 1756-1757
– Questions intéréssantes sur la population, l’agriculture et le commerce, with de Marivelt, 1758, in Mirabeau, l’Ami des Hommes: P. IV.
– Le Tableau Économique
– “First” 1758 Edition (Tableau with base of 400l., accompanied by Remarques sur les variations de la distribution des revenus annuels d’une nation; manuscript)
– “Second” 1759 Edition (the Tableau with base of 600l. accompanied by Extrait des oeconomies royales de M. de Sully)
– “Third” 1759 Edition (the Tableau with base of 600l. accompanied by Explication du tableau ecoomique and an expanded and footnoted Extrait des économies -royales de M. de Sully)
– Further editions contained in Mirabeau (1760: Pt. 6; 1763), Quesnay (1766a, 1766b, 1767) and DuPont de Nemours (1767) (the Estrait retitled Maximes générales du gouvernement économique d’un royaume agricole)
– Essai sur l’administration des terres, (by Sieur Ballial des Vertus), 1759
– Observations sur le droit naturel des hommes réunis en société, 1765, Journal de l’agriculture, du commerce et de finances – Copy (2)
– Mémoire sur les avantages de l’industrie et du commerce et sur la fécondité de la classe prétendue esterile, (by M.H.) 1765, J de l’agric
– Réponse au Mémoire de M.H. sur les avantages de l’industrie, etc., 1766, J de l’agric
– Réponse à la question proposée dans la Gazette du Commerce sur les profits de fabrication des bas de soie en France, 1766, J de l’agric
– Répétition de la question proposée dans la Gazette, etc. (by M.N.), 1766, J de l’agric
– Suite de la répétition de la question, etc. (by M.H.), 1766, J de l’agric
– Obsérvations sur l’interet de l’argent (by M. Nisaque), 1766, J de l’agric
– Questions sur les deuils” (by M.N.), 1766, J de l’agric
– Remarques sur l’opinion de l’auteur de l’ésprit des lois concernant les colonies, (by M. de Isle), 1766, J de l’agric
– Analyse de la formule arithmétique du Tableau Economique de la distribution des dépenses annuelles d’une Nation agricole 1766, J de l’agric
– Premier Problème économique, 1766, J de l’agric
– Du commerce, premier dialogue entre M.H et M.N., 1766, J de l’agric
– Observations sur le commerce de M. Montandouin .. dans le Mercure, (by M.H.), 1766, J de l’agric
– Sur les travaux des artisans, second dialogue, 1766, J de l’agric
– Analyse des gouvernement des Incas de Pérou, (by M.A.) 1767, Ephémérides du Citoyen
– Despotisme de la Chine, 1767, Ephém Citoyen
– Lettre de M.Alpha sur le langage de la science économique, 1767, Ephém Citoyen
– Second Problème économique, 1767, in DuPont de Nemours, La Physiocratie
– Lettres d’un fermier et d’un propriétaire, (by M.A.) 1768, Ephém Citoyen
– Examen de l’Examen du Livre intitulé, Principes de la liberté du Commerce des grains, (by M. N.), 1768, Ephém Citoyen (attrib. to Quesnay by Paulette Taieb)
– Recherches philosophiques sur l’évidence des vérités géométriques, 1773
– Oeuvres économiques et philosophiques de F. Quesnay : fondateur du système physiocratique, A. Oncken, editor, 1888
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