Nicolas-François Canard, 1750-1833

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French mathematician and lycée teacher in Moulins. Canard's main contribution to economics arose as an essay submitted in 1801 to an Institut de France contest. It arose as an attempt to refute the Physiocratic "single tax" thesis. Contrary to the Physiocrats, Canard posited a labor theory of value, specifically that all wealth arises from the application of "superfluous" labor. He identified three sources of income: income from land, income from industry and income from capital. Echoing Cantillon and drawing an analogy with the circulation of fluids, Canard discussed how these flows need to be balanced to achieve equilibrium and how the forces of individual interest and competition operate to achieve this balance. He discussed how the economy can be viewed as a system of markets and discusses how equilibrium prices are determined by the balance of opposing forces of buyers and sellers.

Canard won the Institut of France contest with his economics essay and subsequently published it in book version. In 1802, he won another Institut contest with an essay on justice. The prestige of these awards conferred upon Canard the blessings of the French academic establishment. Strikingly, for much of the remainder of the 19th Century, French Liberal School hailed Canard as the "last word" on mathematical economics -- and considered the topic closed.

It is partly for this reason that mathematical economists, particularly Augustin Cournot, struggling to draw attention to their work, felt that the shadow of Canard was being used by the academic establishment to dismiss them. Out of bitterness, they did their utmost to vilify Canard and denigrate his achievements. Cournot's bitter evaluation of Canard's Principes put it succinctly:

"These pretended principles are so radically at fault, and the application of them is so erroneous, that the approval of a distinguished body of men was unable to preserve the work from oblivion. It is easy to see why essays of this nature should not incline such economists as Say and Ricardo to algebra." (Cournot, 1838: p.2).

Léon Walras considered the awarding of the Institut prize to Canard a "misfortune" (Walras, 1874: p.44). Joseph Bertrand argued that "Citizen Canard, although a professor of mathematics, is ignorant of or forgets the elements of functional calculus....How did he become a laureate of the Institut? On the recommendation of which commission? I have not had the indiscretion of seeking it out." (Bertrand, 1883: p.499-500). Even a century later, Joseph Schumpeter killed it with faint praise, "[Canard's] book is, however, far from being the worst that was ever written." (Schumpeter, 1954: p.499).

Canard has since been somewhat rehabilitated. It has become generally accepted that Canard's mathematical treatment and conception of the economy anticipated several elements of the general equilibrium system of Léon Walras and the Lausanne School.

Major Works of Nicolas-François Canard

Resources on N.F. Canard


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