Pierre le Pesant, Sieur de Boisguilbert, 1646-1714

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Portrait of Boisguilbert (from CHPE)

Boisguilbert (or Boisguillebert) was a radical anti-Colbertiste with the luck to be far away from French court. An avid proponent of laissez-faire and minimalist government, he has been rightly regarded as the father of the Physiocrats and grandfather of the French Liberal School.

As a native and later magistrate of Rouen, an impoverished area of France, Boisguilbert was naturally curious about what made certain regions wealthier and others poorer. This was pursued in his masterpiece, Dissertation (1704). As his measure of wealth, Boisguilbert took not the riches of the local aristocrats, but rather the "well-being" or "satisfaction" of all subjects. This, he said, arises merely from production. In this respect, he was closer to Adam Smith (1776) than the Physiocrats.

Boisguilbert was keen to show that "money" was not the source of wealth, but only circulated it. Eager to knock it off its pedestal, Boisguilbert argued that money was not characterized by its "metal" content (gold and silver), but rather was a mere artifice of social convention, and thus its value rises and falls accordingly. Consequently, the Mercantilist obsession with the accumulation of money was misplaced. He advocated the substitution of metallic money with paper-money, partly because he felt that undermine the "tyranny" of money.

Boisguilbert was among the first to come up with analogy of the economy as an organism. In Hobbesian fashion, he believed it was in the nature of men to always seek their own profit, even at the expense of others. However, anticipating Montesquieu, he argued that their contrasting forces would ultimately end up in "natural harmony". Nature alone, he argued, was a sufficient policeman of the social and economic order.

The government, he argued, should withdraw as much as possible from the workings of the economy. In general, Colbertiste policies, however well-intentioned, were not needed. Furthermore, when they unbalanced this natural order, they could even be pernicious. On fiscal matters, Boisguilbert was a promoter of income taxes as the least distortionary tax since it hit true wealth directly.

Boisguilbert's 1696 and 1707 investigations concluded that France of Louis XIV was, basically, a mismanaged country. Its people, he argued, were miserable and only subdued by violence which, Boisguilbert predicted, was a state of affairs that could not last for very long. Both these books were proscribed and Boisguilbert, for a time, was sent to internal exile in the Auvergne region. His works were a great influence upon Quesnay, the Physiocrats and other anti-Colbertiste Enlightenment economists. Interestingly, Karl Marx claimed a great intellectual debt to Boisguilbert.

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