Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Who First Put Laissez-Faire Principles into Action
Turgot Was a Man of Truth, Courage, and Compassion
AUGUST 01, 1997 by JIM POWELL
By the mid-eighteenth century, a number of authors had expressed the liberating vision that came to be known as laissez faire. Anne Robert Jacques Turgot put it into action.
As regional administrator and later comptroller-general of France, a nation which had succumbed to absolute monarchy, he took giant steps for liberty. He spoke out for religious toleration. He granted freedom of expression. He gave people freedom to pursue the work of their choice. He cut government spending. He opposed inflation and made a case for gold. He abolished some onerous taxes and trade restrictions. He abolished monopoly privileges. He abolished forced labor.
Turgot was respected by leading thinkers for liberty, including the Baron de Montesquieu, the Marquis de Condorcet, and Benjamin Franklin. Referring to Turgot, Adam Smith wrote that I had the happiness of his acquaintance, and, I flattered myself, even of his friendship and esteem. After meeting Turgot in 1760, Voltaire told a friend: I have scarcely ever seen a man more lovable or better informed. Jean Baptiste Say, who inspired so many French libertarians during the nineteenth century, declared, There are hardly any works which can yield to the journalist and to the statesman an ampler harvest of facts and of instruction than may be found in the writings of Turgot. Pierre-Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, a French champion of laissez faire and founder of the American industrial family, paid his friend Thomas Jefferson the supreme compliment by calling him the American Turgot.
Turgot displayed remarkable vision. For instance, he predicted the American Revolution in 1750, more than two decades before George Washington and Benjamin Franklin saw it coming. In 1778, Turgot warned Americans that slavery is incompatible with a good political constitution. He warned that Americans had more to fear from civil war than foreign enemies. He predicted that Americans are bound to become great, not by war but by culture. Turgot warned French King Louis XVI that unless taxes and government spending were cut, there would be a revolution which might cost him his head. Turgot warned about the dangers of fiat paper money, and when it was resorted to during the French Revolution, the result was ruinous runaway inflation and a military coup. Turgot showed how people could make the transition from absolutism to self-government.
Although few of Turgot’s writings were published in his lifetime, he was ablaze with ideas for liberty. Turgot was much too able a man to write anything insignificant, observed intellectual historian Joseph A. Schumpeter. Commenting on his most important work, a slim volume, Schumpeter noted that it contains a theory of barter, price, and money that, so far as it goes, is almost faultless . . . comprehensive vision of all the essential facts and their interrelations plus excellence of formulation.
Anne Robert Jacques Turgot was born in Paris on May 10, 1727, the third and youngest son of Michel tienne Turgot and Madeleine Francoise Martineau. His father was a government official who helped build the Paris sewage system. An awkward child, Turgot didn’t seem to get along with his mother, who reportedly cherished fine manners above all. The family, which had Norman roots, lived comfortably.
Early on, Turgot acquired a love for learning. He attended the College du Plessis where he discovered the theories of English physicist Isaac Newton. It was traditional for the youngest son to become a priest, and accordingly Turgot enrolled at the Saint-Sulpice seminary, where he earned his bachelor of theology and became known as Abbé de Brucourt. He then enrolled at the Sorbonne.
A fellow student named Morellet remarked that The remembrance of Turgot is sweet to all who have known him personally. Already his mind announced all the qualities it afterwards unfolded of sagacity, penetration, and profoundness. He had the simplicity of a child, yet it was compatible with a kind of dignity. Despite a striking physical appearance, Turgot was shy around women. He never married.
Turgot learned English, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, and Latin. He translated into French works by Caesar, Homer, Horace, Ovid, Seneca, Virgil, and other classical authors, as well as writings by eighteenth-century authors like Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson, and Alexander Pope. He translated David Hume’s essay On the Jealousy of Trade.
Turgot’s first writing on economics was an April 7, 1749, letter to his friend Abbé de Cice. He attacked the doctrines of the Scottish financier John Law, who moved to France and in 1716 began promoting what became a disastrous inflation. Defending gold, Turgot wrote: It is ridiculous to say that metallic money is only a sign of value, the credit of which is founded on the stamp of the king. This stamp is only to certify the weight and the title. Even in its relation to commodities the metal uncoined is of the same price as that coined, the marked value is simply a denomination. This is what Law seems to have been ignorant of in establishing his bank.
It is then as merchandise that coined money is (not the sign) but the common measure of other merchandise, and that not by an arbitrary convention, founded on the glamour of that metal, but because, being fit to be employed in different shapes as merchandise, and having on account of this property a saleable value, a little increased by the use made of it as money and being besides suitable of reduction to a given standard and of being equally divided, we always know the value of it. Gold obtains its price from its rarity.
While at the Sorbonne, in December 1750, Turgot wrote a Latin dissertation (On the successive advances of the Human Mind) which provided an early view of human progress.
Turgot hailed American optimism: Let us turn our eyes away from those sad sights, let us cast them on the immense plains of the interior of America. . . . The soil, hitherto uncultivated, is made fruitful by industrious hands. Laws faithfully observed maintain henceforth tranquillity in these favoured regions. The ravages of war are there unknown. Equality has banished from them poverty and luxury, and preserves there, with liberty, virtue and simplicity of manners; our arts will spread themselves there without our vices. Happy peoples!
By this time, Turgot had second thoughts about entering the priesthood. He confided to his friend Du Pont de Nemours (1739-1817) that it is impossible for me to give myself up, all my life, wearing a mask. Turgot obtained his father’s permission to pursue a law career, and he left the Sorbonne.
With his obvious intelligence and learning, he met many of the leading thinkers of the day, including political philosopher Charles Louis de Secondat (Baron de Montesquieu), philosopher Claude Adrien Helvetius, and mathematician Jean Le Rond D’Alembert. In January 1752, Turgot secured an appointment to a minor government post, deputy councillor of the procurator-general. The following year, he was appointed—presumably after having paid a consideration—to the royal parliament, which functioned as a court. There wasn’t any elected legislative assembly.
Turgot’s first published work, Le Conciliateur, appeared in 1754. It was a pamphlet protesting plans to renew religious persecution. As a Catholic addressing Catholics, he wrote: I know of how many wars heresies have been the source, but is not this because we have persisted in persecuting them? The man who believes earnestly believes with still more firmness if we would force him to change his belief without convincing him; he then becomes obstinate, his obstinancy kindles his zeal, his zeal inflames him; we wish to convert him, we have made of him a fanatic, a madman. Men, for their opinions, demand only liberty; if you deprive them of it, you place arms in their hand. Give them liberty, they remain quiet, as the Lutherans were at Strasburg. It is then the very unity in religion we would enforce, and not the different opinions we tolerate, that produces trouble and civil wars.
If the prisons of the Inquisition were terrible, he continued, France itself has had only too many which have echoed the cries of the oppressed conscience. If the former were unjust, why should the latter be authorized? We who condemn with horror the minister of the Church who, by torture, compelled the mind, should we give to our king the right still to subjugate it? We regard with indignation the inflictions which, in Italy and in Spain, obstruct the rights of conscience; the least reflection should prevent our feeling less for the conscience of our own citizens.
Meanwhile, Turgot had befriended Jacques Claude Marie Vincent, Marquis de Gournay (1712-1759), whom intellectual historian Joseph A. Schumpeter called one of the greatest teachers of economics who ever lived. Widely traveled throughout Europe and especially knowledgeable about English and Dutch business practices, the Marquis de Gournay was a follower of Richard Cantillon, the author of Essai Sur La Nature Du Commerce En Général, which offered perhaps the first comprehensive view of free-market operations.
In 1748, Gournay had come into an inheritance, retired from business, and bought himself a government position as inspector of factories. Between 1753 and 1756, he invited Turgot to join him as he visited companies in Anjou, Bourgogne, Bretagne, Dauphine, Languedoc, Lyonnais, Maine, and Provence. Turgot could see that commerce was crucial. Moreover, Gournay’s free-trade principles had an impact on Turgot.
The year Gournay died, Turgot wrote his loge de Gournay [Elegy for Gournay] in which he explained why government officials couldn’t run an economy. For instance: If the Government limits the number of sellers by exclusive privileges or otherwise, it is certain that the consumer will be wronged and that the seller, made sure of selling, will compel him to buy dearly bad articles. If, on the other hand, it is the number of buyers which is diminished by the exclusion of foreigners or of certain persons, then the seller is wronged, and if the injury be carried to the point when the price cannot cover his expenses and risks, he will cease to produce the commodity, its regular supply will thus be endangered, and a famine may be the consequence. The general liberty of buying and selling is therefore the only means to insure on the one side to the seller a price sufficient to encourage production; on the other side to the consumer the best merchandise at the lowest price.
To desire that government should be obliged to prevent fraud from ever occurring would be to desire it to provide head pads for all children who might fall. To assume, by regulations, successfully to prevent all the possible malversations of this nature, is to sacrifice to a chimerical perfection the whole progress of industry.
Turgot defended economic liberty in Fondations [Foundations] and Foires et Marchés [Fairs and Markets], articles for Denis Diderot’s famous and widely influential 17-volume Encyclopédie (1751-1772). Somewhere along the line, Turgot had become familiar with the views of the Physiocrats. Economist, editor, and government official Du Pont de Nemours (1739-1817) coined the term from the Greek words physis [let nature] and kratein [rule]. His book Physiocratie appeared in 1768. The brash, bold Du Pont de Nemours became a close friend of Turgot, who was godfather to his third son and suggested the name of this boy—Eleuthere Irénée (freedom and peace)—destined to launch the family colossus, E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Cie.
Physiocrat referred to ideas popularized by Francois Quesnay (1694-1774), a nobleman’s son who made himself a surgeon and bought his post as physician to King Louis XV and his influential courtesan Madame de Pompadour. Historians Will and Ariel Durant wrote that although Quesnay was a self-confident dogmatist in his works, he was in person a kindly soul, distinguished by integrity in an immoral milieu.
Quesnay attacked taxes and trade restrictions in his articles for the Encyclopédie (1756), his own little book Tableau économique (1758), and elsewhere. There will be prosperity, he insisted, if each person is free to cultivate his in fields such products as his interests, his means, and the nature of the land suggest to him.
According to historians Will and Ariel Durant, Louis XV asked Quesnay what he would do if he were king. ‘Nothing,’ answered Quesnay. ‘Who, then, would govern?’ ‘The laws’—by which the physiocrat meant the ‘laws’ inherent in the nature of man and governing supply and demand. On September 17, 1754, the king issued an edict abolishing all restrictions on trade in wheat, rye, and corn, but a subsequent crop failure led to higher prices, and there was a clamor for restoring controls. The edicts were rescinded on December 23, 1770.
The political philosophy of the Physiocrats was perhaps best expressed in the 1767 book L’ordre natural et essentiel des sociétés politiques [The Natural and Essential Order of Political Societies] by Pierre-Paul Mercier de la Riviere (1720-1793). Do you wish a society to attain the highest degree of wealth, population, and power? Trust, then, its interests to freedom, and let this be universal. By means of this liberty (which is the essential element of industry) and the desire to enjoy—stimulated by competition and enlightened by experience and example—you are guaranteed that everyone will always act for his own greatest possible advantage, and consequently will contribute with all the power of his particular interest to the general good, both to the ruler and to every member of the society.
On August 8, 1761, Turgot was appointed an intendant (chief administrator) for the provinces of Angomois, Basse-Marche, and Limousin, a region in central France later known as Limoges. As the nineteenth-century historian and thinker Alexis de Tocqueville explained, The intendant was in possession of the whole reality of Government. All the powers which the Council of State itself possessed were accumulated in his hands. Like the Council he was at once administrator and judge. He corresponded with all the Ministers, and in the province was the sole agent of all the measures of the Government.
Limoges was among the poorest regions of France. Almost all the approximately 500,000 people were peasants who lived on chestnuts, rye, and buckwheat. According to the Physiocrat Marquis de Mirabeau (1715-1789), peasants dressed in rags and lived in huts made of clay with a thatch roof, and the most prosperous Limoges farmers could afford to slaughter only one pig a year. Historian Hippolyte Taine, who gathered a tremendous amount of material on living conditions, reported that many peasants used plows which were no better than those of ancient Rome. Turgot remarked, I have seen with pain that in some parishes the curate alone has signed, because no one else could write.
Peasants in Limoges, as elsewhere, were crushed by taxes. Economic historian Florin Aftalion reported there were some 1,600 customs houses throughout France to collect traites as goods passed various points along roads and rivers. For instance, explained Cornell University scholar Andrew Dickson White, on the Loire between Orléans and Nantes, a distance of about two hundred miles, there were twenty-eight custom-houses; and that between Gray and Arles, on the rivers Saone and Rhone, a distance of about three hundred miles, the custom-houses numbered over thirty, causing long delays, and taking from twenty-five to thirty per cent in value of all the products transported.
There were a host of other taxes, including one on salt. The taille amounted to about a sixth of the income of peasants. This came on top of feudal duties and church tithes. Peasants got to keep about a fifth of their income. The taille, from which some 130,000 clergymen and 140,000 aristocrats were exempted, was based on a tax collector’s estimate of a peasant’s ability to pay, which meant appearances. Du Pont de Nemours observed: they [the peasants] did not dare to procure for themselves the number of animals necessary for good farming; they used to cultivate their fields in a poor way so as to pass as poor, which is what they eventually became; they pretended that it was too hard to pay in order to avoid having to pay too much; payments that were inevitably slow were made still slower; they took no pleasure or enjoyment in their food, housing, or dress; their days passed in deprivation and sorrow.
Turgot focused on the most obnoxious taxes, starting with the taille. It wasn’t within his power as a regional official to abolish the taille, but he did what he could. Traditionally, national government finance officials had guessed how much money they were going to spend on wars, maintaining Versailles, bureaucrats, and other things, which determined the amount of tax revenue needed. They demanded about the same portion of taxes from each district as they always had, even though there had been an economic decline in some districts, which effectively meant higher tax rates.
Turgot attributed the economic decline of Limoges to high taxes. He asked that his district’s tax quota be cut by 400,000 livres. It was cut 190,000. Year after year for the 13 years that he was an intendant in Limoges, he pleaded for tax cuts.
Turgot did have the power to abolish the corvée—forced labor—which was the most hated tax on peasants. A remnant of serfdom, this originated as a feudal obligation for peasants to perform a certain amount of labor without pay. The corvée became a demand that peasants work as much as 14 days a year on the king’s roads, breaking, carting, and shoveling stones. Often this came at the worst time, such as when peasants were busy with their harvest. Landlords, who stood to gain more from roads, contributed nothing. As might be expected, forced labor resulted in poor work, and the roads were terrible.
Turgot hired competent contractors to build and improve roads, and some 450 miles of roads were built in Limoges. He defrayed the costs with a moderate tax. Clergymen and aristocrats remained exempt, but at least peasants were free to work their land. Limoges became known as a district with superior roads—the wonder of all travellers, as Turgot biographer W. Walker Stephens put it.
Turgot did much to help improve agriculture. Because tons of grain were lost to the grain moth and corn weevil, he helped the Limoges Society of Agriculture find better storage methods. To help diversify food sources, he urged that peasants grow potatoes. As the Marquis de Condorcet observed in his biography of Turgot, The people at first regarded the potato with disdain and as beneath the dignity of the human species, and they were not reconciled to it till the intendant [Turgot] had caused it to be served at his own table, and to the first class of citizens, and had given it vogue among the fashionable and rich.
Turgot was in touch with others who embraced ideas of liberty. He dined with the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith when he visited Paris in 1765, and later Turgot helped supply Smith with books for his work on The Wealth of Nations. But as intellectual historian Peter Groenewegen has shown, Turgot had little impact on Smith’s writing, since Smith had already formed his principal views. Like the Physiocrats, both men believed in economic liberty, and unlike the Physiocrats, they recognized the importance of commerce.
In 1766 Turgot wrote an 80-page summary of his views for two Chinese students in Paris. This became Réflexions sur la Formation et la Distribution des Richesses [Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Riches]. It explained much about how free markets work and made a case for laissez-faire policy. Although Turgot wasn’t a Physiocrat, he shared their commitment for economic liberty. Du Pont de Nemours published Réflexions in the November and December 1769 issues of Ephémérides du Citoyen, the Physiocratic journal. But without consulting Turgot, Du Pont de Nemours made a number of changes, and Turgot wasn’t pleased.
Turgot made clear his opposition to slavery: This abominable custom of slavery has once been universal, and is still spread over the greater part of the earth.
He affirmed the importance of sound money: Thus, then, we come to the constitution of gold and silver as money and universal money, and that without any arbitrary convention among men, without the intervention of any law, but by the nature of things. They are not, as many people have imagined, signs of values; they have themselves a value. If they are susceptible of being the measure and the pledge of other values, they have this property in common with all the other articles that have a value in Commerce. They differ only because being at once more divisible, more unalterable, and more easy to transport than the other commodities, it is more convenient to employ them to measure and represent the values.
Turgot banished the ancient dogma that interest was immoral. The price of borrowed money is regulated, he wrote, like that of all other merchandise, by the balance of supply and demand: thus, when there are many borrowers who need money, the interest of money becomes higher; when there are many holders of money who offer to lend it, interest falls. It is, therefore, another mistake to suppose that the interest of money in commerce ought to be fixed by the laws of Princes.
During the famine of 1769-1772, he mortgaged his estate to get money for famine relief. He organized relief efforts financed almost entirely by voluntary contributions. French treasury officials claimed taxes were due from Turgot’s relief organization because its records weren’t written on stamped paper. He issued an ordinance suspending the stamp tax laws in Limoges. The bakers’ guild of Limoges moved to raise bread prices, and Turgot responded by suspending their monopoly privileges. He encouraged people to bring bread from other towns, and they did. He insisted that the best remedy for famine was free trade.
Turgot further defended laissez faire by writing Lettres sur le commerce des grains, seven letters to Comptroller-General Abbé Terray. Turgot warned that government is incapable of guaranteeing economic security. He declared: Government is not the master of seasons, and they should be taught that they have no right to violate the property of the agricultural labourers or the dealers in corn.
Terray was deaf to Turgot’s appeal. In December 1770, the Comptroller-General ruled that grain could be sold only in government-controlled marketplaces. Speculation was outlawed. A subsequent measure outlawed grain trading by any merchant who didn’t have a license. Grain monopolists regained their power.
Abbé Terray asked Turgot for help protecting iron smelters, and Turgot replied with a letter known as Sur la Marque des Fers [On the Mark of Iron]. The title referred to the stamp on iron indicating that it was smelted in France, part of the effort to keep out iron from other countries. I know no other means of quickening any commerce whatever than by granting to it the greatest liberty, Turgot wrote, and the freedom from all taxes, which the ill-understood interest of the Exchequer has multiplied to excess on all kinds of merchandise, and in particular on the fabrications of iron. Then, talking about how trade retaliations back fire: The truth is, that in aiming at injuring others, we injure only ourselves.
Turgot had to deal with the consequences of military conscription. The repugnance to service in the militia, he wrote the Minister of War in January 1773, was so widespread among the people, that each drawing was the signal for the greatest disorders throughout the country, and for a kind of civil war between the peasantry; the one party seeking to escape the drawing, taking refuge in the woods, the other, with arms in hand, pursuing the fugitives, in order to capture them and subject them to the same lot with themselves. Loss of life and minor outrages were common. Depopulation of many of the parishes, with cultivation abandoned, often followed. When the time came to assemble the battalions, it was necessary for the syndics of the parishes to lead on their militia-men escorted by the horse-police, and sometimes bound with cords. Turgot let people voluntarily contribute cash to a pool for those conscripted, and many enlisted for the money.
There was much resentment against the practice of forcing local people to provide room and board for soldiers, and Turgot took action. He rented some buildings as barracks and spread the cost among all the taxpayers. Military discipline reportedly improved.
On May 10, 1774, King Louis XV died of smallpox. He was succeeded by his awkward, timid 19-year-old grandson, who became Louis XVI. His queen was the 19-year-old Marie Antoinette, a beautiful and frivolous daughter of the arrogant Austrian Empress Maria Theresa.
At the time, France had the biggest government in Europe except for Russia. The French government was in desperate shape, having incurred massive debts during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) with Britain. The royal palace of Versailles was an enormous drain. On the payroll were eight architects, 47 musicians, 56 hunters, 295 cooks, 886 nobles with their wives and children, plus secretaries, couriers, physicians, and chaplains, and some 10,000 soldiers who guarded the place. Almost every week, there were two banquets, two balls, and three plays held at Versailles.
Marie Antoinette aggravated the public by her extravagance with taxpayer money. Married to an impotent king, she squandered large sums at card tables and lavished costly gifts on her court favorites. She spent hundreds of thousands of livres on dresses. Austrian ambassador Mercy d’Argentau warned her mother, Maria Theresa: Although the King has given the Queen, on various occasions, more than 100,000 écus’ worth of diamonds, and although her Majesty already has a prodigious collection, she nevertheless resolved to acquire . . . chandelier earrings from Bohmer. I did not conceal from her Majesty that under present economic conditions it would have been wiser to avoid such a tremendous expenditure, but she could not resist.
The Parlements of Paris protested taxes. This body, whose members bought their way in, was the most influential of 13 French parliaments. It had acquired the prerogative of approving royal edicts on taxes before they could go into effect. If the Parlement opposed a tax edict, there would be a lit de justice: members would meet the king in his throne room, and he would make a final decision which everyone must obey. But this proceeding was widely resented.
Louis named the 73-year-old Count de Maurepas as his chief adviser. He had held a number of official positions until 1749, when he was dismissed on suspicion of having written some lines critical of courtesan Madame de Pompadour. But Maurepas knew how to pull strings. As royal playwright and historian Jean Francois Marmontel described him, he possessed a lynx-eye to seize upon the weak or ridiculous in men, and an imperceptible art to draw them to his purposes . . . he made sport of everything, even of merit itself. Maurepas knew that with his scandalous reputation, he needed some respected figures in the government, and his wife recommended Turgot. On July 20, 1774, Turgot was nominated to a minor post, Minister of Marine.
In Limoges, as biographer Leon Say reported, the aristocrats could not forgive Turgot for having broken with traditions which had hitherto been favourable to them . . . it was not the same with the peasantry. His departure was announced publicly from the pulpit by all the curés of the province, who celebrated mass everywhere on his account. The countrymen suspended their work in order to be present, and all cried: ‘It is wisely done by the king to have taken M. Turgot, but it is very sad for us that we have lost him.’
During the few weeks that Turgot was Minister of Marine, he spoke out for taxpayers against the politically powerful French shipbuilding industry. He recommended that the government buy ships in Sweden rather than France, which would cut costs 40 percent. Turgot countered protectionist objections by observing that the Swedes drank French wines and wore French clothes.
On August 24, 1774, Louis met with Turgot and discussed the country’s economic situation. Prodded by Maurepas, the king named Turgot as Comptroller-General. Turgot recognized that the kind of spending and tax cuts he envisioned would encounter ferocious opposition, and he had to have the backing of the king, so he sought an interview.
The king promised his support, and afterward Turgot sent him this memo: I confine myself to recall to you these three words—
No Increase of Taxes.
No bankruptcy, either avowed or disguised by illegal reductions.
No increase of taxes; the reason for this being in the condition of your people, and still more, in that of your Majesty’s own generous heart.
No loans; because every loan diminishes always the free revenue and necessitates at the end of a certain time, either bankruptcy or the increase of taxes. In times of peace it is permissible to borrow only in order to liquidate old debts, or in order to redeem other loans contracted on less advantageous terms.
To meet these three points there is but one means. It is to reduce expenditure below revenue, and sufficiently below it to insure each year a saving of twenty millions, to be applied in redemption of the old debts. Without that, the first gunshot will force the State into bankruptcy.
The question will be asked incredulously, ‘On what can we retrench?’ and each one, speaking for his own department, will maintain that nearly every particular item of expense is indispensable. They will be able to allege very good reasons, but these must all yield to the absolute necessity of economy.
It is, then, of absolute necessity for your Majesty to require that the heads of all the departments should concert with the Minister of Finance. It is indispensable that he should discuss with them, in presence of your Majesty, the degree of necessity for all your proposed expenses. It is above all necessary, as soon as you, Sire, shall have decided upon the strictly necessary scale of maintenance of each department, that you prohibit the official in charge of it to order any new expenditure without having first arranged with the Treasury the means of providing for it. . . .
Turgot’s top priority was to establish freedom of the grain trade, as he had done in Limoges. On September 13, 1774, Turgot issued an edict and wrote: it shall be free to all persons whatever to carry on, as it may seem best to them, their trade in corn and flour, to sell and to buy it, in whatever places they choose throughout the kingdom.
Voltaire was incredulous: I learned that a Minister of State who was neither a lawyer nor priest had just published an edict by which, in spite of the most sacred prejudices, it was permitted to every Perigourdin to sell and buy wheat in Auvergne. . . . I saw in my canton a dozen of labourers, my brethren, who read the edict. ‘How then?’ said an old man; ‘for sixty years I have been reading these edicts which, in unintelligible language, have always stripped us of natural liberty; now here is one that restores us our liberty, and I can understand every word without difficulty. This is the first time a king reasons with his people.’
France had long penalized foreigners, and in November 1774, Turgot overturned some of the worst laws. For instance, the law which held that the property of a deceased foreigner would revert to the government. Such laws, observed Du Pont de Nemours, debarred the settling in France of a great number of clever men and industrious artists, of capitalists, and useful merchants, who would have desired nothing more than to make France the centre of their affairs, and which debarred even retired foreigners of wealth attracted by the pleasures of society and the agreeableness of the climate. Du Pont emphasized that Turgot proceeded without demanding reciprocity, since the good of its operation would be certain for France, and the evil would be but for those countries which did not imitate her.
In January 1775, Turgot suffered an attack of gout which involved inflammation and severe pain in his legs. During the next four months, he was carried in a chair to the king’s working quarters. From there, he directed a quarantine of regions devastated by cattle-plague. The king agreed to pay a third of the value of diseased animals which were slaughtered and buried, and this frustrated efforts to control government spending.
Turgot set new standards for integrity. For instance, it had long been the custom for the Farmers-General, the private firm which collected a substantial amount of tax revenue, to give the Comptroller-General about a 100,000-livre bribe upon signing a new contract. Turgot declined the bribe and abolished the practice.
Turgot worked to curtail the rapaciousness of bureaucrats. People complain also, he wrote, of the embarrassments they are thrown into by the extreme severity of the penalties, often for the slightest faults. It is indispensable to remedy this, as well as the inconveniences manufacturers suffer from the contradictions in the regulations, and to shield them from the abuse of the authority by the Bureaux of Inspection. Then issuing orders: You are not to seize anything belonging to them [workers and small manufacturers], any stuff or merchandise, on the pretext of its faultiness. You will confine yourselves to exhorting these poor artificers to make the things better, and to indicate to them the means of doing so.
On April 20, 1775, corn riots erupted in Dijon, reflecting fears that grain produced in that region might be sold elsewhere—and wouldn’t be available to relieve hunger in Dijon. Rioting quickly spread to other cities. Mobs stormed through the countryside, yelling Monopoly! and Famine! They broke into markets, demanding corn and flour for less than what merchants were charging. By May 2, mobs marched on Paris, and an estimated 8,000 people raided flour stores around Versailles. The Parlement of Paris issued a decree and posted notices urging people to petition the king for lower bread prices, and he gave in. Turgot advised the king that violence must be put down swiftly, and he was given command of a 25,000-man force which protected an orderly flow of grain to the markets. He had parliament’s notices removed. His rivals at the royal court weren’t pleased.
Between June and August 1775, Turgot issued edicts abolishing duties imposed by major towns like Beaune, Bordeaux, Dijon, and Pontoise.
Freedom of Speech
Turgot practiced freedom of speech. For instance, financier and politician Jacques Necker wrote a pamphlet Sur la Législation et le Commerce des Grains which criticized laissez-faire views and defended government restrictions on the grain trade. Turgot let it be published.
Although Turgot never challenged the legitimacy of a monarchy, he became convinced that people should prepare for self-government. Together with Du Pont de Nemours, he outlined a plan for parish assemblies, village assemblies, district assemblies, provincial assemblies, and a General Assembly. Participation would be open to those who owned land (any amount) and earned at least 600 livres per year. Individuals earning less than 600 livres of land would have fractional votes. Unfortunately, with everything else going on, this plan was never presented to the king.
The king’s coronation brought Turgot into conflict with the establishment. Traditionalists wanted the coronation at the magnificent cathedral of Rheims, and the clergy wanted the king to take the oath for intolerance, I swear . . . to exterminate, &c., entirely from my States all heretics . . . condemned by the Church. Church officials insisted, It is reserved for you to deal the last blow to Calvinism in your kingdom. Order the schismatic assemblies of the Protestants to be dispersed; exclude the sectaries without distinction from all the branches of public administration. Your Majesty will thus assure among your subjects the unity of the Catholic worship.
Because the government was deep in debt, Turgot wanted a much cheaper coronation in Paris, and he objected to the oath. He wrote a memo to the king, Sur la tolerance, saying the oath was a bad idea even if nobody seriously contemplated a murderous Inquisition. The prince who orders his subject to profess a religion he does not believe, Turgot wrote, commands a crime; the subject who obeys acts a lie, he betrays his conscience, he does an act which, he believes, God forbids. The Protestant who through self-interest or fear makes himself a Catholic, and the Catholic who by the same motives makes himself a Protestant, are both guilty of the same sin. The king decided to throw budgetary considerations to the wind and be coronated at Rheims. He agreed to the dreaded oath, but he mumbled it, and nobody could make out the words.
There seemed to be a favorable omen for Turgot when the king followed his recommendation and appointed Chrétien Lamoignon de Malesherbes as Maison du Roi (Minister of the Royal Household), a post which put him in a position to influence the king and help curb extravagance at Versailles.
The budget was a bitter battleground. At the beginning of 1775, the government had revenue of 337 million livres, but only 213 million was left after interest on the debt. The costs of government would be 235 million—hence, a deficit of 22 million livres. Turgot cut many expenses, including sinecures for idle aristocrats.
Meanwhile, Turgot had become convinced that the severity of his country’s problems required decisive action. He conceived what became known as the six edicts.
Two were of monumental importance. Turgot would abolish the jurandes—guilds—which monopolized various trades. Like modern labor unions, they enforced barriers to entry for the enrichment of members. Consequently, there were few skilled workers, and they concentrated on making luxury goods. Turgot would permit anyone, including foreigners, to enter any trade except barbering and wig-making. The reason for exceptions was that Turgot offered to compensate people for the loss of their special privileges, and because of the government’s financial situation it wasn’t possible to compensate members of these two professions.
Turgot’s second crucial edict would abolish the corvée, the practice of forcing peasants to work on roads without pay. He proposed that all property owners, the primary beneficiaries of road improvements, pay a tax which would provide money for hiring road contractors.
Turgot thought of making these explosively controversial proposals more politically palatable by presenting them with four other proposals which had more support. He proposed abolishing restrictions on the grain trade within France. He wanted to discharge officials who imposed restrictions on the operation of Parisian markets, ports, and docks. He recommended abolishing the Caisse de Poissy, a tax on the cattle and meat industry. Finally, he proposed to cut the tax on suet.
During the last several months of 1775, Louis XVI weighed the compelling case for these edicts and the firestorm of opposition they would surely provoke. Turgot suffered another attack of gout and was absent as opposition intensified. Malesherbes cautioned Turgot to go slow, but Turgot, then 48, replied: The needs of the people are enormous, and in my family, we die of gout at fifty.
Over the objections of his brothers and all of his advisers except Turgot and Males-herbes, Louis XVI endorsed the six edicts, and on February 5, 1776, he presented them to the Parlement of Paris. They resisted, and the king declared, My Parlement must respect my wishes.
The Parlement supported guilds because many of the members were red-robed lawyers, and guilds were a lucrative source of litigation. One notorious case between the guild of tailors and the guild of used-clothes dealers had dragged on for more than 250 years. Led by the Prince de Conti, who expected to lose about 50,000 livres annually if the guilds were abolished, local officials went on the attack to protect their special privileges.
As if these six edicts weren’t enough of a challenge for the establishment, Turgot presented another which would abolish laws restricting the wine trade. In Bordeaux, for instance, it was illegal to sell and drink wine from another district. Wines from Languedoc couldn’t be shipped down the Garonne River before St. Martin’s Day. Wines from Périgord, not before Christmas. Turgot declared: It is the interest of the whole kingdom we have to consider, the interests and the rights of all our subjects, who, as buyers or as sellers, have an equal right to find a market for their goods and to procure the object of their needs on the terms most advantageous to them.
Lawyers, noblemen, monopolists, clergymen—all were against Turgot. Maurepas, who had appointed Turgot, criticized him in public and maneuvered behind his back. As biographer Douglas Dakin explained, Merely by refraining from defending Turgot, and merely by confirming Louis’s growing suspicions with a word here and there, he was bound in the long run to achieve his object. For everything that came to Louis’s ears—facts endlessly distorted, fortuitous happenings which in normal times would have had little significance, the fatuous lies concocted by Turgot’s detractors—all came to assume a unity and to take on the character of incontrovertible evidence. . . . Marie Antoinette, outraged at Turgot’s efforts to sack incompetents and cut spending by the royal household, schemed against him. She had no interest in ideas. I must admit I am lazy and dissipated when it comes to serious things, she told her mother.
I cannot conceal from your Majesty, Turgot wrote the king on April 30, the deep pain I have suffered by your cruel silence towards me on Sunday last, after I had in my preceding letters described to you so distinctly my position, your Majesty’s own position, the danger that your authority and the glory of your reign were incurring, and the impossibility of my continuing to serve you unless you give me your firm and steady support. Your Majesty has not deigned to reply to me. . . . Your Majesty gives me neither assistance nor consolation. How can I believe that you any longer esteem me? Sire, I have not deserved this. . . . The king didn’t reply.
On May 12, 1776, Turgot was dismissed. He reportedly warned Louis XVI: Remember, sire, that it was weakness which brought the head of [England's King] Charles I to the block.
Voltaire expressed the feeling of many who hoped for reform. Ah, mon Dieu, what sad news I hear! he wrote three days after Turgot’s fall. France would have been too fortunate. . . . I am overwhelmed in despair. The Marquis de Condorcet wrote: Adieu! We have had a beautiful dream.
Government spending zoomed out of control. Guilds regained their monopoly power. Restrictions again throttled trade. The regime brought back forced labor.
Turgot had probably achieved as much as any human being could without organizing popular support to buck special interests. His experience revealed how fragile were reforms which depended on the goodwill of a ruler. Edicts, it turned out, were no substitute for education of the people.
Turgot moved to a house on the rue de Bourbon, Paris, and he quietly studied science, literature, and music. For Benjamin Franklin, representing American interests in Paris, he wrote Mémoire sur l’impot to explain his laissez-faire economic policy.
In one of his last surviving writings, a controversial March 22, 1778, letter to English radical minister Dr. Richard Price, Turgot expressed his support for American independence, although he didn’t think the French government could afford to provide financial help. Turgot criticized American state constitutions for establishing a strong executive—an unreasonable imitation . . . of the usages of England—rather than lodge all power in a legislature. Turgot denounced chimerical state taxes and tariffs. He urged that Americans reduce to the smallest possible number the kinds of affairs of which the Government of each State should take charge. . . . He declared that The asylum which America affords to the oppressed of all nations will console the world. The letter provoked John Adams to make his case for a separation of powers, writing the three-volume Defense of the American Constitution which wasn’t published until 1787, after Turgot’s death. Adams, prickly pear that he was, liked Turgot and described him as grave, sensible, and amiable.
Turgot suffered more attacks of gout, and after 1778 he could walk only with crutches. His situation became critical in early 1781. He died at home around 11:00 P.M., March 18, 1781. He was 53. His friends Mme. Blondel, the Duchesse d’Enville, and Du Pont de Nemours were by his side.
Having rejected Turgot’s peaceful reforms, the French government stumbled from one crisis to another. By 1788, military spending took a quarter of the budget, and half the budget was needed for payments on the national debt which had soared to 4 billion livres. There were riots against taxes. The government was broke, and the king and queen were a pitiful sight as they handed over their silverware to the royal mint. Desperate for funds, the king agreed to summon the Estates-General, an assembly of nobles, clergy, and taxpayers, which hadn’t met for one-and-a-half centuries. This became the National Assembly, to which Du Pont de Nemours had been elected. It rebelled against the nobles, and the king made the fateful decision to back the nobles. The National Assembly abolished guilds and some of the worst taxes, and it confiscated church properties. Hatred bred of oppression boiled over, as Turgot had anticipated. On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was led to a Paris guillotine and beheaded. Marie Antoinette—ridiculed as Madam Deficit—followed him to the guillotine on October 16, 1793. The French people suffered through runaway inflation, the Reign of Terror, and the military takeover by Napoleon Bonaparte who plunged the country into more than a decade of war.
Turgot’s steadfast friend Du Pont de Nemours, who had been scheduled for the guillotine the very day the Reign of Terror ended and was later rescued by Madame Germaine de Stael, made sure he wouldn’t be forgotten. After emigrating to America, Du Pont de Nemours edited a nine-volume edition of Turgot’s works (1808-1811). Another French edition of Turgot’s works appeared in 1844. And there was G. Schelle’s Oeuvres de Turgot et documents le concernant (1913-1923), with many documents from the Turgot family. More than a dozen books about Turgot were published during the nineteenth century.
Turgot inspired the economist Jean-Baptiste Say who, in turn, helped inspire the resurgence of libertarian writings in Europe. Leon Say, Jean-Baptiste’s grandson, wrote in his 1887 biography of Turgot: if he failed in the eighteenth century, he has in fact dominated the century following. He founded the political economy of the nineteenth century, and, by the freedom of industry which he bequeathed to us, he has impressed on the nineteenth century the mark which will best characterize it in history. In recent years, Turgot’s most ardent admirer has been intellectual historian Murray N. Rothbard who affirmed that If we were to award a prize for ‘brilliancy’ in the history of economic thought, it would surely go to Anne Robert Jacques Turgot.
He had a liberating vision. He told the truth. He pursued justice. He was fearless in challenging special interests who everywhere capture government power. He showed why liberty is absolutely essential if the poorest among us are to improve their lives. He displayed the courage and compassion to help set people free.