Eighteenth-century France and Scotland were characterized by the emergence of a new mode of thinking that helped to change the economic and political landscapes of Europe. Agricultural development that was closely associated with the trade competition and voluntary relationship was an important factor in the emergence of economic societies.1 Patriotism that accompanied this development can be regarded as a political function necessary for governing “the future interstate system.”2
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This paper aims to explore the role of French and Scottish Enlightenment eras in the development of modern economic thought. The paper will argue that a structured analysis of the societal progress was the main contribution of the French and Scottish Enlightenment to the economic evolution of humanity. Despite the discrepancies between the objectives of the Enlightenment and societal experiences in both political and economic terms, the recommendations for bettering human conditions that were formulated by prominent thinkers of the era were invaluable for setting in motion wider European Enlightenment. As a result, the world saw the wave of dynamism and innovativeness in which intellectual energies of people were less controlled by active political forces than in the previous centuries.3
The Scottish Enlightenment
Scottish Philosophical Framework
Before starting the discussion of the Enlightenment era in Scotland and France, it is necessary to explore the intellectual spirit of the eighteenth century that was influential in shaping philosophical and scientific developments that resulted in the emergence of empiricism and inductive reasoning. The key point of the examination of the intellectual wherewithal that instigated striking economic improvement was the development of the science of man by Hume. The philosopher’s attempt to widen the understanding of human behavior was artfully elaborated in his book—A Treatise of Human Nature.
Impressed by the achievements of Bayle and Mandeville, Hume explored the driving force of self-interest in human action as “the original motive to the establishment of justice.”4 Unlike thinkers of the previous centuries, the philosopher wanted to develop an empirically-based conception of morality that could become a “looking-glass by which we can, in some measure, with the eyes of other people, scrutinize the propriety of our conduct.”5 It can be argued that Hume’s measured account of human nature was instrumental in the social change that took place in the eighteenth century.
The Scottish response to the social developments in France in the 1790s can be best exemplified by the writings of a Scottish economist, Adam Smith, who was concerned with the principles of political legitimacy. In his discussion of loyalty to one’s country, Smith pointed to the two sources of political legitimacy: “certain respect and reverence for that constitution or form of government” and “an earnest desire to render the condition of our fellow citizens as safe, respectable, and happy as we can.”6 In other words, authority and utility were the prerequisites for the establishment of the legitimate rule of the law.
However, similar to Hume’s comments on France’s structural changes, Smith argued that although risky, utilitarian inclinations of French people were not illegitimate.7 There is no doubt that Smith’s stance was in line with democratic principles that are essential for modern societies. Also, the appreciation of the increased efficiency of human labor that can be achieved with the help of the division of labor was evident in both the Wealth of Nations and the economist’s lectures on jurisprudence.8 His influence on the Scottish Enlightenment was so unquestionable and far-reaching that many generations of economists and philosophers lived “in the shadow of Adam Smith.”9 Without a doubt, preoccupation with human nature is a key page in eighteenth-century European history that furthered the modernization of societies around the world.
The Power of Intellectual Sharing
The eighteenth-century Scottish philosophers were strong proponents of thinking and sociality. However, unlike in the previous centuries, the literati aimed for independent intellectual pursuits that were not deferential to religious authorities and ancient dogmas.10 Furthermore, the thinking was treated by Scots as a social activity, which was essential for the development of many branches of knowledge.
Scottish Enlightenment was not a result of a single intellectual movement; rather, the contribution of thinkers such as Smith, Hume, Hutcheson, Montesquieu, Ferguson, Millar, Reid, Stewart, and Kames among others helped to shape the intellectual character of the era.11 Scottish literati regularly gathered in the major universities of the country located in Aberdeen, Glasgow, and Edinburgh in which they discussed a wide range of topics including law, philosophy, the economy, the military, medicine, sociology, and astronomy among others.12 Undoubtedly, this was a sign of the sweeping cultural shift.
The birth of political economy was a central feature of the French and Scottish Enlightenment eras. Although Smith is widely recognized as the “founder of political economy,” the works of two other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers—Hume and Steuart—made an equally important contribution to the development of the discipline.13 Therefore, historians of economic thought often refer to the Scottish Triangle when discussing the intellectual developments of mid-eighteenth-century Scotland. Arguably, these developments were crucial in the analysis of human action under the conditions of the free market.
The contribution of the three philosophers to modern economic thought is highlighted by Omori who states that political economy emerged as a result of their effort to reconcile wealth and virtue in a market economy.14 Smith’s exploration of natural law resulted in the creation of his theory of justice. Furthermore, the philosopher emphasized the importance of the natural price mechanism in a private property economy, which is indispensable for understanding the forces of commodity production and exchange. Hume argued along Smithsonian lines that the emergence of spontaneous order is a characteristic of a market economy.
However, his advocacy of private property and liberty was not complete without a comprehensive theory of price mechanism.15 Unlike Smith, Hume was preoccupied with the theory of useful value, which did not allow him to recognize the potency of the theory of exchangeable value. Nonetheless, his quantity theory of money was lauded by Keynes who commented it by saying that economists had “a foot and half in the classical world.”16 The exceptional value of Hume’s work who was a staunch proponent of economic liberalism is evident in the character of the modern political economy.
Steuart’s contribution to modern economic thinking is best exemplified by his introduction to the government as a party responsible for monetary adjustments in the exchange process. Adhering to the position of Hume, Steuart distinguished industrial activities and labor and argued that the growth of industry separated modern societies from ancient ones.17 To show the interconnected nature of the free market, the philosopher coined the term “reciprocal wants” which “excite labor.”18
In his book An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy, Hume formulated a comprehensive system of fiscal and taxation policies that were designed to battle the problem of unemployment or “hunger amid plenty.”19 It can be argued that the Steuartian approach to the development of economic principles influenced the study of economics up to the present. Steuart divided the economic research into the following three stages: the extraction of principles, the incorporation of principles in reality, and the arrangement of a system.20 This approach helped to transform the emerging body of political economy from a speculative philosophy into a rigid scientific discipline.
The French Enlightenment
The French Enlightenment was an era marked by prominent contributions to many fields of inquiry the most important of which was political economy. The emergence of the idea of research markedly changed the pace of scientific progress, thereby contributing to social reform.21 However, in addition to the refinement and systematization of what might be referred to as today’s research and development (R&D), the French Enlightenment’s contribution to modern economics was the most valuable in the arena of social sciences.
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Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu who jettisoned some of the beliefs espoused by their time thinkers such as Maupertuis and Buffon were intent upon discovering “a providential order laid down by the deity.”22 It can be said that despite the espousal of the idea of a providential order, by grappling with economic concepts, the French philosophers helped to dismantle archaic taboos on the exploration of both nature and the human mind. Therefore, their intellectual pursuits deserve a prominent spot in modern economic thought.
Even though Montesquieu’s foray into the moral realm of the economy was limited to the exploration of money and commerce, he acknowledged that commerce could improve manners, thereby inducing peace and improving human nature.23 Rousseau, on the other hand, was a prolific scholar of economic subjects who recognized a close link between commerce and politics. The philosopher’s contribution to the Journal Oeconomique and the Journal du Commerce was key to the development of nascent political discourse in the country.24 Bosiguilbert was another thinker whose crowning achievement in the propagation of the concept of laissez-faire deserves a special place in economic history.25
Francois Quesnay was one of the most prominent economists of the French Enlightenment era. The economist attempted to describe an economic system of a country with the help of the first general equilibrium model.26 Quesnay was an ardent proponent of the idea that “coherence in society results from the dynamics in monetary and commodity flows between the three classes,” which were the nobility, the proprietary class, and the sterile class.27 Except for the desire to tax the nobility, his view of the perfect functioning of an economic system was that of noninterference. Some of Quesnay’s ideas were internalized by Smith, whose works inspired Karl Marx.28
Without a doubt, scientific momentum gathered by prominent thinkers of the eighteenth century France contributed to the richer understanding of the world, thereby helping philosophers to grapple with complex economic phenomena. The cultural leadership of the aristocratic class was substantially undermined by the thinkers of the Enlightenment era whose belief in non-zero-sum interactions fostered economic growth. Furthermore, the intellectual movement of the eighteenth century was essential for changing a negative attitude of the church towards the creation and accumulation of wealth. In an unprecedented cultural shift, the role of the state was permanently changed, thereby allowing free thinkers to engage in independent thought, which facilitated the expansion of numerous fields of inquiry such as physics, politics, philosophy, medicine, and economics among others.
It can be argued that by closely studying works of thinkers of the Scottish and French Enlightenment era, one might derive at clues for solving the present-day economic crises. Smith’s Wealth of Nations alone contains many indispensable lessons that can be used by modern businessmen, politicians, and economists.
When it comes to business ethics, the importance of which was brought to the fore by the financial crisis of 2007-2008, entrepreneurs have to pay close attention to the interaction between morals and profit-seeking.29 It is not a stretch to argue that today’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies would not be complete without a Smithsonian analysis of the interaction between moral norms and competitive markets. Therefore, in the pursuit of self-interest, corporate entities have to take into consideration the role of the Smithsonian apparatus of social approval and disapproval. Moreover, Smith acknowledged that “self-preservation and the propagation of the species, are the great ends which Nature seems to have proposed in the formation of all animals.”30 It means that when engaging in commerce, entrepreneurs, in addition to considering the social implications of their actions, should also strive to avoid causing harm to the environment to which people are seamlessly joined.
Another lesson from the Enlightenment that can be used to resolve some of the modern economic problems is the unshaken belief in laissez-faire.31 The system of what Smith referred to as natural liberty can help modern societies to thrive. It must be borne in mind, however, that the rise of corporatocracy must not be confused with the free market, which has attracted an unfair share of criticism in recent years.32 In the eighteenth century, Gournay propagated the concept of laissez-faire to dismantle “archaic restrictions on the trade of grain.”33 In the same vein, modern economists can advance the notion of unrestricted trade to facilitate the flow of products across the borders and to get rid of protectionist policies that damage the global economy.
The crowning achievement of French and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers deserves a place in the annals of political-economic thought. Even though in the eighteenth century, prominent thinkers from countries such as Italy, Britain, and Sweden helped to further many fields of inquiry, contributors from France and Scotland eclipsed them in fame and importance. The Enlightenment era can be considered a turning point in humanity’s economic thought.
After analyzing the role of the Scottish Triangle of prominent philosophers who developed the idea of free economic society, I predict that Smith will long be revered by economic historians. The philosopher’s doctrine of unintended economic consequences, the analysis of the division of labor, and the concept of property rights have to be studied not only by scholars of political economy but also by those interested in sociology.
Backhouse Roger, The Penguin History of Economics, New York, 2002.
Broadie Alexander, Scottish Enlightenment, Edinburgh, 2011.
Brooke John, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, Cambridge, 1991.
Burke Peter, A Social History of Knowledge, Cambridge, 2000.
Christensen Paul, Epicurean and Stoic Sources for Boisguilbert’s Physiological and Hippocratic Vison of Nature and Economics, Duke, 2003.
Deugd Nienke and Willem Hoen, Dovetailing Economics and Political Science: A Paradigmatic Introduction to International Political Economy, Germany, 2010.
Hubbard Glenn and Tim Kane, Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America, New York, 2014.
Keynes John, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in The Royal Economic Society, Basingstoke, 1973.
Lowry Todd, Pre-Classical Economic Thought: From the Greeks to the Scottish Enlightenment, New York, 1987.
Montesquieu Charles, The Spirit of the Laws, Cambridge, 1989.
Otterson James, Adam Smith: Selected Philosophical Writings, Exeter, 2004.
Paganelli Maria, “Recent Engagements with Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment,” Digitalcommons, accessed July 6, 2017.
Rutherford Donald, In the Shadow of Adam Smith: Founders of Scottish Economics, 1700-1900, New York, 2012.
Schabas Margaret, The Natural Origins of Economics, New York, 2005.
Stapelbroek Koen and Jani Marjanen, The Rise of Economic Societies in the Eighteenth Century, London, 2012.
Steuart James, An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy, London, 1767.
Suarez-Villa Luis, Corporate Power, Oligopolies, and the Crisis of the State, Albany, 2014.
Wright John, Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Cambridge, 2009.
1 Roger Backhouse, The Penguin History of Economics, New York, 2002, p. 48.
2Koen Stapelbroek and Jani Marjanen, The Rise of Economic Societies in the Eighteenth Century, London, 2012, p. 2.
3 Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane, Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America, New York, 2014, p. 67.
4John Wright, Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Cambridge, 2009, p. 29.
6James Otterson, Adam Smith: Selected Philosophical Writings, Exeter, 2004, p. 72.
7 James Otterson, Adam Smith, p. 72.
8 Todd Lowry, Pre-Classical Economic Thought: From the Greeks to the Scottish Enlightenment, New York, 1987, p.17.
9Donald Rutherford, In the Shadow of Adam Smith: Founders of Scottish Economics, 1700-1900, New York, 2012, p. 44.
10 Alexander Broadie, Scottish Enlightenment, Edinburgh, 2011, p. 32.
12 Maria Paganelli, “Recent Engagements with Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment,” Digitalcommons, accessed July 6, 2017. http://digitalcommons.trinity.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1028&context=econ_faculty.
13 Koen Stapelbroek and Jani Marjanen, The Rise of Economic Societies, p. 103.
15 Koen Stapelbroek and Jani Marjanen, The Rise of Economic Societies, p. 103.
16 John Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money in The Royal Economic Society, Basingstoke, 1973, p. 76.
17 Koen Stapelbroek and Jani Marjanen, The Rise of Economic Societies, p. 103.
18 James Steuart, An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy, London, 1767, p. 236.
20 Koen Stapelbroek and Jani Marjanen, The Rise of Economic Societies, p. 102.
21 Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge, Cambridge, 2000, p. 44.
22 John Brooke, Science, and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, Cambridge, 1991, p. 39.
23 Charles Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, Cambridge, 1989, p. 204.
24 Margaret Schabas, The Natural Origins of Economics, New York, 2005, p. 44.
25 Paul Christensen, Epicurean and Stoic Sources for Boisguilbert’s Physiological and Hippocratic Vision of Nature and Economics, Duke, 2003, p. 67-71.
26 Nienke de Deugd and Willem Hoen, Dovetailing Economics and Political Science: A Paradigmatic Introduction to International Political Economy, Germany, 2010, p. 35.
27 Ibid., 35.
28 Roger Backhouse, The Penguin History, p. 48.
29 Margaret Schabas, The Natural, p. 44.
30 Ibid., 91.
31 Roger Backhouse, The Penguin, p. 48.
32 Luis Suarez-Villa, Corporate Power, Oligopolies, and the Crisis of the State, Albany, 2014, p. 34.
33 Margaret Schabas, The Natural, p. 44.