David M. Hart, "J.B. Say and the Transformation of Restoration French Liberalism" (Nov. 2021)

Date: 20 Nov. 2021

The Transformation of the "Political" Liberalism of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer

Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832)

The writings of the economist Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832) had a profound impact on the thinking of Charles Comte (1782-1837) and Charles Dunoyer (1786-1862) in the years 1814 to 1817. We can trace this impact in the essays they wrote for their journals Le Censeur (July 1814 - Sept. 1815) and Le Censeur européen (Jan. 1817 - Apr. 1819). [1]

Comte and Dunoyer were trained as lawyers and their earliest forays into politics showed them to be fairly standard defenders of “political liberalism” such as freedom of speech and association, constitutional limits on state power, and opposition to "despotism" whether monarchical or imperial (i.e. Napoleonic) in form. In the pages of their journals we can see their intellectual transformation during this period into advocates of a new kind of "social" and "economic" liberalism. This transition occurred under the influence of their reading of the sociologist Saint-Simon, the historian Augustin Thierry (who later became an editorial assistant to Comte and Dunoyer), the royalist historian of the French monarchy and aristocracy, Montlosier, the liberal political theorist Benjamin Constant, and then most importantly the industrialist and political economist Jean-Baptiste Say, which we can trace in their book reviews.

Le Censeur, 7 vols. (July/Sept. 1814 - 6 Sept. 1815)

Say’s economic theory in particular provided them with a much larger framework for their liberalism which would now include a theory of the antagonism or struggle (la lutte) between the productive “industrial” class and the unproductive parasitical “ruling” class, as well as a new “industrialist” theory of history which explained how societies moved through different stages based upon their very different “means of production” and the different forms the conflict between the “industrial” and the “ruling” class took in these different stages of economic development. Among these stages, they were particularly interested in slavery, which they regarded as the archetypal form of class rule and exploitation, and the newest form of rule and exploitation by a bureaucratic class of government officials which had appeared under Napoleon and which seemed to be the kind of class rule which would govern France in the near future.

That these two liberals developed quite sophisticated ideas about class conflict and the transition of societies from one economic stage to another some thirty years before Marx did is striking and needs to be better known and appreciated by scholars.

What made their form of liberalism unique, as well as those other French liberals who followed in their footsteps (such as Bastiat and Molinari), was this combination of political liberalism (limited government and rule of law), economic liberalism (free markets and laissez-faire policies), and social (or sociological) liberalism (class analysis, the evolution of societies thorough economic stages). The combination of these three different dimensions to their liberal theory made their version of liberalism a very radical, rich, and interesting one, one which I believe sets them above their contemporary English counterparts.[2]

In fact, what Say’s economic ideas did was to show them the interconnectedness of the political, the social, and the moral worlds in a way which even the ideas of Adam Smith did not, at least as explicitly. (They do if you view his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and the Wealth of Nations (1776) together, which at the time was not usually done.) We can see this very clearly in the first review of Say's Treatise which was supposed to appear in September 1815 which was confiscated by the police.

Their First Encounter with J.B. Say


The first of Say’s works to be reviewed (the author signed as “X” and was probably Comte) was his official report for the French government on the economic impact of the wars on the English economy, De l'Angleterre et des Anglais (On England and the English) in volume 6 of Le Censeur (1 June, 1815). The reviewer thought that Say’s ideas were so important that the journal would soon publish a long review of Say’s Treatise. [See the bibliography of Say’s works here ; and Say, De l’Angleterre et les Anglais (Paris: Arthus Bertrad, 1815). [facs. PDF] Comte and Dunoyer were still asserting the seminal importance of Say’s work in 1819-20 when their journal became a daily news paper, also called Le Censeur européen. By then a fourth edition of Say’s Treatise had been published which they were describing as “without contradiction one of the most important books which have been published since the beginning of the 19th century. [Le Censeur européen, 14 October, 1819, quoted in Harpaz, pp. 128-29, fn 5.]


Next to be reviewed, also by Comte, was Say’s major Treatise on Political Economy, the 1st edition of which was published in 1803 (but not reviewed in C or CE), the 2nd edition of which appeared in 1815 and reviewed in volume 7 of Le Censeur which should have appeared in September 1815. However, that issue of their magazine was seized by the police and the journal was forced to close for a period of 15 months while the two lawyers hid from the police and battled the censors in the courts. Some copies of this issue were saved so we have access to it. [See the review by Comte, CR “Traité d’économie politique, ou simple exposition de la manière dont se forment, se distribuent et se consomment les richesses, par M. J.B. Say” (C, T.7, 6 Sept. 1815), pp. 43-77) in HTML (to come) and facs. PDF; and Say’s Traité: the facs. PDF of the 3rd ed. [vol.1 and vol.2 ] and the HTML and facs. PDF of the 6th ed. of 1841; and the rather old (1821) English trans. of the 4th ed. of 1819 by Princeps in HTML and facs. PDF - vol.1 and vol.2.]

As he stated on the opening page:

A l’affût comme nous le sommes de toutes les idées, de tous les ouvrages qui peuvent exercer une influence favorable sur le sort [44] de la nation, le Traité d’économie politique de M. Say ne pouvait nous échapper. Nous l’avons lu avec l’attention qu’il mérite, et nous pouvons affirmer que nous connaissons peu de livres qui renferment autant de notions saines, autant de vues immédiatement applicables et utiles. Nous le déclarons, cet ouvrage nous paraît avoir complètement tire l’économie politique de l’empire des opinions systématiques. Il fait apercevoir, il vous oblige d’observer des faits qui arrivent journellement, et qui n’en sont pas mieux connus pour cela; il montre la relation de ces faits entr’eux, celle qu’ils ont avec leurs causes, avec leurs résultats; et ces faits sont les plus intéressans pour l’homme, puisque ce sont ceux qui ont rapport à sa fortune, à son existence, aux biens qui peuvent la rendre douce … As we are on the lookout for all those ideas and all those works which can have a favourable influence on the fate of the nation, M. Say’s Treatise on Political Economy could not escape our attention. We have read it with the attention it deserves and we can assure the reader that we know of very few books which contain as many good ideas, as many opinions which are immediately practicable and useful. We believe that this work appears to us to have completely established (the science) of political economy upon the foundation of systematic thinking. It makes us see things (les faits), it forces us to observe things which happen every day, things that are not well understood even though they do happen every day; it shows us the interconnectedness of (these) things, (the connection) they have to their causes and to their consequences; and these things are the most interesting things for mankind because they have a connection to our wealth, our very existence, and the goods which can make (our) lives better (douce) …

As he quotes passage after passage from Say we can see him thinking through the implications of some of Say’s most important ideas, especially that all activities which create a value of some kind thereby create wealth, not just agriculture (the 18thC Physiocratic notion) but also commerce and “industry” very broadly defined; that both parties to a voluntary exchange benefit from that exchange; and that so much of what the government does either destroys wealth, prevents wealth from being created, or transfers wealth from one group to another. This passage is quite important in showing this progression in his thinking:

Si les richesses peuvent se créer de toutes pièces, elles ne sont donc pas exclusives ; ce que l’un gagne n’est donc pas nécessairement perdu pour un autre. Deux individus peuvent s’enrichir ensemble; deux nations le peuvent également; et, en effet, comment expliquerait-on autrement les progrès que toutes les nations de l’Europe ont faits simultanément depuis l’époque où elles mangeaient du gland jusqu’à celle où nous les voyons ? Que penser enfin de cette prétendue Balance du commerce, pour laquelle on se livre, depuis cent ans, des guerres si meurtrières? If wealth can be created out of nothing, (that does not) therefore mean that it is limited (to one thing or person); what one person gains is not necessarily a loss for another. Two individuals can grow rich together; two nations can do this as equally well; and indeed, how else could one explain the progress that all nations have simultaneously made since the time when people ate acorns (off the ground) to what we can see today? And then, what is one (supposed) to think of this so-called “balance of trade”, (since the pursuit) of this “balance” has resulted in such murderous wars for one hundred years?
Autre conséquence. Si créer de la valeur c’est produire des richesses, c’est donc détruire des richesses que de détruire des valeurs. La richesse peut se défaire, pour ainsi dire, par une marche contraire à celle qui lui a donné naissance. La consommation n’est donc pas un simple déplacement de richesses; elle en est une véritable destruction ; et cela nous aide à apprécier ces antiques sophismes, que le riche par ses jouissances, les gouvernemens par leurs profusions, rendent d’une [69] main ce qu’ils-reçoivent de l’autre, et que toute cette belle circulation fait la prospérité des états. There is another consequence. If creating value produces wealth, then (it follows) that destroying wealth also destroys value. Wealth can be “undone” so to speak by a series of steps taken in the opposite direction to those which gave rise to it. Consumption is not therefore a simple “displacement” of wealth, it is an actual destruction of wealth; and this (fact) helps us to critically judge the old sophism that the rich, by their enjoyment (of their wealth), and governments by their lavish expenditure give back with one hand what they take with the other, and that all this wonderful circulation (of wealth) makes states prosperous.

Incorporating Say's Economic Theory into a New more Radical Form of Liberalism

Le Censeur européen, 12 vols. (Jan./Feb. 1817 - 17 Apr. 1819)

Comte and Dunoyer reopened in January 1817 with a new title Le Censeur européen and another review by Comte of Say’s Treatise, this time of the revised 3rd edition which had appeared in the interim. Part 1 of the review appeared in volume 1 (Jan. 1817) and Part 2 in the following issue Volume 2 (March, 1817). [See, Comte, CR “Traité d’économie politique, ou simple exposition de la manière dont se forment, se distribuent et se consomment les richesses, 3e. édit., par M. Jean-Baptiste Say,” (CE T.1, 19 December 1816, p. 159-227) in HTML (to come) and facs. PDF; and [CC?], CR “Traité d’économie politique, ou simple exposition de la manière dont se forment, se distribuent et se consomment les richesses, 3e. édit., par M. Jean-Baptiste Say,” (CE, T.2, 27 March 1817), pp. 169-221, in HTML and facs. PDF.]

One line of Say’s thought which struck them was the idea that political economy in Say’s hands had become a true science for the first time (even beating out Adam Smith) and that he had revealed “les lois constantes et invariables” (the constant and unchanging laws) which governed not only the economic world but the much broader social and political world. So much of the world’s problems could be attributed to theorists and politicians trying to run the world according to “les règles de conduite” (rules of conduct) which they had spun out of their imaginations instead of following economic laws which could be discovered by empirical observation of how people behaved in the real world. As he stated in this passage:

La manie de chercher des règles de conduite dans son imagination, au lieu de les chercher dans la nature même de l’homme, a eu peu de danger dans les individus qui n’ont joui d’aucun pouvoir ou d’aucun crédit; mais lorsqu’elle s’est trouvée chez des hommes auxquels on supposait de grands talens, ou qui étaient revêtus d’une autorité très-étendue, elle a eu les résultats les [162] plus funestes. [He discusses Machiavelli, King Charles XI, Louis XIV, Machiavel, Robespierre, and Bonaparte as examples.] … The compulsion to look for rules of conduct in one’s imagination instead of looking for them in the very nature of human beings, poses little danger in those individuals who have no power or no credit, but when (this compulsion) is found in men which are believed to have immense talent or who are invested with very extensive authority, it has had the most dire results. [He discusses Machiavelli, King Charles XI, Louis XIV, Machiavel, Robespierre, and Bonaparte as examples.] …
En économie politique, les faux systèmes n’ont pas été moins funestes à l’espèce humaine qu’en religion ou en politique : car il faut leur attribuer la plupart des malheurs qui ont désolé le monde . Les horreurs commises par les Espagnols en Amérique pour y amasser de l’or ; les crimes commis dans les Indes par les Anglais pour soumettre ce pays à leur domination ; les guerres faites ou suscitées à la France par le gouvernement d’Angleterre depuis des siècles, pour détruire l’industrie française ; le blocus continental [163] de Bonaparte et sa guerre de Russie pour détruire l’industrie anglaise; la guerre actuelle de l’Espagne contre les peuples de l’Amérique méridionale; enfin, presque toutes les calamités qui ont pesé ou qui pèsent encore sur les peuples, n’ont eu lieu que parce qu’on s’est opiniâtre à faire exécuter de faux, systèmes d’économie politique. Tous ces systèmes ont tourné ou tourneront à la ruine et à la honte de ceux qui les ont soutenus ; parce que la nature agissant par des lois constantes et invariables, finit toujours par vaincre les obstacles qu’on lui oppose. In political economy false systems (of belief) have been no less dire for the human race than in religion or politics, since we have to attribute to them the majority of the misfortune which has befallen the world. The horrors committed by the Spanish in America in order to acquire gold; the crimes committed in the West Indies by the English in order to subject it to their domination; the wars waged or provoked in France by the English government over the centuries in order to destroy French industry; Napoleon’s Continental Blockade and his war against Russia to destroy English industry; the present war by Spain against the people of South America; finally, almost all the disasters which have afflicted or still afflict people have occurred because some people persist in imposing false systems of political economy. All these systems have resulted or will result in the ruin and the shame of all those who have supported them; because nature acts according to laws which are constant and unchanging, it will always end by conquering any obstacles which stand in its way.
Les sciences morales et politiques ne sont pas plus arbitraires que les sciences physiques ou naturelles; dans les unes comme dans les autres, on ne s’instruit que par l’observation. L’organisation de l’homme est aussi invariable que l’organisation d’une plante, et les phénomènes généraux qui en résultent, sont aussi indépendans du moraliste ou du législateur, que les phénomènes résultans de l’organisation des êtres inanimés, sont indépendans du naturaliste qui les observe et nous les fait connaître. Dans toutes ses parties, la nature suit une marche constante et invariable; les choses, dans les mêmes circonstances, arrivent toujours de la même manière; il ne peut donc y avoir qu’une bonne [164] manière de les exposer; il ne peut y avoir qu’un bon système dans chaque science, et les plus grands génies n’ont d’autre avantage sur le commun des hommes, que de bien voir comment les choses se passent, et de les exposer comme il les ont vues. The political and moral sciences are no more arbitrary than the physical and natural sciences; in both one learns by observation. The constitution of humans is as unchanging as the constitution of plants, and the general phenomena which are the result of this are just as independent of the moral theorist or the legislator, as the phenomena which are the result of the constitution of inanimate objects are independent of the scientist who observes them or teaches us about them. In all of its aspects, nature follows a constant and unchanging path; things always happen in the same way given the same circumstances; thus there can only be one good way of describing this; there can only be one good system of thought in each of the sciences, and the greatest genius is in no better position than the ordinary person, to see correctly how things happen and to describe them as he sees them.

As examples of policies pursued by governments which violated these unbreakable economic laws the reviewer singles out excessive government expenditure and the massive taxation and the issuing of paper money required to fund these policies, the policy of pursuing a “favourable” balance of trade by using tariffs and subsidies to “protect” domestic producers, and (in the previous review article) the idea that the possession of colonies would increase national prosperity. Added to these problems there was also the problems caused by ignorance of what activities truly created wealth as people were mislead by “false systems” of economic thought, such as the greater productivity made possible by the use of machines, the contribution to wealth generation made by manufacturing industry in general, and the important role played by “la classes des entrepreneurs” (the class of entrepreneurs) in bringing all these improvement about.

Only the teaching of a more scientific approach to political economy would disabuse people of these false economic ideas. The reviewer bemoaned the fact that the teaching of economics in France was far behind that of other countries such as Germany, Britain, Russia, and even Spain. It should be noted that J.B. Say would eventually be allowed to give lectures at the private Athénée in Paris (1816-1819) and then made a professor of political economy at the prestigious Collège de France in 1831 where he taught briefly before his death the following year..

In the second part of the review of the 3rd edition of Say’s Treatise (March 1817) the reviewer discussed Say’s ideas about the nature of consumption, especially the difference between “productive” and “unproductive” consumption, and how this idea could be applied to government expenditure and “consumption”. The radical implication of Say’s ideas was that most (perhaps all) government expenditure was “unproductive” and thus a drain on wealth creation by the “productive and industrious class” with important flow on effects on the broader society or “civilisation” as he termed it. The reviewer posed the problem in this way:

On peut faire à son égard la supposition que nous avons faite à l’égard d’un simple particulier. S’il consomme la portion de revenus enlevée à chaque individu au moyen de l’impôt, dans des travaux productifs d’utilité publique, s’il creuse des canaux, s’il fait de grandes routes, les biens pris au public sont consommés, mais la richesse [195] nationale n’est point diminuée; à mesure qu’une valeur a été détruite, une autre valeur a été créée. Si au lieu de faire consommer le produit des impôts par des hommes laborieux, qui rendent toujours par leurs travaux au-delà de ce qu’ils ont reçu, il le fait consommer par des hommes oisifs, par des valets, par des courtisans, par des moines, par des soldats inutiles à la sûreté de l’état, enfin par des gens qui ne produisent rien, la valeur en est entièrement détruite, et aucune valeur équivalente n’est créée pour la remplacer. On this matter one can make the same conjecture as we have made with regard to a single individual. If it (the government) consumes the share of revenue which has been imposed on each individual by means of taxation, by undertaking work which produces things of public utility, if it digs canals, if it builds main roads, the goods taken from the public are consumed but national wealth is not reduced; to the extent that (something of) value has been destroyed another (thing of) value has been created. If, instead of directing the consumption of taxes to hard working men who always produce more from their labour than they have received (in payment), it directs the consumption (of taxes) to men who are idle, to servants, to courtiers, to monks, to soldiers who are not useful for the security of the state, and finally by men who produce nothing, (then) value has been been completely destroyed and no equal value has been created to replace it.

Thus, rather than facilitating the creation of wealth by others, or engaging in the production of wealth itself, the government became instead “un gouvernement dissipateur” (a wasteful government) [p. 196] or resembled “un voleur” (a thief) [p. 199].

The reviewer then turned to discussing Say’s ideas which added to the traditional “le doux commerce” (the softening effect of commerce) thesis by including far more than just commerce in his analysis of the impact of economics on culture, or as it was termed at that time “la morale” (morality) and “la civilisation”. What was important here were the ideas of the mutually beneficial nature of exchange, the cooperation brought about by the division of labour, and how these brought people closer together instead of encouraging them to think of each other as potential enemies. The key passage is:

L’économie politique montre donc comment les hommes ont des intérêts communs; elle détruit les jalousies, les haines qui les rendent ennemis les uns des autres; elle unit les diverses classes de la société entre elles, et les dispose se secourir mutuellement. [214] Thus political economy shows how mankind have interests in common, how it destroys jealousies and hatreds which makes some the enemies of others; how it unites the diverse classes of society, and encourages them to help each other in a mutual fashion.
Les moralistes ont dit que l’oisiveté est la mère de tous les vices; l’économie politique a montré qu’elle est en outre la source de toutes les misères, comme le travail est la source de toutes les richesses et d’un grand nombre de vertus. Les moralistes enseignent à l’homme à mettre ses devoirs avant ses intérêts; les économistes lui montrent comment il peut concilier ses intérêts et ses devoirs. Les uns lui apprennent à lutter contre les besoins de la nature, les autres lui apprennent à satisfaire ses besoins, non-seulement sans nuire à personne, mais même en faisant du bien aux autres. L’économie politique ne condamne pas l’orgueil, mais elle apprend aux hommes à s’apprécier et à se mettre chacun à sa place. Elle ne prêche pas contre les bassesses; elle montre comment on peut les éviter. Les richesses ne sont pas pour elle un objet de mépris, elles sont un moyen de bien-être et de bienfaisance. Elle ne les emploie pas à nourrir la paresse ou l’oisiveté; elle en fait un plus noble usage, elle s’en sert pour faire vivre des hommes utiles et laborieux. Elle ne se borne pas à recommander les vertus domestiques; elle enseigne les moyens de les pratiquer. Elle ne s’occupe point de patriotisme; elle fait mieux, elle montre comment les intérêts de chacun sont unis aux intérêts de tous, et [215] comment on peut faire le bien de son pays, sans faire du mal à aucun autre. Moral theorists have said that idleness is the mother of all vices; political economy has shown that it is in addition the source of all misery, just as work is the source of all wealth and a large number of virtues. Moralists teach mankind to put its duties ahead of its interests; economists show it how to reconcile its interests and its duties. The former (moralists) teach it to fight against the needs of nature, the latter (economists) teach it how to satisfy its needs, not only without harming anybody but even contributing to the good of others. Political economy does not condemn pride, but it teaches mankind to appreciate one another and to let each find their own place (in the world). It does not preach against meanness; it shows how one can avoid it. Wealth is not an object to be disdained, but a means to well-being and charity. Political economy does not use wealth to encourage laziness or idleness; it puts it to a more noble use, namely to increase the number of useful and hard working men. It does not limit itself to advising the (adoption of) domestic virtues, it teaches us how to practise them. It is not at all concerned about patriotism, but does one better, it shows how the interests of each peson are tied to the interests of everyone, and how one can do good for one’s country without doing harm to any other (person).

A "Small Volume" which has some "Big Ideas"


A review, this time by Dunoyer, of a third work by Say, Petit volume contenant quelques aperçus des hommes et de la société (A Small Volume containing some Thoughts on Mankind and Society) , was published also in two parts, in volume 6 (Sept., 1817) [PDF] and volume 7 (March, 1818) [PDF]. The first “review” was quite short and consisted mostly of short quotes from the book. The actual review would come in the following edition of the journal as the first edition of the book had sold out and a second revised edition would be available very soon.

Dunoyer was very taken with Say’s book, considering it to be filled with astute insights, provocative ideas, and expressed in a manner which would encourage the reader to explore more of the discipline of political economy. He also used the review as an opportunity for him to express himself very frankly about what he thought the proper function of governments should be (very little other than protecting the life, liberty and property of its citizens), how best to go about changing the current system of corruption and exploitation (enlightening the “dupes” who allowed themselves to be deceived by conniving politicians and their hangers-on - this is a perspective later taken up with great skill by Frédéric Bastiat in the 1840s which he clearly had from this approach advocated by Say and Dunoyer whom he (Bastiat) had read very carefully), and the role of a free press in “tearing off the mask” of those who ruled and exposing them in their complete political “nakedness” for all to see. I provide here three lengthy quotes from the review which illustrate the quite remarkable and explicit views expressed by Dunoyer in this piece. Perhaps he thought the censors would not read a review of a book like this and he could be more open and forthright in expressing his views.

(1.) On the proper function of government (pp. 84-87).

Ainsi, en même temps que les doctrines économiques nous conduisent à reconnaître quel est le véritable objet de la société, elles nous apprennent à voir quel est l'objet certain des gouvernemens. L'objet de la société, c'est la production considérée sous le point de vue le plus vaste et le plus élevé ; celui des gouvernemens c'est, en laissant toute liberté à la production, de faire jouir les producteurs de la sûreté qui leur est indispensable. Tout ce qui tend à troubler la sûreté, voilà la matière et toute la matière des gouvernemens. Leur action ne peut aller plus loin. So, at the same time as economic theory enables us to understand what the true purpose of society is, it (also) teaches us to see what the proper purpose of government is. The purpose of society is production, seen from the broadest and most comprehensive perspective; that of government is to enable producers to enjoy the security which is essential for them, by allowing them the complete liberty of producing. Everything which might interfere with (their) security is the concern and the sole concern for governments. Their activity should not go any further (than this).
De là, dans la politique proprement dite, un changement fort important et qu'on ne saurait trop faire remarquer. L'action que les gouvernemens doivent exercer sur la société, n'est plus une action directe, mais indirecte et en quelque sorte négative. Leur tâche n'est pas [85] de la dominer, mais de la préserver de toute domination. Ils ne sont pas chargés de lui assigner un but et de l'y conduire, mais seulement d'écarter les obstacles qui entravent plus ou moins sa marche vers le but que lui indiquent et auquel la portent sa nature et ses besoins. La société reçoit sa destination d’elle-même; elle la suit par sa propre impulsion. Les hommes qui prétendraient la diriger ressembleraient à la mouche du coche, et seraient peut-être un peu plus ridicules. Voir le mouvement de la société dans l'action des gouvernemens, c'est confondre les évolutions de la mouche avec la marche du coche. Croire que le monde ne se meut que parce que les gouvernemens décrètent, réglementent, s'agitent, c'est croire que le char ne chemine que parce que la mouche bourdonne, s'empresse, s'assied sur le nez du cocher, et demande aux chevaux le loyer de sa peine. Il est vrai que, dans la société, les chevaux paient; mais il n'en faut pas conclure que les mouches traînent le char. Tandis que quelques hommes rendent des lois, bourdonnent des harangues, font des parades, livrent des batailles, multiplient, précipitent de stériles mouvemens, et pensent ainsi gouverner le monde, le genre humain, conduit [86] par les seules lois de son organisation, peuple la terre, la rend vivante et féconde, multiplie à l'infini les produits des arts, agrandit le domaine des sciences, perfectionne toutes ses facultés, accroît tous les moyens de les satisfaire, et accomplit ainsi ses destinées. Cet immense mouvement de l'espèce humaine échappe à l'action des hommes vains qui prétendent la conduire, et ils pourraient disparaître qu'il ne serait ni suspendu, ni ralenti. Il n'est donc pas au pouvoir des gouvernemens de diriger la société; tout ce dont ils sont capables, c'est de rendre sa marche un peu plus ou un peu moins facile, selon qu'ils appliquent leur puissance à fortifier ou à affaiblir les résistances qu'elle éprouve. Ce n'est que sur ces résistances qu'ils doivent agir; leur tâche est de les vaincre et n'est que cela. From this it follows that, in (government) policy as we currently understand it, (there needs to be) an extremely important change (in direction), one which cannot be stressed enough. The actions which governments ought to exercise when it comes to society should no longer be direct actions but indirect ones, and in some respect negative ones. Their task is not to dominate society but to protect it from all (forms) of domination. It is not their responsibility to set a goal for society and to lead it there, but only to remove any obstacles which more or less block its progress towards the goal which society’s nature and its needs have revealed to it and towards which they are taking it. Society determines its goal itself; and pursues it under its own impetus. People who purport to steer (diriger) it are like the coach fly, the fly which buzzes around a horse drawn coach or cart, and who are probably even more ridiculous. To see the (forward) movement of society (coming from) the actions of governments is to confuse the movements of the fly with the forward motion of the cart. To believe that the world only moves because governments issue decrees and regulations, and fusses about, is to believe that the cart only moves down the road because the fly buzzes about and settles on the nose of the coach driver, and (then) demands that the horse pay him for his trouble. It is true that in (our) society, the horses do pay (the fly), but one shouldn’t conclude from this that the flies pull the cart. While some men (do) make the laws, make buzzing noises in our ears with their harangues, hold parades, engage in battles, multiply and (then) throw themselves into unproductive activity, and who think that (if they) govern the world in this way, the human race (will) be led by the laws of their organisation alone, to populate the earth, to make it (a) living and fertile (place), to increase indefinitely the products (created by) technology, to expand the domain of science, to improve all of its abilities, to increase all the means to satisfy them, and thereby to fulfill its goals. This enormous (forward) movement of the human race takes place outside the actions of those vain men who claim to direct it, and should they disappear, (this movement) would neither be halted nor slowed down. It is therefore not in the power of governments to direct society; all that they are capable of doing is to make its (forward) movement a little bit more or a little bit less easy, depending upon (whether) they use their power to increase or weaken any resistance which they (may) face. It is only upon this resistance what they ought to act; their task is to subdue this and only this.
Dès lors, toute action des gouvernemens au-delà de cet objet est une usurpation réelle; tout effort des gouvernemens pour assigner une fin particulière à la société, ou pour la conduire par d'autres voies que les siennes à la fin qu'elle doit atteindre, est une véritable tyrannie. Ainsi, toute organisation dont l'objet serait de faire d'un peuple un peuple souverain, un peuple conquérant, un peuple dévot, serait [87] également absurde et tyrannique ; et toute mesure par laquelle on entreprendrait de diriger le mouvement d'un peuple industrieux vers sa destination naturelle, toute intervention des gouvernemens dans le commerce, les arts, l'agriculture, la religion, les sciences, l'éducation, l'imprimerie, serait pareillement un acte de déraison et de tyrannie. Il est bien entendu que les gouvernemens n'ont point a se mêler de ces choses; elles sont la matière de la société, et non celle des gouvernemens. Les individus dont la société se compose, cultivent, fabriquent, commercent, écrivent, élèvent leurs enfans, honorent les dieux au gré de leurs besoins, de leur raison, de leur conscience; et les bons gouvernemens n'entrent dans ce grand mouvement de la société humaine que pour reconnaître ce qui le trouble, et s'efforcer de le réprimer. Leur tâche est de veiller à la sûreté de tous, en prenant le moins possible sur le temps, sur-les revenus, sur la liberté de chacun. Since then, any action of governments beyond this is a real usurpation (of their power); any attempt by governments to set a particular goal for society, or to take it there by (any) means other than those it has chosen itself, to reach a goal it ought to reach, is a true tyranny. Thus, any organisation whose goal might be to turn a nation into a ruling nation, a conquering nation, a devout nation, would be equally absurd and tyrannical; and any attempt one might make to direct the movement of an industrious nation away from its natural goal, any intervention by governments in commerce, technology, agriculture, religion, science, education, printing would likewise be an act of folly and tyranny. It is well understood that governments are not to get involved in these matters; they are the concern of society and not that of governments. The individuals which make up a society farm, make things, trade, write, raise their children, honour the gods according to their own needs, their reason, and their conscience; and good governments become involved in the great movement of human society only to take note of what disturbs it, and to attempt to prevent this. Their task is to watch over the security of everyone, by taking (away) the least possible amount of time, money, and liberty from each person.
Dès lors, le meilleur gouvernement sera évidemment celui qui retranchera le moins de notre liberté, de nos moyens de vivre, et qui cependant nous fera jouir de la plus grande sûreté. Since then, the best government will obviously be that which infringes the least upon our liberty and our means of (making a) living, and which however will enable us to enjoy the greatest amount of security.

(2.) On the need to inform the dupes since it was pointless in trying to change those who do the duping (pp. 104-6)

» Bien fou donc qui s'imagine, par des livres, corriger les hypocrites, les femmes galantes, les conquérans, les usurpateurs, les fourbes qui travaillent en petit, ou ceux qui travaillent en grand. Mais, par des livres, ce dont on peut se flatter, c'est de corriger leurs dupes. » [CD quotes one of Say's “aperçus”]: “So it is quite mad to imagine that by means of books one could reform the hypocrites, the charming women (on the make), the conquerors, the usurpers, the con-artists who ply their trade on small matters or on large matters. But by means of books, what one can flatter oneself about, is to be able reform those they dupe."
Voilà la pensée. On ne corrige pas les tartufes ; mais on diminue le nombre des Orgons. On ne corrige point les fourbes; mais on peut se flatter de corriger leurs dupes. Corrige-t-on les mauvais gouvernemens? Est-ce attaquer l'arbitraire dans son principe que de l'attaquer dans les gouvernemens? Est-ce travailler à déraciner l'arbitraire que de faire changer le pouvoir de mains, ou de le faire changer [105] de formes? Ce sont là, avons-nous dit, les grands moyens de répression en usage. Qu'on juge maintenant de leur suffisance. On n'a qu'une demande à se faire pour cela : y a-t-il un Orgon de moins dans un pays après qu'il a changé de chefs, ou que son gouvernement a changé de formes? S'il s'y trouve le même nombre d'imbéciles, qu'est-ce qui empêche que le nouveau chef ne se conduise aussi mal que le dernier? Qu'est-ce qui empêche que les nouvelles formes de gouvernement ne servent, comme les précédentes, à piller, à fouler le pays? Now here is a thought. One cannot reform the Tartuffes (of this world) [Tartufe and Orgon were characters in Molière’s play Tartuffe, or the Imposter (1664). Tartuffe was a religious hypocrite and houseguest of Orgon and his wife Elmire, who tried to seduce her under the very eyes of Orgon, who could not see what was happening because of his admiration for Tartuffe.] but one can reduce the number of the Orgons. One cannot reform the con-artists but one does flatter oneself to be able to reform those they dupe (and deceive). Can one reform bad governments? Does one attack the (general) principle of the arbitrary (use of) power by attacking (particular) governments? Is one working to uproot (the use of) arbitrary power by changing the hands that wield that power or by changing the form that power (takes)? As we have said (previously), these are the major ways by which repression is currently imposed. To judge how effective these (measures) are now one only has to ask whether or not there is one less Orgon in the country after it has changed its leaders, or after its government has changed its form? If one can find the same number of idiots there, who will prevent the new leader from behaving just as badly as the previous one? Who will prevent the new forms of government from being used, like its predecessors, to pillage and to trample over the country?
Tel peuple crie, dans sa détresse : Oh! si nous avions un autre prince! si nous avions François au lieu de Guillaume.! Hélas! en seriez-vous plus éclairé? Que les amis de François parlent ainsi, qu'ils préfèrent son règne à celui de Guillaume, cela est fort simple; si François régnait, ils régneraient avec lui, et prendraient part à la curée. Mais vous, misérable troupeau, dont le destin est d'être la proie de tous les partis, que gagnerez-vous à un changement de chef? Si vous ne savez vous défendre contre le gouvernement de Guillaume, comment vous défendrez-vous contre celui de François? Encore une fois, serez-vous plus [106] éclaire sous François que sous Guillaume? François sera moins méchant, dites-vous; et si son héritier l'est davantage, changerez-vous son héritier? Ce sera donc à n'en pas finir? Ne voyez-vous pas qu'il serait bien plus court de commencer par vous changer vous-même? Peuple d'Orgons, déniaisez-vous, et vous n'aurez pas besoin de changer de maîtres. Tâchez de comprendre vos vrais intérêts, et les hommes qui vivent, et ceux qui voudraient vivre de votre sottise, disparaîtront à mesure : les fourbes, les ambitieux disparaissent, comme toute espèce de vermine, faute d’alimens. In their distress, these people will cry out : Oh! if we could only have another prince! if we could have a François instead of a William! Sadly, couldn't you be (a bit) more enlightened about this? That the friends of François would speak in this fashion, that they would prefer his reign to that of William, is quite obvious; if Françcois was reigning, they would be reigning with him, and would take part in the scramble for office. But you, miserable sheep (that you are), whose fate is to be the prey of all these (political) parties, what will you gain by a change in leader? If you don’t know how to protect yourself against the government of William, how will you defend yourself against that of François? Once again (I ask), will you be more enlightened under François than under William? François will be less cruel, you will say; and if his heir is more cruel, will you change his heir? Will this then go on without end? Don’t you see that it would be much quicker to begin by changing yourself? People who are Orgons, enlighten yourselves and you will have no need to change your masters. Try to understand your true interests, and the people who live off, or who would like to live off your stupidity will disappear accordingly: the con-artists and the (politically) ambitious will disappear as all species of vermin (do), from lack of food.

(3.) On the need to use the free press to teach people the truth about their deception (pp. 122-23)

On voit, par cette pensée, que c'est surtout pour le public, pour les hommes qui lisent, que M. Say regarde la liberté de la presse comme nécessaire. C'est une vérité trop peu sentie, très-peu sentie et contre laquelle même il existe un préjugé fort accrédité, quoique fort sot et fort ridicule. On peut remarquer que le gros du public, le ventre de la nation, prend en général assez peu d'intérêt aux débats sur la liberté de la presse. Pourquoi cela? c'est qu'il ne se croit pas intéressé dans la querelle; c'est qu'il a la bêtise de la regarder comme une affaire particulière entre les écrivains et le gouvernement. M. Say signale cette erreur et la réfute en quelques mots ; c'est une de ses pensées les plus judicieuses. [Responding to another of Say’s “aperçus”]: One can see from this thought that it is especially for the public, for those who read, that M. Say believes that the freedom of the press is necessary. This is a truth which is far too little appreciated, very little appreciated (indeed), and against which there exists a prejudice which is strongly supported, although (it is) very stupid and very ridiculous. One can say that the broad mass of the public, the so-called “belly of the nation” (pun on “le gros du public” - the fat man of the public), generally takes very little interest in debates about the freedom of the press. Why is that? It is because it doesn’t think that it is interested in the dispute; that it is stupid to consider something between writers and the government as their own business. M. Say points out this error and refutes it in a few words; this is one of his wisest thoughts. He says:
« Je ne sais pourquoi, dit-il, l'on représente toujours la liberté de la presse comme un avantage au profit de ceux qui écrivent. Ce n'est pas cela du tout. Elle est entièrement dans l'intérêt de ceux qui lisent; car ce sont eux qu'il s'agit de tromper ou de détromper. » “I don’t know why one always argues that the freedom of the press is a benefit (only) for those who write. This is not the case at all. It is entirely in the interest of those who read, because they are the people who will be deceived or undeceived (by what is written).”
Ce qui distingue le plus éminemment le petit volume ; c'est la justesse des aperçus. C'est là le premier mérite de toutes les productions [123] de M. Say. Il n'est point d'esprit qui se laisse moins imposer par les apparences et qui aille plus droit à la vérité. Il se plaît à déchirer les masques, à dépouiller les charlatans de leur oripeau, comme il parle lui-même, et à mettre les hommes et les choses à nu pour les faire apprécier à leur véritable valeur. What makes this small volume standout most prominently is the justice of his insights. Herein lies the highest merit of all the works of M. Say. He does not have the (kind of) mind which would let himself be influenced by appearances, (but one) which goes more directly to the truth. He is content to tear off the masks, rip away the trappings of the charlatans, as he says so himself, and to lay bare men and things so that we can judge them for what they really are.

Their first Application of Say's Ideas in their Own Writing

After carefully reviewing Say’s books in their journal Comte and Dunoyer then applied what they had learned from him in a series of original and path-breaking articles of their own in which they developed their ideas on class conflict and the economic progression of societies in much greater detail. These essays are included in my Anthology of their writings and they would provide the foundation for the much more extensive and detailed development of their “industrialist theory of history” in the multi-volume books they would publish over the next 20 years (in Comte's case ) or 30 years (in Dunoyer's case).

These important essays were the following and are available online:[3]

  • Comte, "Considerations sur l’état moral de la nation française, et sur les causes de l’instabilité de ses institutions" (Thoughts on the Moral State of the French Nation and on the Causes of the Instability of its Institutions) (CE, T.1, Jan. 1817. pp. 1-92) - HTML and facs. PDF.
  • Comte, "De l'organisation sociale considérée dans ses rapports avec les moyens de subsistance des peuples” (On Social Organisation and its Connection with the Way the People earn their Living) (CE, T2, Mar. 1817, pp. 1-66.) - HTML and facs. PDF.]
  • Dunoyer, “Considérations sur l'état présent de l'Europe, sur les dangers de cet état, et sur les moyens d'en sortir” (Thoughts on the Present State of Europe, the Dangers it faces, and the Means of Escaping them) (CE, T1, Mar. 1817, pp. 1-92.) - HTML and facs. PDF.]
  • Comte, “De la multiplication des pauvres, des gens à places, et des gens à pensions" (On the Increase in Numbers of the Poor, People with Government Jobs, and People who live off Government Pensions) (CE, T7, Mar. 1818, pp. 1-79.) - HTML and facs. PDF.]
  • Dunoyer, "De l'influence qu'exercent sur le gouvernement les salaires attachés à l'exercice des fonctions publiques" (On the Influence exerted on the Government by those who earn Salaries by carrying out Public Functions) (CE, T11, Feb. 1819, pp. 75-118.) - HTML and facs. PDF.]

I will discuss these articles in more detail in future post.

These articles in turn provided the foundation for the much more detailed elaboration of these ideas in a series of multi-volume books which the two wrote over the coming decades. Comte completed 2 works before he died in 1837:[4]

  1. Traité de législation, ou exposition des lois générales suivant lesquelles les peuples prospèrent, dépérissent ou restent stationnaire (A Treatise on Legislation, or a Discussion of the General Laws which enable Nations to prosper, decline, or remain in a stationary state, 4 vols. (1827) - HTML (to come) and facs. PDF of vol.1; vol.2; vol.3; and vol.4.
  2. Traité de la propriété (A Treatise on Property), 2 vols. (1834) - HTML (to come) and facs. PDF of vol.1 and vol.2.

And Charles Dunoyer 3 works which were really a series of expanded versions of the same initial concept:[5]

  1. L’Industrie et la morale considérées dans leurs rapports avec la liberté (Industry and Morality considered in their Relationship with Liberty) (1825)- HTML (to come) and facs. PDF.
  2. Nouveau traité d’économie sociale, ou simple exposition des causes sous l’influence desquelles les hommes parviennent à user de leurs forces avec le plus de LIBERTÉ, c’est-à-dire avec le plus FACILITÉ et de PUISSANCE (A New Treatise on Social Economy, or a simple description of the causes under whose influence mankind becomes able to use their powers with the greatest amount of Liberty, that is to say with the greatest ease and power) 2 vols. (1830) - HTML (to come) and facs. PDF of vol.1 and vol.2.
  3. De la liberté du travail, ou simple exposé des conditions dans lesquelles les force humaines s’exercent avec le plus de puissance (On the Liberty of Working, or a simple discussion of the conditions under which human energy can be exercised with the greatest power) (1845) - HTML (to come) and facs. PDF of vol.1; vol.2; and vol.3.

It is my intention to put these important works online in HTML so scholars can make better use of them. They have been online in facs. PDF format for over 10 years now as they (along with the works of Bastiat and Molinari) have been the core of my online library since its inception.


Comte, Charles, Traité de législation, ou exposition des lois générales suivant lesquelles les peuples prospèrent, dépérissent ou restent stationnaire, 4 vols. (Paris: A. Sautelet et Cie, 1827).

Comte, Charles, Traité de la propriété, 2 vols. (Paris: Chamerot, Ducollet, 1834).

Dunoyer, Charles, L’Industrie et la morale considérées dans leurs rapports avec la liberté (Paris: A. Sautelet et Cie, 1825).

Dunoyer, Charles, Nouveau traité d’économie sociale, ou simple exposition des causes sous l’influence desquelles les hommes parviennent à user de leurs forces avec le plus de LIBERTÉ, c’est-à-dire avec le plus FACILITÉ et de PUISSANCE (Paris: Sautelet et Mesnier, 1830), 2 vols.

Dunoyer, Charles, De la liberté du travail, ou simple exposé des conditions dans lesquelles les force humaines s’exercent avec le plus de puissance (Paris: Guillaumin, 1845).


  1. On the history of these journals see the three articles by Éphraïm Harpaz, “Le Censeur, Histoire d’un journal libéral,” Revue des sciences humaines, Octobre-Décembre 1958, 92, pp. 483-511; “Le Censeur européen, histoire d’un journal industrialiste,” Revue d’histoire économique et sociale, 1959, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 185-218 and vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 328-57; and “Le Censeur européen: histoire d’un journal quotidien,” Revue des sciences humaines, 1964, pp. 113-116, pp. 137-259; which have been republished together in a book: Le Censeur. Le Censeur européen. Histoire d’un Journal libéral et industrialiste (Genève: Slatkine Reprints, 2000).  ↩

  2. On Comte’s and Dunoyer’s “industrialist theory of history” see my unpublished PhD “Class Analysis, Slavery and the Industrialist Theory of History in French Liberal Thought, 1814-1830: The Radical Liberalism of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer” (Cambridge, 1994) online here. See also the recent work by Robert Leroux, Aux fondements de l'industrialisme : Comte, Dunoyer et la pensée libérale en France (Paris: Editions Hermann, 2015). ↩

  3. On some of these articles see Mark Weinburg, “The Social Analysis of Three Early 19th Century French Liberals: Say, Comte, and Dunoyer,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, 1978, vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 45-63. Online.  ↩

  4. See the bibliography on Charles Comte for a complete list of his works.  ↩

  5. See the bibliography on Charles Dunoyer for a more complete list of his works.  ↩