Quesnay, François

views updated

Quesnay, François 1694-1774


François Quesnay was born in the village of Méré, Île de France, into a family of merchants and small landowners. As a child he received no formal training, but he learned to read and write from a gardener. Largely self-taught, in 1711 he began to study medicine and surgery in Paris. In 1717 he married; he had three children. He first earned a living as a surgeon and contributed several essays to the controversy between surgeons and physicians in France in the 1740s. In 1734 he assumed the position of physician of the Duke of Villeroy and in 1749 of Madame the Pompadour, Louis XVs favorite, in Versailles. In 1752 he saved the dauphin from smallpox, which won him the kings favor, a noble title, and a significant amount of money. At the beginning of the 1750s he was elected a member of the Académie des Sciences, Paris, and the Royal Society, London. During this period Quesnay stopped publishing medical works and turned to economics. The years 1756 and 1757 saw the publication of his entries in the Encyclopédie on Fermiers (farmers) and Grains (corn). Three further entries devoted to Hommes (people), Impôts (taxes), and Interét de largent (money rate of interest) could not be published in the Encyclopédie after an attempt to assassinate the king, which was grist for the mill of the enemies of the encyclopédistes (dAlembert, Diderot, and others) and brought the project to a standstill. The first two articles were published only at the beginning of the twentieth century, the third in 1766.

Of particular importance to Quesnays works in economics and their impact on the contemporary political debates first in France and then beyond was his encounter with the Marquis de Mirabeau in 1757. Mirabeau became a close follower of Quesnay and untiringly spread the gospel of the new physiocratic school. In 1758 Quesnay composed the first edition of the Tableau économique, which contained the first schematic account of the intertwined processes of production, distribution, and disposition of the riches of an entire nation. Mirabeau compared the importance of the Tableau to that of the discovery of fire and the wheel; Marx called it the most brilliant idea of political economy up until then and the physiocrats the true fathers of modern political economy (Marx 1963, p. 44). Two further editions of the Tableau followed in 1759. In 1763 Mirabeau published the Philosophie rurale in three volumes, a work that was heavily influenced (and partly even written) by Quesnay. In the same year the physiocrats began to engage in economic policy debates. Their articles appeared first in the Journal de lagriculture and then in Éphémerides du citoyen, the sects main outlet. Quesnay contributed several essays on themes such as the natural law doctrine, the so-called sterility of industry, and, in 1766, a simplified version of the Tableau in an article titled Analyse de la formule arithmétique du Tableau économique. The schools influence in France peaked in the late 1760s and then steadily declined. Quesnay died in December 1774 near Versailles.

Quesnay conceived the process of production as a circular flow, with the rent of land being traced back to the existence of surplus product ( produit net ) left over after all means of production have been used up and all means of subsistence in support of the laboring population have been deducted from annual gross outputs. With a social division of labor, the products have to be exchanged for one another in interdependent markets. In order for the process to be able to continue unhampered, prices must cover physical real costs of production, consisting of means of production and subsistence, plus, in agriculture, the rent of land. A major concern of Quesnay was with the systems potential for growth. This depended on whether the surplus was consumed productively or unproductively and whether new methods of production could be developed and introduced, which by increasing productivity increased the social surplus.

Quesnays works had a major influence on the development of central concepts and analytical tools in economics. After him the idea of ubiquitous economic interdependence never left the realm of economics again. Marxs analysis of simple and extended reproduction in volume 2 of Capital drew on the Tableau (see Marx 1974, and Gehrke and Kurz 1995), as did Wassily Leontiefs (1941) input-output analysis. Piero Sraffas (1960) reformulation of the classical approach to the theory of value and distribution was inspired by the physiocrats multisector analysis. Also inspiring Sraffa was the physiocrats concern with the implications for the theory of value and distribution of the specific conditions of the transformation of matter and energy into new forms of matter and energy in given sociotechnical conditions. Quesnays concept of production as a circular flow is in marked contrast with the view entertained by some marginalist economists such as Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk of production as a oneway avenue of finite duration leading from the services of original factors of production to final output. The concept of a closed system, as we encounter it in Quesnay, is employed in fields of economics that take into account the laws of thermodynamics, such as environmental economics.

SEE ALSO Economics; Marx,Karl; Physiocracy; Surplus; Sraffa,Piero


Gehrke, Christian, and Heinz D. Kurz. 1995. Karl Marx on Physiocracy. European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 2 (1): 5390.

Hecht, Jacqueline. 2005. La vie de François Quesnay. In François Quesnay. Oeuvres économiques complètes et autres textes. 2 vols. Ed. Christine Théré, Loic Charles and Jean-Claude Perrot. Paris: Institut National dÉtudes Démographiques. Vol. 2, pp. 13311420.

Institut National dÉtudes Démographiques. 2005. François Quesnay. Oeuvres économiques complètes et autres textes. 2 vols. Ed. Christine Théré, Loic Charles and Jean-Claude Perrot. Paris: Author.

Leontief, Wassily. 1941. The Structure of American Economy, 19191929: An Empirical Application of Equilibrium Analysis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1963. Theories of Surplus Value. Part 1. Trans. Emile Burns. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1974. Capital. Vol. 2. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Quesnay, François. 1972. Tableau économique. 3rd ed. Ed. and trans. Marguerite Kuczynski and Ronald Meek. London: Macmillan.

Sraffa, Piero. 1960. Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Vaggi, Gianni. 1987. The Economics of François Quesnay. London: Macmillan.

Heinz D. Kurz

Quesnay, François

views updated

Quesnay, François



François Quesnay (1694-1774), the founder of the economic system that eventually came to be called the physiocratic system, was born in the village of Méré, not far from Versailles. His father, a country lawyer, earned a very small income. Quesnay received no financial aid from his family in securing an education and, indeed, did not learn to read until he was 12. He did, however, somehow acquire a knowledge of medicine, and by 1718, when he was 24 years old, he was practicing medicine in the village of Mantes. Between 1730 and 1758 he wrote several medical treatises that contained original contributions.

Quesnay did not acquire a formal medical degree until 1744, but by 1735 his reputation was such that he obtained a position in Paris as physician to the duke of Villeroy. The next important step in his career was to move to Versailles—under the patronage of Mme. de Pompadour—where he not only became consulting physician to Louis xv but also came to know the eminent economists of the day. He remained at Versailles thereafter.

Quesnay did not publish his first writing on economics until 1756, when he was in his early sixties; he continued to write on this subject for the rest of his life. Among the several articles he wrote for the Encyclopédie, the last two, “Fermiers” (1756) and “Grains” (1757), were his first contributions to economics. In these articles he introduced the view that agriculture, when pursued under favorable conditions, has a unique capacity to yield a produit net. The favorable conditions he had in mind were large-scale enterprises backed by abundant capital, such as he had observed during his youth in the wealthy lle-de-France.

Quesnay’s ideas long baffled his contemporaries. His Tableau oeconomique (1758) contains a comprehensive presentation of his ideas, although it is an extremely brief work. The first edition, consisting of only a few copies, was printed by the king’s private press. Rewritten in the form of maxims, it was intended by Quesnay for wider dissemination through publication in an official newspaper. However, Mme. de Pompadour advised him that such publication of a critical view was too risky, and instead Quesnay let his friend the marquis de Mirabeau publish it. Subsequently, he collaborated with the marquis on Philosophie rurale, published in Amsterdam in 1763, which turned out to be the clearest statement of the physiocratic doctrine (see Mirabeau 1763).

As a critic of the ancien régime, Quesnay wrote for the Journal de Vagriculture, du commerce et des finances in 1765 and 1766. Until this journal was banned in 1767, it was a favorite vehicle for expounding physiocratic views. Thereafter, Quesnay and his group established another journal, öphémérides du citoyen, which was entirely devoted to Quesnay’s teachings. Taking off from his writings for the öphémérides, Quesnay, at the end of 1767, did some writing for a wider public; with the support of Du Pont de Nemours, this material was published under the title Physiocratie (1758-1766). It was this work that provided a name for the physiocratic system of economics and the physiocratic school of economists.

Bases of the physiocratic system. The physiocrats assumed that human society is, like the physical universe and analogous to animal societies, subject to natural laws. But whereas, in medieval political philosophy, natural law was simply accepted as the reflection in man of the divine light, or as the participation of a creature endowed with reason in the eternal law, this definition of natural law clearly no longer sufficed in the age of enlightenment. The physiocrats, in presenting more detailed analyses and explanations of the natural social order, were led to offer a series of propositions that were, in effect, an outline of the basic elements of individualistic capitalism.

According to the physiocratic view, if the constitution of a society is to reflect natural law, then the structure of that society must be determined by the contributions made by its constituent groups toward the production of the national output, and the right of private property and the right to free choice in economic matters must be at the base of the economic system. However, the entire structure must be topped by a strong central power that guarantees to all individuals the enjoyment of the principles of laissez-faire—a monarch who holds all political power but whose role is strictly confined to the administration of the natural order of things. Of these elements, only the proposition relating the structure of society to the contributions of component groups was original with the physiocrats. The emphasis on private property and liberty derived largely from John Locke.

Following Locke, the physiocrats justified private property on two grounds: if an object is the product of a man’s labor, i.e., if it has been created by its owner; or if the object is the result of the owner’s performing one of the three characteristic arts of civilized society. These are the social art (government), the productive art (agriculture), and the sterile art (industry and trade). Similarly, the physiocrats followed Locke in their theory of liberty: liberty is tied to property, and to be free means to be unimpeded in acquiring property and to enjoy what has been legally acquired.

But Locke and his English successors did not integrate their political theory with a systematic account of the over-all productive processes of their society. That a person could acquire a right to property by performing the “social art” would have been incomprehensible to Locke—indeed, a claim so justified would have appeared to him to be a license to usurpation. The originality of the physiocratic doctrine (apart from a series of technical economic points) lay, therefore, in the structuring of a system of political relations upon an economic fundament and the welding of these two parts into an inseparable whole.

The physiocratic system. The classes of society that, according to Quesnay, make a contribution to the national product are the “productive” and the “proprietary” classes. Each of these classes is composed of two subgroups: the productive class includes tenant farmers and farm laborers; the proprietary class includes the landowners and those who exercise political power, pre-eminently the sovereign. Since Quesnay regarded the sovereign as also a large landowner, he somewhat blurred the division within the proprietary class, but his treatment of the political prerogative of the monarch leaves no doubt that he did differentiate between the landowners and the sovereign. His disciples Mercier de la Riviere and the abbe Baudeau consistently made this distinction sharply and precisely.

All four of the above subgroups make contributions toward the maintenance of society, and these contributions justify a certain return. Thus, the monarch and the landowners have a right to their income, the produit net, not because of their economic power to exploit the rest of society, nor because of their political privilege, but as a consequence of their contribution to the gross product (produit brut). The income of the landowners is justified provided they contribute their landed property to the productive process, that is, if they make the avances fonciéres. Rent, in Quesnay’s system, is thus the income landowners receive simply by virtue of owning the only productive agent other than labor. While the net product of labor, whether in agriculture or in industry, is zero, since the laborer consumes as much as he produces, in a “well-regulated kingdom” the net product of land is ordinarily positive. Similarly, the income of the monarch is justified if he makes the avances souveraines, that is, if he constructs roads, canals, and other utilities as well as administering the laws which make property secure and maintain the right balance of the economy. The monarch’s proper contribution, in short, is to ensure the operation of the natural social order.

The difference between the gross product and the net product represents the income of the tenant farmer and of other persons engaged in agricultural production—the productive class. The tenant farmer also makes a contribution toward the total product: his outlay is composed of two parts, the avances primitives and the avances annuelles. The former are, roughly speaking, expenditures on the maintenance and replacement of the fixed capital of the farm (fences, farm machinery, etc.); the latter are expenditures on raw materials that are used up annually (seed, manure, etc.) and on the wages of agricultural laborers. The total national product, then, is equal to the sum of the avances annuelles, avances primitives, and produit net.

It is plain from the foregoing why, in Quesnay’s view, those who engage in trade and industry are considered to be the sterile class: this class does not make a contribution to the national product, since it does not use the only factor of production that yields a net surplus—land. Also, the foregoing explains why the physiocrats advocated the concentration of political power in the hands of a monarch. They did not believe in absolutism for its own sake. If they favored a “unique will,” they did so because they felt that only concentrated power could overcome the opposition to the beneficent reforms they proposed; only a centralized power could win against separate class interests and establish a social system that would bring the highest public good.

The physiocrats believed that there is only one social system that conforms to the natural order, and its establishment and maintenance must be forever secured against the fickleness of opinion and the arbitrary moods of the masses. Indeed, they feared this arbitrariness of vox populi more than the exercise of despotic powers by a just monarch; they realized that the reforms they proposed were rejected because they threatened strongly established privileges and hurt groups of persons whose interests conflicted with the natural order of things. Quesnay and his colleagues attributed the corruption and degeneracy of late eighteenth-century France to the weakness of the monarchy and the prevalent ignorance concerning the true principles of social order, and believed that only legal despotism could save and rebuild France as the divine creator of the natural social order intended.

Bert F. Hoselitz

[See alsoEconomic thought, article onphysiocratic thought; and the biographies ofMercier de laRiviÉre; Turgot].


1756 Fermiers. Volume 6, pages 528-540 in Encyclopédie, ou, dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. Paris: Briasson.

1757 Grains. Volume 7, pages 812-831 in Encyclopédie, ou, dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des metiers. Paris: Briasson.

(1758) 1766 The Oeconomical Table: An Attempt Towards Ascertaining and Exhibiting the Source, Progress, and Employment of Riches, With Explanations by the Friend of Mankind, the Celebrated Marquis de Mirabeau. London: Owen. → First published as Tableau oeconomique. Published also as part of Mirabeau]’s L’ami des hommes.

(1758-1766) 1768 La physiocratie, ou, constitution naturelle du gouvernement le plus avantageux au genre humain. 2d ed. 2 vols. Paris and Leiden: Merlin. → A collection of Quesnay’s writings. Volume 2 is entitled Discussions et développemens sur quelques-unes des notions de I’économie politique, pour servir de suite au recueil intitulé: Physiocratie.

Oeuvres économiques et philosophiques de F. Quesnay, fondateur du systéme physiocratique. Paris: Peelman, 1888.


Beer, Max 1939 An Inquiry Into Physiocracy. London: Allen & Unwin.

François Quesnay et la physiocratie. 2 vols. 1958 Paris: Institut National d’Études Demographiques. → Volume 1 consists of essays on Quesnay by various authors, and includes a chronological list of works by Quesnay on pages 301-316 and an annotated bibliography of works about Quesnay on pages 317-392. Volume 2 contains short essays and extracts from his works.

Higgs, Henry (1897) 1952 The Physiocrats: Six Lectures on the French Économistes of the 18th Century. New York: Langland. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Archon.

Hishiyama, Izumi 1960 The Tableau iconomique of Quesnay: Its Analysis, Reconstruction, and Application. Kyoto University Economic Review 30, no. 1:1-46.

Meek, Ronald L. 1963 The Economics of Physiocracy: Essays and Translations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → The first part includes translations of extracts from various authors. The second part includes four essays by Meek, three of which were previously published between 1951 and 1960.

Mirabeau, Victor De Riqueti, De (1763) 1964 Philosophie rurale: Ou, économie générate et politique de Vagriculture, reduite a Vordre immuable des loix physique et morales, qui assurent la prospérité des empires. 2d ed. 3 vols. Amsterdam: Libraires Associes. Chapter 7, “Les rapports des depenses entre elles,” was written by Quesnay.

Schelle, Gustave 1907 Le docteur Quesnay: Chirurgien, médecin de Madame de Pompadour et de Louis XV, physiocrate. Paris: Alcan.