Mercier de la Rivlfire

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Mercier de la Rivlfire



Pierre Paul Mercier de la Rivière (1720-1793), French physiocrat, was born at Saumur (Indre et Loire), the son of a prèsident trèsorier of France. After studying law, at the age of 27 he became a member of the parlement of Paris and remained there for 12 years. He then served for several years as intendant of Martinique. Recalled as a result of policy differences with respect to free trade (he had admitted English ships to the island, in violation of the pacte colonial), he returned to the parlement in 1764 and in semiretirement wrote his masterpiece, L’ordre naturel et essentiel des sociètes politiquès (1767).

The basic ideas of the physiocrats, and especially of Quesnay, their leader, are to be found in Mercier’s work. In his Ordre naturel, Mercier built on the ideas presented by Quesnay in his “Despotisme dela Chine.” Mercier stressed the political aspects of physiocracy rather than the agricultural ideas of the school. For him, the law of property, which is based on the physical order of nature, is unique and universal,underlying all other laws. It is a law that may be directly apprehended by all men, and one that governs the essential order of society. The proper character of political institutions derives from this basic importance of the law of property.

The sovereign, according to Mercier, is by definition co-owner of the fixed wealth of the society; in the eyes of his subjects he is no more than alarge proprietor who has no privileges at the expense of others but, rather, is linked to his subjects by a common interest in maximizing the value ofcommon property. The proportion of fixed wealth that is to be used as public revenue, or taxes, is thus determined by the natural law of property, provided that government takes the form of personal and legal despotism (as opposed to arbitrary despotism). Since under personal and legal despotism thedespot embodies that fundamental unity of society which is based on the lawof property, it is in the direct interest of such a despot to keep taxes within the limits of the portion required by the law of property.

Mercier proposed that the sovereign have both executive and legislative powers, for if legislative power is in the hands of a representative assembly, there necessarily arise parties with irreconcilable private interests. However, Mercier did advocate an independent judiciary, with the right to register laws, a suspensive veto of laws, and control of their constitutionality. In contrast with the law of property, which provides the security requisite to liberty, the laws enacted by the sovereign create no funda-mentalrights: they assure only the fulfillment of private contracts.

Thus Mercier envisioned a political order that is in harmony with nature. Every man becomes an instrument of the welfare of his fellows; no one canprofit or become rich at the expense of others. Luxury, “that monster,” will disappear, and peace will be established among nations.

The system of government that Mercier envisioned requires a mature public opinion as a final check on the consistency of the sovereign’s conduct with the law of property. Mercier’s De I’instruction publique (1775) described the system of national education necessary toraise public opinion to the appropriate level of maturity. To be sure, the “nation” that Mercier wished to educate was made up only of landowners and farmers; as a physiocrat, he considered commerce and industryas un-productive and unworthy of participation.

It is hard to assess the influence that Mercier had, since it merges with that of the entire school of Quesnay. Mercier is undoubtedly at least themost widely read of Quesnay’s disciples, because his works have beenmost accessible to the general public. Mercier did not get along with Catherine the Great when he visited Russia at her invitation; however, the king of Sweden commissioned, and presumably profited from, Mercier’s workon public education.


[For the historical context of Mercier’s work, seeEconomic Thought, article on PHYSIOCRATIC THOUGHT; and the biography ofQuesnay.]


(1767) 1910 L’ordre naturel et essentiel des societes politiques. Paris: Geuthner. 1770 L’interet general de l’etat . . . . Amsterdam and Paris: Desaint.

1775 De I’instruction publique: Ou, considerations morales et politiques sur la necessite, la nature et la source de cette instruction, ouvrage demande pour le roi de Suede. Stockholm and Paris: Didot.

1789 Essais sur les maximes et loix fondamentales de la monarchie francoise . . . . Paris: Vallat-La-Chapelle.

1790 Palladium de la constitution politique: Ou, regeneration morale de la France . . . . Paris: Baudouin.


Joubleau, F. 1858-1859 Notice sur P.-P. Lemercier de la Riviere. Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, Paris, Seanceset travaux 46:439-455; 47:121-150, 249-265.

Lariviere, Charles De(1897) 1909 Mercier de la Riviere a Saint-Petersbourg en 1767. Pages 71-132 in Charles de Lariviere, La France et la Russie au XVIIIe siecle: Etudes d’histoire et de litterature franco-russe. Paris: Soudier.

Richner, Edmund 1931 Le Mercier dela Riviere: Ein Führer der physiokratischen Bewegung in Frankreich. Zurich: Girsberger.

Silberstein, Lotte 1928 Lemercier de la Riviere und seine politischen Ideen. Berlin: Eberling.

Weulersse, Georges 1910 Le mouvement physiocratique en France de 1756 a 1770. 2 vols. Paris: Alcan.

Weulersse, Georges 1950 La physiocratie sous les ministeres de Turgot et de Necker (1774-1781). Paris:Presses Universitaires de France.

Weulersse, Georges 1959 La physiocratie a la fin du regne de Louis XV:1770-1774. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.