Turgot, Jacques 1727–1781
Born in 1727 in Paris, economist Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de l’Aulne, received a thorough education, especially in philosophy, and then studied theology at the Sorbonne. In 1750 he was elected to the office of prior. In the same year, he published his Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind, which contained a four-stage theory of human development. After the death of his father in 1751, Turgot began an administrative career. In the late 1750s he contributed several entries to the Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot (1713–1784).
His friendship with the Marquis de Gournay (1712– 1759), a French economist, merchant, and government official, had a lasting impact on Turgot’s interests and acquainted him with contemporary English political economy. In the late 1750s Turgot met with the head of the physiocratic school, François Quesnay (1694–1774), whose work he admired. He also became friendly with another leading member of that school, Pierre-Samuel du Pont de Nemours (1793–1817), and with Voltaire (1694–1778) and the mathematician and philosopher J. A. N. Caritat de Condorcet (1743–1794).
In 1761 Turgot was appointed intendant of Limoges, a post he held until 1774. He was in charge of the collection of direct taxes, justice, economic and social policy, infrastructure, and so forth. In this period, he composed what may be called his magnum opus, Reflections on the Production and Distribution of Wealth, which was not published until 1769 and 1770 in serial form in the Ephémerides. In addition, he wrote essays on several economic themes, including taxation, public administration, mines and quarries, the grain trade, and the rate of interest. During his visits to Paris he met, among others, David Hume (1711–1776) and Adam Smith (1723–1790).
With Louis XVI’s (1754–1793) succession to the throne in 1774, Turgot was appointed minister of finance. He carried out a number of reforms, including the restoration of domestic free trade of grain, an act that caused the grain riots of early 1775, and the abolition of other constraints on trade (Faccarello 1994). A retrenchment of the influence of the guilds and a replacement of the corvée with a more general land tax followed in January 1776. These measures met with fierce opposition, causing Turgot’s dismissal in May 1776. In 1778 he was elected president of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres. He died in Paris in 1781.
Turgot was arguably one of the most important economists of the eighteenth century. In important respects, he developed the physiocratic doctrine and anticipated some of the ideas subsequently elaborated by the English classical economists from Adam Smith to David Ricardo (1772–1823). In the Reflections, he expounded central economic concepts, including the idea that in conditions of free competition the rate of return on capital tends to uniformity across all employments. In his view, self-interest constrained by competitive conditions can be expected to yield desirable economic outcomes. He therefore advocated laissez-faire and is considered a “patron saint” of the French liberal economics tradition of the middle of the nineteenth century (Groenewegen 1977). His writings had an impact on a number of economists, including the Austrian Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1851–1914). Joseph A. Schumpeter’s (1883–1950) contention that Turgot anticipated in important respects the so-called marginal revolution is, however, difficult to sustain.
SEE ALSO Austrian Economics; Laissez-Faire; Liberalism; Physiocracy; Quesnay, Francois; Ricardo, David; Smith, Adam
Faccarello, Gilbert. 1994. Nil repente! Galiani and Necker on Economic Reforms. European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 1 (3): 519–550.
Groenewegen, Peter, ed. and trans. 1977. The Economics of A. R. J. Turgot. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.
Meek, Ronald, ed. and trans. 1973. Turgot on Progress, Sociology, and Economics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Schelle, Gustave. 1913–1923. Oeuvres de Turgot et documents le concernant. Paris: Félix Alcan.
Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques. 1844. Oeuvres de Turgot. New ed. Eds. Eugène Daire and Hyppolite Dussard. Paris: Guillaumin.
Heinz D. Kurz