François Quesnay


François Quesnay : biography

June 4, 1694 – December 16, 1774


In 1758 he published the Tableau économique (Economic Table), which provided the foundations of the ideas of the Physiocrats. This was perhaps the first work to attempt to describe the workings of the economy in an analytical way, and as such can be viewed as one of the first important contributions to economic thought.

The publications in which Quesnay expounded his system were the following: two articles, on "Fermiers" and on "Grains", in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert (1756, 1757); a discourse on the law of nature in the Physiocratie of Dupont de Nemours (1768); Maximes générales de gouvernement economique d’un royaume agricole (1758), and the simultaneously published Tableau économique avec son explication, ou extrait des économies royales de Sully (with the celebrated motto, Pauvres paysans, pauvre royaume; pauvre royaume, pauvre roi); Dialogue sur le commerce et les travaux des artisans; and other minor pieces.

The Tableau économique, though on account of its dryness and abstract form it met with little general favor, may be considered the principal manifesto of the school. It was regarded by the followers of Quesnay as entitled to a place amongst the foremost products of human wisdom, and is named by the elder Mirabeau, in a passage quoted by Adam Smith, as one of the three great inventions which have contributed most to the stability of political societies, the other two being those of writing and of money. Its object was to exhibit by means of certain formulas the way in which the products of agriculture, which is the only source of wealth, would in a state of perfect liberty be distributed among the several classes of the community (namely, the productive classes of the proprietors and cultivators of land, and the unproductive class composed of manufacturers and merchants), and to represent by other formulas the modes of distribution which take place under systems of Governmental restraint and regulation, with the evil results arising to the whole society from different degrees of such violations of the natural order. It follows from Quesnay’s theoretic views that the one thing deserving the solicitude of the practical economist and the statesman is the increase of the net product; and he infers also what Smith afterwards affirmed, on not quite the same ground, that the interest of the landowner is strictly and indissolubly connected with the general interest of the society. A small edition de luxe of this work, with other pieces, was printed in 1758 in the Palace of Versailles under the king’s immediate supervision, some of the sheets, it is said, having been pulled by the royal hand. Already in 1767 the book had disappeared from circulation, and no copy of it is now procurable; but, the substance of it has been preserved in the Ami des hommes of Mirabeau, and the Physiocratie of Dupont de Nemours.

Orientalism and China

Quesnay is known for his writings on Chinese politics and society. His book Le Despotisme de la Chine, written in 1767, describes his views of the Chinese imperial system. He was supportive of the meritocratic concept of giving scholars political power, without the cumbersome aristocracy that characterized French politics, and the importance of agriculture to the welfare of a nation. The phrase laissez-faire, coined by fellow Physiocrat Vincent de Gournay, is postulated to have come from Quesnay’s writings on China. Gregory Blue writes that Quesnay "praised China as a constitutional despotism and openly advocated the adoption of Chinese institutions, including a stardardized system of taxation and universal education." Blue speculates that this may have influenced the 1793 establishment of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal by the British Empire. Quesnay’s interests in Orientalism has also been a source of criticism. Carol Blum, in her book Strength in Numbers on 18th century France, labels Quesnay an "apologist for Oriental despotism."

Because of his admiration of Confucianism, Quesnay follower’s bestowed him with the title "Confucius of Europe." Quesnay’s infatuation for Chinese culture, as described by Jesuits, led him to persuade the son of Louis XV to mirror the "plowing of sacred land" by the Chinese emperor to symbolize the link between government and agriculture.