1902 Encyclopedia > Jean Baptiste Say

Jean Baptiste Say
French political economist
(1767-1832)




JEAN BAPTISTE SAY (1767-1832), an eminent French political economist, was born at Lyons 5th January 1767. His father, Jean Etienne Say, was of a Protestant family which had originally belonged to Nîmes, but had removed to Geneva for some time in consequence of the revocation of the edict of Nantes. Young Say was intended to follow a commercial career, and was accordingly sent, with his brother Horace, to England, and lived first at Croy-don, in the house of a merchant, to whom he acted as clerk, and afterwards at London, where he was in the service of another employer. When, on the death of the latter, he returned to France, he was employed in the office of a life assurance company directed by Clavière, afterwards known in politics. It was Clavière who called his attention to the Wealth of Nations, and the study of that work revealed to him his vocation. His first literary attempt was a pamphlet on the liberty of the press, pub-lished in 1789. He worked under the celebrated Mirabeau on the Courrier de Provence. In 1792 he took part as a volunteer in the campaign of Champagne; in 1793 he assumed, in conformity with the Revolutionary fashion, the pre-name of Atticus, and became secretary to Clavière, then finance minister. He married in 1793 Mile. Deloche, daughter of a former avocat au conseil ; the young pair were greatly straitened in means in consequence of the depreciation of the assignats. From 1794 to 1800 Say edited a periodical entitled La Décade philosophique, lit-téraire, et politique, in which he expounded the doctrines of Adam Smith. He had by this time established his reputation as a publicist, and, when the consular govern-ment was established in the year VIII (1799), he was selected as one of the hundred members of the tribunate, and resigned, in consequence, the direction of the Décade. He published in 1800 Olbie, ou Essai sur les moyens de réformer les mœurs d'une nation.

In 1803 appeared his principal work, the Traité d' Économie Politique. In 1804, having shown his unwill-ingness to sacrifice his convictions for the purpose of farthering the designs of Napoleon, he was removed from the office of tribune, being at the same time nominated to a lucrative post, which, however, he thought it his duty to resign. He then turned to industrial pursuits, and, having made himself acquainted with the processes of the cotton manufacture, founded at Auchy, in the Pas de Calais, a spinning-mill which employed four or five hundred persons, principally women and children. He devoted his leisure hours to the improvement of his economic treatise, which had for some time been out of print, but which the censorship did not permit him to republish; and in 1814 he availed himself (to use his own words) of the sort of liberty arising from the entrance of the allied powers into France to bring out a second edition of the work, dedicated to the emperor Alexander, who had professed himself his pupil. In the same year the French Government sent him to study the economic condition of Great Britain. The results of his observations during his journey through England and Scotland appeared in a tract De l'Angleterre et des Anglais; and his conversations with distinguished men in those countries contributed, he tells us, to give greater correctness to the exposition of prin-ciples in the third edition of the Traité, which appeared in 1817. A chair of industrial economy was founded for him in 1819 at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, in which he lectured with ability and success. In 1831 he was made professor of political economy at the College de France. He published in 1828-30 his Cours Complet d'Économie Politique pratique, which is in the main an expansion of the Traité, with practical applications. In his later years he became subject to attacks of nervous apoplexy, which increasingly reduced his strength. He lost his wife, to whom he was fondly attached, in January 1830; and from that time his health constantly declined. When the revolution of that year broke out, he was named a member of the council-general of the department of the Seine, but found it necessary to resign that position. He died at Paris 16th November 1832, leaving behind him a well-earned reputation for private worth and polit-ical integrity.





Say was essentially a propagandist, not an originator. His great service to mankind lies in the fact that he disseminated throughout Europe by means of the French language, and popularized by his clear and easy style, the economic doctrines of Adam Smith. It is true that his French panegyrists (and he is not himself free from censure on this score) are unjust in their estimate of Smith as an expositor ; they give false or exaggerated ideas of his obscurity, his prolixity, and his want of method ; and they accordingly extol too highly the merits of Say. Those merits are, however, real and considerable ; his writings were without doubt very effective in diffusing throughout Continental Europe a taste for economic inquiry and a knowledge of its principal results. On the side of the philosophy ^of science Say is weak ; his observations on that subject are usually commonplace or superficial. Thus he accepts the shallow dictum of Condillac that toute science se réduit à une langue bien faite. He recognizes political economy and statistics as alike sciences, and represents the distinction between them as having never been made before him, though he quotes what Smith had said of political arithmetic. Whilst always deserving the praise of honesty, sincerity, and independence, he is very inferior to his great predecessor in breadth of view on moral and political questions. In his general conception of human affairs there is a tendency to regard too exclusively the material side of things, which made him pre-eminently the economist of the French liberal bourgeoisie ; thus Storch justly censures the levity with which he doubts the necessity of a public religious cultus, suggesting that enlightened nations might dispense with it " as the Pacific islanders do." He is inspired with the dislike and jealousy of Governments so often felt and expressed by thinkers formed in the social atmosphere of the last century. Soldiers are for him not merely unproductive labourers, as Smith called them ; they are rather "destructive labourers." "A nation might," he says, "strictly speaking, subsist without a government, each profession exchang-ing the fruits of its labours with the products of the labours of others,"—a remark which betrays the notion that economic coin-cides with social life. Taxes are uncompensated payments ; they are plagues like hail, war, or depredation ; they may fitly be described as of the nature of robbery. When he says, "Lorsqu' on vous vend un privilège, comme le droit de chasse, ou seulement de port d'armes, on vous vole votre droit naturel d'être armé pour le vous vendre après l'avoir volé, " we see that we are still in the region of the jus naturse., which lies at the basis of all the old economics.

Say is considered to have brought out the importance of capital as a factor in production more distinctly than the English econo-mists, who unduly emphasized labour. The special doctrines most commonly mentioned as due to him are—(1) that of "immaterial products," and (2) what is called his "théorie des débouchés." Objecting, as Germain Gamier had done before him, to Smith's well-known distinction between productive and unproductive labour, he maintains that, production consisting in the creation or addition of a utility, all useful labour is productive. Ho is thus led to recognize immaterial products, whose characteristic quality is that they are consumed immediately and are incapable of accumu-lation ; under this head are to be ranged the services rendered either by a person, a capital, or a portion of land, as, e.g., the advantages derived from medical attendance, or from a hired house, or from a beautiful view. But in working out the consequences of this view Say is not free (as Stordì has shown) from obscurities and inconsistencies ; and by his comprehension of these immaterial products within the domain of economics he is confirmed in the error of regarding that science as filling the whole sphere which really belongs to sociology. His "théorie des débouchés " amounts to this, that, products being, in last analysis, purchased only with products, the extent of the markets (or outlets) for home products is proportional to the quantity of foreign productions ; when the sale of any commodity is dull, it is because there is not a sufficient number, or rather value, of other commodities produced with which it could be purchased. Another proposition on which Say insists is that every value is consumed and is created only to be consumed. Values can therefore be accumulated only by being reproduced in the course or, as often happens, by the very act of consumption ; hence his distinction between reproductive and unproductive con-sumption. We find in him other corrections or new presentations of views previously accepted, and some useful suggestions for the improvement of nomenclature. , Say's writings occupy vols, ix.-xii. of Guillaumin's Collection des Principaux Économistes. Among them are, in addition to those already mentioned, Catéchisme d' Économie Politique, 1815 ; Petit Volume contenant quelques aperçus des Hommes et de la Société, Lettres à Malthus sur différens sujets d' Économie Politique, 1820 ; Epitome des Principes de l'Économie Politique, 1831. A volume of Mélanges et Correspondance was published posthumously by Charles Comte, author of the Traité de Législation, who was his son-in-law. To the above must be added an edition of Storch's Cours d'Économie Politique, which Say published in 1823 without Storcli's authorization, with notes embodying a "critique amère et virulente," a proceeding which Storch justly resented.

The last edition of the Traité de l'Économie Politique which appeared during the life of the author was the 5th (1826) ; the 6th, with the author's final corrections, was edited by the eldest son, Horace Emile Say, himself known as an economist, in 1846. The work was translated into English "from the 4th edition of the French" by C. R. Prinsep (1821), into German by Ludwig Heinrich von Jakob (1807) and by C. Ed. Morstadt (1818, and 1830), and, as Say himself informs us, into Spanish by José Queypo. The Cours d' Economie Politique pratique, from which Morstadt had given extracts, was translated into German by Max Stimer (1845). The Catéchisme and the Petit Volume have also been translated into several European languages. An English version of the Lettres à Malthus appears in vol. xvii. of the Pamphleteer, 1821. (J. K. I.)






The above article was written by: J. K. Ingram, LL.D., Trinity College, Dublin.



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