Quesnay, François

From Enlightenment and Revolution
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Quesnay, François (1694-1774): French Political Economist.

François Quesnay was a founder of the Physiocratic school of political economy. Originally trained as a medical doctor, he enjoyed a highly successful career in that field. In 1730, he gained notoriety with his treatise Observations on the Effect of Bleeding, and from 1740 to 1748, he was Secretary of the Academy of Surgery. In 1749, he was appointed physician to Pompadour, Marquise de and from that position rose to become the personal physician to Louis XV, who ennobled him.

In the mid-1750s, however, Quesnay’s interest turned to questions of philosophy and political economy. As an associate of the philosophes, he published a series of entries in the Encyclopedia, including ones on Evidence, Farmers, and Grain. In 1757-8, Quesnay, along with Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques, Mirabeau, Victor Riquetti, Marquis de, and Mercier de la Rivière, Pierre Paul among others, formed a group of like-minded associates devoted to a new doctrine in political economy in opposition to mercantilism. This new view came to be known as physiocracy, and in 1758, Quesnay published The Economic Tableau, the first great tract devoted to the physiocratic view.

According to Quesnay, land was the source of all wealth and agriculture the primary economic activity, as opposed to foreign trade or manufacturing. In his famous zig-zag diagram, he depicted how that wealth circulates in an agricultural economy. Just as unimpeded circulation was critical to the physiological well-being of the body, so, by analogy, unrestricted circulation of goods was critical to a healthy economy. Thus, Quesnay advocated a policy of laissez-faire, opposing government intervention and supporting free trade, both internally and externally. Finally, Quesnay argued that since wealth was the source of wealth, the tax system should be simplified to a single tax to be levied on land and not to exceed one-third of its net product.

Physiocratic ideas influenced both government policy in France under Turgot and the economic thought of Smith, Adam, but also generated strong critics such as Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Mably, Gabriel Bonnot de, Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de and Galiani, Fernando. Quesnay eventually drifted away from political economy and devoted the final years of his life to mathematics.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, The Origins of Physiocracy: Economic Revolution and Social Order in 18th Century France, 1976.

Kevin E. Dodson

Lamar University