Money, Banks and Finance in Economic Thought

The Physiocrats and economic facts: an unknown story

Charles Loïc, Université de Paris 8 and Ined
Christine Théré, Institut National d'Etudes Démographiques

This paper will discuss an important, yet almost completely unknown story, of the considerable involvement of physiocracy and the physiocrats with the empirical culture of their time and how it fashioned to a large extent their main economic theories, such as net product. The physiocrats are considered as victims of the Ricardian sin, that is to be abstract theoreticians unconcerned with real economic facts in their theories. IN this paper we argue quite the opposite. Physiocracy as a program of research was to a large extent in constant interaction with empirical facts. The empirical methods of François Quesnay, the founder of physiocracy, were influenced by three different traditions: the English and French political arithmetic, the New husbandry literature and the state surveys. While the last one did not have a distinct influence on his economic theories and concepts, we will show that the first two did have a strong impact on the way the physiocratic theory evolved in the crucial period that goes from his first economic texts to the publication of Physiocracy's most important theoretical treatise: the Philosophie rurale. We will also investigate in depth the debate over petite culture and grande culture to show the extent to which Quesnay and some of his closest economic collaborators (Du Pont de Nemours and Butré) adhered to a culture of economic facts and how they developed a program for collecting and organizing rationally these facts for the purpose of testing their main economic hypothesis and results.

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Keywords: physiocracy; political arithmetic; new husbandry; agricultural accounting

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