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Richard Cantillon’s Essai sur la nature du commerce en général is unanimously praised by commentators of various schools of thought for its exceptionally ‘modern’ character: according to Jevons (1881), for instance, the Essai covers “nearly the whole field of economics, with the exception of taxation” and “is thus, more than any other book I know, the first treatise on economics” (p. 67). Schumpeter (1954) characterized the Essai “as the first systematic attempt to work over the whole field of economics” (p. 29) and Spengler (1954a), in his article Richard Cantillon: First of the Moderns, answered the question “Who is the founder of modern political economy?” by pointing out that Cantillon “has a very good claim to having been the principal forerunner of both the classical and the neoclassical schools” (p. 281). In the same vein, Rothbard (1995) portrayed Cantillon as “the founding father of modern economics” (p. 343).
While there seems to be unanimity on the “modernité de Cantillon” (Gilardi 1981, p. 164), the question as to what precisely is ‘modern’ about the Essai has received somewhat different answers in the existing literature. Some authors, such as Brems (1978) or Grieve (1993), singled out Cantillon’s theory of value, on grounds of its logical consistency. Grieve (1993) even considers it “a safe route past both the problem which besets the later developments within the classical tradition and the problem inherent in the neo-classical approach” (p. 56), since it “is not weakened by association with the labour theory of value, nor undermined by circularity as is the marginalist approach” (p…


While most commentators emphasized his modernity, this paper conceives of Cantillon as a premodern theorist. It stresses that the Essai reformulates the populationist cause as a pure allocation problem and that all its modern elements serve as devices either for elaborating or for solving this problem. Since Cantillon’s problem is predicated upon the assumption of complete technological stagnation, it consequently leads to a rationalization of a typically premodern conception of history. While ‘modernizing’ readings of the Essai tend to accentuate continuities between Cantillon and the physiocrats, the ‘historicizing’ reading proposed here allows uncovering profound discontinuities.

  • Cantillon
  • Montesquieu
  • Quesnay
  • history
  • technology
Michael Gaul
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