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1 This book offers translations from French of no less than eleven texts of Jean-Baptiste Say, none of them previously available in English. Say, one of the most important economists of the early nineteenth century alongside Robert Malthus, David Ricardo and Jean-Charles Sismonde de Sismondi. Like Sismondi, Say has been for a long time underrated by historians of economics. His name is mainly remembered because of the law that bears its name, which was attacked by John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s and became thereafter a vast topic of contention between economists, especially macroeconomists. [2] However, the situation has changed and for the last two decades, Jean-Baptiste Say has been the subject of considerable literature by historians of economic thought. First, a team directed by André Tiran has undertaken a new edition of his economic writings in 10 volumes – most of them are already available and the last ones should be out this year. [3] Second, the historiography of Say as an economist has grown considerably during the same period in French as well as in English. [4]

2 As Gilles Jacoud in his short and competent introduction to the volume reminds us, Jean-Baptiste Say career as a writer and social thinker began in the eve of the French Revolution. Born in 1767, Say was like many young men of his generation eager to make a name for himself in the literary world. Author of a few highly forgettable theater plays at the end of the 1780s, he joined the staff of the Swiss financier Étienne Clavière as his personal secretary. This is in this context that he discovered political economy and more specifically Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which left an indelible imprint on the mind of the young man. In the following years, benefiting from Clavière’s wide connections – he became ministre des Finances in 1793 –, Say became a journalist and then a member of the Tribunate, a kind of economic expert institution at the service of the government. It is in this context that he wrote the Treatise on Political Economy, first published in 1803. His work met with considerable success for decades. Barred from public office by Napoleon, he subsequently became an industrial entrepreneur. After the Emperor’s fall, Say began a third career as a writer and professor of political economy. [5] He began teaching at theAthénée, a private institution, from 1815 to 1819. He was then recruited on a chair of “Industrial economics” by the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in 1820. That he would keep it up to his death in 1832. Finally, Say was nominated professor at the Collège de France, the country’s most prestigious educational institution, in 1830 on a chair of political economy, which likewise he held until his death.

3 Four of the texts translated in the present volume are opening discourses written for one of these teachings (two from the Conservatoire and two from the Collège). The other seven can be classified in two categories: four are general introductions to Say’s Treatise and Complete course in practical political economy; and three are texts where Say reflects on the content and history of political economy. Altogether, these texts provide a detailed view of Jean-Baptiste Say’s conception of the place of political economy among the sciences and, in particular, the social sciences. In his introduction G. Jacoud underlined two themes that run through all these texts: the social role of political economy and the definition of the specific scientific method of this discipline. The first theme is one that characterized the history of economic thought from the mid-1750s to this day. Indeed, among the social sciences, political economy – economics in the modern language – has been the subject of huge controversies in and out of academia because of the claim that it is both a science akin to the natural sciences and a moving force in the social world through the effect the knowledge it creates has on the behavior economic agents. [6] This aspect is an interesting aspect of Say’s conception for it leads him to insist on the necessity of spreading economic education in even the basest layers of society for “political economy is everyone’s business” (p. 40). It also leads him to widen in a very modern manner the sphere of the application of economic theory because “there is hardly any situation in life, where one cannot fruitfully apply a spirit of economy, that is to say the sound and enlightened judgment that renders one able to appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of all things fully.” (p. 142) In these two instances, Say’s methodological position is at variance with that of most economists of his time, especially Ricardo. One of the most significant consequences of this position is the emphasis Say put on the management of firms and the role of the entrepreneur in particular, an economic agent hardly present in the English political economy of his time.

4 The second theme Jacoud highlights is Say’s definition of the scientific method in political economy. Say advocates the “experimental method” as practiced in the natural sciences such as physics. Interestingly, Say balances theory and practice claiming that there are the two faces of the same (epistemological) coin. Although this claim may sound a bit cliché nowadays, it is worth underlining that again Say set himself against most of the English writers, and Ricardo in particular (Steiner [1990]). In a nutshell, the great interest of this volume is to offer to English speakers the possibility to get better acquainted with the methodological stance of one of the most influential economic heirs of Adam Smith.


  • [*]
    Text by Jean-Baptiste Say, translated and edited by Gilles Jacoud. Routledge Studies in the History of Economics, London & New York, Routledge, 2017, 279 p.
  • [1]
    Led (EA 3391), Université de Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis.
  • [2]
    A simple n-gram search for “Say’s law” (English) and “loi de Say” (French) confirms that the 1930s was the period during which these expressions became popular in the economic literature.
  • [3]
    To some extent, this selection of translations as well as the previous one on Say’s monetary thought (Jacoud ed. [2013]) may be considered as an outgrowth of the French editorial project: Jacoud is a full member of this project.
  • [4]
    In English see the books by Forget [1999] and Schoorl [2013], in French: Tiran (éd., [2010]) and several articles by Steiner. There are also a considerable number of articles in the main history of economics journals, but the list is much too long to be detailed here.
  • [5]
    For a detailed view on Say’s courses and teaching activities, see Steiner [1987] and Jacoud and Steiner eds [2003], esp. the introduction to the volume.
  • [6]
    In Say’s words, “economic knowledge lightens the way for individuals” (p. 133). In a word, the argument is that individuals who master political economy have a better knowledge of their interests and are therefore able to make the best decisions.


  • FORGET E. [1999], The Social Economics of Jean-Baptiste Say. Markets and Virtue. London & New York: Routledge.
  • JACOUD G. [2013], Money and Banking in Jean-Baptiste Say’s Economic Thought, Abingdon: Routledge.
  • JACOUD G., STEINER P. (eds) [2003], Leçons d’économie politique. Vol. IV of Jean-Baptiste Say, Œuvres complètes. Paris: Héricard.
  • SCHOORL E. [2013], Jean-Baptiste Say: Revolutionary, entrepreneur, economist. London: Routledge.
  • STEINER P. [1987], J.-B. Say et l’enseignement de l’économie politique en France (1816-1832). Économie et sociétés, série PE, no 6, p. 345-377.
  • STEINER P. [1990], L’économie politique contre les systèmes: quelques remarques sur la méthode de J.-B. Say, Revue d’économie politique, 100 (5), p. 664-687.
  • TIRAN A. (ed.) [2010], Influences, critiques et postérité. Coll. Rencontres. Paris: Classique Garnier.
Loïc Charles [1]
  • [1]
    Led (EA 3391), Université de Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis.
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