Was Turgot lost or dismissed?

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    It’s pretty amazing that the arguments and insights Turgot made were lost for 100 years or more! Were they really lost or were they known and dismissed? Was there commentary on him in the interim? Was the Mariginal Revolution a rediscovery of his ideas with some refinements or did Menger and those who followed him make some real new contributions? Maybe they just put it all together?


    According to Rothbard (in Economic Thought Before Adam Smith), J.B. Say was clearly influenced by Turgot, but was reluctant to admit this due to the political climate in post-Revolutionary France, where anyone who wrote during the time of the monarchy was considered suspect. Rothbard also claims that Adam Smith knew Turgot personally, but apparently he (and the other English classicals) did not fully understand his work.


    Great question Aaron, and good thoughts Daniel.

    Well, if you pull up the PDF of Menger’s *Principles* book:
    …you can search for “Turgot” and see that Menger cites him several places, but in particular if you look at Appendix D you can see him credit Turgot but then say that only later German writers really got closer to the truth.

    Here’s what Hulsman says:
    “The writings of Smith and Ricardo were overwhelmingly successful in the Anglo-Saxon countries, and had made great inroads on the European continent. The French Revolution had shifted the center of economic research and learning from the Continent to Britain. The Napoleonic era was particularly effective in suppressing the classical-liberal movement on the Continent. Public attention naturally shifted to Adam Smith, the patron saint of the still-vigorous British branch of the movement. Smith became the main authority on economic theory, displacing Quesnay, reducing Turgot to a footnote, and condemning Condillac to oblivion.”

    So you can see that in Guido’s view, people knew Turgot, but barely.

    If you want to see for example what did Turgot do “wrong” (from our POV) here is Rothbard:

    “While there is an unfortunate “real cost” flavor about Turgot’s treatment of cost, and he called the cost of a product its “fundamental value,” he comes down generally to a rudimentary version of the later “Austrian” view…”

    Turgot then unfortunately goes off the subjective-value track by adding, unnecessarily, that the terms of exchange arrived at through this bargaining process will have “equal exchange value,” since otherwise the person cooler to the exchange “would force the other to come closer to his price by a better offer.” It is unclear here what Turgot means by saying that “each gives equal value to receive equal value”; there is perhaps an inchoate notion here that the price arrived at through bargaining will be halfway between the value scales of each.”

    So I just grabbed two passages from Rothbard where he admits that Turgot didn’t quite have value theory correct (from our POV), and that’s of course from an essay titled “The Brilliance of Turgot” so you know Rothbard was doing his best to show the beauty of the analysis.

    You are not going to find any idea in economics where it started with one person, period. There are always going to be earlier writers who were groping around it. Even so, the only time I have ever seen something definitive like this is when Schumpeter said of Menger that he was no one’s pupil.

    I.e., the one person I’ve heard singled out as truly original, was Carl Menger and what he did in his 1871 book.

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