The Physiocrats as Social Reformers (1769-1789)

Social Reform History, French Physiocrats

Physiocrats were a group of social reformers in France who were intellectual disciples of Francois Quesnay (1694-1774) and his book Tableau Economique (1972). A man named Turgot (Comptroller General of Finances for France) was their most politically influential member. In contrast to mercantilists, because of their belief in natural law, Physiocrats were largely advocates of "laissez-faire" economics and were therefore proponents of little or no government regulation and intervention. They especially wanted to get rid of heavy taxation (see Beer, 1939).

Physiocrats believed that "social change" essentially required one ruling class to be replaced by another and could not be achieved solely through reforms. In other words, revolution was required. This economic idea regarding social change was significant because the French Revolution occurred in 1789 within a couple of decades after Quesnay's death.

There are some ideas that are unique to the Physiocrats (actually from Quesnay's writings). First, surplus was a gift of nature; therefore, agriculture must necessarily be the center of all economic life. Based on this perspective, cultivators were the productive class while manufacturers were labeled as sterile or unproductive. Landlords, by the way, were simply labeled as just idle.

Second, Physiocrats further applied the ideas of correlating nature with economics by pointing out how mutual interdependencies existed between production processes. They also recognized a pattern of circular type flow for both money and commodities and realized that economic crises could occur from hoarding money. From these observations, Physiocrats were some of the first to come up with the notion of "equilibrium" and the notion of creating a "system" based on natural laws.