J. C. L. Simonde de Sismondi Life

Jean Charles Leonard Simonde de Sismondi

The Emphasis on Income and Consumption

Among the earliest to revolt from the philosophy and ethics of the Classical economists was the French historian and writer on economics, Sismondi. This thinker well illustrates the diffi­culty of making a rigid threefold classification of opponents; for his criticism on the score of method is all but as important as his general revolt against the spirit of Smith's system, while he also attempted several criticisms of particular theories. Yet, after all, the notable thing about Sismondi is his ethical spirit and his rebellion against the underlying system. He desired considerable state regulation for social reform, but inasmuch as he did not advocate Socialism, he is to be classed as a limited individualist.

Simonde Life and Biography

Jean Charles Leonard Simonde de Sismondi was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1773, only three years before the publication of the Wealth of Nations. His father, a Protestant clergyman whose ancestors had fled from France upon the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, had destined young Sismondi for business pursuits; but the boy was given a classical education, and this, together with experience as a minor government official, and travel through Germany and Italy, developed his taste and ability for historical and economic studies. He lived until 1842, and was the author of numerous works and articles in his chosen field.

Among his contemporaries were the economists, Malthus, Say, List, Ricardo, and Senior.

Thus Sismondi's life was cast among stirring events and great thinkers. The French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and the consummation of the Industrial Revolution and the factory system, were witnessed by him, and their attendant evils were noted.

A point which deserves comment here, is the divergence of effect produced in different minds by the French Revolution and related developments. The destruction of old institutions, and the change in ideas concerning government, were apparent to all. The individual, and his relation to the nation, took on a new significance. But the downfall of the "old order" brought opposite tendencies into play. (1) On the one hand, the Classi­cal economists welcomed the end of Mercantilist regimentation, and demanded a policy of laisser faire. They dwelt upon in­dividual "rights," and the motivation to production which in­dividual initiative supplies, holding that self-interest leads to sufficient cooperation among individuals. (2) On the other hand, others soon came to demand the establishment of a new "order" to replace the old. They saw irreducible clashes of interest, and chaos, in laisser faire. Consequently, they demanded, if not a return to old forms of government, something that would directly take the place of the old regimentation. They saw the individual as a person needing protection. They emphasized duties, rather than rights. Security, rather than motivation to produce, came first in their minds. Conscious social planning and considerable government interference, seemed necessary.

Sismondi fell under the influence of the second of these oppos­ing tendencies. He did not dream of reverting to Medievalism, as we shall find certain "nationalists" doing; he did not go so far as to demand the abolition of private property and the price system, as his "Socialist" contemporaries did; but he de­sired social planning and security by positive state action to min­imize the uncertainties and instability of a competitive r6gime.
Sismondi's first economic writing was the Tableau de l'agri­culture Toscane (1801), followed in 1803 by his more important work, De la richesse commerciale ou principes de I'economie politique, appliques d la legislation du commerce. The Richesse com­merciale treats of capital, price, and monopoly, closely following Adam Smith's ideas. If Sismondi had never written again upon political economy, he would have gone down in history with a bare word to the effect that he was among the minor earlier fol­lowers of Smith.

Then for a space of sixteen years important economic writing ceased. But history engaged his attention, and a close study of industrial phenomena around him. He observed the suffering and hardship which accompanied the close of the Napoleonic wars, and the extent and severity of the crises of 1815, 1818-1819, and 1825. He studied England, the land of industrial progress and political economy, and there he saw the rich growing richer while the poor grew poorer. He saw relative overproduction and unemployment; and he remarked, as he states in the preface of his next book, that the laborers, having become mere proletarians, cast off all restraint upon the size of their families. He saw danger, too, in the extended use of paper money and bank credit.

The book last referred to was his chief economic work, the Nouveaux principes d'economie politique ou de la richesse dans ses rapports avec la population (New Principles of Political Economy, or of Wealth in Its Relation to Population), which was published in 1819. A second edition, considerably en­larged, appeared in 1827. In this new work, Sismondi presents a remarkable change of front. While still adhering to some of the main doctrines of Adam Smith and the Classical School, he draws radically different conclusions, and places the emphasis upon new matters. For Smith and his work, he professes ad­miration, and would even acknowledge his leadership; but he now seeks to complete and make new applications of his master's doctrines, and he sharply criticizes Say, Malthus, Ricardo, and M'Culloch.

It is interesting to remember that Sismondi was familiar with Italian thought, and it is probable that he was influenced by the Italian economist, Ortes, who held similar views with regard to population and the distribution of wealth.

In his last important economic work, Etudes sur Veconomie politique (1837-1838), his new ideas are reiterated: the econ­omists, he states, had been swept off their feet by the spirit of industrial progress. He, however, had seen the suffering of society in an age of "progress" too clearly to go with them. Through observation and historical study, he had been led to abandon their conclusion.