François de Quesnay was an 18th century French physician. However, his great passion was economics. Influenced by his medical training, he developed a theoretical body on the economic functioning of societies.
François Quesnay (1694 -1774) was born to a family of farmers and merchants. His father Nicolás dedicated himself to the task of collecting taxes on behalf of an abbey. This occupation allowed him to ensure a reasonable standard of living for the family.
It seems that one of Quesnay's first teachers was his father's gardener. Under their influence, he read the book "L’ Agriculture et Maison Rustique "by doctors Charles Estienne and Jean Liébaut. This work was a famous encyclopedia of country life published in the 16th century and reprinted several times. Until the beginning of the 18th century. This marked the later interest of François Quesnay in subjects such as agriculture and medicine.
It is not known how Quesnay continued his studies, until 1711. In that year he decided to dedicate himself to surgery. To make it possible, he first followed the teachings of a surgeon practicing in the neighboring municipality of Ecquevilly. Later he went to Paris, where he married Jeanne-Caterine Dauphin in 1717 and graduated in 1718. Quesnay began to practice at Mantes-la-Jolie, where he gained an excellent reputation, and in 1723 received the title of royal surgeon.
His fame expanded with the publication in 1736 of "Essai physique sur l’économie animale." From this moment he pursued a brilliant career until he became Madame de Pompadour's physician. And, later, of the king. In recognition of the effectiveness of his work, the king appointed him a squire in 1752. In the same year, Quesnay became a member of the "Académie des sciences." A year later he did it at the Royal Society. His professional activity did not prevent him from dedicating himself to economics with passion. Passion that led him to found and promote the so-called Physiocratic school.
François Quesnay in the intellectual environment of the «Encyclopédie»
Life at court allowed Quesnay to frequent d'Alembert, Diderot, Buffon, Condillac, and other prestigious intellectuals. This situation allowed him to write the entries for the
"Encyclopédie" such as "Fermiers", "Grains" and "Hommes" (both in 1757). He also published other works, such as "Maximes générales du gouvernement économique d’un royaume agricole" and a series of articles in the "Journal de l’Agriculture, du Commerce et de la Finance".
In 1758 he published his most important economic work, "Tableau économique." In it, he provided the first representation of the structural interdependencies of an economic system. Its objective was to describe how income (net product) circulates from one sector to another. In this, he was influenced by his training as a doctor, since he was inspired by the functioning of the human body.
In 1763, after meeting the Marquis de Mirabeau, he participated with him in the work «Philosophie rural ou économie générale et politique de l’agriculture, reduite à l’ordre immuable des lois physiques et morales qui assurent la prospérité des empires. Quesnay writes the seventh chapter, which begins the physiocracy.
The last part of his life was devoted to the study of mathematics, somewhat removed from political economy. Their positions, once heard and influential, lost strength and were increasingly criticized. Finally, François de Quesnay died on December 16, 1774.
Thought and influence of François Quesnay
In addition to a famous doctor, François Quesnay studied economics. More specifically, political economy, in a context in which the France of Louis XV had left behind the splendor of the reign of Louis XIV, known as the Sun King. The state was in debt and the agricultural sector had remained almost intact since that time. medieval, based on fragmented and very small properties and the use of obsolete and archaic tools. After a major famine that killed more than three million people, Quesnay made a fierce criticism of the mercantilist system promoted by Colbert, which gave preference to trade and manufacturing over agriculture. France was in the background to the strength of England and the Netherlands.
The «Tableau économique» system
One of Quesnay's most important contributions to political economy is the "Tableau économique" of 1758. In it he describes the economic system, structural interdependencies, and relations between the productive sectors and social classes. For this, it is inspired by the human organism, where the organs maintain a relationship of reciprocal interdependence. Quesnay observes the natural ability of the living organism to find a balance between the organs, without the need for external help. The same happens in an economic system in which the productive sectors are related to each other and all contribute to determine the economic equilibrium of the system.
This interdependence also occurs between the three social classes that it distinguishes. Each of them fulfills a specific role:
- Farmers are the productive social class: In their view, land is the sole source of net product (surplus) or additional wealth. By cultivating the land, from the seeds (input) we obtain fruits (output) of a much higher value.
- The distributive class is made up of the landowners: These acquire the surplus produced by the land to buy goods and agricultural products.
- The sterile class is linked to the secondary and tertiary sector: According to Quesnay, the industry produces an output value equal to the value of the inputs. This group also includes merchants.
- Social classes exchange goods and currencies among themselves: Therefore, the economic system is represented by circular flows, through which one social class buys goods or services from another, behind a payment in money. In Quesnay's "Tableau économique" for each flow of goods or services (purchase) there is a reverse flow in currency (payment).
The father of physiocracy
Physiocracy derives from the previous conception. This economic current is based on the foundations of Quesnay's natural law, whose implications for economic policy are clearly liberal and anti-mercantilist. This school came to have a large following in 18th century France.
According to the physiocrats, the sole task of the state is to remove all obstacles to the free functioning of the economic system, remove all restrictions on trade and economic activities, and adopt a policy of support for economic liberalism.
The economic flows of goods-money must be free to allow the economic system to reach a natural equilibrium. This point of view is well summed up by the phrase "laisser faire, laissez passer". In his opinion, the best political system for the development of the economy in this sense was enlightened despotism.
These positions clash with the supporters of mercantilism, who were betting on the intervention of the state to control trade flows in favor of the national interest.
Without a doubt, François Quesnay is a great figure in the history of economics. His works and his theories marked a whole generation of economists and politicians. It is true that with the passage of time, his teachings have lost strength. But, without a doubt, they are still of undeniable interest today.