Economic theory has neither the exactness of science nor the insights of literature. Yet it remains the dominant form of organised knowledge in the modern world. James Buchan regrets the influence and arrogance of the discipline and reveals that Adam Smith himself was a plagiaristby James Buchan / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
In 1766 the Marquis de Mirabeau, the father of the celebrated revolutionary orator, declared that history was over. “There have been, since the world began,” he wrote, “three great inventions which have principally given stability to political societies. The first is the invention of writing, which alone gives human nature the power of transmitting, without alteration, its laws, its contracts, its annals and its discoveries. The second is the invention of money which binds together all the relations between civilised societies.”
So far so good. But what could be the third invention to match or combine these two? At a distance of two centuries, one holds one’s breath. “The third,” the marquis wrote, “is the Oeconomical Table, the result of the other two, which completes them both by perfecting their object.”
The table in question, a bizarre arrangement of squiggles and zig-zags, has come down to us. A copy was discovered in the marquis’s papers in the French national archives in Paris at the end of the 19th century and published soon afterward to a mystification as deep as it was complete. Devised by Mirabeau’s friend, Fran?ois de Quesnay, a part-time economist and full-time gynaecologist to Mme de Pompadour, it purported to show the way in which money multiplies in society. In as much as any meaning can be disentangled, it is nonsense. The early economists were entranced by Harvey’s picture of the circulation of the blood: they took it over as their metaphor for society until Adam Smith popularised the theatrical image of the invisible hand. The tableau is interesting only as a primitive instance of the economists’ intense, almost mystical, yearning for the key to existence; and their love of rapturous conclusions.
A century later, the economists are still at it. In his Principles of Economics, Alfred Marshall, Keynes’s master and the founder of the modern British school of economics, announced that he had uncovered the secret of modern society. It was, he said in the accents of a man of the world, money: “… it is this definite and exact money measurement of the steadiest motives in business which has enabled economics far to outrun every other branch of the study of man. Just as the chemist’s fine balance has made chemistry more exact than most other physical sciences; so this economist’s balance, rough and imperfect as it is, has made economics more exact than any…