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In Defense of Turgot

Murray Rothbard views the eighteenth-century French economist and administrator Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot as a great and admirable figure, but David Graeber and David Wengrow do not agree. In their recently published The Dawn of Everything (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), they present Turgot as a force for evil. His ideas provided a justification for a false sense of Western superiority to people supposedly less civilized and in that way lent support to wars of conquest against them. In this week’s column, I’d like to consider their account of Turgot’s comparison of modern with primitive society.

Graeber, who died just before the book was published, and Wengrow are left-anarchist anthropologists, bitterly opposed to capitalism, which they view as an oppressive system. Their chief complaint against capitalism is that it compels people to be productive. The system pressures people to work more and more hours in order to obtain more material goods, even though they would be happier with more leisure and a simpler life. In brief, capitalism stultifies human life.

Rothbard’s opinion of Turgot could not be more different:

In proceeding to more detailed analysis of the market process, Turgot points out that self-interest is the prime mover of that process, and that … individual interest in the free market must always coincide with the general interest. The buyer will select the seller who will give him the best price for the most suitable product, and the seller will sell his best merchandise at the lowest competitive price. Governmental restrictions and special privileges, on the other hand, compel consumers to buy poorer products at high prices.

Turgot concludes that “the general freedom of buying and selling is therefore … the only means of assuring, on the one hand, the seller of a price sufficient to encourage production, and, on the other hand, the consumer of the best merchandise at the lowest price.” Turgot concluded that government should be strictly limited to protecting individuals against “great injustice” and the nation against invasion. “The government should always protect the natural liberty of the buyer to buy, and the seller to sell.”

Individuals under capitalism freely pursue their goals; setting the exigencies of nature aside, they aren’t forced to do anything.

Why do Graeber and Wengrow take such a negative view of the free market and its defender Turgot? As they tell the tale, Turgot responds to Madame de Graffigny and other French writers who stress the freedom possessed by native peoples untouched by civilization:

Yes, Turgot acknowledged, “we all love the idea of freedom and equality”—in principle. But we must consider a larger context … the freedom and equality of savages is not a sign of their superiority; it’s a sign of inferiority, since it is only possible in a society where each household is largely self-sufficient and, therefore, where everyone is equally poor…. As societies evolve, Turgot reasoned, technology advances. Natural differences in talents and capacities between individuals … become more significant, and eventually they form the basis for an ever more complex division of labour. We progress from simple societies … to our own complex “commercial civilization,” in which the poverty and dispossession of some—however lamentable it may be—is nonetheless the necessary condition for the prosperity of society as a whole. (p. 60)

This account of Turgot entirely misunderstands his argument. Turgot is not saying that the division of labor decreases freedom but rather that it increases productivity. It does so by taking advantage of specialization, and doing this leads to inequality because natural differences will develop further. But Turgot doesn’t claim that the free market leads to a hierarchical society in which some people must dominate others. Why would it? Graeber and Wengrow do not tell us.

They might counter this with two points. First, they might deny that primitive societies were less productive than modern commercial societies, but this doesn’t seem plausible. They do argue that in many primitive societies, most people had an abundance of goods, but even if that is true, it doesn’t follow that an economy that uses the division of labor isn’t more productive: the argument for the greater productivity of the division of labor doesn’t depend on the premise that a society without this feature is impoverished.

The second point that they might raise against Turgot is this. According to their anthropological evidence, in some primitive societies there weren’t large numbers of poor people, but it is certainly the case that there are large numbers of poor people in commercial societies. Doesn’t this show that primitive societies were in this respect better?

This argument overlooks the fact that, compared with the modern world, primitive modes of social organization are able to support much smaller numbers of people. If population increased, an egalitarian primitive society would be unable to cope with the added burden; only the division of labor makes it possible for the vast populations of the modern world to survive. Readers will no doubt recall that Mises makes a parallel argument in response to charges that the Industrial Revolution worsened conditions for the masses (see Human Action, p. 617). And if large numbers of poor people yet remain, the accumulation of capital that the free market fosters leads to making them better off. Graeber and Wengrow make an odd mistake in inferring from Turgot’s point that the general prosperity of the modern world is higher than in earlier times, even though there are poor people, that he believes that the increased prosperity requires the existence of poor people.

Turgot makes another argument to which Graeber and Wengrow have no adequate answer. If you want to enforce equality in modern conditions, the “only alternative … would be massive, Inca-style state intervention to create a uniformity of social conditions; an enforced equality which could only have the effect of crushing all initiative, and, therefore, result in economic and social catastrophe” (paraphrased on p. 60).

Graeber and Wengrow tell us about many remarkable findings that anthropologists have made in recent years, but they don’t understand that their criticisms of Turgot and the free market rest on elementary economic fallacies. For them, anthropology is the master science, and they look down with condescension on those ignorant of its mysteries. Like Robert Browning’s Abt Vogler, they say: “The rest may reason, and welcome; ‘tis we musicians know.”