Victor de Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau (often referred to simply as the elder Mirabeau) (October 5, 1715 - July 13, 1789) was a French economist of the Physiocratic school. The "friend of mankind" was also known as "Mirabeau the Elder" to distinguish him from his estranged son, Honoré Gabriel, who became famous for his role in the French Revolution.
Mirabeau's approach stressed the primacy of agriculture over commerce as the fundamental source of wealth of the nation. He argued for the "natural state" as the balance of income flows between sectors of the economy, without the need for government interference except to facilitate the laws of nature to operate. Mirabeau regarded these natural laws as God-given, and that commercial activity should be developed within the framework of Christian virtue in order to establish a moral society that would naturally provide prosperity for all.
Victor de Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau, was born on October 5, 1715 in Pertuis, France. He was raised very sternly by his father and in 1728, he joined the army. He took keenly to campaigning, although he never rose above the rank of captain. He blamed this on his inability to get leave at court to buy a regiment. Upon his father's death in 1737, he came into the family property, and after several pleasant years in literary companionship with Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues and the poet Lefranc de Pompignan, he married the widow of the marquis de Saulveboef, Marie-Geneviève de Vassan, in 1743.
While in garrison at Bordeaux, Mirabeau had made the acquaintance of Montesquieu, and after retiring from the army, he wrote his first work, known as his Testament Politique (1747), which demanded a return of the French nobility to their old position in the Middle Ages for the sake of the prosperity of France. This work was followed in 1750 by a book on the 'Utilité des états provenciaux. In 1756 Mirabeau made his first impression as a political economist by the publication of his Ami des hommes au trait de la population, often attributed to the influence of Quesnay, but was really written before the marquis had made his acquaintance.
In 1760, he published his Théorie de l'impot, after which he was exiled to his country estate at Bignon because tax collectors in the government did not like the book. At Bignon, the economics school of the Physiocrats was really established, and in 1975 Mirabeau the Journal de l'agriculture, du commerce, et des finances, which became the organ of the school. He was recognized as a leader of political thinkers by Prince Leopold of Tuscany, later emperor, and by Gustav III of Sweden, who in 1772 sent him the grand cross of the Order of Vasa.
However, his marriage was not happy; he separated from his wife in 1762, and many lawsuits from his wife and subsequent trials broke the health of the marquis, as well as his fortune. Finally, he sold his estate at Bignon, and rented a house at Argenteuil, where he lived quietly till his death on July 13, 1789.
In fact, most of the public first became acquainted with Quesnay's Tableau through its reproduction in Mirabeau's L'ami des hommes: Pt. 6 (1760). Mirabeau as the primary architect of the "single tax" doctrine, expounded in his 1760 book, was, de facto, the leading economic strategist of the Physiocrats.
The Physiocrats argued that the old Colbertiste policies of encouraging commercial and industrial corporations was wrong-headed. It is not that commerce and manufacturing should be discouraged, they said, but rather that it is not worthwhile for the government to distort the whole economy with monopolistic charters, control, and protective tariffs to prop up sectors which produced no net product and thus added no wealth to a nation. Government policy, if any, should be geared to maximizing the value and output of the agricultural sector.
French agriculture at the time was still trapped in Medieval regulations which shackled enterprising farmers. Latter-day feudal obligations—such as the corvée, the yearly labor farmers owed to the state—were still in force. The monopoly power of the merchant guilds in towns did not permit farmers to sell their output to the highest bidder and buy their inputs from the cheapest source. An even bigger obstacle was the internal tariffs on the movement of grains between regions, which seriously hampered agricultural commerce. Public works essential for the agricultural sector, such as roads and drainage, remained in a deplorable state. Restrictions on the migration of agricultural laborers meant that a nation-wide labor market could not take shape. Farmers in productive areas of the country faced labor shortages and inflated wage costs, thus forcing them to scale down their activities. In unproductive areas, by contrast, masses of unemployed workers wallowing in penury kept wages too low and thus local farmers were not encouraged to implement any more productive agricultural techniques.
It was at this point that the Physiocrats adopted their laissez-faire attitude. They called for the removal of restrictions on internal trade and labor migration, the abolition of the corvée, the removal of state-sponsored monopolies and trading privileges, the dismantling of the guild system, and other such reforms.
Thus, the Physiocrats pushed for Mirabeau's "single tax" on landed property—l'impôt unique. The logic, as laid out by Mirabeau in his La theorie de l'impôt (Theory of taxation) (1760) seemed compelling. He attacked the tax farmers (financiers who purchased from the crown the right to collect indirect taxes) and proposed that they be replaced with a system of direct taxes on land and on personal income. Under that system, any taxes levied throughout the economy just passed from sector to sector until they fell upon the net product. However, as land is the only source of wealth, then the burden of all taxes ultimately bears down on the landowner. So, Mirabeau proposed, instead of levying a complicated collection of scattered taxes (which are difficult to administer and can cause temporary distortions), it is most efficient to just go to the root and tax the rents on land directly.
The Physiocrats identified three classes in the economy: the "productive" class (agricultural laborers and farmers), the "sterile" class (industrial laborers, artisans, and merchants) and the "proprietor" class (who appropriated the net product as rents). Incomes flowed from sector to sector, and thus class to class.
A "natural state" of the economy emerged when these income flows were in a state of "balance," that is, where no sector expanded and none contracted. Once the "natural state" was achieved, the economy would just continue, reproducing itself indefinitely. Described and defined in his famous La philosophie rurale, Mirabeau's (1763) text is considered the best statement of this early Physiocratic doctrine.
Unlike the Mercantilists, the Physiocrats did not concern themselves with whether maximizing the net product was a "good" idea (i.e. enhancing the power of the sovereign, producing general happiness, improving general morality, etc.). The "friend of mankind," Mirabeau (1756), however, declared that the true wealth of a nation is its population, ergo the greater the net product the greater the sustainable (and presumable happier) population.
The Marquis de Mirabeau was the political and economic strategist of the Physiocrats. He claimed their aim was to return humanity to "the primary notions of nature and instinct," and explained their position and intentions in a letter to Rousseau.
In opposition to the British commerce-based model, Mirabeau advocated reform of the monarchy, believing that French fortunes could be restored without major political upheaval, albeit viewing agriculture as the premier sector (Mirabeau 1760).
Physiocracy was not opposed to commerce per se; it was rather one of the most confident and complex responses to the progress of “commerce and civilization” (a term coined by Mirabeau 1760). Mirabeau wanted to develop commerce that was compatible with Christian virtue, by establishing a political and legal framework within which harmful passions would be curbed and natural morality reasserted.
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