Say’s Life (1767-1832)

Jean-Baptiste Say

Jean-Baptiste Say



Picture of Jean-Baptiste Say courtesy of
The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.
Jean-Baptiste Say was born in Lyons on January 5, 1767 and died in Paris
on November 15, 1832. Say was the leading French political economist in
the first third of the 19th century. Before becoming an academic
political economist quite late in life, Say had worked at a broad range
of occupations including an apprenticeship in a commercial office
(following in the family tradition), working for a life insurance
company, journalist, soldier, politician, cotton manufacturer, and
writer. The major reason for his constantly changing career were the
political and economic upheavals his generation had to endure: the
French Revolution, the Revolutionary Wars, the rise of Napoleon
Bonaparte, economic warfare with Britain, and eventually the fall of the
Empire and the Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Only after this
quarter century of turmoil could Say take up his first position teaching
political economy in Paris in 1815, an activity he was to continue until
his death in 1832.

Say made his name as the leading French political economist of his era
with the publication of the Traité d’économie politique (1803) which
went through many editions, revisions, and translations during his lifetime. The
economic ideas which are most closely associated with his name are
“Say’s law” of markets (crudely formulated sometimes as “supply creates
its own demand”, or more broadly understood as the idea that producers, by nature of finding markets for and selling their own goods, generate income they can spend on other goods in the economy), the
vital role played by the entrepreneur in economic activity, the
contribution of “non-material” goods (such as services, human capital,
and institutions) to the creation of wealth, and an early formulation of
the theory of rent-seeking.

Say was also a keen popularizer of economic ideas, writing several works
in dialogue form in order to teach liberal economic ideas to a broader
audience at a time when economic nationalism and socialism were becoming
more popular. One of his last major works, the Cours complet d’économie
politique pratique
(1828-9), was an attempt to broaden the scope of
political economy away from the preoccupation with the production of
wealth, by examining the moral, political, and sociological requirements
of a free society and how they inter-related with the study of political
economy. In other words, he wished to return political economy to its
Smithian roots.

Say’s family originated in Nîmes but had to flee to Geneva in the late
17th century when the state ended the policy of toleration towards
Protestants. They returned in the mid-18th century to Lyon where Say’s
father became a merchant. The family intended Say and his brother Horace
to continue in the family business and, to this end, the two brothers
were sent to London to learn how modern commerce was done. They learnt
this and English as well. Say’s fluency in English meant that, when he
came across a copy of Smith’s Wealth of Nations (which had still not
been translated into French) while working in a life insurance office,
he was able to quickly absorb its contents.

When the French Revolution broke out, Say was swept up in events: he
stopped working for Mirabeau’s journal the Courrier de Provence to
volunteer to fight and saw service in Champagne in 1792-93; he got
married only to find his family’s moderate wealth made him a target of
the Terror before hyper-inflation wiped out most of what they had;
finally, he was appointed editor of the journal of the liberal-minded
“Idéologues” La Décade philosophique, littéraire, et politique for which
he wrote articles on political economy from 1794-99.

Say’s practical
business experience and his knowledge of current economic policy led to
his appointment in 1799 to the Tribunat where he served on the finance
committee. It was in this context that the idea of a treatise on
political economy was hatched and the first of eventually six editions
appeared in 1803. Say’s Treatise even came to the attention of First
Consul Napoleon who, over dinner with Say, suggested a new edition
should be published which more explicitly supported the government’s
unpopular fiscal policies. Say’s blunt refusal to serve the interests of
Napoleon and his constant opposition to the profligate spending of the
government in the finance committee led to his dismissal from the

The next stage of Say’s career was a return to the commercial world. Say relocated his family to
Auchy in Pas-de-Calais where he set up a cotton spinning plant using the
latest machinery from England. After eight quite successful years in
business employing between 400-500 people in his factory, Say sold up
and returned to Paris in 1813. He was convinced that French economic
policy was going to result in economic collapse: the continental system
which excluded British goods from the Continent, the issuing of
government licenses for business, the increasing tariffs on imported
cotton, and the difficulties of trading in wartime, were all stifling
French industry.

The publication of the second edition of the Treatise on Political
in 1814 brought Say again to the attention of the government
which employed him to travel to England on a fact finding mission to
discover the secret of English economic growth and to report on the
impact of the revolutionary wars on the British economy. Say also used
the trip to make contact with British philosophical radicals and
political economists such as James Mill, Jeremy Bentham and Ricardo.
Part of his report was published in the pamphlet “De l’Angleterre et des
Anglais” (1814). It contains a devastating critique of the economic
impact of war on ordinary British working people and the use of the Bank
of England to pay the costs of war by depreciating the money and
creating public debt which would take decades to pay back.

Only after the defeat of Napoleon and the Restoration of the Bourbon
monarchy was the pre-eminent French political economist of his day able
to get a job teaching economics in Paris, first at the Athénée, then a
chair in “industrial economics” at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers
(the expression “political economy” was still regarded as somewhat
radical and subversive), and finally the first chair in political
economy at the Collège de France. Although he was a notoriously bad
lecturer, reading directly from his manuscripts, he published a
considerable amount in the remaining 17 years of his life. Numerous
popular works on political economy appeared, along with several revised
editions of the Treatise on Political Economy, a series of polemical
letters written to Malthus, and a lengthy and unjustly neglected Cours
complet d’économie politique pratique


Works by J. B. Say

Say, Jean-Baptiste, Traité d’économie politique, ou simple exposition dela maniÈre dont se forment, se distribuent et se consomment lesrichesses (1st edition 1803, Paris: Deterville). Online at

Say, Jean-Baptiste, A Treatise on Political Economy. Translated from the 4th edition of the French by C. R. Prinsep, M.A. (New American Edition by Clement C. Biddle, LL.D. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1855).

Say, Jean-Baptise, Cours complet d’économie politique pratique; ouvragedestiné à mettre sous les yeux des hommes d’état, des propriétairesfonciers et les capitalistes, des savans, des agriculteurs, desmanufacturiers, des négocians, et en général de tous les citoyens, l’économie des sociétés (Paris: Rapilly, 1828-9), 6 vols. Online at

Say, Jean-Baptiste, Oeuvres diverses contenant: Catéchisme d’économiepolitique, fragments et opuscules inédits, correspondance générale, Olbie, Petit Volume, Mélanges de morale et de litérature’ précédéesd’une Notice historique sur la vie et les travaux de l’auteur, Avec desnotes par Ch. Comte, E. Daire et Horace, Say (Paris: Guillaumin, 1848). Online at

Works about J. B. Say

Hart, David M., Class Analysis, Slavery and the Industrialist Theory of History in French Liberal Thought, 1814-1830: The Radical Liberalism of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer (unpublished Ph.D., King’s College Cambridge, 1994). Online version

Sowell, Thomas, Say’s Law: An Historical Introduction. PrincetonUniversity Press, 1972.

Weinburg, Mark, “The Social Analysis of Three Early 19th Century French Liberals: Say, Comte, and Dunoyer”, Journal of Libertarian Studies, 2 no.1 (1978): 45-63.


*Dr. David M. Hart is the newly appointed Director of the Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty Project. Previously he taught history at the University of Adelaide, South Australia. His research interests include 18th and 19th century French liberal thought.