The Emotional Life of Laissez-Faire: Emulation in Eighteenth-Century Economic Thought

By guest contributor Blake Smith

Capitalism is often understood by both critics and defenders as an economic system that gives self-interested individuals free reign to acquire, consume, and compete. There are debates about the extent to which self-interest can be ‘enlightened’ and socially beneficial, yet there seems to be a widespread consensus that under capitalism, the individual, egoist self is the basic unit of economic action. For many intellectuals from the right and the left capitalism seems, by letting such economic agents pursue their private interests, to erode traditional social structures and collective identities, in a process that is either a bracing, liberating movement towards freedom or an alienating, disorienting dissolution in which, as Marx famously phrased it, “all that is solid melts into air.”

Economic activity unfettered by government regulation was not always so obviously linked to the self-interest of atomized individuals. In fact, as historians inspired by the work of István Hont show, the first wave of laissez-faire political economists, who transformed eighteenth-century Europe and laid the foundation for modern capitalism, claimed that they were creating the conditions for a new era of mutual admiration and affective connections among economic agents. For these thinkers, members of the ‘Gournay Circle’, emotions, rather than mere self-interest, were the motor of economic activity. They specifically identified the kind of activity they wanted to promote with the feeling of ’emulation’, and touted the abolition of traditional protections on workers and consumers as a means of stoking this noble passion.

Emulation has only been recently been given center stage in the history of economic thought, thanks to scholars like John Shovlin, Carol Harrison and Sophus Reinert, but it has a long history. From Greco-Roman antiquity down through the Renaissance, it was understood as a force of benign mutual rivalry among people working in the same field. Emulation was said to set in motion a virtuous circle in which competitors, bound by mutual admiration and affection, pushed each other to ever-higher levels of achievement. When a sculptor, for example, sees a magnificent statue made by one of his fellow artists, he should experience an uplifting feeling of emulation that will inspire him to learn from his rival in order to make a still more magnificent statue of his own. Emulation thus leads to higher standards of production, generating a net gain for society as a whole; it also, critically, unites potential rivals in a bond of shared esteem rooted in a common identity. This form of friendly competition sustains communities.

Emulation was not for everyone, however. It was understood only to exist in the world of male elites, and only in non-economic domains where they could pursue glory without the taint of financial interest: the arts, politics, and war. The circle of young male artists in the orbit of the great painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), as Thomas Crowe notes, could present their (not always harmonious) competition for attention, resources, and patronage in terms of emulation. In the homosocial space of the studio, anything so petty as jealous or avarice was abolished, and such artists as Antoine-Jean Gros, Anne-Louis Girodet and Jean-Germain Drouais could appear, at least in public, as a set of friends who admired and encouraged each other. Women, meanwhile, were largely excluded from the art world’s apprenticeships, studios, and galleries, on the grounds that their delicate psyches were not suited to the powerful emotions that drove emulation.


Vincent de Gournay

The discourse of emulation shaped access to the arts, but, in a stroke of public relations genius, the members of the Gournay Circle realized that it could also reshape France’s mercantilist economy. Beginning in the 1750s, this group of would-be reformers coalesced around the commercial official and political economist Vincent de Gournay (1712-59). Largely forgotten today (but now increasingly visible thanks to scholars such as Felicia Gottmann), Gournay and his associates inspired the liberal political economists of the next generation, from Physiocrats in France to Adam Smith in Scotland. The Gournay Circle and those who moved in its wake called for the abolition of restrictions on foreign imports, price controls on grain, state monopolies, guilds—the institutions and practices around which economic life in Europe had been organized for centuries.

The Gournay Circle spoke to a France fearful of falling behind Great Britain, its rival for colonial and commercial power. Gournay and his associates argued that France was not making the most of its merchants, entrepreneurs and manufacturers, whose energies were hemmed in by antiquated regulations. To those worried that unleashing economic energies might heighten social tensions, making France weaker and more divided instead of stronger, the Gournay Circle gave reassurance. There was no conflict between fostering social harmony and deregulating the economy, because economic activity was not motivated by self-interested desires for personal gain. Rather, buying and selling, production and distribution were inspired by emulation, the same laudable hunger for the esteem of one’s peers that motivated painters, orators and warriors.

Just as a sculptor admires and strives to outdo the work of his colleagues, laissez-faire advocates argued, a merchant or manufacturer regards those in his own line of work with a spirit of high-minded, warm-hearted camaraderie. Potential competitors identify with each other, forging an emotional bond based on their shared effort to excel. Thus, for example, demolishing traditional guild controls on the number of individuals who could enter into a given field of trade would not only encourage competition, raise the quality of goods and reduce prices—most importantly, it would draw a greater number of people into emulation with each other. Social classes, too, would be drawn to emulate each other, and rather than stoking economic conflict among competing interests, deregulation would encourage economic actors to earn the admiration of their fellows. National wealth and national unity would both be promoted, joined by a common logic of affect.

Under the banner of emulation, reformers challenged the guilds and associations that had long offered some limited protections to workers. Since the Middle Ages, guilds throughout Europe had set standards of production, provided training for artisans, and offered forms of unemployment insurance. Critics observed that they also kept up wages by limiting the number of workers who could enter into specific trades, and further accused guilds of thwarting the introduction of new technologies. Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), a political economist linked to the Gournay Circle, believed that the best way to “incite emulation” among workers was “by the suppression of all the guilds.”

For a brief moment, Turgot (still hailed as a hero in libertarian circles) was able to put his pro-emulation agenda into action. Appointed Comptroller-General of Finances (the equivalent to a modern Minister of Finance) in 1774, Turgot launched a laissez-faire campaign that included the abolition of guilds and the suspension of state controls on the price and circulation of grain. The royal decree announcing his most infamous batch of policies, the Six Edits, declared: “we wish thus to nullify these arbitrary institutions… which cast away emulation.” Turgot’s policies provoked outrage across French society, from peasants who feared bread prices would spiral out of control, to guild members who faced the competition of unregulated production. He was forced to resign in 1776; his most hated policies were reversed. But the damage had been done. The guild system, permanently enfeebled, straggled on for another generation. Peasants and workers, to whom the fragility of the institutions that protected their access to food and labor had been made brutally obvious, remembered the lesson. Their outrage in the mid-1770s was a rehearsal for 1789.


“Carte d’Entrée” for the first annual meeting of the Société d’Emulation

Emulation gradually faded away as a justification for liberal economic policies, although throughout much of the nineteenth century ’emulation clubs’ (sociétés d’émulation) remained a fixture of French municipal life, promoting business ventures while excluding groups whose capacity for emulation was considered questionable: women, Jews, and Protestants. As a key, albeit forgotten, concept in the development of modern economic thought, emulation reveals the extent to which the notion of the self-interested individual as the essential subject of economic activity is not in fact essential to capitalist ideology. In eighteenth-century France, laissez-faire policies aimed at increasing economic growth were justified in terms of their contribution to social harmony and emotional fulfillment. In the rhetoric that promoted these policies, the imagined economic subject was not an isolated, calculating egoist but a passionate striver who wanted, more than mere utility, welfare or profit, the admiration of other members of his community (that this community should exclude certain groups of people went without saying). Such arguments may well have been deployed by cynical activists agitating on behalf of powerful financial interests, yet they nevertheless speak to an affective dimension of economic life that is too often occluded. In its short-lived role as an economic concept, emulation showed that the history of capitalism is necessarily entangled with the history of emotions.

Blake Smith holds a PhD from Northwestern University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He is currently a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute, where he is preparing a study of the eighteenth-century French Orientalist Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron.

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