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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed The Physiocrats. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep.

In Our Time - The Physiocrats

 

Hello

For such a fancy title I thought it was an unusually direct and emphatic programme. The temptation to find the Greek root for the name of a new study seems to have dominated much of European thought for rather a long time. Still, it's a pity that 'Physiocrats' died out. It would give us all a little lift in the mornings if, instead of economists, Physiocrats fizzled up.

What I had not realised was the violence of the opposition in France to the British. Nor had I realised the violence inside Britain of British intellectuals to the British. Hume thought that we were completely doomed. Adam Smith, by contrast, we were told in the discussion afterwards, was very calm about the whole business of the economy and thought that everything would be okay. Burke, who made an accurate forecast of what would happen after the French Revolution, lived to see the Republican army under Napoleon come into existence; and so France had reappeared once more, potentially to overcome England, and he died an unhappy man, we're told.

Most interesting of all for me was Richard Whatmore's comments on Thomas Paine. I'd just come back from Paris, filming part of the documentary we're making for BBC Two on Thomas Paine, and it was in Paris that we got to the stage where he is plotting to overthrow the British government. I don't know why I had not realised the intensity behind Paine's actions. He was, after all, a man of extreme intensity, nearly always in the interests of clarity, and what can fairly be described as the nearest thing to political truth that we'd read for a long time. But, according to Richard Whatmore, he thought the only way to solve the problems of the world was by exterminating Britain, i.e. wipe the place off the map.

The filming in Paris was enlivened by being given permission to film inside the Assemblée Nationale, of which, of course, Thomas Paine was an elected member. This man of two revolutions (American and French) and one reaction to revolution (us). We were lucky that the discussion in the Assemblée Nationale was particularly lively and vivid. It was about expenses!

Sorry to be so brief, but I find myself gravitating towards trying to decide what to pack for a trip which seems on the forecasts to be aimed at two sorts of weather. Tornadoes and furnace level heat. Which brings me to hot air balloons. One of the contributors said that Benjamin Franklin had thought that the world would be safe were all the major powers to get hot air balloons, in equal numbers, and threaten to bomb other powers if they started a war. Some things never change.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: The mention of Benjamin Franklin is not entirely fortuitous. Tom Paine met Benjamin Franklin when he (Tom Paine) was a tax collector and very part-time journalist in Lewes. Franklin took to this pugnacious young man and gave him an open letter of introduction to America which Paine immediately used. In America Franklin took him up and at one stage called him "my adopted son". Franklin was Paine's great stroke of luck after an extraordinarily stormy domestic and a not untroubled working life. A sort of lightning conductor.

PPS: This is a PPS for the producer of the programme, Tom Morris, who is not averse to an occasional half pint, or it has been known, once in a blue moon, a full pint of beer. One of the reasons that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine became such good friends was their joint love of beer. As I mentioned last week, Franklin said God invented beer to show how much he loved the human race.

 

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by John Thompson

    on 26 Jun 2013 00:35

    The mistakes of the physiocrats -that government should not interfere with the operation of natural economic laws- is similar to today’s master narrative of “integrated global capitalism”, economic growth and indefinite productivity gains.Like earlier narratives of endless improvement,the story of globalization combines an evaluative mantra(“growth is good”) with the presumption of inevitability: globalization is with us to stay,a natural process rather thsn a human choice.The ineluctable dynamic of global economic competition and integration has become the illusion of the age.We should be wary.’Globalization’ is an updating of the high modernist faith in technology and rational management which marked the enthusiasms of the postwar decades.Like them, it implicitly excludes politics as an arena of choice:systems of economic relationships are,as the 18th century physiocrats used to assert,laid down by nature.Once they have been identified and correctly understood,it remains to us to live only according to its laws.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by This is a colleague announcement

    on 23 Jun 2013 10:22

    "...trying to decide what to pack for a trip which seems on the forecasts to be aimed at two sorts of weather. Tornadoes and furnace level heat..."

    ===

    I'd find that quite a tickler too, especially as I never take other than hand luggage. (My companions who mock me for this have generally had their laughter cut short by theirs going to another destination at some point).

    I suppose footware allowing a run to the shelters, and a wide-brimmed hat. You can roll a genuine panama, I'm told, so could do that and tuck it up your sleeve if any funnel clouds appear.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by John Thompson

    on 22 Jun 2013 15:13

    Forerunners of the French Revolution,but unfortunately were the very class that were to lose their heads in that cataclysm.They advocated enlightened despotism.The French Revolution ushered in the antonym of despotism,democracy.Both physiocracy and the French Revolution were in opposition to Great Britain.Like Erasmus to Luther the civilized physiocrats paved the way for the violent extremism of the Revolutionaries. A cataract of new facts overwhelmed the old systems.Although envious of Britain’s rise above France,the physiocrats thought Britain unstable,yet within sight of the Glorious Revolution of Britain came the terror of The Revolution
    .
    You also have to see Britain’s success in the Industrial Revolution due to the lack of restrictions of its trade and importation of goods,its growth of manufacturing base,its openness to the conversion of scientific ideas into the development of new technologies.Yes the ‘sterile class’ was rampant,vital for productivity,major.

    You missed the union between the physiocrats and Rousseau.The physiocrats held the view, common to the 18th century,and deriving ultimately from Rousseau,of the goodness and bounty of nature and the goodness of man “as he came from the bosom of nature”.The aim of governments, therefore, should be to conform to nature;and so long as men do not interfere with each others liberty and do not combine amongst themselves, governments should leave them free to find their own salvation.Their union of morality and economics was an important lesson for us today to learn.

    The part of The Wealth of Nations(V) which turns to domestic political economy and outlines the case for some government intervention:market systems cannot produce armies,courts, roads and canals,all things which increase welfare.The state has a duty to ensure the education of the young where private systems fail. Their introduction of scientific method in economics was more important to the future than their ideas about aligning the economy with natural law.Adam Smith, although not sharing their confidence in human nature,learned much from the physiocrats,by eliminating their errors.Melvyn,how good to get back to the earth.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by This is a colleague announcement

    on 21 Jun 2013 21:32

    Ah, this takes me back to reading "The Rights Of Man" and "Common Sense" in a Travelodge in Battersea, which I'd borrowed from the prop books in a nearby pub. I was tickled to hear of Paine's friendship with Franklin, a (very) distant family relative (like many people's) though, and their mutual love of beer.

    I struggle a bit with your use of "exterminating" re Britain however. Did he really say something equivalent? Wouldn't "expunging" perhaps have been more appropriate for an entity (a state) which is not a race or species? I don't believe he meant to kill all the British.

    I'll deffo try and catch the programme all the same.

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