Say and Ricardo

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Baumol, William J. (1977), Say's (at least) eight laws, or what Say and James Mill may really have meant, Economica 1977. Reprinted in M. Blaug (ed.), Pioneers in Economics, 15: Jean Baptiste Say, Aldershot 1999: Edward Elgar, pp. 106-122.

Béraud, Alain (1992), Ricardo, Malthus, Say et les controverses de la "seconde génération", in Alain Béraud and Gilbert Faccarello (eds), Nouvelle Histoire de la Pensée Economique, vol. 1, pp. 365-508.

Blaug, Mark (1997 [1962]), Economic Theory in Retrospect. 5th edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gehrke, Christian and Kurz, Heinz D. (2001), Say and Ricardo, forthcoming in: Tiran, André (ed.). Colloque International Jean-Baptiste Say, Conference Proceedings volume, Lyon.

Kurz, Heinz D. and Salvadori, Neri (1993), The 'Standard Commodity' and Ricardo's search for an 'invariable measure of value', in M. Baranzini and G. C. Harcourt (eds), The Dynamics of the Wealth of Nations. Growth, Distribution and Structural Change. Essays in Honour of Luigi Pasinetti, New York: St. Martin Press, pp. 95-123.

Kurz, Heinz D. and Salvadori, Neri (1995), Theory of Production. A Long-Period Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kurz, Heinz D. and Salvadori, Neri (2001), Classical economics and the problem of exhaustible resources, Metroeconomica, 52:2, pp. 282-96.

Marx, Karl (1954 [1867]), Capital, vol. I, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House. English translation of Das Kapital, vol. I, Hamburg, 1867: Meissner.

Mahieu, François-Régis (1992), Présentation, in Ricardo (1992), pp. 17-41.

Pryme, George (1870), Autobiographic Recollection of George Pryme, Esq. M.A., sometime Fellow of Trinity College, Professor of Pol. Ec. in the University of Cambridge, & M.P. for the Borough. Edited by his daughter, Cambridge: Deighton, Bell.

Ricardo, David (1819), Des Principes de l'Économie politique, et de l'impôt, traduit de l'anglais par F. S. Constancio, avec des notes explicatives et critiques, par M. Jean-Baptiste Say. Paris: Aillaud.

Ricardo, David (1951-73), The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. by Piero Sraffa with the collaboration of M. H. Dobb, 11 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ricardo, David (1992), Des principes de l'économie politique et de l'împot, translated by Cécile Soudan, introduced by François-Régis Mahieu, Paris: Flammarion.

Say, Jean-Baptiste (1815), Catéchisme d'économie politique. Paris: Crapelet.

Say, Jean-Baptiste (1820), Lettres à M. Malthus, sur différens sujets d'économie politique, notamment sur la causes de la stagnation générale du commerce, Paris: Bossange.

Say, Jean-Baptiste (1825), 'Examen critique du discours de M. MacCulloch sur l'économie politique', Review of J.R. McCulloch: 'Discourse on the rise, progress, peculiar objects and importance of Political Economy', Revue Encyclopédique, vol. 27, September 1825, pp. 694-719. Reprinted in Say (1848), pp. 261-79.

Say, Jean-Baptiste (1848), Oeuvres diverses de J.-B. Say, Paris: Guillaumin.

Say, Jean-Baptiste (1852 [1828-9]), Cours complet d'économie politique pratique, 3rd ed. Paris: Guillaumin, vols X and XI of the Collection des Principaux Economistes; in the text referred to as vols I and II.

Say, Jean-Baptiste (1967 [1821]), Letters to Mr. Malthus on Several Subjects of Political Economy. And on the Cause of the Stagnation of Commerce. To Which is Added: A Catechism of Political Economy or Familiar Conversations on the Manner in which Wealth is Produced, Distributed and Consumed in Society, translated by John Richter, first edition 1821, London: Sherwood, Neely & Jones. Reprint 1967, New York: A.M. Kelley.

Say, Jean-Baptiste (1971 [1821]), A Treatise on Political Economy. English translation by C. R. Prinsep of the fourth edition (1819) of Traité de'économie politique, Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen and Haffelfinger. Reprint 1971, New York: A.M. Kelley.

Say, Jean-Baptiste (1996), Cours d'économie politique et autres essais, edited and introduced by Philippe Steiner, Paris: Flammarion.

Sraffa, Piero (1951), Introduction, in Vol. 1 of Ricardo, D. (1951-73), The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. by Piero Sraffa with the collaboration of M. H. Dobb, 11 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Steiner, Philippe (1996), Introduction, in Say (1996), pp. 7-35.

Steiner, Philippe (1998a), The structure of Say's economic writings, The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 5, 227-49.

Steiner, Philippe (1998b), J.-B. Say: the entrepreneur, the free-trade doctrine and the theory of income distribution, in G. Faccarello (ed.), Studies in the History of French Political Economy: From Bodin to Walras, London: Routledge, pp. 196-228.

Steiner, P. (2000), La theorie de la production de J.-B. Say, Paper presented at the 'Colloque international Jean-Baptiste Say', Lyon, 26-28 October 2000.

The paper discusses the differences between the theories of value and distribution of Jean-Baptiste Say and David Ricardo. The attention focuses on fundamental issues in controversy between them. These are Say's confounding of 'value', 'riches' and 'utility', the theory of value, the problem of the measure of value, and the distinction between net and gross revenue; and the theory of income distribution, especially the explanation of rents and of profits. Since Say variously expressed his wish to learn from Ricardo and to absorb his doctrine, the aim of the paper is essentially to examine whether he made any progress in this regard. Whenever possible we let the authors speak for themselves.


David Ricardo, income distribution, Jean-Baptiste Say, utility, value

Address for correspondence:

Department of Economics, University of Graz, Resowi-Centre F4, A-8010 Graz, Austria; e-mail:;


* An earlier version of this paper was given at the 'Colloque international Jean-Baptiste Say', Institut des Sciences de l'Homme, Lyon, 26-28 October 2000. We are grateful to the participants of the conference and especially to Pierre Dockès, chairman of the session in which our paper was given, and Joël Ravix, discussant of our paper, for a very lively debate and useful observations. We should also like to thank José Luís Cardoso, Gilbert Faccarello, Geoff Harcourt, Ian Steedman, Philippe Steiner and the referees of EJHET for detailed comments and valuable suggestions. English translations are ours; the original French versions of the quoted passages are reproduced below (with a few transformations from ancient to modern French orthography). For suggestions and advice on the translations we should like to thank Astrid Wlach, José Luís Cardoso and, in particular, Gilbert Faccarello. Obviously, the responsibility for the views presented here and any misconceptions that may have remained is entirely ours.

1Say had visited Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1814. In the note on his life in his Oeuvres diverses we read: 'In Glasgow he was asked to sit down in the chair from which Adam Smith taught, and it was not without emotion that he told this episode of his journey one day to his audience in the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers' (Say 1848: XI).(26*)

2Unless otherwise stated, all emphases in quotations were added by us.

3The latter problem is dealt with in Gehrke and Kurz (2001, section VIII); see also Baumol (1977), Béraud (1992: 474-88) and Steiner (1996: 29 n. 37).

4However, as Steiner (1996: 22) aptly observed, Say's notes to the French translation of Ricardo's Principles published in 1819 marked a rupture in the relationship between the two scholars and showed a Say attacking his declared peer. We shall come back to Say's notes below.

5For contributions to an assessment of the two authors from a different perspective, see, for example, Béraud (1992), Mahieu (1992: 33-8) and Steiner (1996: 22-35). According to Béraud (ibid.: 507) there have not been many critical studies of Say's contributions to economics.

6 They met again in 1817 and in 1822, on the occasion of Ricardo's visits to Paris.

7 A version of Say's report was published as De l’Angleterre et des anglais (1815). In a letter to Say of 24 December 1814 Ricardo wrote: 'The plan for the currency of France which you have sent me to look over differs in no very essential point from that which I recommended to our Bank of England' (Ricardo, Works, vol. VI: 165).

8J.-B. Say wrote of himself: 'I have never been satisfied with my conversation. My second thought is in general better than the first one, and it is unfortunately always the latter which comes about in conversation' – Quoted in Notice sur J.-B. Say, prefixed to Oeuvres Diverses (1848: XV).(27*)

9Malthus replied on 26 October 1820: 'With regard to your new definition of the objects of Political Economy, I own it appears to me very confined. ... In the same manner when you reject the consideration of demand and supply in the price of commodities and refer only to the means of supply, you appear to me to look only at half of your subject' (ibid.: 286). Ricardo's response of 24 November could also have been addressed to Say: 'I do not dispute ... the influence of demand on the price of corn and on the price of all other things [the reference is obviously to market prices], but supply follows close at its heels, and soon takes the power of regulating prices [the reference is obviously to natural price] in his own hands, and in regulating it he is determined by cost of production. I acknowledge the intervals on which you so exclusively dwell, but still they are only intervals' (ibid.: 302).

10 On 10 September 1815 Say wrote to Ricardo: 'I received these days that interesting little pamphlet [Ricardo's Essay on Profits], and I have read it with so much profit that I have made use of it and have cited it in the third edition of my Traite d'Economie Politique which I am currently preparing' (Ricardo, Works, vol. VI: 270).(28*) In November 1815 James Mill informed Ricardo: 'I have a long letter from our Parisien friend ... He says he is rectifying his chapters on money to a conformity with your ideas, for the third edition of his book' (ibid.: 321). In July 1817 Say presented Ricardo with a copy of the third edition of his Treatise, 'where you will find several corrections, some of which suggested themselves to me from my conversations with you. The following editions will offer some more which I owe to your works. My theory of value is already much better than the one you have criticized' (Ricardo, Works, vol. VII: 166).(29*)

11 Although the French translation is dated 1819, a copy had reached Ricardo by the middle of December 1818 and Say's notes were discussed in letters between him and Mill of that month (see Ricardo, Works, vol. X: 374). In a letter to Ricardo Say explained that he had originally written these notes 'only for my own use. A publisher who had commissioned a translation of the work got knowledge of these notes and pestered me until he had obtained them from me' (Ricardo, Works, vol. VIII: 136).(30*)

12James Mill refers to the following statement in one of Say's notes on Ricardo's chapter 'On Value': 'Mr. Ricardo there appears not to have included profits or the interest of capital as a constituent part of the prices of commodities. Consequently, Mr. Ricardo, after Smith, includes in the natural price of commodities neither the interest of capital nor the profits of the land funds which have contributed to their production' (Say in Ricardo 1819, vol. I: 28-9).(31*)

13In a letter to Pryme, dated Paris, 27 August 1819, Say wrote about the fourth edition: 'It will be more comprehensive, and I hope it will be found more complete and better connected than all the previous ones. The criticisms of Mr. Ricardo have been very useful to me. They have obliged me to elaborate on the doctrine of values as the measure of riches, and to solve, apart from many others, this interesting problem: How is the low price of products at the origin of the riches of nations? I have done what I could to make political economy such that there is not any difficulty that cannot be resolved with the help of this fourth edition' (Pryme, 1870: 125-6; emphasis in the original).(32*)

14 He reiterated his assessment in a letter of 9 October 1820 (see Ricardo, Works, vol. VIII: 276-7).

15In one of his notes on John Cazenove's 'A Reply to Mr. Say's Letter to Mr. Malthus' Ricardo observed: 'I am as much dissatisfied as the author with M. Say's defence of the principle which both he and I maintain to be true' (Ricardo, Works, vol. X: 410).

16 A summary account of the changes in the successive editions of the Treatise is given in Steiner (1998a).

17As we know from a letter of Say to Prinsep written in May 1821, Say was not very happy with the translation and disliked some of Prinsep's comments on his own doctrines. The translation is indeed not very good, nor are Prinsep's comments, but this does not affect the following rendition of Say's argument.

18 Say had suggested that his letter of 19 July 1821 might be read to the members of the Political Economy Club, together with Ricardo's response. Ricardo did so at the next meeting that he attended, on 4 February 1822. At the meeting Say was proposed to be elected as an honorary member and 'The thanks of the Club were voted to both gentlemen for these communications' (Ricardo, Works, vol. IX: 172-3 n.).

19For a different interpretation of the debate, giving some credit to Say, see Steiner (2000: 15-17).

20The view that in competitive conditions there exists a tendency toward a uniform rate of return on capital (and, more generally, a tendency toward uniform rates of remuneration for each single quality of original factors of production) led the classical economists to distinguish between 'market' or actual values, on the one hand, and 'natural' or normal values, on the other. About the former, these authors maintained, nothing could be said which is of sufficient generality. Therefore, only natural values were considered the legitimate object of scientific inquiry. While Say appears to have accepted the competitive tendency toward uniform rates of remuneration and thus the existence of centres of gravitation of market values, in his later publications he strangely rejected the concept of natural value. In his notes on the French edition of Ricardo's Principles he contended: 'The distinction between the natural price and the actual price made by Mr Ricardo, following Adam Smith, appears to me totally chimerical. In Political Economy there are only actual prices.' He concluded about Ricardo's argument in chapter 4 of the Principles: 'All the rest is hypothetical and of little use in practice' (Say in Ricardo 1819, vol. I: 126-7).(33*) To be clear, only in the actual economy are all prices actual prices, whereas in Political Economy all prices are abstract prices. As a scientific subject, Political Economy cannot do without some concept of normalcy and thus some level of abstraction.

21Originally, Ricardo was in search of a commodity which at all times would be produced with the same amount of labour. In the third edition of the Principles he required that in addition to this property the perfect measure of value would have to exhibit average proportions of labour to means of production.

22 This fact notwithstanding, Ricardo's concern with defining the average conditions of production under which the different commodities of a given economic system are produced played a useful role in his attempt to render clear how relative prices depended on the level of the rate of profits.

23The translator, C. R. Prinsep, translated 'entrepreneur' as 'adventurer'.

24In addition, the fact that the two authors argued against the background of different institutional settings in France and the United Kingdom, respectively, could only contribute to aggravating their problems of communication. See, for example, Ricardo's remark that 'M. Say appears to me to have mistaken the nature and effects of the English land-tax' (Ricardo, Works, vol. I: 186).

25In another passage he draws a parallel between 'la faculté productive du sol' and 'la faculté productive du travail' (ibid.: 95 n.).

26For a discussion of the relationship between the classical theory of rent and Hotelling's rule in dealing with exhaustible resources, see Kurz and Salvadori (2001).

27For example, in accordance with von Thünen in Der isolirte Staat we might consider a plot of (otherwise homogeneous) land in a particular location as a particular quality of land.

28On Ricardo on intensive rent, see also Béraud (1992: 386).

29Interestingly, the translator, C. R. Prinsep, in one of his idiosyncratic footnotes wrote with regard to chapter 2 of the Principles: 'This chapter of Ricardo is perhaps the least satisfactory and intelligible of his whole work' (T: 361n). While this opinion echoed Say's, it was not confirmed by important contemporary and later authors. On the contrary, the theory of (intensive) rent was taken to be the stuff from which a new theory could be elaborated – marginal productivity theory – by generalizing the principle of diminishing returns to all 'factors of production' alike. (For the difficulties the attempted generalization encountered, see, for example, Kurz and Salvadori 1995: ch. 14.)

30 In the above it is assumed that the rate of profit is larger than the minimum rate which according to Ricardo is just enough to compensate the 'risk and trouble' incurred by the capitalist.

31 Steiner (2000: 22) notes that Say rewrote parts of his correspondence for this purpose.

Quotations in the original French:

(1*) Je m'occupe toujours à corriger mon Traité d'Economie et je fais un grand usage de vos Principles of Political Economy.

(2*) Vous verrez par les corrections que j'ai faites, notamment dans les premiers chapitres du Livre 2e sur la Distribution des richesses, combien vos critiques m'ont été utiles, puisqu'elles m'ont obligé à remettre sur le métier les parties les plus délicates de ma doctrine. Je m'estimerais bien heureux si ces corrections et quelques autres parviennent à vous ramener sur les points peu nombreux où j'ai eu le malheur de ne pas me rencontrer avec nous.

(3*) Je désire vivement que les explications que je donne ici de ma doctrine des valeurs, vous satisfasse mieux que celles qui se trouve dans mes précéden[t]s écrits. Cette doctrine me semble maintenant digne d'être adoptée et étendue par vous; et j'attendrai avec impatience les premiers écrits que vous publierez pour savoir ce que vous en pensez; car je crois avoir montré qu'elle n'est autre que la vôtre en d'autres termes.

(4*) Mais j'aurais eu très-grand tort si l'on pouvait inférer de ce que j'ai dit, que lorsque le prix d'une chose baisse, son utilité diminue. L'utilité d'une chose qui baisse de prix, se rapproche alors de l'utilité de l'air, qui ne nous coûte rien, quoique fort utile.

(5*) L'action gratuite des agents naturels, quand elle remplace l'action onéreuse des hommes et des capitaux, fait baisser la valeur des produits. Comme toute valeur est relative, la valeur des produits ne peut pas baisser sans que la valeur des revenus (ou des fonds productifs qui donnent ces revenus) n'augmente. Les consommateurs sont d'autant plus riches que les produits sont à meilleur marché. J'ai prouvé ailleurs que la baisse des produits provenant d'une économie dans les frais de production, n'altérait en rien les revenus des producteurs.

(6*) Il est dit dans le passage cité que les revenus de la société sont restés les mêmes; car pour les richesses, elles sont augmentées de tout ce qu'on peut acheter de plus avec le même revenu.

(7*) Valeur échangeable et richesse sont ... synonymes.

(8*) Maintenant la grande difficulté est de faire concorder les lois de la Richesse sociale ou de l'Économie politique, avec celles de la Richesse naturelle. Lorsqu'un produit se multiplie par le meilleur emploi que nous faisons des nos terres, de nos capitaux, et de notre industrie, il y a plus d'utilité (soit de richesse naturelle) produite, et en même temps la production de la richesse sociale semble être moindre, puisque la valeur échangeable du produit diminue. La richesse sociale ne suit donc pas la même marche que la richesse naturelle.

(9*) Il reste à connaître quels sont ceux qui profitent de cette augmentation, ceux qui sont plus riches, non seulement en richesses naturelles, mais en richesses sociales, en valeurs échangeables, de tout cet accroissement d'utilité produite.

(10*) Si par des causes dont la discussion est étrangère à l'object de notre spéculation présente, la valeur échangeable de chaque boisseau de blé se soutient, malgré l'augmentation survenue dans la quantité de blé produite, alors l'augmentation de richesse produite est entièrement au profit des producteurs; c'est-à-dire, des propriétaires du fonds capital, du fonds territorial, et du fonds industriel, dont il est sorti cinq cents boisseaux au lieu de cinquante. Le revenu provenant de ces portions de fonds a décuplé.

(11*) Si ... la valeur échangeable de chaque boisseau de blé a baissé en raison de la plus grande quantité qui en a été produite, le profit obtenu est bien toujours dans la proportion des cinq cents à cinquante; mais ce profit est fait par la classe des consommateurs, lesquels sont aussi riches de ce qu'ils payent de moins, que les producteurs l'auraient été de ce qu'ils auraient vendu de plus. Leur revenu n'a pas décuplé, parce qu'ils ne l'emploient pas tout entier en froment; mais la portion de revenu qu'ils avaient coutume d'employer en froment, a décuplé; et toutes ces portions de revenu ainsi décuplées, se monteraient, si elles étaient réunies, à une somme égale à la valeur décuplée du produit, en supposant qu'il n'eût pas baissé de prix. Dans les deux cas, la société a donc joui d'une augmentation de valeurs comme d'une augmentation d'utilité.

(12*) Non; mais en supposant pour un moment qu'une livre d'or et une livre de fer rendent à l'homme un service parfaitement égal malgré l'inégalité de leur valeur, je dis qu'il y dans une livre de fer:

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