"A Treatise on Political Economy" by Antonie Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836) is a foundational text of nineteenth-century, free-market economic thought and remains one of the classics of nineteenth-century French economic liberalism. Destutt de Tracy was one of the founders of the classical liberal republican group known as the Idéologues, which included Benjamin Constant, Jean-Baptiste Say, Marquis de Condorcet, and Madame de Staël.
In this volume, Destutt de Tracy provides one of the clearest statements of the economic principles of the Idéologues. Breaking with the physiocratic orthodoxy of the eighteenth century, Destutt de Tracy denies that land is the source of all productive labor and focuses his attention upon manufacturing and manufacturers as the producers of utility and, therefore, of value and of wealth. Placing the entrepreneur at the center of his view of economic activty, he argues against luxurious consumption of the idle rich and recommends a market economy with low taxation and minimum state intervention.
Destutt de Tracy sent the text of A Treatise on Political Economy to Thomas Jefferson in hopes of securing its translation in the United States. It was met with enthusiastic approval. Jefferson wrote to the publisher, "The merit of this work will, I hope, place it in the hands of every reader in our country."
In the introduction to a treatise on the will it was proper to indicate the generation of some general ideas which are the necessary consequences of this faculty.
It was even incumbent on us to examine summarily,
1st. What are inanimate beings, that is to say beings neitheir sentient nor willing.
2d. What sentient beings would be with indifference without will.
3d. What are sentient and willing beings but insulated.
4th. Finally, what are sentient and willing beings like ourselves, but placed in contact with similar beings.
It is with the latter we are now exclusively to occupy ourselves, for man can exist only in society.
The necessity of reproduction and the propensity to sympathy necessarily lead him to this state, and his judgment makes him perceive its advantages.
I proceed then to speak of society.
I shall consider it only with respect to economy, because this first part concerns our actions only and not as yet our sentiments.
Under this relation society consists only in a continual succession of EXCHANGES, and exchange is a transaction of such a nature that both contracting parties always gain by it. (This observation will hereafter throw great light on the nature and effects of commerce.)
We cannot cast our eyes on a civilized country without seeing with astonishment how much this continual succession of small advantages, unperceived but incessantly repeated, adds to the primitive power of man.
It is because this succession of changes, which constitutes society, has three remarkable properties. It produces concurrence of force, increase and preservation ofintelligence and division of labour.
The utility of these three effects is continually augmenting. It will be better perceived when we shall have seen how our riches are formed.
Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy
Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, comte de Tracy (1754 – 1836) was a French Enlightenment aristocrat and philosopher who coined the term "ideology".
Destutt de Tracy was the last eminent representative of the sensualistic school which Condillac founded in France upon a one-sided interpretation of Locke. In full agreement with the materialist views of Cabanis, de Tracy pushed the sensualist principles of Condillac to their most necessary consequences. While the attention of Cabanis was devoted mostly to the physiological side of man, Tracy's interests concerned the then newly determined "ideological," in contrast to "psychological," sides of humanity. His grounding notion of ideology, he frankly stated, fell as "a part of zoology" (biology). The four faculties into which de Tracy divides the conscious life—perception, memory, judgment, volition—are all varieties of sensation. Perception is sensation caused by a present affection of the external extremities of the nerves; memory is sensation caused, in the absence of present excitation, by dispositions of the nerves which are the result of past experiences; judgment is the perception of relations between sensations, and is itself a species of sensation, because if we are aware of the sensations we must be aware also of the relations between them; and volition he identifies with the feeling of desire, and is therefore included as a type of sensation.
Considered for the influences of his philosophy, de Tracy minimally deserves credit for his distinction between active and passive touch, which ultimately fed the development of psychological theories of muscular sense. His account of the notion of external existence, as it derived not from pure sensation, but from the experience of action on the one hand and resistance on the other, stands in this light to be compared with the works of Alexander Bain and later psychologists.
His chief works are the five-volume Eléments d'idéologie (1817–1818), the first volume of which was presented as "Ideology Strictly Defined," and which completed the arguments made in earlier completed monographs; Commentaire sur l'esprit des lois de Montesquieu(1806), and Essai sur le génie, et les ouvrages de Montesquieu (1808). The fourth volume of the Eléments d'idéologie the author regarded as the introduction to a second section of the planned nine-part work, which he titled Traité de la volonté (Treatise on the Will and Its Effects). When translated into English, editor Thomas Jefferson retitled the volume A Treatise on Political Economy, which obscured the aspects of Tracy's concern not with politics, but with far more basic questions of will, and the possibility of understanding the conditions of its determinations.
Tracy advanced a rigorous use of deductive method in social theory, seeing economics in terms of actions (praxeology) and exchanges (catallactics). Tracy's influence can be seen both on the Continent, particularly on Stendhal, Augustin Thierry, Auguste Comte, and Charles Dunoyer, and in America, where the general approach of the French Liberal School of political economy competed evenly with British classical political economy well until the end of the 19th century, as evidence in the work and reputation of Arthur Latham Perry and others. In his political writings, Tracy rejected monarchism, favoring the American republican form of government. This republicanism, as well as his advocacy of reason in philosophy and laissez-faire for economic policy, lost him favor with Napoleon, who turned Tracy's coinage of "ideology" into a term of abuse; Karl Marx followed this vein of invective to refer to Tracy as a "fischblütige Bourgeoisdoktrinär"—a "fish-blooded bourgeois doctrinaire."
Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, thought highly enough of Destutt de Tracy's work to ready two of his manuscripts for American publication. In his preface to the 1817 publication, Jefferson wrote, "By diffusing sound principles of Political Economy, it will protect the public industry from the parasite institutions now consuming it. . . ."