One of the most bizarre characters in the history of economic thought was the poet and dramatist Antoine de Montchrétien (c.1575–1621). Born in Falaise, in Normandy, Montchrétian grew up in a middle-class household, his father probably having been an apothecary. He went to a fashionable school at Caen, and at the age of 20 began to write poetry and tragic plays, some of which, including Hector and L’Écossaise, are still considered classics of French literature. At 30 Montchrétien became involved in a scandalous duel, and fled to England. After travelling in Holland, he returned to France around 1610 and married a rich Norman widow, who financed his start in the hardware business. He thereupon set up a factory at Ousonne-sur-Loire, where he produced knives and scythes.
In 1615, at the age of 40, Antoine de Montchrétien published his one and only work on economics, the Traicté de I'Oeconomie Politique (Treatise on Political Economy). The only distinction of this book was its title, for it was the first time in history that the phrase ‘political economy’ had ever appeared. The Treatise is a rambling, disorganized account of the economic resources of the country, and a plea to the twin rulers of France (the young King Louis XIII and his Regent and Queen Mother, Marie de Medici) to impose order, rule with an iron hand, and advance the greatness of their nation-state, France. As Charles Cole puts it, the book ‘is based in large part on the tacit assumption that control and direction of the economic life of the country is one of the chief functions of government, and it is a plea for greater activity in economic matters on the part of the rulers’.1 One sentence from the work will convey its essential spirit: ‘Your Majesties possess a great state, agreeable in geographic situation, abounding in wealth, flourishing in peoples, powerful in good and strong cities, invincible in arms, triumphant in glory’. All France needs, Montchrétien opined, is ‘order’: ‘Order is the entelechy of states’.
The alleged need for a state-imposed order was linked neatly with Montchrétien's conscious echoing of the Montaigne fallacy: ‘It is said that no one ever loses without another gaining. This is true and is borne out in the realm of commerce more than anywhere else’.
For Montchrétien, the French Crown in particular was supposed to regulate and foster production and trade, and especially manufactures, so that France could become self-sufficient. Foreign goods and foreign manufacturers should be driven out of France. Thus Dutch linen manufacturers were at the time allowed to operate in France; that must be ended. English textiles should be banned. France must be made self-sufficient in silk, Montchrétien asserted, and he claimed that the fiasco of silk subsidy in the reign of Henry IV had come about only because of faithlessness on the part of the monarch's aides. Furthermore, since ‘whatever is foreign corrupts us’, foreign books should be prohibited, since they ‘poison our spirits’ and ‘corrupt our manners’.
Nor did Montchrétien neglect his own scythe business. It was a national tragedy, he warned, that German scythes were outcompeting French products, even though French scythes were superior. One wonders, then, why French consumers were perverse enough to prefer the German product – unless, of course, its price was lower.
Idleness, according to Montchrétien, was evil and had to be stamped out, by force if necessary. Man, to Montchrétien, is born to live in continual labour; the policy of the state should therefore be to make sure that no part of the population ever remains idle. Idle hands are the devil's hands; idleness corrupts the strength of men and the chastity of women. Idleness, in short, is the mother of all sins. The criminals and the unruly should, therefore, be made to work. As for so many other mercantilists, full employment for Montchrétien meant at bottom coerced employment.
The most pervasive motif in Montchrétien's work was his deep and abiding hatred and revulsion towards foreigners, towards their imported products and towards their persons. Foreigners, he fulminated, ‘are leeches who attach themselves to this great [French] body, suck out its best blood, and gorge themselves with it, then leave the skin and detach themselves’. All in all, France, ‘once so pure, so clean’, had been turned into ‘a bilge, a sewer, a cesspool for other countries’.
It is impossible to know if Montchrétien was hoping for great things from the French monarch, but in any case nothing happened, and so he began to ordain himself into the nobility, by simply calling himself the ‘sieur de Vateville’. And even though he implied in several spots in his Treatise that he was Catholic, and declared his adoration for the absolute monarchy often enough, yet he took part in a Huguenot uprising in Normandy in 1621, and was killed in battle. Four days later, a judicial tribunal condemned the dead man posthumously, dragged, broke and burned his body, and then scattered his ashes to the winds. Such was the punishment handed out to Antoine de Montchrétien by his much vaunted absolute rulers.