There is a custom in chess tournaments to award ‘brilliancy’ prizes for particularly resplendent victories. ‘Brilliancy’ games are brief, lucid and devastating, in which the master innovatively finds ways to new truths and new combinations in the discipline. If we were to award a prize for ‘brilliancy’ in the history of economic thought, it would surely go to Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, the baron de l'Aulne (1727–81). His career in economics was brief but brilliant and in every way remarkable. In the first place, he died rather young, and second, the time and energy he devoted to economics was comparatively little. He was a busy man of affairs, born in Paris to a distinguished Norman family which had long served as important royal officials. They were royal ‘masters of requests’, magistrates, intendants (governors). Turgot's father, Michel-Étienne, was a councillor of state, president of the Grand Council – an appeals tribunal of the parlement of Paris – a master of requests, and top administrator of the city of Paris. His mother was the intellectual and aristocratic Dame Magdelaine-Françoise Martineau.
Turgot had a sparkling career as a student, earning honours at the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice, and then at the great theological faculty of the University of Paris, the Sorbonne. As a younger son of a distinguished but not wealthy family, Turgot was expected to enter the Church, the preferred path of advancement for someone in that position in eighteenth century France. But although he became an Abbé, Turgot decided instead to follow family tradition and join the royal bureaucracy. There he became magistrate, master of requests, intendant, and, finally, as we have seen, a short-lived and controversial minister of finance (or ‘controller-general’) in a heroic but ill-fated attempt to sweep away statist restrictions on the market economy in a virtual revolution from above.
Not only was Turgot a busy administrator, but his intellectual interests were wide-ranging, and most of his spare time was spent in reading and writing, not in economics, but in history, literature, philology and the natural sciences. His contributions to economics were brief, scattered and hastily written, 12 pieces totalling only 188 pages. His longest and most famous work, ‘Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth’ (1766), comprised only 53 pages. This brevity only highlights the great contributions to economics made by this remarkable man.
Historians are wont to lump Turgot with the physiocrats, and to treat him as merely a physiocratic disciple in government, although he is treated also as a mere fellow-traveller of physiocracy out of an aesthetic desire to avoid being trapped in sectarian ways. None of this does justice to Turgot. He was a fellow-traveller largely because he shared with the physiocrats a devotion to free trade and laissez-faire. He was not a sectarian because he was a unique genius, and the physiocrats were scarcely that. His grasp of economic theory was immeasurably greater than theirs, and his treatment of such matters as capital and interest has scarcely been surpassed to this day.
In the history of thought the style is often the man, and Turgot's clarity and lucidity mirrors the virtues of his thought, and contrasts refreshingly with the prolix and turgid prose of the physiocrat school.