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Monday, June 10, 2013

The Tableau économique

Not as devastating for the development of economics as his fallacy of the cost of production or ‘productive labour’, but more irritating nowadays is Dr Quesnay's Tableau économique, the very invention that his glorifier Mirabeau called one of the three great human inventions of all time. The Tableau, first published in 1758, was an incomprehensible, jargon-filled chart purporting to depict the flow of expenditures from one economic class to another. Generally dismissed as turgid and irrelevant in its day, it has been rediscovered by twentieth century economists, who are fascinated because of its very incomprehensibility. All the better to publish journal articles on!

Dr Quesnay's Tableau économique has been hailed for anticipating many of the most cherished developments of twentieth century economics: aggregative concepts, input–output analysis, econometrics, depiction of the ‘circular flow’ of equilibrium, Keynesian stress on expenditure and consumer demand, and the Keynesian ‘multiplier’. In recent years tens of thousands of words have been lovingly expended on trying to piece together what the Tableau had to say, and to reconcile it with its own figures and with the economy of the real world.

To the extent that Quesnay's Tableau anticipates all these developments, so much the worse for both the forerunner and the later product! It is true that the Tableau shows that ultimately real goods exchange for real goods, with money as an intermediary, and that everyone is both a consumer and a producer in the market. But these simple facts were known for centuries, and charts, lines (Quesnay's cherished ‘zig-zags’), and numbers can only obscure rather than highlight their importance. At best the chart elaborates spending and income patterns to no purpose. Furthermore, the Tableau is holistic, aggregative, and macroeconomic, with no solid grounding in the methodological individualism of sound microeconomics.

The Tableau not only introduced ungrounded and unsound macro thinking into economics; it also laid up mischief for the future by anticipating Keynesianism. For it glorified expenditures, including consumption, and worried about savings, which it tended to regard as crippling the economy by ‘leaking’ out of the constant circular flow of spending. This stress on the vital importance of maintaining spending was faulty and superficial in ignoring two fundamental considerations: saving is spent on investment goods, and the key to harmony and equilibrium is price – lower spending can always be equilibrated easily on the market by a fall in prices. It can be laid down as a veritable law that any picture or analysis of the economic system that omits prices from consideration can only be crackpot; and the Tableau économique was the first – but alas not the last – economic model which did precisely that.

Dr Quesnay of course gave to his circular flow model his own physiocratic twist: it was particularly important to keep up spending on ‘productive’ agricultural products, and to avoid diversion of spending to ‘sterile’ and ‘unproductive’ products, i.e. to anything else. Keynes, of course, was to avoid the physiocratic bias when he resurrected a similar analysis.

While the analytic merits of macro concepts, input–output analysis and econometrics are highly dubious at best, they are surely worse than nothing if the numbers are incorrect. But Quesnay's figures are spurious, for the France of his day or for any other epoch. And the would-be great mathematician made many simple mistakes in arithmetic in the portrayals of his beloved Tableau. At best, then, the Tableau was elaborate frippery; at worst, false, mischief-making, and deceptive. And in no sense did the Tableau do anything but detract and divert attention from genuine economic analysis and insight.
After contemplating this piece of egregious folly, it is a relief to turn to the blistering satirical attack on the Tableau by a conservative statist opponent of the physiocrats, the attorney Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet (1736–94). In his Réponse Aux Docteurs modernes (Reply to the Modern Doctors) (1771), Linguet begins by ridiculing the idea that the physiocrats were not a cult, or sect:

Evidence shows it: your mysterious words, physiocratie, produit net; your mystic jargon, ordre, science, le maitre [the master] your titles of honor showered on your patriarchs; your wreaths scattered through the provinces on obscure if excellent persons... Not a sect? You have a rallying cry, banners, a march, a trumpeter [Du Pont], a uniform for your books, and a sign like freemasons. Not a sect? One cannot touch one of you but all rush to his aid. You all laud and glorify each other, and attack and intimidate your opponents in unmeasured terms.

Linguet then turns his scornful attention to the Tableau:

You affect an inspired tone and seriously discuss on what particular day the symbol of your faith, the masterpiece, the Tableau Economique was born – a symbol so mysterious that huge volumes cannot explain it. It is like the Koran of Mohamet. You burn to lay down your lives for your principles, and talk of your apostleship. You attack [the Abbé] Galiani and me because we have no reverence for that ridiculous hieroglyphic which is your holy Gospel. Confucius drew up a table, the I-Ching, of sixty-four terms, also connected by lines, to show the evolution of the elements, and your Tableau Economique is justly enough compared to it, but it comes three hundred years too late. Both alike are equally unintelligible. The Tableau is an insult to common sense, to reason, and philosophy, with its columns of figures of reproduction nette terminating always in a zero, striking symbol of the fruit of the researches of any one simple enough to try in vain to understand it.

Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (2 volume set)

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