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Beyond Say’s Law: Reappraising Jean-Baptiste Say’s Political Economy

Paper Session

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 2:30 PM - 4:30 PM

Marriott Philadelphia Downtown, Meeting Room 415
Hosted By: History of Economics Society
  • Chair: Evelyn L. Forget, University of Manitoba

Money Is Not a Veil, Exchange Is Not Barter, and Hoarding Is Real: J.-B. Say on Money Holdings

Guy Numa
University of Massachusetts-Boston


The common narrative about Say’s views on money is that money was merely a veil, that all
exchange was ultimately barter, and that he denied the possibility of hoarding. In other words, it
is claimed that for Say money was only a medium of exchange. Statements to that effect abound
in scholarly publications and economic textbooks. By means of textual and contextual analysis, I
argue that these interpretations of Say’s thinking are superficial, and for the most part, erroneous.
In reality, not only did Say analyze hoarding, but more generally, Say admitted that monetary
changes could affect real variables and the distribution of wealth. I show that Say’s ideas have
been misconstrued for two reasons. First, most studies have assessed Say’s monetary views
through the narrow lens of the so-called “Say’s law”. Second, they have failed to engage with
Say’s writings in their entirety. The picture that emerges from this essay shows that Say was far
from naive on monetary questions.

On Entrepreneurs, Innovation, and Market Adjustment in the Writings of J.-B. Say

Petur O. Jonsson
Fayetteville State University


Contrary to some of the literature, Say did not see market adjustments as yielding some form of
equilibrium or a steady state. Rather, he saw the market process as a never-ending dialectical
progression of actions and counter reactions. Specifically, Say envisioned market adjustment as
driven by entrepreneurs operating in an environment characterized by what we would now call
radical uncertainty. Say’s adjustment process is based on entrepreneurial reactions to
opportunities and challenges. The very notion of “equilibrium” would probably have seemed a
bit strange to him and his contemporaries. Say saw entrepreneurs as constantly looking for and
responding to vents, or market openings. These market openings and trading opportunities would
depend on the actions of potential trading partners. Moreover, the very act of trading would in
turn create new opportunities and/or challenges that would in turn elicit new responses. Thus the volume, the direction, and the nature of trade would be constantly changing and evolving. Say’s
writings provide an extensive number of examples of market reactions to unexpected events. In
almost all of these examples, the reactions of those affected yield new products and new markets
rather than passive price and quantity adjustments in existing markets.

Say on Statistics and the Administration

Philippe Steiner
Paris-Sorbonne University


This paper aims at explaining Say’s strictures on statistics and their methodological reason. It
will examine the statistical evidence used by Say and, then, in order to better grasp his approach,
it will compare Say with the leading classical political economists of his time. Finally, it will
consider the political issues raised by Say’s view on statistics through his comment on the role of
the administration. In examining these aspects of Say’s thought, this paper will advance a new
picture of Say’s view on statistics and a better understanding of his position among the political
economists of that time.
Robert W. Dimand
Brock University
Evelyn L. Forget
University of Manitoba
Gonçalo Fonseca
Institute for New Economic Thinking
JEL Classifications
  • B1 - History of Economic Thought through 1925
  • B3 - History of Economic Thought: Individuals