The Political Economy Society, a family affair(s)

To debate cheerfully, let’s keep debate hidden. Next year, the Society of Political Economy (SEP) will blow out 180 candles, making it one of the oldest scientific societies in France, but also one of the most discreet. Because the SEP, founded in 1842 by illustrious economists who have passed down the torch of liberalism from generation to generation, cultivates the tradition of secrecy and the family.

History tells us that the company was founded by Jean-Baptiste Say, considered the champion of French-style liberalism, who died … in 1832. So in reality they are his sons, grandsons and sons-in-law (the women have not a few place in the economic, political and industrial environment of the 19and century) who will establish and pass on his ideas over the decades.

His son Horace and Alcide Fonteyraud, a young translator and presenter in France of the English liberal thinking of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Malthus and especially David Ricardo, use their respective networks to spread free trade liberalism to a time when it popular. The Liberals are not really in the small papers of the July Monarchy. The first meeting – secret of course – to defend the principle of political economy and try to gain favor with the government took place on November 15, 1842. The four founders were present: the journalist Joseph Garnier, future editor-in-chief of Magazine for Economists, founded by his brother-in-law and idol of a whole generation of young economists, Adolphe Blanqui; the publisher Gilbert Guillaumin; his right-hand man Eugene Daire; and the economist Adolphe-Gustave Blaise, known as Blaise des Vosges.

“When it was founded, the SEP had two firm ideas, explains Jean-Marc Daniel, member of the company’s board of directors and professor at ESCP, a business school of which Auguste Blanqui, again he, was the dynamic director from 1830. in 1854 : opening courses in political economy at the university, a subject then considered partisan and devoid of the nobility of a science; abolition of protectionist laws. »

Take the liberal mayonnaise, but carefully. The first political economy courses were held in 1877. The SEP refined its network, its image and its recruitment method, which diversified as a result of changes in society. The number of members, who joined the organization through co-option from the beginning, has quadrupled in thirty years. Today the family has grown to 350 members.

Competitive industry. Every first Tuesday of the month, members gather for a dinner debate (the tradition still exists) to discuss current economic news. By opening its doors, the SEP risks fragmenting over divisive societal issues, such as the state monopoly on security and especially colonization, which is tearing industrialists and academics apart.

It is not lacking: divisions arise among the members, to the point that some leave the parent company to create a branch to compete with the SEP and the French classical school, which embodies liberal thinking in France. This is the case of the heterodox Léon Walras, author of pure political economy, exiled to Switzerland, who says worse than clinging to society and in particular of Horace’s son and grandson of Jean-Baptiste Say, Léon Say, Minister of Finance from 1872 to 1879 and then President of the Senate until 1882 .

“Senator, academic, president of 96 companies, associations, leagues, etc., he spends his time riding in a taxi, from platform to platform, from banquet to banquet, a real Tartarin de Tarascon surrounded by his hat-hunters”

Also following in the footsteps of his economist father Auguste, Léon Walras writes about his former friend: “Whether M. Say has any value as a politician, I’m not going to look for that here; but his value as a scientist is absolutely nil. He never clarified any point of political economy (…). Senator, academic, president of 96 companies, associations, leagues, etc., he spends his time riding in a taxi, from platform to platform, from banquet to banquet, a real Tartarin de Tarascon surrounded by his hatters. ” Appearance.

A member of another illustrious family, de Gides, also dealt a blow to MS during the very virulent debates over the Méline law. A text which, by introducing a double customs tariff in 1892, marked the return of protectionism in France after a fruitful decade for the defenders of free trade. Charles (Andre’s uncle) thought that the protectionists, fiercely opposed by the liberals, had the right to speak. By breaking with liberalism and founding the School of Nîmes, the social economy theorist and the creator of the “Revue d’économie politique” in 1886 symbolized the fatal split in the great family of political economy, which did not end. to spread to the beginning of the XXand century in different movements.

Today, based on its desire for openness, the SEP is always recruiting more young proponents of free trade and defenders of European values: researchers, professors, senior officials, journalists, industrialists, etc. The modus operandi has changed, but not the philosophy. As proof, one of the latest tweets from the current SEP president, who is also Opinion columnist, Emmanuel Combe: “Can we call ourselves an economist if we admit that we are a protectionist”? This was the subject of the SEP dinner debate on February 5, 1890.

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