From My Notebook 1
I took with me my copy of “Turgot in Progress, Sociology and Economics”, translated and edited, with an introduction by Ronald L. Meek, Cambridge University Press, 1973. to my local coffee bar, ‘Earthy’, an organic vegetable shop, and a 3,000 step walk there and back (as recommended to me by the Physio lady for every other day's actvity),
It is some 9 years since I purchased a second-hand copy of Turgot’s book and I read it while preparing to write my “Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Nowadays, I take something to read for 20 or so minutes at “Earthy” before walking home, and I had selected “Turgot” from my library for the simple reason it fitted into my coat pocket. Today, I hadn’t gotten to page 6 of Ronald Meek’s excellent introduction when I noticed some faint pencil lines where I had underlined a quotation of Turgot’s critique of Montesquieu’s, The Spirit of the Laws (1748):
“More happy are the nations whose laws have not been established by such great geniuses; they are at any rate perfected, although slowly and through a thousand detours, without principles, without perspectives, without a fixed plan; chance and circumstances have often led to wiser laws than have the researches and efforts of the human mind; an abuse which had been observed would give rise to a law; the abuse of that law would give rise to a second which modified it; by passing successfully from one excess to the opposite excess, men little by little drew nearer to the happy medium”.
I had completely forgotten Turgot’s words – it was early in my background research for my 2005 Adam Smith book. At the time, Turgot’s ideas seemed of distant direct relevance. I was perhaps distracted at the time by my work at Edinburgh Business School’s for its distance MBA programme, and managing my consultancy, Negotiate limited.
It would seem that ideas relating to the evolution by what people do rather than design by geniuses were circulating in France long before Adam Ferguson is credited with drawing attention to the “result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (“An Essay on the History of Civil Society” 1767, Edinburgh University Press, 1966, p. 122).
I referred some time ago on Lost Legacy to the writings of Cardinal Du Retz who mentions something of a similar expression even earlier. But Turgot’s expression of the same basic idea is interesting on its own merits. I shall continue reading Turgot’s papers and see what else they reveal about his influence on Smith (and Ferguson).