At the beginning of the nineteenth century, in France and then in Europe, Jean-Baptiste Say progressively became a central figure in political economy. Situating himself in the tradition of Adam Smith, he came to oppose the Physiocratic school of political economy on essential points. For this reason he has his own place in the current of opponents of Physiocracy.
This opposition is, however, of a different nature from the one that had prevailed in the decades when Physiocracy was at the center of the debates. The fact that Say claimed an affiliation with Smith did not prevent him from sharing a conception of political economy similar to that of the Physiocrats: like them, he based this new science on a sensualist theory of knowledge, a utilitarian theory of action and a theory of government—which we have proposed to call economic philosophy. His opposition to the Physiocrats bears more on the content of certain elements of economic philosophy than on its existence and structure. The works that Say published and the courses he professed show that his intellectual strategy was not frontal criticism of Physiocracy, but rather an attempt to integrate what he found true in their writings in order to achieve a complete exposition of the science—this is moreover the strategy he follows with respect to Smith. If he shows himself to be critical of some of their theses (fiscal and value theory), he is nonetheless not hard on Physiocracy and makes little use of eighteenth-century Antiphysiocratic writings.
In the late 1820s, Say's intellectual strategy undergoes a change with the arrival of a new adversary, David Ricardo. While the French economist aims at a “historicization” (mise en histoire) of Physiocracy insofar as it is no longer a live intellectual force in industrial society, he finds himself obliged to return to Quesnay's methodological mistakes so as to combat those he sees coming to the fore in the writings of the British economist.
Two overlapping generations of economists
Born in 1767, Jean-Baptiste Say was still in his childhood when François Quesnay died in 1774 at the age of 80.