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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/13916/richard-cantillon-founder-of-political-economy/

Richard Cantillon: Founder of Political Economy

September 16, 2010 by

The wide scope of the Essai makes it the rightful claimant for the title of the first complete economic treatise and thus suggests Richard Cantillon as the true founder of modern economics. The implications are profound. FULL ARTICLE by Jonathan M. Finegold Catalan


A. Viirlaid September 16, 2010 at 11:52 am

How informative and actually quite “incroyable”…

… How much Richard Cantillon must have learned from the mistakes of John Law, perhaps the world’s First Central Banker.

I did not know of that connection prior to reading your fine essay.

Fascinating. Thank you Jonathan M. Finegold Catalan!!!

What is surprising and dismaying is how little our own modern-times central bankers have learned since the time of Law and Cantillon. The same lack of knowledge seems to inhabit the halls of the Treasury departments in our Western governments.

A. Viirlaid September 16, 2010 at 12:47 pm

I love this quote from the footnotes:

The heterodox nature of the Austrian School has perhaps led Austrian scholars to pursue a much wider examination of the history of economic thought, and thus it is not surprising that Austrians are oftentimes the most willing to engage old economic theory not considered pertinent to that accepted by today’s mainstream.

In other words, it is oftentimes the Austrian School that provides the broadest look at the history of economic thought. This is definitely one of the Austrian School’s advantages.

I think this is very true. The qualifier “perhaps” is not needed IMO.

Can you imagine Krugman, Bernanke, or even Greenspan, being willing to go back to First Principles in order to question their own long-held, cherished, and ‘unchallenged’ dogmas?

No, you and I cannot, and for that, we are all the more poor —— and sadly our Suffering Economy and diminishing Social Welfare are all the more captive for that tragic fact too.

A. Viirlaid September 16, 2010 at 1:16 pm

From Mr. Catalan’s essay…

The central premise Law operated on was that an increase in the circulation of money would bring about an increase in production. Law absolutely detested and argued against the concept of “hoarding” (saving).[25]

And from footnote [25]…

Joseph Salerno (2010), Money, Sound and Unsound (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute); p. 5.

Salerno clarifies Law’s position on hoarding as follows: “According to Law, hoarding creates a deficiency of circulating money and spending, resulting in a reduction of trade and employment.”

This sounds a lot like Krugman’s and others’ argument that when we all start to save, we are starving the Economy of ‘needed spending’.


Indeed, Krugman argues that what is good for the individual actually harms all of us, and in turn therefore, hurts the individual. In other words, exactly what we are prone to do today (pull in our financial horns) is bad for all of us.

From Chris Leithner’s essay at


Leithner writes:

Lest anyone think that Paul Krugman of Princeton University is a real economist (instead of a Keynesian political operative), read his blog (entitled “The Conscience of a Liberal”) on the web site of The New York Times.

In his post of 17 March 2010 (“How Much of The World Is in a Liquidity Trap?”) he states: “As I’ve written many times in various contexts since the crisis began, being in a liquidity trap reverses many of the usual rules of economic policy.

Virtue becomes vice: attempts to save more actually make us poorer, in both the short and the long run.

Prudence becomes folly: a stern determination to balance budgets and avoid any risk of inflation is the road to disaster.

Mercantilism works: countries that subsidize exports and restrict imports actually do gain at their trading partners’ expense.

For the moment – or more likely for the next several years – we’re living in a world in which none of what you learned in Econ 101 applies.
[italics added]

Of course this is all nonsense.

The FED, by peddling cheap fiat money, along with their low interest rates, discourages Saving (Money Hoarding). If we had more balance between Saving and Consuming, and Borrowing and Investing, we would not have the problems we have today.

In any case most Saved Money is available for lending —— it does not sit in silver coins buried in a glass jar in the backyard.

A. Viirlaid September 16, 2010 at 1:44 pm

As I mentioned above, one MAJOR error that Keynesians make today, is one that even Richard Cantillon knew was a fallacious assumption. And that was 300 years ago, for heaven’s sake!!!

This error is that they equate SAVING with “Cash Hoarding”. Truly, some people in the Great Depression did keep their dough under mattresses or their silver dollars in jars buried in the backyard, but most people today put their savings into financial paper, like bonds and money market instruments.

That money is not lost to the Economy —— it is available for borrowing. If borrowers cannot make use of that money, then it is not a ‘solution’ for Government to spend it on behalf of the Economy (IMHO).

Today, the Economy cannot use More Debt efficaciously and, if you like, the Economy is “trying” to save more (to anthropomorphize The Economy for a moment).

Please, as an example, refer to a recent illustrative essay “America Has a Structural Problem regarding this issue.


For neo-Keynesians, the missing element is the money that is being “hoarded” or saved.
To me, this almost sounds like “The Fifth Element” from the movie of the same name.
Just like the original Fifth Element, money is very critical to all of us. I don’t mean only in the store-of-value sense, though that too is important.

This “Missing Element” is identified by Keynesians, and by other ‘mercantilist’ economists, as being Money. Hey, if it is “missing-in-action” we can just borrow or print some more, right? Well, it is not that simple in reality.


While it can be argued that more Money, whether borrowed or just net-new printed, can inflate more Bubble-Economy-distortions (and appear, in the very short run, to create ‘good times’), “more” Money cannot bring prosperity in any sustainable way. As Jonathan’s essay makes clear, conflating wealth (or wellbeing) with money is foolhardy.

At same point, “more” Money even becomes completely ineffectual and entirely damaging to an Economy. Witness the Weimar Republic of Germany in 1922 or Zimbabwe more recently. But this damage, at even lower levels of intervention —— which might even appear to be at non-price-inflationary levels —— is nevertheless very damaging.

This is because this damage comes in the form of ‘bad information’.

Richard Cantillon apparently recognized the importance of “price” in the market. He would not have looked kindly on efforts (like inflating the money supply) to manipulate prices. Nor would he likely have been in favor of central banks fixing the price of money-borrowing by setting interest rates.

From the essay:

Cantillon explained how an increase in the volume of money in circulation will lead to an increase in the price level of the channels the money is circulated into.[43]

[43] Ibid., p. 147; Accordingly, “All this money, whether lent or spent, will enter into circulation and will not fail to raise the price of commodities and goods in all the channels of circulation it enters.”

Cantillon seems to have recognized how important PRICE is to conveying information throughout the Economy. If prices rose due to increases (OR dropped due to decreases) in the volume of money in circulation, that price information conveyance could be affected.

Once price information is distorted, all kinds of unintended and poor resource-allocation decisions could result therefrom.

A. Viirlaid September 16, 2010 at 2:02 pm

The insidious effect of introducing distorting amounts of net-new fiat Money into an Economy can be more completely understood by referring to the Science of Physics, specifically to the branch of physics known as Thermodynamics.

IMO in our current Money System —— I won’t use the plural as in “systems” due to the current interrelated nature of all the separate national fiat money systems in our arguably now-economically-integrated World Economy —— depends for the manifestation of what we could refer to as “Best Results” on an unfettered and free flow (and storage in times and places) of that money.

And more importantly, these “Best Results” depend on money that does not undergo price information degradation, caused by interventions in the supply of that money. Goods and services can increase and decrease, but money should not.

Please understand that this is not an issue of regulation. Only Money should not be ‘regulated’ the way it is today. “Misregulated” would be a better term for the regime we suffer under today.

So for example, this is not equivalent to suggesting that some business activities should not be regulated. Monopolies and other cartels do require “Trust-busting” on occasion especially when those conglomerates stifle business activity. Don’t let anyone ever fool you —— we would all rather prefer no competition to the alternative. In fact, therein is one true case where what may appear to be “good for the individual, or for the individual enterprise” is not good for the aggregate society. We all, even individually, benefit more when there is choice and competition.

But Money is different. It does not require, nor does it benefit from the Money-pulations of our Central Banks and other authorities.

Here, what Physics and Information Theory can help us appreciate, is that the beneficial Invisible Hand of Adam Smith (and the I.H. of Richard Cantillon, I must now add, having read Jonathan M. Finegold Catalan’s essay!) acts through Money.

Money is a conveyer of information, via Pricing (both of goods, services, and of Money itself). If governments act in ways that break that useful conduit, they do so at peril to all of us and our economic wellbeing. Decision-making is thereby made perilous and is thus placed on shifting ground. An infirm and non-undergirded process of resource allocation begins in such an Economy.

So distorted information will result from human (and well-intentioned) interventions in the Money Supply. Resources cannot be allocated in a way that optimizes the effective use of those (always limited) resources. This happens even, if those resources appear not to be “limited” as in a downturn, those resources nevertheless are ALWAYS limited —— used today, they can not be used again.

This idea applies to what today appears, in the neo-Keynesian mind, to be Unused Capacity —— using that capacity in a way that would not be allocated by the Invisible Hand is still diminishing that capacity —— thus is how depreciation and amortization came to be understood.

What behooves all of us to understand that lack of, or distortion of, information is at the heart of Entropy. When governments redirect resources as they are doing today to address the supposed Lack of Aggregate Demand ‘problem’ they are introducing more Entropy to the Money, Financial and Economic System, than need be introduced.

Nevertheless, Entropy is always present. Just the act of living causes Life to increase Entropy. We, and all Life, use energy (from the sun=food, from oil, — these 2 are somewhat equivalent in our technological economy — from other Life, including from our family and friends and our businesses). Using energy is what all life does. It is the cost of living. In fact you could argue biologically, that Life arose with the free energy that was not being utilized, as this Energy degraded, unused, from higher-useable forms to lower ones.

What happens IMO is that governments see “waste of unused capacity and energy” during downturns, especially like the one we are in currently. Governments incorrectly conclude that they are capable of knowing how to make use of that unused capacity and energy. So they distort the flow of money (information) and decide on behalf of the Invisible Hand.

But no economist has every proven that this theory is valid. It is simply assumed to be valid. In fact Austrian Economics proves that the opposite is true. It is just that it is so seductive to politicians who are by nature True Interventionists. If they cannot “do something” then in their own eyes (and in the eyes of voters) they lose their very raison d’être. The political imperative practically forces the Act of Intervention.

But just like Hypnosis was incorrectly (even by the court system, for a long time) “simply” assumed to “uncover suppressed memories” it did no such thing —— in fact, Hypnosis is very effective at planting False Memories. So the analysts who were uncovering memories in their opinion, were doing the opposite. So it is with our tendency to treat Money so cavalierly.

So we end up with a Broken Money System. Information is distorted. Resources are misdirected. Optimal results will not be obtained. Resources once used up can not be brought back. Energy converted from a more usable form to a lesser one cannot be reconstituted (for free).

In other words Good Information (via an undistorted money flow) results in the best economic outcomes. Bad Information results in unnecessarily greater Entropy (= economic disorder) than the alternative —— Information in essence relates to Entropy in a way that the more our governments (with good intentions of course) break the free and unfettered flow-of-money-process, the more they diminish the economic good.

The Soviet Union became unglued because of decades of misdirected allocation of economic resources. But that historical example is a good one to show how long such misallocation can persist, even seemingly sometimes creating “good conditions”. But the rot was always there as were the hidden human costs (well, some not so hidden).

When we introduce “noise” into an Information System, which The Money System in essence is, then we force the parts of that system to ‘play by’ the rules that this noisy information seems to convey. No one inside a Financial Bubble for example really knows for sure that they are inside such a bubble. Maybe they are not. All the information they have appears to suggest that things are ‘normal’. And so that is how we made our tragic misallocating decisions in large part during the manmade Housing Boom for example.

It is much like the Human Mind. If your mind tells you that you have just heard a sound or seen a light, have you? Sure you have. The only problem is, that such a sound or light might not actually be there inside “Real Reality”.

A. Viirlaid September 20, 2010 at 11:39 am

Just read about all the foreclosed homes and you immediately know that there is no shortage of Misallocation-of-Resource Stories today, and no shortage of human suffering resulting therefrom.

But here, instead of those tragic housing misallocation stories, or even dot-bomb misallocation stories (an earlier boom-bust created in the decade courtesy of The ‘Magnificent’ FED), I have posted a a few, somewhat funny, sad, and scary, “empty mall” stories, one even which appears to be from The Magnificent Mile in Chicago (there may be other reasons for that “empty mall” —— I do not know).

For more on The Magnificent Mile for those of you not familiar with Chicago, please see http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnificent_Mile

For the empty city and empty mall example-stories, please refer to the links below.

Even in China… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQGrxfzqSCI


Also in Chicago… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u16Hq-wPVDI&feature=related

So much for human intervention and being misled into thinking that our governments know how to create ‘stimulus’ by properly and “beneficially” spending money.

A. Viirlaid September 16, 2010 at 2:11 pm

There are, of course, no shortage of Misallocation-of-Resource Stories today.

All you have to do is to read about all the people with foreclosed homes.

But here, instead of those tragic housing misallocation stories, or even dot-bomb misallocation stories, I have posted a a few, somewhat funny, sad, and scary, “empty mall” stories, one even which appears to be from The Magnificent Mile in Chicago (there may be other reasons for that “empty mall” —— I do not know).

For more on The Magnificent Mile for those of you not familiar with Chicago, please see


For the empty city and empty mall example-stories, please refer to the links below.

Even in China…




Also in Chicago…


So much for human intervention and being misled into thinking that our governments know how to create ‘stimulus’ by properly and “beneficially” spending money.

A. Viirlaid September 16, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Sorry somehow I missed The Empty City link. This is a city in China that was built to the specifications of the Chinese government, but has no residents (other than the builders and a few others) — which makes one wonder just exactly how many other such Malinvestments China has made in her hinterlands?

So here it is along with another link to a fellow (Richard Wolff, economist, The New School) who points out that China is on exactly the same sad trajectory as the rest of us were (and still are) inside our respective Fiat Money Madness Machines.



iceberg September 16, 2010 at 10:58 pm

I don’t see how you could have missed out on this vignette in this otherwise comprehensive article, but Cantillon was possibly murdered by his cook, which I only found because Rothbard wrote in the second volume of AAPOTHOET “…while Richard Cantillon remains as the only possibly murdered man in the history of economic thought, Lawson suffered an attempted assassination on the streets of Dublin in 1882.”

Jonathan M. F. Catalán September 17, 2010 at 12:18 am

I did leave out details of Cantillon’s life, namely those which occurred after writing Essai. Interestingly, while I think that the most widely accepted conclusion is that he was killed by his cook in a fire, the hypothesis that he used the fire to cover an escape to the New World to escape from prior debtors has been forwarded (by Antoine Murphy).

Brewer (1992), pp. 8-9,

Murphy discusses a further possibility, that the fire may have been deliberately set by Cantillon himself, and that the body, which was never positively identified, was not that of Cantillon. (Bodies, it seems, were not hard to get hold of for dissection.) On this hypothesis, Cantillon staged his own death in order to escape the lawsuits in which he was embroiled. The main evidence for this story is that a mysterious person, the ‘Chevalier de Louvigny’, turned up in the Dutch colony of Surinam immediately after Cantillon’s apparent death, carrying a number of documents relating to Cantillon, as well as a considerable quantity of money and valuables. This individual was pursued but not apprehended; he abandoned the documents, which is how they were identified. He must presumably have been either the murderer or Cantillon himself. If the murderer, why would he carry these valueless but incriminating papers?

Murphy points out that there are discrepancies in the hypothesis that Cantillon was murdered: why, for example, did he withdraw a huge quantity of money on the day before his apparent death (allegedly £10,000, more money than even quite prosperous people would handle in a lifetime)? On the other hand, given that he did, might this not be the motive for murder? There is little hope that the truth will ever be known.

newson September 17, 2010 at 12:03 am

“this concept is in line with the modern principle that prices will tend towards their cost of production.[52]“

so the cost of a rembrandt will tend towards the price of the oil paint and canvas? does reisman alone represent this principle?

Jonathan M. F. Catalán September 17, 2010 at 12:23 am


A Rembrandt painting represents an extreme case, because there are few artists which could provide a painting of that quality. If it were possible to increase the supply of Rembrandt-quality paintings (or, paintings that had the same value as one by Rembrandt) then the price of a Rembrandt would tend downwards.

In any case, the uniformity of profit principle remains true, and depending on the good in question occurs at varying degrees. It is also important that the uniformity of profit is a tendency.

newson September 17, 2010 at 10:39 am

whilst i agree that many goods exhibit this tendency, plenty don’t, and so i’m calling into doubt the use of the word “principle”. i must say i’ve never heard any austrian scholar bar reisman cite this “principle”.

Jonathan M. F. Catalán September 17, 2010 at 11:17 am

Like any other economic principle, it is ceteris paribus. Every good is subject to the principle; whether or not entrepreneurs can jump on the opportunity to acquire that profit is a different topic altogether, but doesn’t disprove the existence of that tendency. The uniformity of profit principle follows from the notion that in a free market profit tends to zero, which Ludwig von Mises brings up on p. 293 of Human Action (and elsewhere). Profit, in a certain market, tends to zero due to increased investment into that lines of production (and economic competition).

newson September 17, 2010 at 6:27 pm

touché. i overlooked the ceteris paribus aspect. to the extent that people produce homogeneous products, then profits will tend to costs.

A. Viirlaid September 18, 2010 at 10:25 am

ceteris paribus indeed…

Profit, in a certain market, tends to zero due to increased investment into [the respective] lines of production (and [due to unhindered] economic competition).

By observation and reasoning, prices will logically and, most importantly, beneficially, tend toward the cost of production for goods and services if distortions are not introduced via unfree markets.

And as Austrians know, those distortions can arise from many sources, most insidiously from government agencies —— from the same governments that nominally at least are supposed to protect the Public from unfair competition and monopolistic pricing (according to their own legislation and propaganda).

One such introduced distortion which hinders the correcting behavior of a Free Market is one which The FED, and so many other central banks, nowadays employ to “help” that Free Market “perform better”.

That is of course the manipulation of the money supply and interest rates to ‘stimulate’ the Economy. In close second place, to the central banks, in the harm done, come governments with their various Stimulus Packages.

When there is a free conveyance of valid pricing information throughout the Money System we all benefit because better decisions are made by entrepreneurs and investors, by consumers and by lenders and borrowers. Always-scarce resources are more effectively employed.

Of all the other hindrances put in the way of the Economy properly receiving the right price signals, and interpreting them and then acting on them, probably the worst one is the habit of central banks to distort the money supply.

As I mentioned, the second worst one is likely the habit of federal governments (in league with their central banks) to create one deficit-financed ‘stimulus’ package after another.

As Richard Cantillon understood 300 years ago, from his observations of what John Law was up to, wealth is not derived from more money. No ‘stimulus’ can ever cause more wealth to be created.

For all their good intentions, with periodic intervention after intervention, nowadays almost cavalierly introduced, with little thought to the systemic damage that is caused, Central Banks like The FED act, in my humble opinion (IMHO), out of ignorance of what Cantillon understood.

Perhaps 300 years ago, the field of Economics had not yet advanced far enough for Richard Cantillon to tie all the dots together, but he seems to have intuitively grasped what good people like Dr. Alan Greenspan and Dr. Ben Bernanke have not.

And that is, that Richard Cantillon did not conflate money with wealth.

Nor would Cantillon likely have acquiesced to actions of governments which perverted the accuracy and meaning of the Information conveyed by pricing inside the Money System.

Pricing is a critical component of the efficacious functioning of any Economy.

By distorting pricing signals, our government agencies remove the ability (for all of us) to rely on that most important informational conveyance mechanism within the Money System.

Why they do this is because they do not understand that this mechanism is so very critically crucial in creating a “Certain Market” as Jonathan M. Finegold Catalan refers to it.

They either do not recognize the importance of this mechanism in its role in the Economy, or they think that they can perform their (well-intended) ‘Stimulations’ without warping this Pricing Mechanism and without thus causing any harm.

To putatively show that “no harm” is being done, they continually refer to the CPI and other consumer-level measures of price inflation as being “under control” and “showing no inflation” —— but is not Housing part of what ‘consumers’ purchase?

No, Austrians know better. Huge harm is being done, day by day, year by year, decade by decade.

Thinking of ‘Money’ in terms of how good it is and how wonderful it is to have more, and to spend more, and to consume more, and to ‘generously’ give more to the functioning of The Economy is downright silly, and childish. At some point, I would have hoped that we could have some Central Bankers who were adults and had put away their childish fantasies about Money. Too much to hope for, I guess. When you cannot stop conflating Wealth with Money at the level of the proverbial Central Banker, then you have some serious mental problems IMHO. (Look at how Iceland got into trouble.)

No, The Money System is An Information System, first and foremost, in its relationship to The Economy.

The sooner our central bankers wake up to this fact, and stop distorting the free functioning of our Economies, the better for all us, them included.

A. Viirlaid September 18, 2010 at 10:43 am

I responded in an unnecessarily and overly long manner.

My main point is that when Pricing signals are distorted, this too is a cause of creating Unfree Markets.

In other words, when Supply and Demand for goods and services are warped, by central banks and/or their governments, from what we might call their ‘organic’ or natural (unwarped) levels, all kinds of Malinvestments arise. That is Austrian short-form for what I was saying.

We cannot allow for Pricing to carry within it 2 separate sets of data.

Because then none of us can “tease out” which part of any particular price is due to a Human-introduced pricing bubble and which is caused by simple demand and supply.

Because then Pricing becomes harmful to our well-being.

It is the CONFLATION of these 2 separate effects on Pricing that so effectively destroys the usefulness of Pricing to “tell” the Economy (and all of us) what to do next.

Worse, because invariably Pricing then tells most of us to do EXACTLY the WRONG thing.

A. Viirlaid September 19, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Just 2 more remarks to show how silly our current authorities are, in creating both their periodic booms and busts.

Namely, economists a long time ago en masse concluded that Price & Wage Controls are distorting to, and thus harmful to, the Economy. And yet what do our authorities do? They use those types of controls on the borrowing price of Money. They also distort the price of money by manipulating its supply, which directly affects interest rates, and vice versa. That their intentions are good, few doubt. But in creating “phony-baloney” demand for loanable funds they nevertheless do harm. That is something Austrians stress over and over, ad nauseam.

Secondly is the whole issue of how “broken” our entire worldwide Money System really is.

What should primarily be an unmanipulated Pricing Data Information System is distorted by the entire structure of our central bank-operated Fiat Currencies and their-operated Fractional Reserve Banking Systems and the current setup in the Worldwide Trading System that those other systems ostensibly facilitate and support. In China it is even worse, because the government tells banks how much to lend and often to whom.

When I hear poor Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner lament how China is manipulating her currency, I have to shake my head.

Our own Western Money Systems are equally at fault in this mutual dance of death. In fact without the cooperation (via currency trading, and lack of any fixed benchmarks) between all nationally-run fiat money systems, the problems we are encountering could never occur. That China does not allow her currency to trade freely only makes these underlying fault-lines worse.

So what this whole faulty system allows (and facilitates) also explains Alan Greenspan’s famous interest rate ‘Conundrum’ and how long term rates could stay low for so long.


The entire system was unambiguously evil in that China’s central bank could print almost as much of her currency as the political masters deemed expedient.

That net-new locally printed money was used to mop up the American dollars from the hands of successful exporters.

In one ‘ingenious’ (but harmful) stroke China managed to keep America’s long rates low through China’s purchases of Treasury Bonds from the U.S. using this mopped-up American money.

Of course, The FED did not counteract this tendency of rates to stay low, they rather encouraged it. The times, they were a-Magical.

Housing boomed along with most everything else. We all know the results of this ‘Magic’. American factories and jobs have been lost to China forever. This is not a normal kind of “Creative Destruction”.

What Richard Cantillon learned, from the suffering of the French under John Law’s money experimentation with the world’s first Fiat Money central bank, has somehow been unlearned in 300 years.

There may have been an excuse for the 100 years or so that Cantillon’s work remained in obscurity.

But what is the excuse today?

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