Turgot was born in Paris on May 10, 1727 and died in Paris on March 20, 1781. Turgot came from an old Norman family but did not always use his title Baron d'Aulne. He was an economist of the Physiocratic school, a politician, a reformist bureaucrat and a writer. His family wanted him to become a priest so he was educated at college of Louis-le-Grand, before taking a degree in theology at the seminary of St Sulpice and at the Sorbonne. It was while studying theology that Turgot discovered political economy and wrote his first essays on economics and history, most notably an oration on "A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind" (1750) where he made the first of several contributions to the development of the "4 stage theory" of economic and social development from hunter gatherers, to slave-based societies, to the peace and prosperity made possible by market society. In 1751 he decided not to enter the priesthood preferring instead a career in royal administration. In December 1752 he was appointed a councilor to the Paris Parlement where he served 1753-61, and in 1753 purchased the office of maître des requêtes.
Turgot's early writings included a defence of religious toleration in Lettres sur la tolérance (1753) and several articles written for Diderot's Encyclopédie in 1755 (including "Fairs and Markets" and "Fondations"). Although Turgot was forced to withdraw from any further formal association with the Encyclopedists because of his official position, he was able to maintain contact with enlightened circles through the salon of Madame Geoffrin. Also during the mid-1750s Turgot came into contact with members of the French free market school known as the Physiocrats. He met Dr. Quesnay and Dupont de Nemours and traveled extensively with Vincent de Gournay (who was the free market Intendant for Commerce) on his tours of inspection around the country during 1753-56. It was Gournay who is reputed to have coined the expression "laissez faire, laissez passer" when asked what government economic policy should be. When Gournay died in 1759 Turgot wrote a lengthy "Eloge de Gournay" in which he defended laissez-faire economic policies with an eloquence which other members of the Physiocratic school too often lacked.
Turgot had two opportunities to put free market reforms into practice: on a local scale when he was appointed Intendant of Limoges in 1761-74; and on a national level when the new king Louis XVI made him Minister of Finances between 1774-76. During the first period Turgot combined economic and legal reform with a concerted propaganda effort to defend these reforms in a series of memoirs, memos and formal opinions which were disseminated both within the government and published publically. Turgot's attempted reforms were extensive and comprise a veritable "revolution in government". Had they succeeded the French old regime might well have opened up its economy, overcome its internal economic problems and thus averted the Revolution which was to break out in 1789. Turgot aimed to make taxation more equitably based, to spend tax revenue on roads and other infrastructure, to replace forced labour obligations (such as the corvée) with paid labour, to end military requisitioning of goods and transport, and to make service in the local militia voluntary. These reforms were accompanied by the publication of his most important economic works such as the Mémoire sur les prêts d'argent; Lettres sur la liberté du commerce des grains (1770) addressed to the Abbot Terray in an effort to prevent the free trade legislation of 1764 from being revoked; and his major work Réfelxions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses (1766) which is one of the clearest statements of the Physiocratic position. What emerges from these works is a clearly articulated and impassioned defense of individual and economic liberty. One key point is that Turgot did not share his fellow Physiocrats' faith in enlightened despotism, preferring a notion of political liberty (such as constitutional limits on royal power and strong regional government) more in keeping with Montesquieu's ideas. When the American Revolution broke out he followed events there with a keen interest.
The death of King Louis XV in May 1774 gave Turgot his second opportunity to introduce free market reforms to France. The new king Louis XVI appointed Turgot first as Minister of the Navy and then as Finance Minster from 1774-76. As Finance Minister Turgot attempted to reproduce on a larger scale the reforms he had pioneered at Limoges. In his Six Edicts of 1776 Turgot tried to bring an end to official corruption and to military requisitioning, to abolish many local monopolies, to introduce banking and taxation reforms, and to return to internal free trade in grain. Unfortunately, his efforts failed as a result of the political inexperience of the new king, the ability of the vested interests who were being harmed by reform to organize against it, and the food riots which broke out as consequence of a food shortage and rising prices (the famous "guerre des farines"). Turgot was forced to resign in May 1776 and France's experiment in free market reform came to an abrupt end.
Dakin, Douglas, Turgot and the Ancien Régime in France (London: Methuen, 1939).
Faure, Edgar, La Disgrâce de Turgot (Gallimard, 1961).
Kaplan, Steven L., Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV, 2 vols. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976).
Weulersse, Georges, La Physiocratie sous les ministères de Turgot et de Necker, 1774-1781 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1950).
Ronald L. Meek, Social Science and the Ignoble Savage (Cambridge University Press, 1976).
Eugène Daire, "Notice historique sur la vie et les oeuvres de Turgot," in vol. 1 of Oeuvres de Turgot, ed. Eugène Daire (Paris: Guillaumin, 1844), 2 volumes. Published as volumes 3 and 4 of the Collections des principaux Economistes.
M. Monjean, "Turgot" in vol. 2 of Dictionnaire de l'économie politique, ed. MM. Ch. Coquelin et Guillaumin (Paris: Guillaumin, 1852-53).
Gustave Schelle, "Turgot" in vol. 2 of Nouveau dictionnaire d'économie politique, ed. Léon Say et Joseph Chailley-Bert (Paris: Guillaumin, first edition 1891-1892, second edition 1900).
Turgot On Progress, Sociology and Economics, ed. R.L. Meek (Cambridge University Press, 1973).
The Economics of R.J. Turgot, trans. P.D. Groenewegen (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977).
Turgot, Ecrits économiques, ed. Bernard Cazes (Calmann-Levy, 1970).
Oeuvres de Turgot et Documents le concernant, avec Biographie et Notes par Gustave Schelle (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1913-1923). 5 Vols.
Oeuvres de Turgot. Nouvelle édition classée par ordre de matières, avec les notes de Dupont de Nemours, augmentée de lettres inédites, des questions sur le commerce, ed d'observations de de notes nouvelles par MM. Eugène Daire et Hyppolyte Dussard et précédée d'une notice sur la vie et les ouvrages de Turgot par M. Eugène Daire, (Paris: Guillaumin, 1844), 2 volumes. Published as volumes 3 and 4 of the Collections des principaux Economistes.
Key works by Turgot: