Jean-Baptiste Say was inspired to write his Treatise on Political Economy when, working at a life insurance office, he read a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. His Treatise, often described as a popularization of Smith’s ideas, departed from the typical economics methodology of his day. This departure was based on Say’s conviction that the study of economics should start not with abstract mathematical and statistical analyses but with the real experience of the human person. Such a humanistic stress resulted in Say’s emphasis on the role of the entrepreneur in an economy. In fact, this emphasis was Say’s primary contribution to the field of economics.
Say was certain that the entrepreneur was “necessary for the setting in motion of every class of industry whatever; that is to say, the application of acquired knowledge to the creation of a product for human consumption.” Some provide land; others, capital; still others, labor. But only the entrepreneur—or the “master-agent,” as Say sometimes described him—can combine these factors to bring to market products that meet human needs and wants. Further, an entrepreneur “requires a combination of moral qualities,” such as “judgement, perseverance, and a knowledge of the world, as well as of business.” He must be a forecaster, project appraiser, and risk-taker. Finally, “in the course of such complex operations, there are abundance of obstacles to be surmounted, of anxieties to be repressed, of misfortunes to be repaired, and of expedients to be devised.” In short, the entrepreneur is the rare yet indispensable individual who actually makes the economy work.
While popular abroad, Say’s Treatise put him into conflict with Napoleon, who was furious at Say’s refusal to tone down his criticism of France’s disastrous fiscal policies. This run in with the French dictator soon forced Say to put his theory into practice. He was removed from the French government, and his book was suppressed. Undaunted, Say used the latest English technology to establish a cotton spinning plant, which became quite profitable for the ten years he owned it. Meanwhile, Say and his Treatise came to the attention of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Madison thought it the best book ever written about economics; Jefferson courted Say to be a professor of political economy at the new University of Virginia. It was not until 1814, with Napoleon exiled, that Say’s Treatise came back into print in France. Say himself was finally appointed to a professorship in economics, first at the Athénée, then at the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, and finally at the College de France, where he occupied France’s first chair in political economy.