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It was 1774, and decades of expensive and ill-advised government ventures left the regime of Louis the XVI fiscally overstretched and teetering, once again, on the edge of bankruptcy. Thus was the situation when Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, the baron de l' Aulne, was appointed France's Minister of Finance.

A.R.J. Turgot was born in Paris to a distinguished Norman family which had long served as important royal officials. He earned honors first at the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice, and then at the great theological faculty of the University of Paris, the Sorbonne. He was expected to enter the clergy, but instead felt he was called to government service. And although he had wide-ranging intellectual interests in history, theology, literature, philology, and the natural sciences, he is now best known for his brief but brilliant career in economics.

Turgot's free-market approach was firmly rooted in his theological education and flowed from his faith in God. He initiated reforms intended to deregulate agriculture and industry, encourage free trade and open borders, and establish fairer labor practices. He thought that eliminating such restrictions on the economy would usher in an era of such unprecedented prosperity that the regime's fiscal problems would evaporate.

Turgot's finance revolution failed. In spite of his political and economic liberalism, he ended up implementing his reforms too hastily and too harshly, which evoked cries of dissent from the aristocracy. He was advised to implement his reforms more slowly and carefully, but a sense of impending doom for both the regime and his own life — “In our family we die at fifty,” he had said-had spurred him on to reckless, and in some cases despotic, policy-making. Turgot was dismissed by the king in 1776. His forebodings were fulfilled; he died in 1781 at fifty-four years of age nearly on the eve of that most illiberal revolution that would consume the regime he tried so hard to rescue.

Sources: Economic Thought Before Adam Smith by Murray N. Rothbard (Edward Elgar, 1995), and Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama (Vintage Books, 1989).

Hero of Liberty image attribution: Charles-Nicolas Cochin the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons PD-1923