Bureaucratic modernisation and economic development in 18th century France

This project was initiated in 2015 for three years by Jérôme Sgard. Its purpose is to study in a systematic and quantitative manner the policies followed between 1700 and 1789 by the Bureau du Commerce, a small, rather modern and meritocratic department within the French Ministry of Finance (known as Contrôle Général des Finances). Because it was in charge of trade and the supply side, the Bureau became the key place where a rather consistent mercantilist strategy of development was conceived and implemented, over many decades.

The first aim of the research is to explore how these early bureaucrats made decisions, the information they relied upon, what their actual aims were and which results they may have obtained. Beyond, this project will also contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between bureaucratic modernization and development, in a context of relative economic backwardness.

The projects develops in three directions, so as to build eventually a consistent image of how supply side policies were implemented and how they shaped the evolution of the French economy during the 18th century :

- The allocation of privileges to manufacturers

The mercantilist worldview was initially strong at the Bureau, though the more liberal Physiocratic school won substantial influence from the 1760s onwards. In particular, the project looks at the role of the Bureau during the brief ministership of Turgot (1774-76), which is often seen as the last chance of the Old Regime to reform itself. The recent acquisition of the Turgot private papers by the Archives Nationales is of course a further invitation to move in this direction.

- An evaluation of the long-term impact of the Bureau's supply-side policies

The research also tests the possible correlation between the spatial distribution of privileges handed out by the Bureau during the whole 18th century and that of economic activity. In particular, it looks for correlations between the Bureau's decisions and the evolving economic geography of the country. Ultimately, this work should allow for actually testing the two standard positions typically defended in the literature: namely that this mercantilist policy had no effect whatsoever or, if it had one, it disappeared with the protectionist Continental System, between 1806 and 1815.

- The regulation of guilds

The portfolio of the Bureau de Commerce was not limited to supporting private businesses. Foreign trade, the domestic market or transport infrastructures were also within its remit, though they have already been well-studied. More interesting is the case of guilds that structured the largest and most traditional part of the urban economy, often in sharp opposition to the Manufactures, which were the key target of the policy discussed above. The point is that after guilds had long been perceived as an essentially backward-looking, conservative institution, recent works, covering all Western Europe, have offered a much more nuanced view: depending upon the sector and the local political economic context, they may have developed contrasted positions vis-à-vis technological change, the circulation of knowledge across regions and countries, or the growth of a high-skilled workforce. A specifically French dimension derives from the tight oversight to which guilds were subjected from the mid 17th century onwards: their statutes had to be confirmed before becoming legally binding and the Bureau was in charge of vetting them. The project questions the implicit aims of this policy, the substantive arguments to which it responded, and the stakeholders who proved the most influential.