May 12, 1776 was one of the saddest days for France. It was the day Louis XVI removed A.R.J. Turgot from office. Turgot was the Minister of Finance of France, the greatest French economist of the 18th century, and a key figure of the French enlightenment (he was a close friend of Condorcet, and Voltaire came to his rescue). He had a great sense of duty, freedom, and civilization. Turgot was too successful, so to speak, in his economic reforms and in the fiscal discipline he imposed on the finances of the French Crown. He fell because he wanted to go too far in the removal of confiscatory taxes (la taille and la corvée), the deregulation of commerce and industry, and the abolition of privileges many guilds and others possessed at the time (e.g. les droits féodaux). Turgot is perhaps the greatest reformer the world has ever seen. If Louis XVI had trusted his Minister of Finance to the end, it is likely that the French Revolution would not have taken place.
Turgot directly influenced Adam Smith with his view of markets. Following his mentor, Vincent de Gournay, Turgot was a strong advocate of laissez-faire. He didn’t write as much as Smith unfortunately, but has left us a few outstanding essays in which he developed many great insights. For instance, he had a sophisticated understanding of the entrepreneurial role and of the origin of interest. And his work on the influence of regulation and taxation is well worth the read. See Murray Rothbard’s The Brilliance of Turgot as well as Rothbard’s biography of Turgot (see also here and here). Another reference is Ralph Raico who has written on Turgot and the French liberal school (but I am not sure where to find it on the net). For those interested, Eugene Daire has, in my view, written the best biography of Turgot (in French).
It is most important to remember that because of Turgot, economists acquired the reputation of hardliners at the end of the 18th century (reputation recognized in the name given by their adversaries: la secte des économistes). They stood against the privileges of the few and were in favor of competition and freedom. In those days, economists were not yet the counselors of the Prince, but the purveyors of truth.
I was recently in Normandy and saw Turgot’s castle, which is still owned by his family. Here is a picture…