Adam Smith: poverty and famine

Voltaire Foundation

Adam Smith, drawing by John Kay, 1790. Adam Smith, drawing by John Kay, 1790.

My Besterman lecture was a highly critical assessment of Adam Smith’s views on famine. In The Wealth of Nations (1776) Smith claims that in a free market economy famines will never occur. The famines that do occur are, according to Smith, the result of misconceived government interventions to prevent famine – a striking example of unintended consequences. Smith’s argument is that grain harvests never completely fail (as potato harvests do – but Smith does not consider the potato, which was not yet the main crop in Ireland). In a year of relatively bad harvest, price rises serve to ration the consumption of grain, and thus make the limited supply last through the year. Famines occur when governments artificially lower prices and thus cause supplies to run out.

Two texts have stayed in my mind as I have tried to get a grip…

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In honor of Robert Darnton

Voltaire Foundation

Robert Darnton Robert Darnton in 2016

This month Oxford University will award an honorary doctorate of letters to Robert Darnton, a (if not the) leading cultural historian over the past 50 years of eighteenth-century French publishing, book trade and literary culture.

I count myself as one of the many scholars inspired by his works. The Great Cat Massacre (1984) was among the first scholarly works I was assigned to read upon beginning postgraduate study. As a doctoral student, I benefited from his advisement (as a doctoral student at Columbia, I enrolled through a university exchange in his Princeton seminar on ‘The Social History of Ideas in Eighteenth-Century France’). And now as a senior research affiliate of the Voltaire Foundation and General Editor of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, I take particular interest in expressing on behalf of the Voltaire Foundation our collegial pride, admiration, and respect for Professor Darnton on…

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La comédie de mœurs: perversion du classique ou genre classique?

Voltaire Foundation

Pourquoi la comédie de mœurs fleurit-elle de 1680 à 1720? A cette question, l’histoire littéraire répond habituellement en évoquant le déclin de la France dans les dernières décennies du règne de Louis XIV, années de crise spirituelle et économique, favorisant la multiplication des escrocs en tous genres et le délitement des valeurs, à leur tour reflétés dans la comédie.

Pourtant, tous les thèmes de la comédie de mœurs préexistent largement cette période charnière entre les deux siècles, et j’en ai trouvé plusieurs illustrations dans des pièces des années 1630 ou 1640, dont je parle dans mon ouvrage La Comédie de mœurs sous l’ancien régime: poétique et histoire. Au-delà, se dessine même une tradition multiséculaire, remontant à l’antiquité grecque et latine, habituée à faire rire, de façon plus légère ou plus grinçante, d’un ‘aujourd’hui’ méprisable par rapport à un ‘hier’ idéalisé. En restant plus proche de la période charnière…

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