Richard Cantillon, (born 17th century, Ballyheige, County Kerry, Ire.—died May 14, 1734, London), Irish economist and financier who wrote one of the earliest treatises on modern economics.
Cantillon was an Irishman of Norman origins and Jacobite connections who spent much of his life in France. He took over the bankrupt banking business of an uncle of the same name in Paris and made a fortune from the collapse of John Law’s Mississippi Scheme (a colonial development project whose profits could not match the expectations stirred up by speculators). He operated as a financier in a number of centres, including Amsterdam, where his transactions were on a large scale.
Cantillon was murdered by a dismissed cook who then robbed and set fire to his house. Cantillon’s fame rests entirely on the one work which survived the blaze, his Essai sur la nature du commerce en général, written about 1730–34 and published by the Marquis de Mirabeau in 1755. Its treatment of population influenced Mirabeau and Adam Smith and, through the latter, Malthus. It contained a theory of relative wages which was used by Smith; the famous Tableau économique of the Physiocrats was probably inspired by the Essai, and the treatment of the theory of money was of pioneering importance. The Essai also contains his theories of wages, prices, and interest, the workings of currency circulation, the role of precious metals in the international economy, and other subjects.
1730-1734 Essai sur la nature du commerce en général
Essai remains Cantillon’s only surviving contribution to economics. It was translated into Spanish by Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, probably in the late 1770s, and considered essential reading for political economy. Despite having much influence on the early development of the physiocrat and classical schools of thought, Essai was largely forgotten until its rediscovery by Jevons in the late 19th century. Cantillon was influenced by his experiences as a banker, and especially by the speculative bubble of John Law’s Mississippi Company. He was also heavily influenced by prior economists, especially William Petty.
Essai is considered the first complete treatise on economics, with numerous contributions to the science. These contributions include: his cause and effect methodology, monetary theories, his conception of the entrepreneur as a risk-bearer, and the development of spatial economics. Cantillon’s Essai had significant influence on the early development of political economy, including the works of Adam Smith, Anne Turgot, Jean-Baptiste Say, Frédéric Bastiat and François Quesnay.
Cantillon in the History of Economic Thought Website