Jean-Baptiste Say
(1767 – 1832)

What lies Behind Demand?

The life of Jean-Baptiste Say
Jean-Baptiste Say was born on January 5th 1767 in Lyon, France. He could truly be called a “Jack of all trades,” when he was a young man he was very strongly encouraged by his father to go into business so he moved to England where he spend two years before returning to France to be employed by a Life Insurance Office (Wikipedia).

Map of France

It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that he became interested in the study of Economics after already being well established in the world of practical business. Some would attribute this special induction into the world of Economic Academia to his very practical way of perceiving the study of economics (Economist – Jean-Baptiste Say (1776-1832)). His method was mostly based on one important thing, it must be practical. J.B. Say is quoted as saying that “"[n]othing can be more idle than the opposition of theory to practice!” (Sechrest).
It was through these lenses, that much of his economic theory and exposition evolved. J.B. Say was a strong believer in educating the public. He was famous for writing precise and concise concepts in words that someone who was somewhat educated could understand (Sechrest).
His writing to the public started with a few pamphlets and wittings which he wrote when he came back from England. Such was his work that he was made editor of La Decade philosophique, litteraire, et politique, a journal which following was composed of very pro–free-market intellectuals(Sechrest).

After dabbling in other works of witting, in 1803, J.B. Say wrote his masterpiece, the book he would forever be remember by, Traité d'économie politique ou simple exposition de la manière dont se forment, se distribuent et se composent les richesses. A title which in English translates to “Treaty of Economic Politics, a simple explanation of the way in which wealth is formed and distributed” (Best).
It is important to note that when Say started witting France was in a state of revolution, as a matter of fact when he became the Editor of his now famous journal he was “hiding” from the unrest caused by Robespierre’s revolutionary terror (Formaini).
The obvious question to ask then is why was he not more militarily involved as were most of his contemporaries. The answer to this lays with one person, Mlle Deloche his beloved wife. Once he was married he was exempt from mandatory conscription and so he was very minimally involved in the military (Wikipedia).

Image of J.B. Say Circa 1800

The troubles for Mr. Say did not end with that, however, in 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte became the supreme ruler of France. And he was very much in disagreement with the book, “Traite . . .” it is for that reason that his book was banned until Napoleon was no longer emperor in 1814. Though he was unable to gain recognition in his home country of France, he was still a much respected figure in other countries in Europe, this was especially true in Spain, where he was even offered Employment with the government which he declined. (Formaini).
During this time Say devoted himself to running his Spinning-Mill, where he employed about 500 employees. While doing this he spent much of his leisure time working on his “forbidden” book, which he was not able to republish due to the censorship that existed until1814 when he republished a new edition of his famous book (Wikipedia).
In his later years Jean-Baptiste Say published a few more book and yet another edition of “Traire . . .” none of which became as famous as the latter. In 1830 J.B. Say lost his beloved wife. From then on his health steadily declined until he too past away November 15th 1832 in Paris (Wikipedia).

What make him so important?
The title of this Wiki is “What lies behind demand?”A title which alludes to something to do with demand, either that or the author is completely crazy! Many have come to know Say as the creator of Say’s Law, a name coined by his followers. He would have probably preferred it be called his Law of Markets. As of recently, and starting with the writings of John Maynard Keynes, his law has been simplified to say that “supply creates its own demand” (Best).

Tombstone of J.B. Say

Though there is quite a bit of controversy which arises as we begin to speak about Keynes’ views on his theory, we will willingly overlook it, given that it would force us to dive into the thoughts of Keynes, a subject of which there is no immediate urgency to cover.
Basically Say’s Law was created as a reaction to the mercantilist doctrine surfacing at the time which implied that money could be a source of wealth. Say believed, like many classical economists before and after him, that money had no intrinsic value and so had no effect on anything real. All money could effect was prices (Borg).
It is a bit hard to understand this concept until we understand that this is behind the whole economic model created by the classical schools of thought where money has no more importance than as a medium of exchange. This came before everything else. Basically the law says that the only way to create wealth is by ramping up production.
It was Say’s supposition that people trade goods for goods, and that in producing they gain wealth by selling what they produced, and in turn they buy what their neighbor is producing. Basically people want goods, not money. Money is simply a medium of transaction. This being said he concluded that in order for GDP (he didn’t call it that but we do) to grow the only way would be to increase the aggregate supply of goods, and that by doing this it would inherently increase the aggregate demand for goods. (Sechrest).

How did this become the norm?
This must be shocking, that the bedrock, on which much of the Classical Economic Model is laid, came from such a relatively unknown economists as Say. A major reason for Say’s relative obscurity comes from the very little attention people have given him throughout the years. Because his law of markets is so fundamental, much of what can be learned about it is already incorporated into later works by economist who came after him, and for this reason there is little reason he would be mentioned for too long in any economics textbook.

Political Map of Europe in the 1800’s

It is important to mention, however, that some of his relative obscurity comes from his own doing. J.B. Say was very forward about his intentions when it came to his writings. He considered himself a “expositor of Adam Smith’s views in Europe and America” (The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics), which he criticized for being vague and hard to understand, this should come as no surprise given what we know of his very practical way of thinking.
So why him? Why did Say become one of the premier founders of what was the accepted school of economic thought for most of history? How did the word get out? There are two factors which can explain this. First, the very practical approach which he had to economics. Say was a huge believer that economics was like any other science, and that if explained concisely and in relatively simple language anyone should be able to understand it. He wrote in a way which most anyone who could read and write at the time could understand. Second, he was French, given that this was the case, he was much more optimistic than the people that came before him, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. This made his message a lot more attractive to the “non-English” (Economist – Jean-Baptiste Say (1776-1832)).

Best, Ben. "Say's Law and Economic Growth." Ben Best. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2010.

Borg, Mary, Ph.D. Microeconomics Class. University of North Florida. 2010. Class presentation.

"Economists - Jean-Baptiste Say (1776-1832)." Bized. N.p., 2010. Web. 29 Nov. 2010.

Frormaine, Robert L. "Jean-Baptiste Say: Foudnations of France's Free Trade Tradition." Economic Insight .
Federal Resrve Bank of Dallas, 1997. Web. 29 Nov. 2010. <>.

"Jean-Baptiste Say." Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2010. <

"Jean-Baptiste Say." The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics . N.p., 2008. Web. 29 Nov. 2010.

Sechrest, Larry J. "Biography of Jean-Baptiste Say: Neglected Champion of Laissez-Fair." Ludwig von Mises
Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2010. <>.