Jules Dupuit (1804-1866): An Economist Revisited

Who in France has heard of Dupuit, first name Jules? Simply asking the question reveals the answer. However, this engineer of from the prestigious Ponts et Chaussées school is considered by English and American historians of economic thought to be a “remarkable” precursor of the Walras-Pareto neoclassical school (the general equilibrium theory, dear to this school, was invented by the Frenchman Leon Walras and further elaborated by his Italian disciple, Vilfredo Pareto).

A collective volume published in English aims to demonstrate the rather biased nature of presenting Dupuit as such. In fact, Dupuit was also a “classical” economist defending the law of supply and demand and the freedom of the markets. He devoted himself to economic studies in the second part of his life, from 1844 onwards, when he actively participated in theoretical debates between French and foreign economists.

The first edition of this collective book in French dates from 2002. It was published by the Presses Universitaires d’Angers as L’œuvre multiple de Jules Dupuit: Calcul d’ingénieur, analyse économique et pensée sociale (252 pages). Its English version not only translates this work but also updates and revises it.

  • Simonin J.-P.Vatin F., eds., 2016, The Works of Jules Dupuit, Engineer and Economist of the French XIXth Century, Saint-Denis : Edi-Gestion, Collection Classical texts in Economics and Management », n°1, in-16, 332 p. Contributors: Philippe Bompaire, Konstantinos Chatzis, Olivier Coutard, Bernard Grall, Georges Reverdy, Dominique Sagot-Duvauroux, Jean-Pascal Simonin, and François Watin. Luc Marco formatted the book and Chris Hinton was in charge of the translation.<


A Poorly Understood Engineer-Economist

Arsène Jules Émile Juvénal Dupuit was born on May 18, 1804 in the Piedmont where his father was Inspector of Finance of the Cisalpine Republic, then under French administration. After his successful studies at the École Polytechnique, he entered the École des Ponts et Chaussées as did most of the other top students in his class. He carried out two projects as Engineer of the Bridges in the lower Loire and in the department of the Seine, and then he was assigned in 1827 to the town of Mans in the Sarthe to deal with roads and river navigation. From this experience, he published a work in 1838 entitled Essai et expériences sur le tirage des voitures et le frottement de seconde espèce (Paris: Carilian-Gœury).

CC Patrick Mignard for Mondes Sociaux

In 1839, he was called back to Paris as an expert for a new law on road traffic police, at a time when land transport was still carried out by coaches or post-carriages. In 1842, he produced a new report entitled Mémoire sur le tirage des voitures et sur le frottement de roulement (Paris: Carilian-Gœury and Veuve Dalmont). He was appointed Chief Engineer of the Marne department on 1 March 1840, then to the same position in 1844 in the Maine-et-Loire. That year he published his major article on the measurement of the utility of public works in the Annales des Ponts et Chaussées (2nd series, 2nd semester, 332-375). Based in Angers, he participated in the rebuilding of several bridges and watched helplessly at the 1850 disaster caused the collapse of the Basse Chaîne bridge, which caused the death of 223 soldiers on their way to Africa. He returned to Paris the same year where he was in charge of municipal water management.

He became Inspector General and a member of the Conseil supérieur du corps des Ponts et Chaussées in 1855, and devoted the rest of his life to scientific study and debate within the French group of economists. In the Journal des Économistes, the voice of liberal authors, he published several papers of his speeches during the debates of the Société d’économie politique, for which he often proposed topics for discussion.

In 1861, he collected all his ideas in his only economics book: La liberté commerciale. Son principe et ses conséquences (Paris: Guillaumin). He was opposed to all taxes that would slow the creation of private enterprises, which he considered better managed than the public organizations he knew well. He debated with economists Charles Dunoyer, Gustave de Molinari, and Henri Baudrillart, on several issues then under debate: the relations between political economy and public law, the scientific nature of economics, the Malthusian question, the average life of populations, and the freedom to freely dispose of one’s property through a will.

  • Breton Y.Klotz G., 2009, Jules Dupuit : œuvres économiques complètes, Paris : Editions Economica, deux volumes, 761 et 894 pages.


A Completely New Book Project, Offering Much for Reflection

English-language readers have a truncated vision of Jules Dupuit: they consider him above all as Alfred Marshall’s precursor for partial equilibrium. Our book, however, aims to give a more complex portrait of this great engineer-economist, who was able to synthesize all his professional experiences and education received during his life. For example, from his experience of rebuilding bridges in Angers in the 1840s, he produced a work that would not be published until after his death,  the Traité de l’équilibre des voûtes et de la construction des ponts en maçonnerie. This proves that the concept of equilibrium was already important to him, even before he received his training as an economist at the end of that decade.

Each time Dupuit encountered a problem of public utility, a concept that he did not distinguish from economic utility in general, he would publish an article or a book to relaunch the debate with his fellow bridge engineers or with the “distinguished” economists of the time. In 1849, he argued that for railways, there should be three distinct classes with different prices (first for the rich, second for the average middle class person, and third for “everyone else”). He considered this tripartite system more profitable than one limited to two classes. A supporter of the freedom of transport, he was also opposed to the “police du roulage [transport police],” a state regulation that governed travel by stagecoach: weighbridges that had to be used before crossing a toll bridge, or the size of wheel rims restricted to the weight of the carriage, or fees for postmasters who supplied fresh horses every forty kilometres.

Like all engineers in his day, Dupuit was trained in industrial mechanics, theory and practice. He used this learning to calculate the marginal utility before anyone else, which would be rediscovered by Stanley Jevons ten years after Dupuit’s death. He also learned classical political economics through reading Jean-Baptiste Say and his successor at the Collège de France, Pellegrino Rossi. He thus discussed utility as a true economist, who distinguishes between the use value that buyers are looking for and the exchange value that sellers are looking for. He linked the two disciplines to provide a “scientific” version of the liberal vision of municipal water management and on copyright administration in literary matters.

Thanks to his mathematical knowledge, which neither Say nor Rossi possessed, and his statistical skills, which were unusual for the time, he was able to formalize demographic problems such as the relationship between the birth rate and average life span. He also paved the way for economic formalisation on the law of subsistence or research on the price of wheat to feed the French population of the time. Our present book presents a high level of formalisation in the chapters devoted to these issues. In this way, it will be useful to doctoral students at the end of their training in doing research.

What is the Interest of Jules Dupuit Today?

CC Pixabay Mary1826

Publishing old works on economics or mechanics is of little interest to major publishers in economics or management. They prefer to publish major syntheses of the history of economic thought, in which Jules Dupuit is drowned out among the usual presentation of schools and controversies. The more difficult books on economic theory do not sell well and have to compete with research articles that are often available free of charge on the Internet.

We chose to publish financed by two university research teams – the GEAPE at the University of Angers and the CEPN at the University of Paris 13 – in order to be free from the editorial choices of the major publishers, who tend to eliminate Dupuit’s engineering work and only the present major texts that are already known. However, François Vatin has shown in his long research that the biunivocal relationship between economics and mechanics was constitutive of a large swath of French economic thought in the great nineteenth century. But orthodox economists, called “neoclassical” economists, who have institutional and editorial power in France do not like presentations that contradict their beliefs.

In our opinion, Jules Dupuit is fundamental for understanding the birth of a science of plural management that studies both large emerging companies and SMEs that protect a French way of managing family firms. And if a model of management still exists in France, it certainly owes something to Dupuit. The utility and calculation of prices, costs and wear and tear must still be of interest to us today.

Reading this book in English also allows us to measure the recent progress of research on this complex author, since he has been the subject of regular publications of research articles and published proceedings of conferences and seminars. Our book aims to breathe new life into this research, which has up until now tended to stall due to the lack of new sources to be exploited.

Luc Marco

CEPN, Université Paris 13 (luc.marco@univ-paris13.fr)

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