One hundred and eighty years ago (1834) , the newly-founded Academy for Moral and Political Sciences in Paris organized a competition for the best research paper on the causes and various manifestations of poverty in Europe. The best research paper on the subject, which won its author a 2,500 francs prize offered by baron Félix de Beaujour, was “De la Misère des classes laborieuses en Angleterre et en France : de la nature de la misère, de son existence, de ses effets, de ses causes, et de l'insuffisance des remèdes qu'on lui a opposés jusqu'ici, avec les moyens propres à en affranchir les sociétés” by the young journalist and economist Eugène Buret.
In 1840, he expanded his research paper and published it in book form. His views on poverty and on the new science of economics are clearly expressed in the book’s 100-page introduction. Buret’s ideas greatly influenced Karl Marx , whose “1844 Manuscripts” contains lengthy passages from the French economist’s book. Following into the footsteps of Adam Smith, who conveniently forgot to mention the fact that his labour theory of value was based on the earlier work of French economist Pierre de Boisguilbert, Marx did not mention Buret , not even once, in his writings (for details see Francois Vatin, "Le travail, la servitude et la vie. Avant Marx et Polanyi, Eugène", 2001-2002)
The originality and importance of Eugène Buret’s work, now sadly ignored even by French historians, can hardly be overstated. His critique of the mainstream economists of his time (David Ricardo, J.-B. Say) is surprisingly relevant today. Buret was among the few economists of his time to incriminate the orthodox economists’ obssession with wealth creation as well as their total neglect of the ill-effects engendered by capitalist production and distribution methods:
“(…) when it comes to looking into the wealth of nations, we should also look into the misery of nations. This second part of the economic science does more than just complete the first, it proves it, criticizes and verifies it. Why was it then excluded from investigation ?” (Eugène Buret, De la misère des classes laborieuses…”, Introduction, p.13)
To be sure, Buret’s question is as valid today as it was in 1840. Unfortunately, today’s economists still find it difficult to come to terms with the history of their own science, let alone include the study of poverty as a topic of mainstream economic research.
This is however essential, if finding solutions to alleviate it or even do away with it are to be envisaged. What we could perhaps all do without is see the issue of poverty appropriated, yet again, by latter-day revolutionaries in the quest for a political cause.