The geneology of unintended consequences

In the note he devoted to the Regency in his Precis of the Reign of Louis XV, Voltaire marveled at the consequences of the rise and fall of Law’s system in France: “Finally, that famous system of Law or Lass, which seemed it must ruin the regency and the state, in fact sustained one and the other by some consequences that nobody could have foreseen.”

The idea of unforeseen consequences will have a long history in economic thought. Voltaire introduces it hear in a marveling tone – and yet, what he shows is not a marvel, but the development of a trend that developed because of the ‘side effects’ of Law’s system. This is one of Voltaire’s signal contributions to that product of the Enlightenment, the conjectural history, of which the most famous example is Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Even as Montesquieu adheres to the classic rise and fall model of the economy, one in which Nemesis is still visible, the watermark beneath the elegant system, Voltaire dispenses with Nemesis and introduces the complexities of a feedback system that defies, to an extent, any easy moral analysis.

“The cupidity that it awakened in all conditions, from the lowest people up to the magistrates, to the bishops and the princes, diverted the attention of all minds from the public good and all political and ambitious views in filling them with the fear of losing and the avidity of gain. It was a new and prodigious game, when all citizens bet one against the other. Avid gamblers do not quit their cards in order to trouble the government. It happened, by a prestige of which the mechanism was not visible except to the strongest and finest eyes, that a completely chimeric system gave birth to real commerce, and the rebirth of the India Company, established in the past by the famous Colbert and ruined in the wars. At last, if many private fortunes were destroyed, the nation soon became more commercial and rich. This system lit up intellects in the same way the civil wars sharpened courage.”

Voltaire’s is a brief account of the rise and fall of the System, putting into a few paragraphs a broad description of the ‘complexity and rapidity of the machine”. Voltaire does not moralize upon the upsurge of greed, for he saw pretty clearly that greed was not the vice that France was suffering from, but famine and disease. The sudden fortunes acquired by upstarts was, in comparison, a comedy, and one with the strange effect of securing the state. Surely in being able to see these things calmly, Voltaire was influenced by Mandeville, as well as an proto-economist named Melon. And yet Voltaire was enough of a moraliste to understand the symbolism of what he testifies that he saw: Law, an ‘unknown’ and an adventurer, ‘arrive at the halls of the Palais Royale followed by Dukes and Pairs, Marshals of France and Bishops.” The world was only briefly turned upside down, but in that moment a glimpse was given of another possible world.

That possible world is masked by the image of the Age of Reason, which, although an excellent pamphleteering title was not, pace Tom Paine, a very informative description of what the Enlightenment wrought. From Voltaire to Adam Smith, the unintended consequences of action – particularly political action – was the theme constantly sounded against the schemes of sovereign reason, until finally, in the Critique of Pure Reason, reason itself becomes a sort of impotent god, like one of those deified people selected in certain tribes described in the Golden Bough, whose divine life was spent incommunicado, walled up, and generally tabooed. Although it is also true that reason plays a more multitudinous role in the writings of all these writers – if the unintended consequences of political reason, or of the passion for gain, operates as a positive force in the cultivation of progressive society, its negative dimension can be countered by the citizen’s virtue, or practical reason. Paine could just as easily have spoken of the Age of Virtue, for it was virtue that was evoked in the Assembly as the basis of the revolution.

Behind Voltaire and Mandeville’s tonally different but thematically similar analysis of the unexpected social virtues of private vices there lies, in fact, a Plutarchian theme: that of the dispute between virtue and fortune. The contest is staged in two of Plutarch’s speeches – on the fortune of the Romans and on the Fortune of Alexander, as well as in his biographies.

In the speech on the Romans, the contest between Fortune – which is amoral – and virtue – which is moral – is identified with another contest, between fortune and forethought.

“Wherefore our present discourse
does, in a measure, bestow a fair and enviable dignity
upon Rome, if we raise the question over her, even
as we do over earth and sea, heaven and stars, whether
she has come to her present state by Fortune or by
Fortune, it should be said, is not merely chance. In another essay on Fate, Plutarch distinguishes between the contingencies that can befall anything, living or non-living, and the fortune that impinges upon the course of human life:
‘that which is fortuitous allows also chance, and belongs to things practical; but what is by chance cannot be also by fortune, for it belongs to things without action: Fortune, moreover, pertains to rational beings, but chance to rational and irrational beings alike, and even to inanimate things.” Although Plutarch attributes this doctrine to Aristotle, he fundamentally agrees with it, and uses it to give an illustration of unintended effects, or the effects of fortune: ‘Now the cause by accident, when it is found in a thing which not only is done for some end but has in it free will and election, is then called Fortune; as is the finding a treasure while one is digging a hole to plant a tree…” (Volume 3, Essays and Miscellenies)

The example is, as any good Derridean would expect, mysteriously influential on the concept exemplified. Fortune (for Plutarch, tyche) and treasure are bound together through a deal of etymological weather, which is why the beginning of political economic discourse begins by replaying the Plutarchian dramatis personae…