James Buchan’s John Law: A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century

Anyone who feels gloomy about the current state of the world’s advanced economies — with their public finances groaning and their policymaking paralysed by vested interests — should spare a thought for France in September 1715.

That was the month in which Louis XIV, the Sun King of Versailles, died after 72 years on the throne and half a century of near-constant war. He left behind a necrotic economy, a treasury on the verge of bankruptcy, and a system of state finance that depended on a vast class of rentiers virulently opposed to any kind of entitlement reform. Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, France’s newly appointed regent, was at a loss for what to do.

Into this desperate situation stepped one of history’s most extraordinary, versatile, and enigmatic characters, and the subject of James Buchan’s masterly new biography — a little-known Scots gambler, adventurer, and sometime economist by the name of John Law.

I reviewed Buchan’s John Law: A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century in the Financial Times on September 1, 2018: you can read it here.

I explain in my review that my one regret is that Buchan does not explore Law’s actual ideas in more detail.  That is a pity, because in my view Law was a visionary theorist and policy-maker, many of whose ideas are even more relevant today than they were three hundred years ago.

I therefore strongly recommend that anyone interested in Law reads not just Buchan’s biography, but also Antoin Murphy’s John Law: Economic Theorist and Policy-Maker – which remains the gold standard on Law’s theoretical and practical innovations.

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