In this post Camilo Arango Duque examines the enduring legacy of the Physiocratic School and argues that its impact on politics and policy in South America needs to be addressed in order to ensure greater environmental protection. 

Physiocracy is a French economic school that originated in the 18th century during the Enlightenment. The initial recognition gained by its postulates was brief and waned in the years immediately after. However, its legacy did not die. On the contrary, it got a second wind during the 19th century. In Spanish America, ‘enlightened’ men and public officials propagated this theory in which nature played a leading and almost exclusive role in political economy, and consequently, in the future of societies. This perspective gave rise to utilitarian conceptions of nature, which have not disappeared from the political and economic panorama of the 21st century, where traces of this school can be found. In South America, which is a fertile and biodiverse region, such visions of political economy applied in an anachronistic and decontextualized way, represent a real challenge to environmental protection.

In 1756, the French physician Francois Quensay (1694-1774), demonstrating his interest in political affairs, published an article in “The Encyclopédie” titled “Fermiers” (Farmers), where he argued that agriculture is the sole way to value the country´s goods and consequently, was the main support of the state. Víctor Riquetti, Marquis of Mirabeau (1715-1789) was Quesnay’s first, and perhaps most fervent disciple. His lofty position gave Quesnay’s ideas, a certain halo of respectability and relevance, and it was not long before a proper economic school was formed around the idea that the land is the only source of wealth. Nature (physis) was the central pillar of this way of thinking, and this was reflected in the name it was assigned: La Physiocratie, the government of nature.

In 1758 Quesnay published the first of three editions of Tableau Economique. This work would be the foundation on which the school would develop. In 1766 with the help of Quesnay, Mirabeau wrote Philosophie Rurale, then Pierre-Paul Lemercier de La Rivière (1719-1801) published L’ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques in 1767. The following were the years of glory for the group. Nicolas Baudeau (1730-1792), founder of Efemérides du citoyen, (the first newspaper entirely devoted to economic issues in France), who had been an opponent of physiocratic ideas, changed his mind and granted the disciples of the Physiocratic school the use of his newspaper.

For this group of thinkers, the economic process was an eternal circle of production of goods which were not the product of man’s work but the product of nature. Therefore, the true subject of the labor process was not the worker at all. The “productivity of the land” was considered to be the main source of wealth.

Physiocracy was initially planned within the context of a monarchical regime. Therefore, the social aspect of their thinking appeared antiquated in the eyes of the positivism of the later nineteenth-century. However, although an important part of its doctrine quickly fell into oblivion, the part strictly related to economic matters had a considerable impact over time and across various states.

During a large part of the 18th century, in Latin America the Spanish Crown attempted to implement a series of political measures that would bring prosperity to the Spain. To a large extent the views of leading colonial officials were compatible with the physiocracy if they were not directly influenced by them. The Viceroys José Manuel de Guirior (1708-1788) for example, expressed his deep concern about the contrast between abundant nature and the lack of agricultural development in South America several times.

There were two significant initial exponents of physiocratic thinking in the first systematic economic studies of one of Spain’s Latin American colonies, La Nueva Granada: Pedro Fermín de Vargas and Sarmiento (1762-1810) and Antonio de Narváez and Latorre (1733-1812). Pedro Fermín de Vargas, in addition to being deeply interested in political economy, was part of the Botanical Expedition under the command of José Celestino Mutis (1732-1808). Once this work was completed, he was appointed Secretary General of the Viceroyalty, then under the command of Antonio Caballero and Góngora (1723-1796). An essential document written on an uncertain date by Pedro Fermín de Vargas is “Political Thoughts on the Agriculture, Commerce, and Mines of this Kingdom and memory on the population of the New Kingdom of Granada” first published late in 1944. Unlike many of his illustrious countrymen, he believed that the great variety of climates of South America was not an undesirable burden but a virtue that would allow the cultivation of practically all agricultural species. This analogical expression appears to be emblematic of a strict follower of the Physiocrats:The political body can be compared to a tree, whose roots are agriculture, the trunk population, and the branches, leaves and fruits, industry and commerce.”[1] (from Vargas, 1944: 95).

Antonio de Narváez and Latorre was a politician, a scholar of commercialism, governor of Panama in 1792 and of Santa Marta in 1797 and Field Marshal in 1802. In 1811 he participated in the Board that declared the independence of Nueva Granada. The similarities of his opinions with Pedro Fermín de Vargas’ are clear with his vision of political economy being clearly physiocratic. If Pedro Fermín de Vargas reveals the influence physiocratic thought had on his beliefs with the analogy of the tree, Narváez demonstrates the same influences with his analogy of the triangle or the chain: “But if, as it is stated, without agriculture there cannot be trade, nor without population, there can be agriculture. Commerce, agriculture, and population…are like the three sides of a triangle. Population needs agriculture, and agriculture needs commerce[2].” (Narváez, 1778: 46) Narváez and Vargas were undoubtedly two officials whose perspectives on the economy had great influence on the political thought of the era. They believed the wellbeing of South American communities depended on the exploitation of their natural resources.

Several centuries later agriculture as understood by the Physiocrats continues to be one of the main lenses through which development is conceived by politicians and governments of the region. With the privilege of a good climate and extensive areas of fertile lands, this choice for economic growth continues to be logical. However, the pragmatic and utilitarian vision of conceiving nature exclusively as a sum of resources can be anachronistic, in addition to representing an environmental risk.  Of the nearly 28,000 species evaluated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 24,000 of them are threatened with extinction by agriculture or aquaculture[3].  Between 2010 and 2014, solely in Brazil, 33% [4] of tropical deforestation was generated from commodity production, including forest clearance for croplands, pasture, and tree plantations for logging. The Americas excluding Mexico and Brazil ranked second with almost 21% of tropical deforestation[5]. A broader and more systematic view of nature may make us consider the Amazon rainforest as something more than an immense source of resources.

On the other hand, while sometimes state bureaucratic intervention can generate counterproductive consequences, especially if it embraces anachronistic ideas, this should not lead us to conclude that neo-liberalism is the solution. Both the South American States and the citizens of the continent should reflect on the context, the historical origin, and the risks of certain political and economic decisions. In any case, the famous aphorism with which the Physiocrats are popularly linked does not seem to be a convenient answer: “Laissez faire, laissez passer. (let do, let pass). We face new problems and challenges, which call for new solutions and answers.


Camilo Arango Duque is a DPhil (humanities) candidate at EAFIT University, Colombia.  He is currently a visiting scholar at the Latin American Centre, at Oxford University and Lecturer professor in EAFIT University and Universidad de Antioquia. His research focuses on environmental history within the context of Latin American policies during the 19th century.

Featured Image: Flooded area of Amazon Rainforest, taken by James Martin 14 July 2005 on Wikimedia Commons.


De Vargas, Pedro Fermín. (1944) Pensamientos políticos sobre la agricultura, comercio y minas de este reino y memoria sobre la población del Nuevo Reino de Granada. Banco de la Republica, Imprenta Nacional. Bogotá.

Narváez y La Torre, Antonio (1778) Provincia de Sta. Marta y Río Hacha del Virreynato de Sta. Fé. Sergio Elías Ortiz (comp.), Escritos de dos economistas coloniales: Don Antonio de Narváez y la Torre y Don José Ignacio de Pombo, Bogotá, Banco de la República. Bogotá.

[1] Translated from spanish: “El cuerpo político, puede compararse a un árbol, cuyas raíces son la agricultura, el tronco la población, y las ramas, hojas y frutos, la industria y el comercio. Esta hermosa comparación manifiesta de un golpe el arte de engrandecer un Estado, y la necesidad que hay de mantener en él una agricultura floreciente, como principio y origen de la robustez del árbol.” (sic)

[2] Translated from spanish: “Pero si como queda sentado, sin agricultura no puede haver comercio, tampoco sin población, puede haber agricultura. El comercio, la agricultura y la población, son como tres eslavones, o anillos de una cadena que para formarla es necesario que se unan, y enlazen o como los tres lados de un triángulo Caminos, y comunidades qe se han avierto. Facilidad de cultivar ya sin riesgo. Necesidad de Población para la agricultura, y de agricultura para el comercio.” (sic)


[4] Cutting down forests: what are the drivers of deforestation? – Our World in Data

[5] Cutting down forests: what are the drivers of deforestation? – Our World in Data