From Virtue to Surplus: Jacques Necker’s Compte rendu (1781) and the Origins of Modern Political Rhetoric
by Jacob Soll
The essay begins:
In modern politics, it is common for politicians, political theorists, and economists to discuss the legitimacy of their administrations and the health of their states through the impersonal terms of budgets, deficits, and (of the prime political virtues) surpluses. Balance sheets are part of the elemental rhetoric of modern political debate, true or false as they may be. Yet we don’t have a clear history of how political virtue came to be described as a budget surplus. Indeed, few political historians have examined the role of accounting language in political culture and in the rise of a modern, depersonalized fiscal state.
In the case of France, there is one clear moment when the modern tradition of accounting language in politics began. Building on a series of eighteenth-century debates about government accounting and transparency, Jacques Necker (1732–1804), the famed Protestant Swiss banker and director general of French finances, linked accounting language with modern political discourse to define the effectiveness of a state. The author of the Compte rendu au Roi (1781)—an explanation of royal accounts and one of the best-selling pamphlets of the late eighteenth century—Necker has generally been seen as a leader in French financial pamphleteering. In the Compte rendu, Necker claimed a budget surplus of 10,200,000 livres based on a chart of royal accounts of tax receipts and expenditures, which, he stated, was the essence of his political virtue. He boasted—not altogether truthfully—that the publication of his accounts represented the first time in the history of the French monarchy that a finance minister had shown himself accountable for his administration by revealing his calculations to the public. The importance of Necker’s act was not so much in its questionable accuracy, as historians have argued. His lasting legacy, in fact, was his popularization of the use of accounting calculation as a language of political publicity, credit, and good government. In the process, the modern state came to be defined not as the domain of a king, but rather as an impersonal entity managed by financial professionals.
Numbers and accounts have been a part of politics since the dawn of states. However, in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the rise of political economy and political arithmetic, proto-economists such as the French duc de Sully, the Dutch Pieter de la Court, and the Irish William Petty, to name a few, began measuring the management of states via financial accounts and economic statistics. What Necker did was part of another, less-known tradition. He popularized the work of earlier French political economists who fused classical political rhetoric about virtue, corruption, and political transparency from the Machiavellian, Tacitean political tradition to account books. J. G. A. Pocock and other historians of ideas have talked about a critical, often republican tradition in political language that emphasized exposing political secrets. Necker and his predecessors were well aware of this tradition, and they saw how state accounts were more and more becoming essential state secrets, or arcana imperii. Thus, to expose political corruption and bring virtue to the rising administrative states, political critics and reformers saw the force of exposing not only diplomatic or political secrets but also financial ones. Necker’s Compte rendu was part of this tradition, while at the same time it was directly responsible for popularizing the idea of good financial management as a classical political virtue and helped to enshrine this idea in the French Revolution. Continue reading …
This article explains how, during the time of the French Revolution, the financial language of accounting became part of modern political discourse with surpluses representing virtue, and deficits, failure.
JACOB SOLL is Professor of history and accounting at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Publishing “The Prince”: History, Reading, and the Birth of Political Criticism (2005), The Information Master: Jean Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System (2009), and The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations (2014).