In his book, The Mystery of Capitalism, author De Soto claims that Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Finance Minister under Louis XIV, had people executed for economic reasons. Colbert is still a widely admired figure in the French education system, notably for his promotion of French manufacturing, so I am wondering if there is any basis for these claims.


when Jean-Baptiste Colbert's technocrats executed 16,000 small entrepreneurs whose only crime was manufacturing and importing cotton cloth in violation of France's industrial codes.

Even in smaller numbers?


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Author of The Mystery of Capitalism and the NYTimes article cited above, Hernando de Soto is a well-known Peruvian economist who has perhaps been a little careless with his words. Some (or even many) of the 'technocrats' de Soto refers to may have been hired by Colbert, but Colbert died (1683) before the industrial code restricting cotton importing / printing was enacted (1686). Further, not all the deaths were by execution and many may have had more to do with religious persecution.

The background to this is the importation of cheap Indian cotton (Calico) and the printing of colourful patterns on this material. The end product was much cheaper than other materials and thus increasingly led to calls for protectionist measures in several European countries from those with economic interests in other materials.

16,000 people may have died, but when exactly is unclear. The 'when' is important to the OP's question because Jean-Baptiste Colbert died in 1683, whereas the (draconian) law against cotton importers and printers (aimed at protecting the market for the more expensive silk, wool, linen and hemp products) was only enacted in 1686. Further, the deaths appear to have mostly occurred during and after this date. The use of 'Colbert's technocrats' is thus a little careless in its lack of precision. Also, not all of the deaths were through executions.

The immediate source of this number would appear to be Mercantilism by the Swedish economic historian Eli Heckscher (of Heckscher–Ohlin model fame), published in 1955 (3 years after the author's death).

It is estimated that the economic measures taken in this connection cost the lives of some 16 000 people, partly through executions and partly through armed affrays, without reckoning the unknown but certainly much larger number of people who were sent to the galleys or punished in other ways.

Unfortunately, it's not clear where this number originally comes from. Another potential problem with this number is that that the ban enacted in 1686 came only a year after the Edict of Fontainebleau (Oct 1685). According to L'histoire du coton entre 1689 et 1746, this

signe la fin de la paix entre catholiques et protestants. Environ 30 000 artisans huguenots (principalement des tisserands, teinturiers, imprimeurs sur tissus et des des négociant et ouvriers en soie) s’exilent alors en masse en Suisse et à Spitalfield, un quartier londonien créé à ce moment

Translation: marks the end of peace between Catholics and Protestants. About 30,000 Huguenot craftsmen (mainly weavers, dyers, cloth printers and traders and silk workers) then mass-exile themselves to Switzerland and Spitalfields, a London neighborhood created at that time

As many of the printers of patterns on Calico were Huguenots, this raises the question as to whether all the deaths can solely be attributed to the 1686 ban on this activity.

This article, excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, provides other details relating to the controversy over cotton imports / printing:

In 1700, the French government went all the way: an absolute ban on every aspect of calicoes including their use in consumption. Government spies had a hysterical field day: "peering into coaches and private houses and reporting that the governess of the Marquis de Cormoy had been seen at her window clothed in calico of a white background with big red flowers, almost new, or that the wife of a lemonade-seller had been seen in her shop in a casquin of calico."

Ultimately, the 1686 ban proved not only costly in lives but also to the economic well-being of France, at the same time as being of great benefit to Holland and England in particular, even though cotton weavers and printers were also subjected to protectionist laws and mistreatment in the latter country.

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    Aha, so more than a dash of hyperbole and exaggeration? I read the French wikipedia entry, which is much more detailed and it also mentioned nothing of the sort. Too bad, I read, and appreciated, the book, but if the author is not above embellishing facts to make a point, that means one also has to take some of his claims and stats in it with a grain of salt, though it can be hoped he was more rigorous in his own specialty. Jun 30, 2018 at 15:15
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    @ItalianPhilosopher Yes, it is always disappointing when academics (who, of all people, should know better) do this. Makes one wonder what other bits have been embellished... Jun 30, 2018 at 16:01
  • @LarsBosteen It is important to reflect that history includes the word "story" in it, and that each account is someone telling a story. It would appear that de Soto did just that. Jul 2, 2018 at 13:00

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