chapter  15
13 Pages

Do we gain from exchange at all? On some lessons to be drawn from Rousseau: Caroline Guibet Lafaye and Emmanuel Picavet


Introduction Rousseau is subject to scrutiny by authors who recognize in him the herald of alternative views of happiness or well-being, which have both economic import and a marked difference, compared with standard (especially neoclassical) economic assumptions.2 In particular, Rousseau is known as a refined analyst of the intricate relationships between envy feelings and self-esteem (or self-love), inequality and exchange opportunities. The lessons to be drawn from Rousseau in this respect are unequally controversial. A very ambitious project would consist in confronting the basics of current, dominant economic science with Rousseau’s views about exchange. Although the exercise is certainly well worth a serious attempt, especially as a contribution to the joint history of economics and political theory, this will not be the purpose of this chapter.3 Neither shall we develop a contextual approach of Rousseau’s writings: there is little doubt that his political-economic views are correlated with the problems of his time, but we aim at identifying the permanent value of some of his insights, related to social problems which can be stated in a non-contextual manner. Rousseau has described a special form of envy, which involves negative feelings about the well-being of others. This concept of envy doesn’t closely resemble the dominant one in normative economics today. This is a well-known source of skeptical views about social exchange and, more particularly, commercial trade in “civilized” society as it is. This also provides a good reason to re-read Rousseau with analytical questions in mind. The subject matter of this chapter is somewhat intermediary in scope. We do not attempt to unveil a contradiction between dominant present-day economics and Rousseau’s approach to exchange. We want to show that Rousseau’s writings are a good starting point to discuss and assess in some detail an important and controversial thesis which has been discussed to some extent by a number of economists (Peter Hammond, Christian Seidl) and philosophers (Allan Gibbard),4 namely, the thesis according to which individuals stand to lose from the deepening of unconstrained free exchange, in some cases at least.5 Our retrospective examination of Rousseau’s writings is motivated by this general aim.