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Destutt de Tracy on society as “nothing but a succession of exchanges” (1817)

The French revolutionary politician and republican Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836) believed that society was a complex web of mutually beneficial transactions which brought people together both across space and time:

First, society is nothing but a succession of exchanges.In effect, let us begin with the first conventions on which it is founded. Every man, before entering into the state of society, has as we have seen all rights and no duty, not even that of not hurting others; and others the same in respect to him. It is evident they could not live together, if by a convention formal or tacit they did not promise each other, reciprocally, surety. Well! this convention is a real exchange; every one renounces a certain manner of employing his force, and receives in return the same sacrifice on the part of all the others. Security once established by this mean, men have a multitude of mutual relations which all arrange themselves under one of the three following classes: they consist either in rendering a service to receive a salary, or in bartering some article of merchandize against another, or in executing some work in common.

Now what is society viewed under this aspect (its economical relation)? I do not fear to announce it. Society is purely and solely a continual series of exchanges. It is never any thing else, in any epoch of its duration, from its commencement the most unformed, to its greatest perfection. And this is the greatest eulogy we can give to it, for exchange is an admirable transaction, in which the two contracting parties always both gain; consequently society is an uninterrupted succession of advantages, unceasingly renewed for all its members. This demands an explanation.

First, society is nothing but a succession of exchanges.In effect, let us begin with the first conventions on which it is founded. Every man, before entering into the state of society, has as we have seen all rights and no duty, not even that of not hurting others; and others the same in respect to him. It is evident they could not live together, if by a convention formal or tacit they did not promise each other, reciprocally, surety. Well! this convention is a real exchange; every one renounces a certain manner of employing his force, and receives in return the same sacrifice on the part of all the others. Security once established by this mean, men have a multitude of mutual relations which all arrange themselves under one of the three following classes: they consist either in rendering a service to receive a salary, or in bartering some article of merchandize against another, or in executing some work in common. In the two first cases the exchange is manifest. In the third it is not less real; for when several men unite, to labour in common, each makes a sacrifice to the others of what he could have done during the same time for his own particular utility; and he receives, for an equivalent, his part of the common utility resulting from the common labour. He exchanges one manner of occupying himself against another, which becomes more advantageous to him than the other would have been. It is true then that society consists only in a continual succession of exchanges.

I do not pretend to say that men never render gratuitous services. Far from me be the idea of denying benevolence, or of banishing it from their hearts; but I say it is not on this that all the progress of society reposes, and even that the happy consequences of this amiable virtue are much more important under a moral relation,∗ of which we are not at this time speaking, than under the economical relation which now occupies us. I add that if we urge the sense of the word exchange, and if we wish, as we ought, to take it in all the extent of its signification, we may say with justice that a benefit is still an exchange, in which one sacrifices a portion of one’s property, or of one’s time, to procure a moral pleasure, [8] very lively and very sweet, that of obliging, or to exempt oneself from a pain very afflicting, the sight of suffering; exactly as we employ a sum of money to procure an artificial fire work, which diverts, or to free ourselves from something which incommodes us.

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In the first chapter of his treatise on political economy (1817) Destutt de Tracy declares that human beings are naturally social and group together for mutual protection and because they share a “natural disposition to sympathy” or a sense of fellow feeling with each other. In every community there emerges a desire to better satisfy one’s own as well as the group’s needs which results in the division of labour and the exchange among the members of various goods and services. From this come’s Tracy’s quite startling conclusion that “society is nothing but a succession of exchanges”. This might sound to some ears like the crudest form of economism but in Tracey’s worldview it is the cement which bonds a society together in a deep social way. The types of exchanges he has in mind are simple barter without money, exchanges involving money, as well as work done in common. However, they all have one thing in common, and that is the mutually beneficial nature of these exchanges. Over an extended period of time this “continual succession of exchanges”, this “innumerable crowd of small particular advantages”, is what constitutes society itself and leads to “the wonders of perfected society”. Thomas Jefferson was so impressed with this line of thinking that he arranged to have Tracey’s work translated and published in the U.S.

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