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

Antoine Louis Claude, Comte Destutt de Tracy

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.

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.