Montesquieu thought that commerce improves manners and cures “the most destructive prejudices” (1748)
Montesquieu, like many writers in the 18th century, thought that commerce would have more than just economic benefits for societies. It would also improve morals.
Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that whereever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners. Let us not be astonished, then, if our manners are now less savage than formerly. Commerce has every where diffused a knowledge of the manners of all nations; these are compared one with another, and from this comparison arise the greatest advantages. Commercial laws, it may be said, improve manners, for the same reason as they destroy them. They corrupt the purest morals; this was the subject of Plato’s complaints: and we every day see, that they polish and refine the most barbarous.
Henry Clark selected this passage in his anthology Commerce, Culture and Liberty: Readings on Capitalism Before Adam Smith (published by Liberty Fund, 2003). He rightly points to the somewhat neglected but important contribution made by French authors such as Montesquieu, Turgot, Voltaire, Gournay, and Condillac. A common perception, especially among contemporary Europeans, is that free market ideas are a pernicious “Anglo-Saxon” phenomenon, when in fact, they have deep roots in Francophone culture.