jean fourastie

In 1960, Theodore Caplow (Mineapolis), translate Machinisme et Bien-Être (from Jean Fourastié, 1951) under the name of The causes of wealth. You can find here the editor's introduction.



WHEN I first read this book, soon after its original publication in 1951, I was struck by the wealth of new fact and new theory in its pages. Today, after many readings, my admiration for Professor Fourastie's almost single-handed attempt to create a new specialty on the borderline between economics and sociology has not diminished but grown. 

I still find it difficult to believe, as I follow his forceful exposition of the relationship between price trends and the distribution of the labor force or his history of the place of bread in the budget of the average family, that topics of such overwhelming importance scarcely have been discussed by social scientists in this century so obsessed with social problems.

There are some other modern writers, of course, who have given poverty and wealth their due place in the social panorama. Fourastie himself acknowledges his debt to Colin Clark, whose Conditions of Economic Progress constitutes a parallel exploration of neglected territory. Such recent works as Josue De Castro's Geography of Hunger and Fred Cottrell's Energy and Society analyze the material progress that the more favored portion of humanity has made in the past few generations and the inequalities that this same progress has introduced into the world. Each of these four authors finds it difficult to explain or understand the indifference of other scholars to the ordinary living conditions of mankind. Fourastie, speaking of famine in former centuries, comments that "horrible episodes which brought the death of one out of five living beings are passed by in silence while every detail is given about the marriage of the Dauphin."

Years ago, F. Stuart Chapin established a course at the University of Minnesota on "Social Aspects of Housing and Standards of Living," which I took over from him towards his retirement. It was while seeking a textbook for this course that I first encountered Machinisme et Bien-Être. Anyone who examines the literature on this double-jointed subject will find himself confronted with an enormous mass of material on housing and only a handful of scattered works on the standard of living, which is certainly more significant. Incidentally, at the first class meeting of each term, the students were routinely asked a naive question which ran as follows: "Who are happier, other things being equal, the rich or the poor?" Again and again the students answered in the same fashion. A majority of each class said that the poor were happier, a minority were undecided or thought the question illogical. A few deviants believed the rich to be more satisfied.

This attitude is not easy to explain, but it is very widespread. The problems associated with technical progress lead us to doubt its plainest manifestations. Our author puts this eloquently in his concluding chapter when he writes that "a man who, two centuries ago, would not even have learned to read - if he had survived to maturity - profits by his windows, the central heating of his apartment, and the 300,000 copies of the newspaper for which he writes, announcing that humanity has arrived at the last stage of barbarism." There was more to the reaction of my students than this, however. Unlike the French humanist, encouraged to a vigorous pessimism by every tradition of his milieu, these adolescents from prairie farms and suburbs in the American Midwest, were not disposed to question the concept of progress. What they expressed was rather a complex puritanism which insists that worldly goods are incapable of providing the satisfactions for which we seek them.

This is not the place to explore the tangled skein of symbols surrounding production and consumption. We do not really need to do so. The brute facts of hunger and plenty, comfort and want, wealth and poverty, convertibles and handcarts, are sufficiently salient to claim our attention regardless of the exact priority we place upon them. Yet it is curious how a stubborn faith in the moral superiority of low incomes over high still flourishes in the American environment which Fourastie so much admires, and which he repeatedly presents as a model to the French.

I would remind the American reader who cannot entirely accept Fourastie's idealization of our way of life, to remember that he is preaching to his countrymen and not to us, however much we may learn by overhearing the sermon. His works - in the best tradition of some of the great Frenchmen whom he quotes-Vauban, Voltaire, Villermé are directed to the major problems of his own era. They are not intended to amuse scholars but to persuade a nation. Their scientific quality develops because the author has chosen, as his best means of persuasion, the weapons of the positivist tradition empirical data and experimental induction.

The empirical data alone would assure this book a notable place in the social scientist's library. The author's far-ranging curiosity leads him to a wide variety of unusual facts that would be fascinating even if they did not serve to illustrate a theory.

Thus, the reader is likely to remember the history of window glass based on the paintings of the old masters, the explanation of why silk stockings with runs are repaired in Paris. But thrown away in New York, the pious and pathetic tale of little Francinet, the apprentice weaver, the statistics of sewer connections, the comparative history of barbershop prices, and the wonderful parable of the Maharaja and the 100,000 Hindus.

I am sure that Fourastie is more interested in instruction than entertainment, but his technique of taking the commonplaces of daily life and showing them to be essential indexes of the progress of civilization has something very attractive about it.

In much the same way, it is a temptation to evaluate his theoretical contributions by their inherent interest rather than their theoretical importance. The closing of the fan of salaries, for example, and the inexorable equalization of working conditions between the cabinet minister and the office boy, has seldom been discussed and has not previously, so far as I know, been explained. The influence of scientific progress on productivity and the direct association of productivity with the distribution of the labor force has been hinted at elsewhere in general terms, but never before described with such precision and detail. Fourastie's method of converting money prices into hourly wage units of the same time and place is not new, but the use he makes of this measurement to discriminate among commodities unequally affected by technical progress is an altogether remarkable accomplishment. The reader is likely to find that once he has grasped this idea he can never let it loose. There are very few devices in all of social science which serve to explain as many different events and to solve as many of the puzzles of common sense, as does this very simple trick of expressing a price in terms of a laborer's local wages for purposes of comparison with other prices. Whether the general hypothesis that all price trends can be explained in terms of the degree of technical progress in the production of particular commodities has been verified here, a sociological critic can hardly presume to say. There is much need for further analysis on many of these matters. For example, I cannot fully accept the idea that with a shift of the labor force toward tertiary employments there is an end to the steady reduction in the length of the work day and the work year. The accumulating evidence seems to suggest instead that such activities as teaching and healing can also be modified by the division of labor.

Indeed, there are many specific points in which there is room for further discussion. Fourastie's explanation of economic progress is essentially linear, if not monistic. Scientific discovery leads to invention which leads to changing methods of production, redistribution of the labor force, changes in consumption, and, finally, modification of the style of life.

There remains, of course, the question as to why scientific discoveries are unequally utilized in different countries: There is also the determinism of energy resources, which Cottrell has explained so well. There is the influence of the fiscal machinery, to which many economists assign a central place in technical progress. All of these questions remain to be resolved and will undoubtedly be resolved in good time. But we already owe to Fourastie, still in mid-career, the major achievements of revolutionizing the study of poverty and wealth and converting budget analysis from one of the dullest specialties in the social sciences to one of the most promising.

Readers of the French edition were warned in a footnote that the original work was based upon the stenographic transcript of a series of lectures and could "make no claim to literary elegance." The same caveat must be repeated with increased emphasis for this translation. Readers of the original edition were also urged to seek out the author's other books and articles, in which many of the ideas introduced here became more fully developed. A list of these works will be found in the Appendix.

A good many changes from the French edition have been introduced, some by the author, some by the editor. As far as possible, tables and statistics have been brought up to date, and a number of new tables have been added. On the other hand, documentation to local archives and to some other bibliographical material not readily accessible to American students has been omitted. In the interests of coherence, tables and charts are renumbered. Chapter VI, on Style of Life, has been extensively amended to make it more meaningful for the reader unfamiliar with the details of the French household.

The author's afterthoughts and the editor's suggestions have been incorporated into the text as convenience dictated.

The errors of transcription or of fact which the volume contains may be chargeable to either the author or the editor or to both. Errors of translation, of course, are my responsibility alone.

Thanks are due to Professor Georges Friedmann who sponsored the original work and whose wise comments facilitated the translation; to Barbara Caplow, who spent long hours translating notes and verifying such details as the definition of millet and the value of the livre tournois; to Barbara Nelson and Patricia James for competent and painstaking assistance with the several drafts of the manuscript; and to the editors of The Free Press for their patience and laissez faire.

Theodore Caplow