Weird comments in economic history : Guy Frégault and price controls

In writing the final part of my thesis on Canadian economic history, I found a pearl which I felt had to be shared with my readers (the few that you are). Historian Guy Frégault is one of the biggest names in the historiography of Quebec before 1850, one can’t write anything without at least referring implicitly to his works. Yet, like many “seminal works”, the importance it has been granted is often the result of repeating some of the key elements without further considerations. Since I felt its importance in my own work, I went to read Frégault’s work La Civilisation de la Nouvelle-France, 1713-1744. I felt like I had to and now I feel like it wasn’t all that relevant. Most of the judgment passed by Frégault on the economic growth of the colony is based on very poor understanding of economic theory, even basic elements of principles. Forget college-level economics, I am talking high-school-level economics. 

In his work (p.64-65), Frégault speaks about the scarcity of bread in the colony and how of poor quality it was – a recurrent complaint of the population at the time. Emphasizing the economic difficulties of the 1710s, he asserts the following: 

Bread was scarce. The Intendant may well have fixed the price of wheat, forced individuals to sell their surplus of grains and, finally, forcibly requested one fifth of the harvest in order to distribute to the poorest, the situation was still terrible. (…) a delegation of Québécoises [female inhabitants of Quebec City] protested to the Conseil Supérieur against the excessive price and poor quality of bread.

Read his passage again, just to be sure! Consider his logic: in spite of price controls and the forcible redistribution of crops, bread is still of poor quality, hard to find and expensive? Would it not make more sense to consider that scarcities are the result of price controls and poor quality of being the result of producers adapting to the regulations by cutting down on quality-linked expenses? 

With the exception of Louise Dechêne’s works, no historians has fully appreciated how detrimental price controls could have been to the economic development of the colony. Frégault’s comments is a pretty stark illustration of that … and hence he qualifies for weird comments in economic history…


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