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John Law and the Mississippi Bubble – 300 Years Later

John Law and the Mississippi Bubble – 300 Years Later

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Most people are aware that historically there have been speculative bubbles. Some of them can even name a few – the South Sea bubble, tulips, and more recently dot-coms. Some historians can go even further, quoting the famous account by Charles Mackay of the South Sea bubble, the tulip mania and the Mississippi bubble, published in the mid-nineteenth century.

The most valuable bubble empirically for the purpose of our elucidation has to be the Mississippi bubble, whose central figure was John Law. Law, a Scotsman whose father’s profession was as a goldsmith and banker in Edinburgh, set up an inflation scheme in 1716 to rescue France’s finances. He proposed to the Regent for the infant Louis XIV a scheme that would be based on a new paper currency.

Law was a somewhat louche character, who in his Continental travels had spent his mornings studying finance and the principles of trade, and the evenings in the gaming-houses of Europe. He was a successful gambler, because of his ability to calculate odds.

Some similarities with the personality of Keynes two hundred years later are striking. Keynes was a mathematician first, and an economist second. Their approach was also similar: see a problem and try to find a solution, instead of seeing a problem and trying to understand why it existed before solving it. Both Law and Keynes felt that sound money was too restrictive for the enhancement of an economy.

Consequently, much of what Law proposed and then enacted in France rhymes with our neo-Keynesian world today. The difference, perhaps, is that when given the opportunity, Law seized it, and had ultimate financial and monetary power. He harnessed the roles of a central bank, monopolist in international trade, stock promoter and finance minister.

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