John Law (usually pronounced Jean Lass by contemporary French) (bap. 21 April 1671 – 21 March 1729) was a Scottish economist who believed that money was only a means of exchange that did not constitute wealth in itself and that national wealth depended on trade. He was responsible for the Mississippi Bubble and a chaotic economic collapse in France.
Law was a gambler and a brilliant mental calculator and was known to win card games by mentally calculating the odds. He originated economic ideas such as "The Scarcity Theory of Value" and the "Real bills doctrine."
Law was born into a family of bankers and goldsmiths from Fife; his father had purchased a landed estate at Cramond on the Firth of Forth and was known as Law of Lauriston. Law joined the family business aged fourteen and studied the banking business until his father died in 1688. Law subsequently neglected the firm in favour of more extravagant pursuits and travelled to London where he lost large sums of money in gambling.
On 9 April 1694, John Law fought a duel with Edward Wilson. Wilson had challenged Law over the affections of Elizabeth Villiers. Wilson was killed, and Law was tried and found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to a fine, upon the ground that the offence only amounted to manslaughter. Wilson's brother appealed and had Law imprisoned, but he managed to escape to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands.
Law urged the establishment of a national bank to create and increase instruments of credit and the issue of banknotes backed by land, gold, or silver. The first manifestation of Law's system came when he had returned to his homeland and contributed to the debates leading to the Treaty of Union 1707 with a text entitled Money and Trade Consider'd with a Proposal for Supplying the Nation with Money (1705). After the Union of the Scottish and English parliaments, Law's legal situation obliged him to go into exile again.
He spent ten years moving between France and the Netherlands, dealing in financial speculations, before the problems of the French economy presented the opportunity to put his system into practice.
He had the idea of abolishing minor monopolies and private farming of taxes and creating a bank for national finance and a state company for commerce and ultimately exclude all private revenue. This would create a huge monopoly of finance and trade run by the state, and its profits would pay off the national debt. The French Conseil des Finances, merchants, and financiers objected to this plan.
The wars waged by Louis XIV left the country completely wasted, both economically and financially. And the resultant shortage of precious metals led to a shortage of coins in circulation, which in turn limited the production of new coins. It was in this context that the regent, Philippe d'Orléans, appointed John Law, as Controller General of Finances.
As Controller General, Law instituted many beneficial reforms (some of which had lasting effect, others of which were soon abolished). He tried to break up large land-holdings to benefit the peasants; he abolished internal road and canal tolls; he encouraged the building of new roads, the starting of new industries (even importing artisans but mostly by offering low-interest loans), and the revival of overseas commerce—and indeed industry increased 60% in two years, and French ships engaged in export went from sixteen to three hundred.
Since, following the devastating War of the Spanish Succession, France's economy was stagnant and her national debt was crippling, Law proposed to stimulate industry by replacing gold with paper credit and then increasing the supply of credit, and to reduce the national debt by replacing it with shares in economic ventures. Though they ultimately failed, his theories were 300 years ahead of their time and "captured many key conceptual points which are very much a part of modern monetary theorizing"