Laissez-faire (, ) is an economic environment in which transactions between private parties are free from tariffs, government subsidies, and enforced monopolies, with only enough government regulations sufficient to protect property rights against theft and aggression. The phrase laissez-faire is French and literally means "let [them] do", but it broadly implies "let it be," "let them do as they will," or "leave it alone." Scholars generally believe a laissez-faire state or a completely free market has never existed.
According to historical legend, the phrase stems from a meeting in about 1680 between the powerful French finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert and a group of French businessmen led by a certain M. Le Gendre. When the eager mercantilist minister asked how the French state could be of service to the merchants and help promote their commerce, Le Gendre replied simply "Laissez-nous faire" ("Leave us be", lit. "Let us do").
The anecdote on the Colbert-Le Gendre meeting was related in a 1751 article in the Journal Oeconomique by the French minister and champion of free trade, Ren de Voyer, Marquis d'Argenson which happens to also be the phrase's first known appearance in print. Argenson himself had used the phrase earlier (1736) in his own diaries, in a famous outburst:
The laissez faire slogan was popularized by Vincent de Gournay, a French intendant of commerce in the 1750s. Gournay was an ardent proponent of the removal of restrictions on trade and the deregulation of industry in France. Gournay was delighted by the Colbert-LeGendre anecdote, and forged it into a larger maxim all his own: "Laissez faire et laissez passer" ('Let do and let pass'). His motto has also been identified as the longer "Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui m me!" ("Let do and let pass, the world goes on by itself!"). Although Gournay left no written tracts on his economic policy ideas, he had immense personal influence on his contemporaries, notably the Physiocrats, who credit both the laissez-faire slogan and the doctrine to Gournay.
Before d'Argenson or Gournay, P.S. de Boisguilbert had enunciated the phrase "on laisse faire la nature" ('let nature run its course'). D'Argenson himself, during his life, was better known for the similar but less-celebrated motto "Pas trop gouverner" ("Govern not too much"). But it was Gournay's use of the 'laissez-faire' phrase (as popularized by the Physiocrats) that gave it its cachet.
In England, a number of "free trade" and "non-interference" slogans had been coined already during the 17th century. But the French phrase laissez faire gained currency in English-speaking countries with the spread of Physiocratic literature in the late 18th century. The Colbert-LeGendre anecdote was relayed in George Whatley's 1774 Principles of Trade (co-authored with Benjamin Franklin) - which may be the first appearance of the phrase in an English language publication.
Notably, classical economists, such as Thomas Malthus, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, did not use the phrase. Jeremy Bentham used the term, but it was probably James Mill's reference to the "laissez-faire" maxim (together with "pas trop gouverner") in an 1824 entry for the Encyclop dia Britannica that really brought the term into wider English usage. With the advent of the Anti-Corn Law League, the term received much of its (English) meaning.
Adam Smith first used the metaphor of an "invisible hand" in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments to describe the unintentional effects of economic self organization from economic self interest. Some have characterized this metaphor as one for laissez-faire, but Smith never actually used the term himself.
History of laissez-faire debate
During the Han, Tang, Song, and Ming dynasties, Chinese scholar-officials would often debate about the interference the government should have in the economy, such as setting monopolies in lucrative industries and instating price controls. Such debates were often heated with Confucian factions tending to oppose extensive government controls and "Reform" factions favoring such moves. During the Han and Tang, emperors sometimes instated government monopolies in times of war, and abolished them later when the fiscal crisis had passed. Eventually, in the later Song and Ming dynasties, state monopolies were abolished in every industry and were never reinstated during the length of that dynasty, with the government following laissez-faire policies. During the Manchu Qing Dynasty, state monopolies were reinstated, and the government interfered heavily in the economy; many scholars believe this prevented China from developing capitalism.
In Europe the laissez faire movement was first widely promoted by the physiocrats, a movement that originated with Jean-Claude Vincent de Gournay, a successful merchant. Gournay held that the government should allow the laws of nature to govern economic activity, with the state only intervening to protect life, liberty, and property. His ideas were taken up by Francois Quesnay and Turgot, Baron de l'Aulne. Quesnay had the ear of the King of France, Louis XV, and in 1754 persuaded him to give laissez faire a try. On September 17, the King abolished all tolls and restraints on the sale and transport of grain, and for more than a decade the experiment was a success. But then, in 1768, there was a poor harvest, and the cost of bread rose so high that there was widespread starvation, while merchants exported grain in order to obtain the best profit. In 1770, the edict allowing free trade was revoked..
Many of the ideas of the physiocrats spread throughout Europe, and were adopted to a greater or lesser extent in Sweden, Tuscany, Spain, and after 1776 in the newly created United States. Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, met Quesnay and acknowledged his influence.
In Britain, in 1843, the newspaper The Economist was founded and became an influential voice for laissez-faire capitalism. Laissez-faire advocates opposed food aid for famines occurring within the British empire; in 1847, referring to the famine then underway in Ireland, The Economist's founder James Wilson wrote that "It is no man's business to provide for another".  However, The Economist campaigned against the Corn Laws that protected landlords in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland against competition from less expensive foreign imports of cereal products. The Great Famine in Ireland in 1845 led to the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. The tariffs on grain which kept the price of bread artificially high were repealed. However, repeal of the Corn Laws came too late to stop Irish famine, partly because it was done in stages over three years.
A group calling itself the Manchester Liberals, to which Richard Cobden and Richard Wright belonged, were staunch defenders of free trade, and their work was carried on, after the death of Richard Cobden in 1866, by The Cobden Club. In 1867, a free trade treaty was signed between Britain and France, after which several of these treaties were signed among other European countries.
Frank Bourgin's 1989 study of the Constitutional Convention shows that direct government involvement in the economy was intended by the Founders. The reason for this was the economic and financial chaos the nation suffered under the Articles of Confederation. The goal was to ensure that dearly won political independence was not lost by being economically and financially dependent on the powers and princes of Europe. The creation of a strong central government able to promote science, invention, industry and commerce, was seen as an essential means of promoting the general welfare and making the economy of the United States strong enough for them to determine their own destiny.
In his 1973 study of the economic principles established at the foundation of the United States, E.A.J. Johnson wrote:
Notable examples of government intervention in the period prior to the Civil War include the establishment of the Patent Office in 1802; the establishment of the Office of Standard Weights and Measures in 1830; the creation of the Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1807 and other measures to improve river and harbor navigation; the various Army expeditions to the west, beginning with Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery in 1804 and continuing into the 1870s, almost always under the direction of an officer from the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, and which provided crucial information for the overland pioneers that followed; the assignment of Army Engineer officers to assist or direct the surveying and construction of the early railroads and canals; the establishment of the First Bank of the United States and Second Bank of the United States as well as various protectionist measures (e.g., the tariff of 1828). Several of these proposals met with serious opposition, and required a great deal of horse trading to be enacted into law. For instance, the First National Bank would not have reached the desk of President George Washington in the absence of an agreement that was reached between Alexander Hamilton and several southern members of Congress to locate the capital in the District of Columbia. In contrast to Hamilton and the Federalists was the opposing political party the Democratic-Republicans.
Most of the early opponents of laissez-faire capitalism in the United States subscribed to the American School. This school of thought was inspired by the ideas of Alexander Hamilton, who proposed the creation of a government-sponsored bank and increased tariffs to favor northern industrial interests. Following Hamilton's death, the more abiding protectionist influence in the antebellum period came from Henry Clay and his American System.
In the early 19th century, "it is quite clear that the laissez faire label is an inappropriate one" to apply to the relationship between the US government and industry. In the mid-19th century, the United States followed the Whig tradition of Economic nationalism, which included increased state control, regulation and macroeconomic development of infrastructure. Public works such as the provision and regulation transportation such as railroads took effect. The Pacific Railway Acts provided the development of the First Transcontinental Railroad. In order to help pay for its war effort in the American Civil War, the United States government imposed its first personal income tax, on August 5, 1861, as part of the Revenue Act of 1861 (3% of all incomes over US $800; rescinded in 1872).
Following the Civil War, the movement towards a mixed economy accelerated. Protectionism increased with the McKinley Tariff of 1890 and the Dingley Tariff of 1897. Government regulation of the economy expanded with the enactment of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the Sherman Anti-trust Act.
The Progressive Era saw the enactment of more controls on the economy, as evidenced by the Wilson Administration's New Freedom program.
Following World War I and the Great Depression, the United States turned to a mixed economy, which combined free enterprise with a progressive income tax, and in which, from time to time, the government stepped in to support and protect American industry from competition from overseas. For example in the 1980s the government sought to protect the automobile industry by "voluntary" export restrictions from Japan. Pietro S. Nivola wrote in 1986:
- Bourgin, Frank The Great Challenge: The Myth of Laissez-Faire in the Early Republic (George Braziller Inc., 1989; Harper & Row, 1990)
- by Christian Gerlach, London School of Economics March 2005
- John Maynard Keynes, The end of laissez-faire (1926)
- Carter Goodrich, Government Promotion of American Canals and Railroads, 1800 1890 (Greenwood Press, 1960)
- Goodrich, Carter. "American Development Policy: the Case of Internal Improvements," Journal of Economic History, 16 (1956), 449 60. in JSTOR
- Goodrich, Carter. "National Planning of Internal Improvements," ;;Political Science Quarterly, 63 (1948), 16 44. in JSTOR
- Johnson, E.A.J., The Foundations of American Economic Freedom: Government and Enterprise in the Age of Washington (University of Minnesota Press, 1973)
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