Eighteenth Century Economics: Turgot, Beccaria and Smith and Their Contemporaries

By Peter Groenewegen | Go to book overview

11

Laissez-faire

Reflections on the French foundations

The foundations of laissez-faire in French thought in the sense of origins are well understood. Mill’s classic article on ‘The Economists’ for the Encyclopaedia Britannica’ was already able to refer to this issue (Mill, 1824, pp. 708-9). First use of the phrase ‘laissez-faire’ has been attributed to the merchant, Le Gendre, who is alleged to have said to Colbert in response to his question what the government could do for trade: ‘laissez-nous faire’. This account originated with Turgot’s well known Eloge de Gournay, which in the passage where this attribution is made, treats Le Gendre’s phrase and the word ‘freedom’ virtually as synonyms (Turgot, 1759, p. 40, n29). This essential characteristic of the phrase had also been put forward by D’Argenson, in his posthumously published journal and memoirs, and in an essay to which he gave the title. ‘Pour gouverner mieux, il faudrait gouverner moins’. In his memoirs, he emphatically declared that ‘Laissez-faire, telle devrait être la devise de toute poussance publique’. Earlier, and contemporaneously with the merchant, Le Gendre, the magistrate-political economist-historian, Boisguilbert, combined the phrase, ‘laissez-faire’ with both ‘freedom’ and the ‘natural order’, (see Boisguilbert, 1707, pp. 891-2, 897-8), 1 arguing that freedom was the agent of nature in these matters. If foundations are held to be identical with the ‘trivial’ question of origins (cf. Gide and Rist, 1949, p. 30, n5), then this catalogue of early usage exhausts knowledge on the subject: the phrase which can be said to have ruled political economy in its practical applications for well over a century was a policy recommendation casually produced by a French merchant circa 1680. During the subsequent half-century it was treated as an axiom of good government by both a magistrate, and a son of the Keeper of the Seals under the Regency. It was codified by Turgot in his Eulogy of Gournay, and interpreted in considerable detail by his contemporaries, the physiocrats, in their discussion of the natural order required for the good government of society. Two of these aspects constitute the point of departure for these reflections on the French foundations of laissez-faire. The first of these reflections examines the use which the physiocrats made of the phrase in their general writing; the second links Boisguillebert’s use of it with some theological developments associated with Jansenism and the conception of order inherent in the doctrine of this religious

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