What Is Laissez-Faire?
Laissez-faire is an economic theory from the 18th century that opposed any government intervention in business affairs. The driving principle behind laissez-faire, a French term that translates to “leave alone” (literally, “let you do”), is that the less the government is involved in the economy, the better off business will be, and by extension, society as a whole. Laissez-faire economics is a key part of free-market capitalism.
- Laissez-faire is an economic philosophy of free-market capitalism that opposes government intervention.
- The theory of laissez-faire was developed by the French Physiocrats during the 18th century and believes that economic success is more likely the less governments are involved in business.
- Later free-market economists built on the ideas of laissez-faire as a path to economic prosperity, though detractors have criticized it for promoting inequality.
The underlying beliefs that make up the fundamentals of laissez-faire economics include the idea that economic competition constitutes a “natural order” that rules the world. Because this natural self-regulation is the best type of regulation, laissez-faire economists argue that there is no need for business and industrial affairs to be complicated by government intervention.
As a result, they oppose any sort of federal involvement in the economy, which includes any type of legislation or oversight; they are against minimum wages, duties, trade restrictions, and corporate taxes. In fact, laissez-faire economists see such taxes as a penalty for production.
History of Laissez-Faire
Popularized in the mid-1700s, the doctrine of laissez-faire is one of the first articulated economic theories. It originated with a group known as the Physiocrats, who flourished in France from about 1756 to 1778.1
Led by a physician, they tried to apply scientific principles and methodology to the study of wealth. These “économistes” (as they dubbed themselves) argued that a free market and free economic competition were extremely important to the health of a free society.2 The government should only intervene in the economy to preserve property, life, and individual freedom; otherwise, the natural, unchanging laws that govern market forces and economic processes—what later British economist Adam Smith, dubbed the “invisible hand“—should be allowed to proceed unhindered.
Legend has it that the origins of the phrase “laissez-faire” in an economic context came from a 1681 meeting between the French finance minister Jean-Baptise Colbert and a businessman named Le Gendre. As the story goes, Colbert asked Le Gendre how best the government could help commerce, to which Le Gendre replied “Laissez-nous faire;” basically, “Let it be.” The Physiocrats popularized the phrase, using it to name their core economic doctrine.3
Unfortunately, an early effort to test laissez-faire theories did not go well. As an experiment in 1774, Turgot, Louis XVI’s Controller-General of Finances, abolished all restraints on the heavily controlled grain industry, allowing imports and exports between provinces to operate as a free trade system. But when poor harvests caused scarcities, prices shot through the roof; merchants ended up hoarding supplies or selling grain in strategic areas, even outside the country for better profit, while thousands of French citizens starved. Riots ensued for several months. In the middle of 1775, order was restored, and with it, government controls over the grain market.4
Despite this inauspicious start, laissez-faire practices, developed further by such British economists as Smith and David Ricardo, ruled during the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century. And, as its detractors noted, it did result in unsafe working conditions and large wealth gaps. Only at the beginning of the 20th century did developed industrialized nations like the U.S. begin to implement significant government controls and regulations to protect workers from hazardous conditions and consumers from unfair business practices; though it’s important to note that these policies were not intended to restrict business practices and competition.
Criticism of Laissez-Faire
One of the chief criticisms of laissez-faire is that capitalism as a system has moral ambiguities built into it: It does not inherently protect the weakest in society. While laissez-faire advocates argue that if individuals serve their own interests first, societal benefits will follow. Detractors feel laissez-faire actually leads to poverty and economic imbalances. The idea of letting an economic system run without regulation or correction in effect dismisses or further victimizes those most in need of assistance, they say.
The 20th-century British economist John Maynard Keynes was a prominent critic of laissez-faire economics, and he argued that the question of market solution versus government intervention needed to be decided on a case-by-case basis.5
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