Sunday, December 09, 2007

Who First Coined the Phrase Laissez faire?

Mark Thoma of the well received economist’s Blog, Economist’s View (here) and he posts ‘How Laissez Faire was Adam Smith?’ from yesterday’s Lost legacy, saying:

‘Gavin Kennedy of Adam Smith's Lost Legacy says not as much as you may have been led to believe’, and then adds:

This is important, "Adam Smith was more concerned with what worked in a commercial society than he was with abstract principles," and failure to recognize this leads to many misinterpretations of what Smith wrote. As for the term "laissez faire," my recollection is that "laissez faire, laissez passer" originates with the Physiocrat Vincent de Gournay.’

Always nice to note we are read by serious economistses[especially when their readers are directed to Lost Legacy too].

For the record Mark Thoma is correct about Vincent de Gournay’s role in popularising laissez faire among the French Physiocrats. Here is how I report it in my new book (in press) on Adam Smith(Palgrave Macmillan, 2008):

So where did the idea of laissez faire originate? Not surprisingly, the words were first uttered by a merchant in the French dirigiste regime of M. Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), the French minister of finance under Louis XIV. The merchant’s name was M. Le Gendre, described as a ‘most sensible and plain spoken’ merchant and, reportedly, he responded to Colbert’s question: 'Que faut-il faire pour vous aider?' (what do you want from me to assist you?), with: 'laisser nous faire' (leave us alone). Colbert was the finance minister whose regulation of merchants was notorious for its oppressive licensing, inspection and control which personified French bureaucracy at its worst (plus ça change …).

Jean Vincent, Seigneur de Gournay, popularised a version of Le Gendre’s appeal to be freed of petty regulation, but the author who took Le Gendre’s words, dropped ‘nous’ and turned laissez nous faire’ (let us alone) into ‘laissez faire’ (let alone) into a principle of economic policy, was the Marquis d’Argenson (1694-1757), who was an active promoter of economic theory and a member of the world’s first economics club (salon), the Club d’Entresol (1726). He was also a Foreign Minister of France at the Court of Louis XV for two years. He did not publish his ideas, but circulated them, as was the custom, in manuscripts around the French intelligentsia. To govern better, he said, one must govern less. The true cause of the decline of our manufactures, he declared, is the protection we have given to them. Interestingly, Francois Quesnay, for example, did not include laissez faire in his General Maxims of Government.

Laissez faire’ was first used in English by George Whatley, a contemporary, friend and correspondent of Benjamin Franklin in 1774. Keynes reported that Jeremy Bentham in 1793 used the expression 'laissez-nous faire'. Bentham, who was not an economist, presented ‘the rule of laissez-faire, in the shape in which our grandfathers knew it’, adapted into the service of the Utilitarian philosophy. For example in A Manual of Political Economy, he [Bentham] writes: 'The general rule is that nothing ought to be done or attempted by government; the motto or watchword of government, on these occasions, ought to be - Be quiet ... The request which agriculture, manufacturers, and commerce present to governments is as modest and reasonable as that which Diogenes made to: Stand out of my sunshine.’

McGregor, D. H. 1949; quoting : Oncken, A. 1886
Quesnay, F. 1758.
Whatley, G. 1774
Keynes, J. M. 1926; Bentham, J. 1843. Works, p. 440


Blogger Unknown said...

Hey, I apologize for a comment that will be irrelevant to this post, but I was hoping to drop you a line and couldn't find your contact information.

I'm currently reading up on David Hume (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Treatise on Human Nature, and Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals) not for its own sake, but for research on the specific subjects that are covered in those titles.

I haven't finished, but I recently resolved to add Adam Smith's works on these topics to my reading list. I picked up A Theory of Moral Sentiments. I was wondering if there was anything else you would suggest, that pertained to either his theory of morals, of the mind, or of knowledge?

If you don't want to do the exchange here in your comments, you can drop me a line at agurri-"at"-gmu-"dot"-edu

6:54 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Adam

I suggest that you read Adam Smith's 'intended juvenile essay', The Principles which lead and direct Philosophical Enquiries; illustrated by the History of Astonomy', published posthumously in 1795.

He started it in Oxford University as a student (1740-46) and perhaps added a few pages on Isaac Newton after 1773. He kept in his bedroom bureau until his death and saved it from the burning of his otehr papers just before his death. He asked his executors, Joseph Black and James Hutton to arrange publication after he died.

It is the closest he got to a theory of knowledge, or rather how knowledge was acquired.

8:12 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks a lot! I think I've found a good collection which includes that essay among others. Knowing to look for the "History of Astronomy" significantly narrowed down my search.

When I decided to include Smith's works in my research, I knew I had to ask your help--it's not often I'm aware of someone so very qualified to guide me in such a matter!

Thanks again.

8:55 pm  
Blogger tgiles said...

What are your (or anyone's) thoughts concerning the thought of laissez-faire (Classical Economics)controlling the British response to the Irish Potato Famine. I am working on a paper concerning that subject and would like to hear some outside comments.

11:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Needless to say, just cool !Thanks for your nice blog and best wishes to you!

12:32 am  

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