Laissez Faire: A Conservative Approach to the Industrial Revolution

Laissez faire (from the French, meaning to leave alone or to allow to do) is an economic and political doctrine that holds that economies function most efficiently when unencumbered by government regulation. Laissez faire advocates favor individual self-interest and competition, and oppose the taxation and regulation of commerce.

This position was put forth by the following:

  • The Physiocrats, early economists in mid-18th century France, who responded to the plight of the merchant class that was chafing under the myriad dictates of French mercantilism. They argued against navigation laws, tariffs, business taxes and special monopolies.
  • Adam Smith, father of classical economics, maintained in Wealth of Nations (1776) that Britain`s goal should have been the promotion of the welfare of individuals, rather than centering on national power and prestige. Freely functioning economies were capable of bestowing benefits to all levels of society.
  • John Stuart Mill laid out the cases for and against government interference in the economy in Principles of Political Economy (1848).

Laissez faire economic principles were not always enthusiastically accepted in the United States:

  • Alexander Hamilton paid lip service to freedom from economic constraints, but was an effective advocate of protectionism in order to nurture the nation`s "infant industries."
  • Antebellum Southern planters strove for years to remove the heavy hand of the federal government from their efforts to export their produce. High tariffs in the United States often meant retaliatory duties elsewhere.
  • Laissez faire reached its apex in the 1870s during the age of industrialization as American factories operated with a free hand. A contradiction developed, however, as competing businesses began to merge, resulting in a shrinkage of competition.
  • During the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, public opinion shifted to support antitrust legislation and curb the abuses of unrestrained business—child labor, long factory hours and unsafe working conditions.
  • Laissez faire attitudes made a comeback of sorts during the boom times of the Roaring 20s, but the depression of the 1930s brought the New Deal and the return of government intervention in the economy.

The philosophy of governmental noninvolvement in business is not always applied symmetrically, as Franklin D. Roosevelt pointed out in his speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco in 1932:

The same man who tells you that he does not want to see the government interfere in business-and he means it, and has plenty of good reasons for saying so-is the first to go to Washington and ask the government for a prohibitory tariff on his product. When things get just bad enough-as they did two years ago-he will go with equal speed to the United States government and ask for a loan; and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation is the outcome of it. Each group has sought protection from the government for its own special interest, without realizing that the function of government must be to favor no small group at the expense of its duty to protect the rights of personal freedom and of private property of all its citizens.

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