Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

William Graham Sumner, “Laissez-Faire” (c. 1886)

Source

William Graham Sumner, On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Writings of William Graham Sumner, ed. Robert C. Bannister (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1992). "Laissez-Faire" (1886), pp. 227-233.

For more information about Sumner, see the OLL main Sumner page </people/william-graham-sumner> and the Liberty Matters onlmine discussion of his work (July 2017) </pages/lm-sumner>.

Text

Among the many terms and phrases of social science which are ill-understood and lightly and incorrectly used, no instance is more remarkable than laissez-faire. It will be profitable to define and illustrate its meaning.

The story goes that a certain French minister of state, desiring to exert himself for the benefit of the governed, called the merchants of Paris to a conference. He asked them what he could do for them. His idea of doing something for them was not as new as he supposed it was. In fact, they had had a large experience of that sort of thing already. They therefore answered "Laissez-nous faire." Their answer has passed into a proverb and a maxim.

It seems to be widely believed that this phrase means "Do not do anything at all to interfere with nature." The current English translation of it is "Let alone." The translation, however, is so inadequate as to be incorrect and the lack of any equally terse expression in English which will render all the force of the original is the reason why the French phrase has been retained and naturalized.

A fair rendering of the answer of the French merchants would be; "Let us manage for ourselves." They did not propose to do without management. There is no sign in what they said or in what they did that they thought that brains could not be applied to trade and industry so as to develop and improve them. What they dreaded and declined with thanks was the proposition to define lines of action for them according to the wisdom of a statesman. Even if he took them into counsel they could not be induced to cooperate in the work of laying down rules for themselves which must, in the nature of the case, be rigid, arbitrary, hard to change, dictated by some dogma or ideal, and not such as the development of trade and industry would from time to time call for.

What the merchants meant by laissez-faire is a matter of only historical importance, but I know of no scientific writer who maintains the doctrine of laissez-faire in any other sense than that in which it was originally used. Anyone who gets his notion of laissez-faire from the rendering of it in the writings of the professorial socialists may well suppose that it is something very different from this, but that is only one of the features of the situation of political economy at the moment.

Laissez-faire is so far from meaning the unrestrained action of nature without any intelligent interference by man, that it really means the only rational application of human intelligence to the assistance of natural development. The best illustration of the perfect application of laissez-faire is a garden in which art has done its utmost to aid nature in that course of development which fits the interests and purposes of man. If we find such a garden anywhere and investigate the methods by which it has been brought into existence, do we find that the gardener has first made up his mind what he wants nature to give and has then proceeded by the method of trial and failure to try to make her come up to his ideal? There have been such gardeners and their successes have been more complete demonstrations of the folly of their method than even the failures. The Dutch gardeners who trimmed trees to represent beasts and birds, spoiling trees without making animals, illustrate very fairly what those statesmen have done to society who have tried to proceed by first forming ideals and then devising schemes to realize them. The gardener who wants a good garden and not a miserable imitation of a menagerie guards himself well against forming any ideals at all, and still more against putting any coercion on nature. He begins with a submission of himself to the investigation of nature. He abstains most carefully from meddling with her until he has observed her lines of independent action, because he knows that if he interferes sooner he will spoil the clearness and distinctness of the information which she will give him. He wants to find out her laws and he knows that, if he interferes with her action before the manifestation of the law is complete, he will not get that pure and simple expression of it which is his most priceless acquisition. His attitude therefore is one of obedience, of subordination, of following, and his chief folly would be conceit and "regulation." When he has a fund of information about the laws of nature, however, he does not use it to impose any purposes of his own on nature. He has only found out what is the range and what are the limitations of the plant world and by what laws nature produces her results within that range. He then selects, not what is better for the plant, but what suits his purposes. Then his whole task consists in furnishing to nature what she needs to help her and in removing all the obstacles which would hinder her in concentrating her forces on the things which men like to the exclusion of the things they do not like.

This illustration furnishes a complete parallel to what art may do to aid nature in society. The social case is infinitely more difficult for a great variety of reasons, but there are plenty of people who, while they would never dream of laying down rules for the management of a garden, are ready enough to prescribe regulations for society. Others propose to get some "statistics" and solve the problem at once. This is in some respects the funniest superstition of our time. A gardener might as well hope to learn how to raise cabbages by learning how many cabbages were raised in the country in a year. The fallacy would be the same.

Laissez-faire is the only true corrective of dogmatism and a priori reasoning. History and statistics are not the opposites or the correctives of those abuses. On the contrary, history and statistics are the very best cloaks of dogmatism. I have a large collection of passages from the writings of the "historical school," as it calls itself, in proof of this. An uncritical reader, having in hand an historical or statistical treatise, is likely to accept generalizations or assertions as in some way guaranteed by the positive material in the context, when a moment's examination would show that it stands entirely upon itself.

To give one instance: Jannasch, in an article on the movement of population into the great cities of Germany at the expense of the small cities and rural districts, says that the German great cities do not have specialized industries like those of England, but have a "higher mission on behalf of culture." He then tries to work out his pronouncement by a few assertions about the class of small independent handicraftsmen who migrate into German cities and by generalizations about independent craftsmen as compared with wage-earners. All this is absolutely without foundation or evidence. The assertions are only part of the articles of faith of a pseudopatriotism. They are open to plain contradiction on appropriate evidence. These generalizations are only the accepted and certainly erroneous commonplaces of an economic sect. Especially, however, I desire to point out that the alleged comparison of German and English cities, in a statistical article of a statistical periodical, is as purely dogmatic as if it appeared in a treatise on metaphysics.

Did space permit I should be glad to go into an analysis to show what dogmatism is and to distinguish its mischievous from its useful and necessary forms. A similar analysis needs to be made of speculation and generalization. These terms are all used nowadays in a flippant way by ill-educated men, to the great harm of science.

The doctrine and precept of laissez-faire do not preclude the attainment of positive results from investigation, nor the formulation of accurate statements of those results, nor the most elaborate verification of those results. The students of the laissez-faire school have done nearly all that ever has yet been done in the way of actual achievement under all these heads. Laissez-faire means: Do not meddle; wait and observe. Do not regulate; study. Do not give orders; be teachable. Do not enter upon any rash experiments; be patient until you see how it will work out.

The contrary temper is plainly manifested in our day on every hand. A man who has studied into any social question far enough to be non-plussed by its difficulties will propose some form of legislation about it. Laissez-faire would teach: At this time and under such a state of the question, the last thing to do is to legislate about it. When a half-dozen large and delicate interests are involved in a matter like transportation, in such a way that no human intelligence can possibly comprehend and adjust them, least of all by a piece of legislation which must be inelastic and arbitrary, this state of things is made a reason, not for letting the matter alone, but for passing legislation by way of experiment. Nothing could reveal more astoundingly the prevailing ignorance of what a society is and what methods of dealing with it are rational; for it is not possible to experiment with a society and just drop the experiment whenever we choose. The experiment enters into the life of the society, and never can be got out again. Therefore, whenever there is a mania for interference, the doctrine of non-interference is the highest wisdom. It does not involve us in any argument with the people who know that the way to national prosperity is through plenty of greenbacks, or another dose of tariff, or who see what direful results will flow from lack of money if we do not have a "double standard." It does not compel us to argue that everything now is ideally good. It simply means that, whatever may be unsatisfactory in the world, we know we would rather take our chances of managing for ourselves than to submit our interests to the manipulation of social doctors.

The social doctor who, having become possessed by a pet notion, has deduced from it a world of bliss is not the worst variety of the species. The Germans have invented a thing which they call Socialpolitik. The cruelest blow that can be aimed at one of these German phrases is to translate it into English, for then all the flatulency is let out of it. I early learned that when a German notion was stated in compound and abstract nouns in heit and keit, so that it seemed to say something very profound, it was well, before accepting it, to sit down and translate it into everyday English. It is astonishing how often what seemed a profound piece of philosophy turned out to be a bathos. "Social policy" in English does not mean anything. "Statecraft," says Bamberger, "has been defined as the science of the possible. This new 'craft' [Socialpolitik], consisting in statecraft plus a new series of social functions which the state is to assume, constitutes a science of the impossible, so long as it is a science of the unproved," i.e., of ends whose attainability has not been shown and whose appropriate means have not been ascertained or tested.

A man who has become interested in some one scheme of social improvement, although in his general standpoint unfavorable to interference, will resist the seduction of state interference as a means of accomplishing his object. A man who has been employed in administering some form of government interference is almost sure to become an advocate of that form of interference.

Let anyone notice, whenever a social question is brought into discussion, how inevitably the conversation or debate will run to the aspect of the matter which comes under the question: What can we do about it? or What can we make the tax-payer do about it? It is scarcely possible to get attention for an economic or sociological analysis of the matter which would aim to answer the question: What is the trouble? Is there any trouble? What are the social and economic causes of it? By what free cooperation of the parties concerned, under better knowledge and better temper, could any evil which exists be remedied? The greatest obstacle to any rational and true social improvement at this moment is the well-founded alarm excited by every proposition to do something by legislation - which compels all sober men to insist upon laissez-faire as an absolute principle of safety. In the face of those who are elaborating a social policy for us, there is often nothing to do but prevent anything from being done. Nearly all the machinery of Congress is an elaborate mechanism for preventing anything from being done, and although it stops many measures which a great many of us might think it very advisable to pass, we cheerfully do without them lest some of the others should get through likewise. The only fault with the mechanism is that it is not perfect enough. It fails when there is great clamor out of doors, for there is always cowardice inside, and then a Bland Bill or something of that sort can get a two-thirds vote and rise above the barrier of obstruction.

Laissez-faire is a maxim of policy. It is not a rule of science. Here we have another point of cardinal importance in the social wrangle of the day. No sound thinking is possible if we fail to distinguish correctly the domain of art from that of science. Science deals with what is true. The laws which it discovers admit of no exceptions, and when correctly stated cannot be overstated. The scientific man has reached the limit of his domain when he has laid down what he has found to be true. It is immaterial whether anybody believes it or profits by it or not. Here there is no room for maxims. There is nothing approximate or rough that is not imperfect, needing more work put on it. When, however, we go over to the domain of art, that is, of the application of scientific laws by human intelligence to the fulfillment of our purposes, we have come upon an entirely different domain. The limitations of our intelligence and the complications of natural phenomena as they actually occur prevent all clear, absolute, and unmodified rules. Maxims alone are in order over the whole domain of art. They embody long experience of mankind in the work or art, that is, in getting along as well as is practically possible towards the goal we want to reach under the circumstances in which we find ourselves and with the means at our disposal. For instance, if we are dealing with the phenomena of exchange, it belongs to science to analyze those phenomena and find out their laws. We talk about supply and demand very easily, but supply and demand are less understood today than the most difficult and abstruse laws of physics. The text-books present a weary waste of contradiction and whimsical assertion. I am ashamed of political economy whenever I put the chapter on value in Laughlin's "Mill" before my students. Sidgwick's treatment of the same subject is a "mush of concession" to every notion which hat ever been put forward in sufficiently metaphysical form to strike the mind of the author. If the economists have no other function than to tell the public that there is no such thing as political economy, and to wrangle with each other about the method by which they shall prove this, whether deductively or inductively, then a man of common sense would best cease to be an economist and seek a respectable means of livelihood. If they say to the statesman: We have no laws of the industrial order which we can give you as the results of our science to guide you in your work; we have no science and cannot get any results which we can affirm with confidence; the field is open for your experiments - if this, I say, is their position, then all men of sense will send political economy to Saturn as Mr. Gladstone did before he began his colossal experiment in Ireland. If, however, there are laws of exchange and value, it is the duty of economists to find them out. The laws which they may discover will be laws in the only scientific sense of the word. When we go over to statecraft, we go over to art - to the domain, not of truth but of expediency, not of scientific laws but of maxims. The statesman then may well be guided by maxims drawn from history and experience. No maxim is more than approximately wise, for wisdom cannot be put into absolute statements and injunctions.

Statecraft is to be guided all the time by the active reason and intelligent conscience. This is the domain of ethics also. Laissez-faire belongs here, where it had its birth and where alone, so far as I know, the English economists, who have given us all the political economy we possess, have used it. If the statesman proposes to interfere with exchange, then laissez-faire comes in as a general warning, not as an absolute injunction. Let them manage for themselves. Laissez-faire is the only maxim which allows of the correct use of history and statistics to secure such knowledge as shall properly guide the statesman in his task.

Last modified July 24, 2017