Garnier on the Origin of the Term Laissez-faire

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Source: This article first appeared in the Dictionnaire d'Économie Politique, ed. Guillaumin and Charles Coquelin (Paris: Guillaumin, 1852) and was translated into English and included in Lalor's Cyclopedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and of the Political History of the United States by the best American and European Authors, ed. John J. Lalor (Chicago: M.B. Carey, 1899) in Vol 2 East India Co. - Nullification Chapter: LAISSEZ FAIRE—LAISSEZ PASSER

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Joseph Garnier (1813-81) was a professor, journalist, politician, and activist for free trade and peace. He came to Paris in 1830 and came under the influence of Adolphe Blanqui, who introduced him to economics and eventually became his father-in-law. Garnier was a pupil, professor, and then director of the École supérieure de commerce de Paris, before being appointed the first professor of political economy at the École des ponts et chaussées in 1846. Garnier played a central role in the burgeoning free-market school of thought in the 1840s in Paris. He was one of the founders of L’Association pour la liberté des échanges and the chief editor of its journal, Libre échange; he was active in the Congrès de la paix; he was one of the founders along with Guillaumin of the Journal des économistes, of which he became chief editor in 1846; he was one of the founders of the Société d’économie politique and was its perpetual secretary; and he was one of the founders of the 1848 liberal broadsheet Jacques Bonhomme. Garnier was acknowledged for his considerable achievements by being nominated to join the Académie des sciences morales et politiques in 1873 and to become a senator in 1876. He was author of numerous books and articles, among which include Introduction à l’étude de l’Économie politique (1843); Richard Cobden, les ligueurs et la ligue (1846); and Congrès des amis de la paix universelle réunis à Paris en 1849 (1850). He edited Malthus’s Essai sur le principe de population (1845); Du principe de population (1857); and Traité d'économie politique sociale ou industrielle (1863).


LAISSEZ FAIRE—LAISSEZ PASSER. These two formulas, which are frequently met with in economic, political, social and socialistic discussions, were invented by the physiocrates. By laissez faire they mean simply let work, and by laissez passer, allow exchange; in other words, the physiocrates demand, by these phrases, the liberty of labor, and the liberty of commerce.

—These two phrases have never been used by economists in any other sense; but the partisans of interference of all forms—socialists, protectionists, administrationists and interventionists—have often pretended to believe that they were the expression of the liberty to do everything, not only in political economy, but in morals, in politics and in religion. Jabard made this same assertion, about half a century ago, in the numerous pamphlets which he published, and even went so far as to assert that by laissez faire and laissez passer economists understood "unrestrained depredation." To repeat such an interpretation is sufficient refutation for any serious, thinking man who does not close his eyes in order that he may not see, and stop up his ears that he may not hear. Economists do not apply their axiom to morals, politics or religion, which subjects they do not consider at all as economists, but only inasmuch as they relate to human activity and human industry; they do not pretend that men should be allowed to do everything, and that everything should be allowed to pass, but simply that men should be allowed to work and to exchange the fruits of their labor without hindrance and without being subjected to preventive measures, under the protection of laws repressing attempts against the property and labor of another.

—Dupont de Nemours thus relates the origin of these formulas in his preface to Turgot's "Eulogy of de Gournay": "M. de Gournay, who was the son of a merchant and had long been actively engaged in commercial pursuits himself, had recognized that manufactures and commerce could be made to flourish only by liberty and competition. They discourage rash enterprises, and induce reasonable speculation; they prevent monopolies, restrict the private gains of merchants for the benefit of commerce, quicken industry, simplify machinery, diminish the burdensome expense of transportation and storage, and lower the rate of interest. They secure the highest possible price for the products of the earth, for the benefit of the producer, and the sale of these products at the lowest possible price, for the benefit of the consumers, for their satisfaction and enjoyment. He concluded from these observations that commerce should never be submitted to any tax or interference, and drew from them this axiom: laissez faire, laissez passer."

—But it seems that this axiom was inspired by a reply made a long time before to Colbert when inquiring about measures favorable to the interests of commerce, the justice of which had impressed itself upon the friends and disciples of Quesnay. "It is well known," says Turgot, in his "Eulogy of de Gournay" already quoted, "what the reply of Legendre to Colbert was: Laissez nous faire, (Let us alone), to which Quesnay added, somewhat later: "Do not govern too much"