Laissez Faire and The Role of the State
An Economics Reading List
Laissez Faire and The Role of the State
Edmund Burke was a reformer who originated the political usage of the term “conservative.” He was an advocate of reduced government control and increased free trade who changed his mind after initially defending the East India Company’s charter. The complexities of his independent thought, wit, and erudition pervade his speeches, letters, and writings. Liberty Fund’s four-volume set of Burke’s works are here presented online: three volumes chosen and authoritatively edited by E. J. Payne between 1874-1878, along with a fourth volume of miscellaneous writings.
Burke lived contemporaneously with Smith, studied law and ultimately literature, and learned economics not in academia, but through his practice in the House of Commons and through his efforts at farming. Economic thought is scattered throughout these selected works, which demonstrate his attention to detail (for example, tables of revenue for industries from tea to the post office) and his clarity of reason. His interest in the lessons learned from the French and American revolutions is central to his writings. He was an advocate of religious and personal freedom, reductions in the slave trade and emancipation, and a reduced role for government, based on what had been learned.
Each of the four volumes presented here is accompanied by forewords and introductions, including various biographical, bibliographical, and chronological notes.
- Vol. 1 “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents,” and “Two Speeches on America”
Vol. 2 “Reflections on the Revolution in France”
Vol. 3 “Letters on a Regicide Peace”
Vol. 4 Miscellaneous Writings, including “Two Letters to Gentlemen in Bristol on the Trade of Ireland,” “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity,” and “Speech on Fox’s East India Bill”
Jasay, Anthony de, The State
Anthony de Jasay’s renowned and very readable book joins philosophy with economics to discuss different organizations of national structures, from “one limiting extreme, where its ends do not compete with the ends of its subjects, to the other where it has come to own most of their property and liberty.” Starting with the economic principle that the state acts in its own interest, Jasay traces the logical and historical progression of the state’s competition with its citizens over control.
Leggett, William, Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy
Mackay, Thomas, ed., A Plea for Liberty, 1891
Thomas Mackay, English wine merchant who retired early from business so he could devote himself entirely to the study of economic issues, was asked by the individualist and laissez-faire lobby group, the Liberty and Property Defense League, to put together a collection of essays by leading classical liberals to rebut the socialist ideas contained in Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889, George Bernard Shaw, ed.). The result was a volume of essays called A Plea for Liberty (1891), and another volume of essays A Policy of Free Exchange (1894).
Two of the best-known contributors to A Plea for Liberty were Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), whose The Man versus the State had appeared in 1884, and Auberon Herbert (1838-1906), whose The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State had appeared in 1885. Their essays, respectively, are “From Freedom to Bondage and “The True Line of Deliverance. Also recommended is an essay by M. D. O’Brien on “Free Libraries.” While many of us are familiar with the economic arguments concerning publicly funded education, those same arguments when applied to publicly funded libraries are less familiar and startlingly mind-expanding.
Paul, Ellen Frankel, “Laissez Faire in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Fact or Myth?” Literature of Liberty, 1980.
Paul’s bibliographical essay analyzes the intellectual history of economists in 19th-century Britain, a country often characterized as the leader of free-trade during that period. The work focuses on the intellectual contributions of 19th-century British economists to the free-trade/laissez-faire debates of the period, and includes her extensive Bibliography.
- The Myth of Free-Trade Britain by John V.C. Nye. The empirical side of the question: Did Britain actually reduce its barriers to trade?
Spencer, Herbert The Man Versus The State, with Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom. 1992; first published 1884.
Taylor, John, Tyranny Unmasked, F. Thornton Miller, ed. 1822
John Taylor (1753-1824) of Caroline County, Virginia, was a leading supporter of agrarian economics and individual rights. His book, Tyranny Unmasked (1822), addressed multiple early attempts by the U.S. Federal Government to impose import duties—tariffs—between the United States and other nations (and analogously between one U.S. state and the next). From there, Taylor moved to addressing the philosophical meaning of a nation’s very definition, including the imposition of its decisions on national subdivisions—states, provinces, and ultimately individuals.
In 1822, when Tyranny Unmasked was written, economics barely existed as a field of study. The United States had survived as an entity since 1776, but was still struggling as a nation; and so had economics as a field begun with Adam Smith in 1776 and still struggled since then. Despite and since the Revolution, the question of which topics would be decided by the central (Federal) government and which topics would be decided by individuals or their representative states was primary. How to arrogate decision-making power to states, counties, individuals, etc.; or to a parliament, senate, etc.; and what rights those subdivisions would retain or would be arrogated to the central Federal government, was further problematic and under debate.
Taylor saw and verbally addressed many arguments about economic issues such as tariffs, monetary policy, and domestic policy. His arguments, full of life, still stand today.
See also these other works from the period: