April 17, 2005

Laisser who?

There's more news from Jacques Chirac's fight against Anglo-Saxon liberalism, which I mentioned in an earlier post. And this time it's lexical.

Le Monde 4/15/2005, on Chirac's televised "debate" of 4/14/2005 about the European Constitution -- the French will vote "oui" or "non" on May 29, and Jacques is trying to reverse the rising tide of sentiment for "non":

Un coup d'oeil aux fiches surlignées de rose et de jaune qui s'étalent sur la table et M. Chirac se lance sur ses deux thèmes de prédilection. La mondialisation "portée par un courant ultralibéral au profit des plus forts, ce qui pose problème" et l'émergence de nouvelles grandes puissances. "L'Europe doit être forte et organisée pour s'opposer à cette évolution", explique longuement le président.

Il se répète encore pour fustiger l'Europe du "courant ultralibéral, anglo-saxon, atlantiste", qu'il qualifie de "solution du laisser-aller", version chiraquienne et ironique du "laisser faire, laisser passer" des libéraux du XVIIIe siècle.

A glance at the cards underlined in pink and yellow spread out on the table, and M. Chirac plunged into his two favorite themes. Globalization "carried by an ultraliberal current for the profit of the strongest, which poses a problem"; and the emergence of new great powers. "Europe must be strong and organized in order to oppose this development", explained the president at length.

He repeated himself again to scourge the Europe of the "ultraliberal, anglo-saxon, atlanticist current", which he described as a "laisser-aller ['let go'] solution", the Chiraquian and ironic version of the "laisser faire, laisser passer" of the 18th-century liberals.

I don't plan to start a Chiraquism-of-the-day feature. However, Chirac's apparent (ironic?) malapropism -- laisser aller for laisser faire -- made me wonder what the history of these phrases really is, in French as well as in English, and in terms of connotation as well as denotation. Here are some (long and chaotically ordered) notes from some time spent poking around this morning.

The OED defines laissez faire as

A phrase expressive of the principle that government should not interfere with the action of individuals, esp. in industrial affairs and in trade.

However, the earliest citations for this phrase in English date only to the 19th century, not the 18th. The citations given also suggest that this was a largely a term of abuse in the beginning, even among Anglo-Saxons:

1825 [MARQ. NORMANBY] Eng. in Italy I. 296 The laissez faire system of apathy.
1848 Simmonds's Colon. Mag. Aug. 338 Mammonism, laissez-faireism, Chartism, currency-restriction [etc.].
1873 H. SPENCER Stud. Sociol. xiv. 352 Shall we not call that also a laissez-faire that is almost wicked in its indifference.
1887 Contemp. Rev. May 696 The ‘orthodox’ laissez-faire political economy.
1891 S. C. SCRIVENER Our Fields & Cities 168 Laissez-faire is the motto, the gospel, of the person who lives upon the work of another.

I wonder whether that is because of how the phrase was actually used, or because of the political opinions of the OED's editors? It wouldn't be surprising for the term to have had a negative connotation from the start, given the resonances in French of the construction from which it's derived. The Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française, 8th edition (1932-5), has no entry for laisser/laissez faire in anything like its current economic sense, but it does mention a couple of meanings that may be relevant to the political and cultural debate:

[under faire]:

Se laisser faire, se dit d'une personne qui ne se défend pas, qui n'oppose point de résistance. On se jeta sur lui pour le battre, et il se laissa faire. Son tuteur l'a mariée, elle s'est laissé faire.

Se laisser faire (lit. ="self let do"), said of someone who does not defend himself/herself, who offers no resistance. They jumped him to beat him up, and he let it happen. Her guardian married her, and she went along.

[under laisser]

Suivi d'un infinitif, signifie Permettre, souffrir, ne pas empêcher. Je l'ai laissé sortir. Je l'ai laissé reposer. Laissez-moi parler. Je les ai laissés aller. On a laissé échapper ce prisonnier. Laisser tomber ce qu'on a dans les mains. Se laisser tromper. Se laisser faire du tort. Se laisser dire des injures. Se laisser tomber. Se laisser aller à la douleur.

Followed by an infinitive, means Permit, allow, not prevent. I let him leave. I let him sleep. Let me talk. I let them go. They let the prisoner escape. To let fall what you're holding. To let oneself be deceived. To let oneself be done wrong. To let oneself say offensive things. To let oneself fall. To let oneself give in to sorrow.

[and again]

Laisser à d'autres la direction de soi-même. On dit aussi, figurément et familièrement, Se laisser mener par le bout du nez, Laisser prendre de l'empire sur soi et n'avoir pas la force de s'y opposer.
Fig. et fam., Se laisser faire, Ne pas opposer de résistance, ne pas se défendre, ne pas résister à des offres, à des avances.

To leave to others the control of oneself. It is also said, figuratively and familiarly, To allow oneself to be led around by the nose, = To let someone take control of you without having the energy to resist.
Fig. and fam. Se laisser faire (= lit. "self let do"), To fail to offer resistance, to fail to defend oneself, to fail to resist offers or advances.

It seems laisser with an infinitive can describe something praiseworthy about the subject of laisser ("I let him sleep") as well as something blameworthy ("They let the prisoner escape") -- though perhaps the sense of failing to act tends generally to connote weakness. However, when laisser is combined with the infinitive faire ("make, do, act"), the result seems always to be a Bad Thing for the subject, at least in all the examples that the dictionary gives. And perhaps we should also note the gender associations -- for males, the Académie Française finds that prototype of se laisser faire is to get beaten up, while for females, it's a forced marriage. So in France, it seems that laisser faire evokes an effective frame for rallying all sectors of the population against les perfidies anglaises -- though for Chirac, it may be a problem that the normal way to avoid the humiliation of se laisser faire is to say "non"...

Anyhow, the use of the phrase laissez/laisser faire (and perhaps laissez/laisser passer ) in economics may have begun with the physiocrats in 18th-century France, led by François Quesnay (1694-1774), who pioneering the idea that "leaving the economy alone" might be a good thing. I'm not certain of the lexicographical facts, however, because the phrase does not occur in any of the editions of Quesnay's Tableau Économique, nor in any of the (few) other words of his school that I've been able to find online and search. Unfortunately the BNF's Gallica site, which has some of the physiocrats' works in its index, doesn't provide the option of sorting its results by date.

The other obvious place to look is in the works of Adam Smith, "whose name more than any other is connected with British laissez-faire doctrines" (according to the Columbia Encyclopedia). However, the string laissez apparently does not occur in his Wealth of Nations, and laisser occurs only in this (irrelevant) footnote:

72. [Possibly the supposed authority for this statement is Montesquieu, Esprit des Lois, liv. xxi., ch. vi.: `L'Egypte éloignée par la religion et par les mœurs de toute communication avec les étrangers, ne faisait guère de commerce au-dehors.... Les Egyptiens furent si peu jaloux du commerce du dehors qu'ils laissèrent celui de la mer rouge à toutes les petites nations qui y eurent quelque port.']

Thus I've so far failed to find any 18th-century uses of laissez/laisser faire to denote an economic doctrine -- more later as it develops.

The OED also has an entry for laissez aller, defined as

Absence of restraint; unconstrained ease and freedom.

and also originating in the first half of the 19th century:

1842 THACKERAY Miss Löwe Misc. Ess. (1885) 310 As Wilder said with some justice, though with a good deal too much laisser-aller of tongue.
1862 ---- Philip II. xxi, Sir John..was constrained to confess that this young man's conduct showed a great deal too much laissez aller.
attrib. 1818 LADY MORGAN Flor. Macarthy II. iii. 178 He..found or fancied in her what he called the ‘delicious laissez aller ease of a charming French woman’.
1832 LD. LYTTON Godolphin xx, Those well-chosen laissez aller feasts.
1839 DICKENS Nich. Nick. Pref., A magnificent high-handed laissez-aller neglect.

Curiously, the "attributive" use by Lady Morgan in 1818 -- to describe the "delicious ease" of a "charming French woman" -- seems to be the earliest documented use in English of any laisser+infinitive phrase at all.

[John Kozak has pointed out by email that Collins-Robert gives "casualness, slovenliness, carelessness" as the gloss for laisser aller. John suggested that this might be exactly what Chirac meant. I'm a bit skeptical, since the topic is political economy, not personal hygiene; but in any case this draws attention again to the negative connotations of French laisser+infinitive.

However, there is some support for John's theory in an email from Jean Véronis:

I was puzzled when I read the quote from Le Monde, because in my memory I remember this maxim as "Laissez faire laisser aller", and Chirac's use didn't strike me as an ironic invention, but rather a shorter form of the maxim. I am convinced that I have heard the maxim cited in this form ("Laissez faire laisser aller") many times. There seems to be some hesitation about the original form. See:
http://www.econlib.org/library/Marshall/marPNotes5.html (note 37).
So, I wouldn't jump too quickly on the same interpretation as Le Monde and see irony in Chirac's use of the phrase. I'd rather think that Le Monde's writer hadn't heard the complete and/or alternate form(s).

The note that Jean cites is this:

Even the generous Vauban (writing in 1717) had to apologize for his interest in the wellbeing of the people, arguing that to enrich them was the only way to enrich the king--Pauvres paysans, pauvre Royaume, pauvre Royaume, pauvre Roi. On the other hand Locke, who exercised a great influence over Adam Smith, anticipated the ardent philanthropy of the Physiocrats as he did also some of their peculiar economic opinions. Their favourite phrase Laissez faire, laissez aller, is commonly misapplied now. Laissez faire means that anyone should be allowed to make what things he likes, and as he likes; that all trades should be open to everybody; that Government should not, as the Colbertists insisted, prescribe to manufacturers the fashions of their cloth. Laissez aller (or passer) means that persons and goods should be allowed to travel freely from one place to another, and especially from one district of France to another, without being subject to tolls and taxes and vexatious regulations. It may be noticed that laissez aller was the signal used in the Middle Ages by the Marshals to slip the leash from the combatants at a tournament.


According to the OED, laissez-passer in English dates only from the early 20th century, and is used only in the sense of "[a] pass, especially one used in lieu of a passport", not as a way to refer to doctrines of free trade or free emigration:

1914 T. A. BAGGS Back from Front xx. 94 You must first pass grim Charon and his watchdogs at the entrance, where your passports, laisser-passers, sauf-conduits, are inspected.
1928 Sunday Express 1 July 5 The Ballet was given a laissez-passer and were allowed to come to England through Paris.
1936 E. WAUGH Waugh in Abyssinia 77 Many writers have left accounts of the intricate system of tolls and hospitality by which the traveller was passed on from one chief to another and of the indifference with which the Emperor's laissez-passer was treated within a few miles of the capital.

[Update: I searched the ProQuest American Periodicals Series 1740-1900 (APS) database, and did find one use of laissez faire earlier than the OED's 1825 citation. The work is an anonymous review in The Literary and Scientific Repository, and Critical Review 4(7), January 1822, of M. le Chevalier Chaillou des Barres' "Essai, Historique et Critique, sur la Legislation des Grain, jusqu'a ce jour", (Didot, Paris, 1820) . The citation is an an untranslated quotation, discussing an act passed in 1736 "requiring particular societies and eleemosynary institutions... to keep on hand three years supply of provisions, and directing that a public grainery should be constructed to contain ten thousand muids of grain.."

The nation now possessed a number of englightened statesmen, whose learning, good sense, and respectability, could not fail strongly to impress the court, licentious as it was, with the truth and justice of their views. These economists, for so they were called, at the head of whom was M. Turgot, warmly espoused the freedom of the corn trade, and put forth the following principle, which justly merits the title of an axiom in political economy:

" Laissez faire -- le commerce et l'intérêt personnel sont là qui veillent à votre conservation; si les blés deviennent rares en France, c'est en France aussi qu'on les apportera. "

This principle, so self evident, M. Chaillou denounces as replete with danger; and considers it amply refuted by the following weak observation.

" Mais quand y parviendront-ils avec des communications intérieures encore si imparfaites ? dites-moi, est-il bien certain que les bateaux ou les voitures transportant des blés arriveront dans les province réculées assez à temps pour prévenir les effect d'une cherté désastreuse ?"

The first quotation is apparently from Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), who would have been only 9 years old in 1736, and so must have written about the events in question from a historical perspective later on.

Anyhow, this passage suggests that laissez faire had become "an axiom in political economy" by 1822 in America, and was denounced as "replete with danger" in Paris. This biographical sketch of Turgot (by David Hart) identifies the original source of the phrase as Vincent de Gournay:

Also during the mid-1750s Turgot came into contact with members of the French free market school known as the Physiocrats. He met Dr. Quesnay and Dupont de Nemours and traveled extensively with Vincent de Gournay (who was the free market Intendant for Commerce) on his tours of inspection around the country during 1753-56. It was Gournay who is reputed to have coined the expression "laissez faire, laissez passer" when asked what government economic policy should be. When Gournay died in 1759 Turgot wrote a lengthy "Eloge de Gournay" in which he defended laissez-faire economic policies with an eloquence which other members of the Physiocratic school too often lacked.

However, this page by Karen De Coster says that

The physiocrat Marquis de Gournay is usually credited with originating the term "laissez -faire, laissez passer," but A.R.G. Turgot's Eloge de Gournay attributes that term to Le Gendre, an anti-Colbert merchant of France, who spoke the phrase "laissez-nous faire" while speaking out against the Colbertization of industry. Boisguillebert is also said to have used the term before Gournay.
[From The Physiocrats by Henry Higgs, 1897.]
Colbertism was an extreme form of mercantilism built around war financing schemes, high taxation, and central planning.

Unfortunately, access to the Eloge de Gournay from the BNF's Gallica site is limited to one page image at a time (with a significant wait for the preparation of each page), and I don't have time to read all 30 pages by this method to see what Turgot actually said. Maybe later. ]

[Update on the Éloge de Gournay: Jean Véronis sent instructions about how to download the whole document at once; and also the information that Turgot cites Le Gendre's slogan as "laissez-nous faire", with nothing about either "passer" or "aller", while Dupont de Nemours, in the preamble to the Éloge, uses the "laissez passer" idiom. Here's the relevant passage from the Dupont de Nemours préambule:

M. de Gournay, fils de négociant, et ayant été longtemps négociant lui-même, avait reconnu que les fabriques et le commerce ne pouvaient fleurir que par la liberté et par la concurrence qui dégoûtent des entreprise inconsidérées, et mênent aux spéculations raisonnables; qui préviennent les monopoles, qui restreignent à l'avantage du commerce les gains particuliers des commerçants, qui aiguisent l'industrie, qui simplifient les machines, qui diminiuent les frais onéreux de transport et de magasinage, qui font baisser le taux de l'intérêt; et d'où il arrive que le productions de la terre sont à la première main achetées le plus cher qu'il soit possible au profit des consommateurs, pour leurs besoins et leurs jouissances.

Il en conclut qu'il ne fallait jamais rançonner ni réglementer le commerce. Il en tira cet axiome: Laissez faire et laissez passer.

M. de Gournay, son of a merchant, and having long been a merchant himself, recognized that manufacture and trade could only flourish by means of freedom and competition, which repels ill-considered enterprises, and encourages rational speculation; which prevents monopolies and restrains to the advantage of commerce the profits specific to traders, which sharpens industry, which simplifies machines, which diminishes the onerous costs of transport and storage, which lowers the rates of interest; and from which it develops that the fruits of the earth are bought at as high a price as is possible to the profit of consumers, for their needs and pleasures.

He concluded from this that commerce should never be extorted or regulated, and derived this axiom: Laissez faire et laissez passer [ = "let people work as they please, and go where they want"]

Here's Turgot's citation of Le Gendre's slogan, from the body of the Éloge:

La résistance que ces principes ont éprouvée a donné occasion à plusieurs personnes de représenter M. de Gournay comme un enthousiaste et un homme à système. Ce nom d'homme à système est devenu une espèce d'arme dans la bouche de toutes les personnes prévenues ou intéressées à maintenir quelques abus, et contre tous ceux qui proposent des changements dans quelque ordre que ce soit. [...]

Il faut dire encore que ce prétendu système de M. de Gournay a cela de particulier, que les principes généraux en sont à peu près adoptés par tout le monde; que de tout temps le vœu du commerce chez toutes les nations a été renfermé dans ces deux mots: liberté et protection, mais surtout liberté. On sait le mot de M. Le Gendre à M. Colbert: laissez-nous faire. M. de Gournay ne différait souvent des gens qui le traitaient d'homme à système, qu'en ce qu'il se refusait, avec la rigidité d'un esprit juste et d'un coeur droit, aux exceptions qu'ils admettaient en faveur de leur intérêt.

The resistance that these principles have met has given several people the occasion to represent M. de Gournay as an enthusiast and a systematizer. This name of systematizer has become a sort of weapon in the mouth of everyone concerned or interested in maintaining some abuses, and against all those who propose changes in any social structure at all. [...]

It must also be said of this supposed system of M. de Gournay, that its general principles have been mostly adopted by everyone; that all nations' laws of commerce have been restructured on these two words, "freedom and protection", but especially freedom. We know what M. Le Gendre said to M. Colbert: "let us work". M. de Gournay often did not disagree with those who called him a systematizer, except when he refused, with a just rigidity of spirit and an honest heart, the exceptions that they permitted in favor of their own self-interest.


[Update #2: here's another citation from APS, in which the phrase is used in an English-language context, though still quoting Dupont de Nemours in French. And the vibe is a positive one, by contrast to the OED's early citations. The source is a review of Daniel Raymond's The Elements of Political Economy, 1823; published in The Southern Review, v. 5 n. 9, Feb.-May 1830.

The school of Adam Smith has adopted the broad and liberal principles of the Economists; and to that meddling spirit of rulers which has so often led them to make regulations for the industry of the governed, they reply, laissez faire et laissez passer: "for as the public interest consists in the union of all individual interests, individual interest will guide each man more surely to the public interest than any government can do."


Posted by Mark Liberman at April 17, 2005 10:23 AM