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Mises: The Meaning of Laissez Faire

[An excerpt from Human Action​]

In eighteenth-century France the saying laissez faire, laissez passer was the formula into which some of the champions of the cause of liberty compressed their program. Their aim was the establishment of the unhampered market society. In order to attain this end they advocated the abolition of all laws preventing more industrious and more efficient people from outdoing less industrious and less efficient competitors and restricting the mobility of commodities and of men. It was this that the famous maxim was designed to express.

In our age of passionate longing for government omnipotence the formula laissez faire is in disrepute. Public opinion now considers it a manifestation both of moral depravity and of the utmost ignorance.

As the interventionist sees things, the alternative is “automatic forces” or “conscious planning.” It is obvious, he implies, that to rely upon automatic processes is sheer stupidity. No reasonable man can seriously recommend doing nothing and letting things go as they do without interference on the part of purposive action. A plan, by the very fact that it is a display of conscious action, is incomparably superior to the absence of any planning. Laissez faire is said to mean: Let the evils last, do not try to improve the lot of mankind by reasonable action.

This is utterly fallacious talk. The argument advanced for planning is entirely derived from an impermissible interpretation of a metaphor. It has no foundation other than the connotations implied in the term “automatic” which it is customary to apply in a metaphorical sense for the description of the market process. Automatic, says the Concise Oxford Dictionary, means “unconscious, unintelligent, merely mechanical.” Automatic, says Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, means “not subject to the control of the will, ... performed without active thought and without conscious intention or direction.” What a triumph for the champion of planning to play this trump card!

The truth is that the alternative is not between a dead mechanism or a rigid automatism on one hand and conscious planning on the other hand. The alternative is not plan or no plan. The question is whose planning? Should each member of society plan for himself, or should a benevolent government alone plan for them all? The issue is not automatism versus conscious action; it is autonomous action of each individual versus the exclusive action of the government. It is freedom versus government omnipotence.

Laissez faire does not mean: Let soulless mechanical forces operate. It means: Let each individual choose how he wants to cooperate in the social division of labor; let the consumers determine what the entrepreneurs should produce. Planning means: Let the government alone choose and enforce its rulings by the apparatus of coercion and compulsion.

Under laissez faire, says the planner, it is not those goods which people “really” need that are produced, but those goods from the sale of which the highest returns are expected. It is the objective of planning to direct production toward the satisfaction of the “true” needs. But who is to decide what the “true” needs are?

Thus, for instance, Professor Harold Laski, the former chairman of the British Labor Party, would determine as the objective of the planned direction of investment “that the use of the investor’s savings will be in housing rather than in cinemas.” It is beside the point whether or not one agrees with the professor’s view that better houses are more important than moving pictures. It is a fact that the consumers, in spending part of their money for admission to the movies, have made another choice. If the masses of Great Britain, the same people whose votes swept the Labor Party into power, were to stop patronizing the moving pictures and to spend more for comfortable homes and apartments, profit-seeking business would be forced to invest more in building homes and apartment houses and less in the production of expensive pictures. It was Mr. Laski’s desire to defy the wishes of the consumers and to substitute his own will for that of the consumers. He wanted to do away with the democracy of the market and to establish the absolute rule of the production tsar. Perhaps he believed that he was right from a higher point of view, and that as a superman he was called upon to impose his own valuations on the masses of inferior men. But then he ought to have been frank enough to say so plainly.

All this passionate praise of the supereminence of government action is but a poor disguise for the individual interventionist’s self-deification. The great god State is a great god only because it is expected to do exclusively what the individual advocate of interventionism wants to see achieved. Only that plan is genuine which the individual planner fully approves. All other plans are simply counterfeit. In saying “plan” what the author of a book on the benefits of planning has in mind is, of course, his own plan alone. He does not take into account the possibility that the plan which the government puts into practice may differ from his own plan. The various planners agree only with regard to their rejection of laissez faire, i.e., the individuals’ discretion to choose and to act. They entirely disagree with regard to the choice of the unique plan to be adopted. To every exposure of the manifest and incontestable defects of interventionist policies the champions of interventionism react in the same way. These faults, they say, were the results of spurious interventionism; what we are advocating is good interventionism, not bad interventionism. And, of course, good interventionism is the professor’s own brand.

Laissez faire means: Let the common man choose and act; do not force him to yield to a dictator.

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