Since "economic growth" is today's great problem, and our present Administration is promising to "stimulate" it—to achieve general prosperity by ever wider government controls, while spending an unproduced wealth—I wonder how many people know the origin of the term laissez-faire?It seems that we still haven't learned that lesson four decades or four centuries later. As the late Ronald Reagan said more than once, “Government isn't the answer. Government is the problem.” It was true back during Louis XIV's reign and it's true today. Our government is bent on controlling more businesses, either through direct take over like GM, Chrysler, the banks, and health care, or through onerous regulation and taxation, all in the name of 'stimulus' and 'fairness'.
France, in the seventeenth century, was an absolute monarchy. Her system has been described as "absolutism limited by chaos." The king held total power over everyone's life, work, and property—and only the corruption of government officials gave people an unofficial margin of freedom.
Louis XIV was an archetypical despot: a pretentious mediocrity with grandiose ambitions. His reign is regarded as one of the brilliant periods of French history: he provided the country with a "national goal," in the form of long and successful wars; he established France as the leading power and the cultural center of Europe. But "national goals" cost money. The fiscal policies of his government led to a chronic state of crisis, solved by the immemorial expedient of draining the country through ever-increasing taxation.
Colbert, chief adviser of Louis XIV, was one of the early modern statists. He believed that government regulations can create national prosperity and that higher tax revenues can be obtained only from the country's "economic growth"; so he devoted himself to seeking "a general increase in wealth by the encouragement of industry." The encouragement consisted of imposing countless government controls and minute regulations that choked business activity; the result was dismal failure.
Colbert was not an enemy of business; no more than is our present Administration. Colbert was eager to help fatten the sacrificial victims—and on one historic occasion, he asked a group of manufacturers what he could do for industry. A manufacturer named Legendre answered: "Laissez-nous faire!" ("Let us alone!")
Apparently, the French businessmen of the seventeenth century had more courage than their American counterparts of the twentieth, and a better understanding of economics. They knew that government "help" to business is just as disastrous as government persecution, and that the only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off.
Regardless of the purpose for which one intends to use it, wealth must first be produced. As far as economics is concerned, there is no difference between the motives of Colbert and of President Johnson. Both wanted to achieve national prosperity. Whether the wealth extorted by taxation is drained for the unearned benefit of Louis XIV or for the unearned benefit of the "underprivileged" makes no difference to the economic productivity of a nation. Whether one is chained for a "noble" purpose or an ignoble one, for the benefit of the poor or the rich, for the sake of somebody's "need" or somebody's "greed"—when one is chained, one cannot produce.
There is no difference in the ultimate fate of all chained economies, regardless of any alleged justifications for the chains.
Apparently our leaders have learned nothing from past attempts to tighten control over economies and businesses that their attempts won't work, won't create the results they want, and won't lead to anything but more poverty, less business, and a weaker economy than if they'd just left everything alone. But government is incapable of not fiddling about with things they really don't understand. And that's our biggest problem today.