The European Enlightenment: Glossary

The Physiocrats


Enlightenment Glossary
Classical Mechanics

General Glossary
Economics
   European economics was invented by a group of French Enlightenment philosophers who called themselves the Physiocrats (which means "rule by Nature"). The Physiocrats took Issac Newton's idea that the universe was mechanistic and applied this mechanistic world view to the social production and distribution of goods and services. They examined the phenomenon of mercantile economics—mercantilism is the distribution of goods with the calculated goal of achieving profit—and argued that the distribution of goods operated under the same mechanistic and natural laws that the rest of the universe operated under. Enlightenment thinkers had been busy applying mechanistic thought to other areas of social organization, so it seemed quite natural to apply these principles to the economy.


   The laws which the Physiocrats discovered operating in the economy were the following: a.) the natural tendency of mercantilism is to produce wealth, so that mercantilism left to its own devices would increase the wealth of a nation; b.) the natural tendency of merchants is to serve their self-interest, but in pursuing their self-interest everyone benefits from the excess wealth they create; c.) mercantilism naturally results in increasing the productivity of labor. Government interference in mercantilism—through taxes, regulations, price controls—hinders the activities of merchants and so prevents these natural laws of economics to take place; none of the benefits—increased wealth, increased productivity—will be realized by regulated mercantilism. The Physiocrats argued, then, that government leave the economy alone and allow individuals within the economy to do as they please in attempting to realize their own selfish interests; this doctrine they called laissez faire , or "let them do."


Enlightenment Glossary
Progress
   All of these ideas are firmly rooted in Enlightenment cultural ideas. The notion that the purpose of the economy is to grow, that is, to increase in wealth, is firmly rooted in the idea of progress, that human intervention in history is directed towards steady and unlimited improvement in the human condition. The idea of laissez faire derives from Enlightenment notions that society is composed of selfish and competing individuals who, in meeting their own self-interest, improve the world around them; it also depends heavily on the Enlightenment development of the idea of freedom and the individual, that is, that since individuals are separate and distinct, they should be allowed some level of autonomy in directing their lives.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-8-97