While the physiocrats were the first economists to stress and develop the case for laissez-faire, they had distinguished forerunners among statesmen and merchants in France. As we have seen, the laissez-faire concept developed among classical liberal oppositionists to the absolutism of late seventeenth century France. They included merchants such as Thomas Le Gendre and utilitarian officials like Belesbat and Boisguilbert.
Bridging the gap between turn of the eighteenth century laissez-faire writers and the physiocrats of the 1760s and 1770s was the eminent statesman, René-Louis de Voyer de Paulmy, Marquis d'Argenson (1694–1757). The heir of a long line of ministers, magistrates, and intendants, d'Argenson's ambition was to become prime minister and save France from what he saw as impending revolution by instituting laissez-faire. A voracious reader and prolific writer throughout his life, d'Argenson only published in his lifetime a few articles in his Journal Oeconomique in the early 1750s, and these were not printed but widely circulated in manuscript form. For a long while, d'Argenson was erroneously credited by historians with originating the phrase ‘laissez-faire’ in one of the articles in his Journal of 1751.
While d'Argenson did not originate the term, laissez-faire was his repeated cry to the French authorities, a cry he continued to stress even though his ideas were dismissed as eccentric by all his governmental colleagues. As intendant in his early years on the Flemish border, d'Argenson was struck with what he saw to be the economic and social superiority of free people and free markets across the border in Flanders. He then became greatly influenced by the writings of Fénélon, Belesbat, and Boisguilbert.
D'Argenson saw self-love and self-interest as the mainspring of human action, as bringing about energy and productivity in the pursuit of each man's happiness. Human social life, to d'Argenson, has the ‘natural tendency to inherent harmony when artificial constraints and artificial harmony and artificial stimuli are removed’. Looking to an enlightened monarch to remove these artificial subsidies and restrictions, d'Argenson pointed out that in the ideal society, the sovereign would have very little to do. ‘One spoils everything by meddling too much... The best government is that which governs least’. Thereby the marquis anticipated the famous phrase attributed to Thomas Jefferson.
D'Argenson concluded that ‘each individual [should] be left alone to labor on his own behalf, instead of suffering constraint and ill-conceived precautions. Then everything will go beautifully...’. Then continuing the proto-Hayekian point made by Belesbat:
It is precisely this perfection of liberty that makes a science of commerce impossible, in the sense that our speculative thinkers understand it. They want to direct commerce by their orders and regulations; but to do this one would need to be thoroughly acquainted with the interests involved in commerce... from one individual to another. In the absence of such knowledge, it [a science of commerce] can only be... much worse than ignorance in its bad effects... Therefore, laissez-faire! (Eh, qu'on laisse-faire!’)