Several of the anecdotes put forward to illuminate the history of ideas have been shown to be false; Galileo didn’t drop them, Voltaire didn’t say it. One we have not yet heard disproven is that during the Seventeenth Century a French minister of finance named Colbert asked a group of merchants what he could do for them and they replied: “Laissez-nous faire.” If the phrase has a neat English equivalent we would not have adopted the French; just what it does mean in English is not easy to say.
One thing it does not express is a belief in unlimited freedom. In the first place it imposed a limitation on Colbert: he was not to interfere with those merchants, not even with the intention of helping them. In the second place it sought to impose a massive limitation on society. The speakers were merchants, and their demand was that they be left alone to carry on with their buying and selling. That requires nothing less than a universal acceptance of private property and all the restrictions that go with it. For if there be one person who does not accept this principle, one person maintaining the right to take what is needed, whether it belongs to anybody else or not, then those merchants are not being let alone to pursue their affairs.
At first sight a simple request for non-interference, “laissez-nous faire” turns out to be one of the more wide-ranging demands for the imposition of restrictions on freedom. Seeing the phrase in this light one begins to understand how Victorian England could come to be called a society of laissez-faire while being so restrictive.
from Ideological Commentary 22, January 1986.