Related Content

Related Overviews

Adam Smith (1723—1790) moral philosopher and political economist


free trade


See all related overviews in Oxford Reference »


More Like This

Show all results sharing this subject:

  • Social sciences


Show Summary Details



Quick Reference

The transition from the medieval to the modern economy was characterized by the progressive removal of restrictions on individuals and groups in favour of the operation of market forces. The balance between complete unrestriction and some control is still strenuously debated. In reality the state of complete laissez‐faire has never existed. John Stuart Mill defined what has become accepted as the minimum level of state intervention. Amongst such interventions for the greater good, he included the power to enforce contracts and secure property rights, the administration of justice, the right to tax in order to provide public goods such as transport systems, sanitation and public health, and state‐supported education.

While the notion of laissez‐faire is usually associated with the decline of the medieval and mercantilist economic regimes, it has an enduring modern counterpart in the views of the neoclassical and new classical economists, who may use different terminology, but whose essential view is that individual freedom to function within untrammelled markets, with little involvement from government, represents the best type of economic organization. All these strands of thought assert the right of the individual and depict state involvement in the economy as ineffectual or malign.

Subjects: Social sciences

Reference entries

View all reference entries »