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It is said that the 17th-century French finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert once asked a group of businessmen what he could do for them. One of them, Legendre, is supposed to have replied, Laissez-nous faire (“Leave us alone!”). The reply became a slogan, serving ever since as a tag for the policy of keeping government direction of the economy to a minimum. Some argue that the minimum should be “none.”

The theory of laissez-faire stems from the fact that what we call an “economy” is a vast array of interactions among individuals, each of whom is concerned to make his or her living by organizing and exerting skills and energies to that end. In the process, the agent will frequently find it advantageous to benefit from the ...

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