New Economic Ideas

French thinkers known as physiocrats focused on economic reforms. Like the philosophes, physiocrats based their thinking on natural laws. The physiocrats claimed that their rational economic system was based on the natural laws of economics.

Laissez-Faire Economics

Physiocrats rejected mercantilism, which required government regulation of the economy to achieve a favorable balance of trade. Instead, they urged a policy of laissez faire (les ay FEHR), allowing business to operate with little or no government interference. Physiocrats supported free trade and opposed tariffs.

Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations

Scottish economist Adam Smith greatly admired the physiocrats. In his influential work The Wealth of Nations, he argued that the free market, the natural forces of supply and demand, should be allowed to operate and regulate business. Smith favored a free enterprise system in which commerce and business compete for profit with little or no government interference.

Smith tried to show how manufacturing, trade, wages, profits, and economic growth were all linked to the market forces of supply and demand. Wherever there was a demand for goods or services, he said, suppliers would seek to meet that demand in order to gain profits.

Illustration of a group of men seated in a room, all reading newspapers, while a few other men are standing in discussion.

Enlightenment ideas spread through the printing of pamphlets and newspapers available to citizens.

Smith was a strong supporter of laissez faire. However, he felt that government had a duty to protect society, administer justice, and provide public works. Adam Smith's ideas about free enterprise would help to shape productive economies in the 1800s and 1900s.

Spread of Enlightenment Ideas

From France, Enlightenment ideas flowed across Europe and beyond. Everywhere, thinkers examined traditional beliefs and customs in the light of reason and found them flawed. Literate people eagerly read Diderot's Encyclopedia as well as small pamphlets turned out by printers that discussed a broad range of issues. More and more people came to believe that reform was necessary in order to achieve a just society.

During the Middle Ages, most Europeans had accepted without question a society based on divine-right rule, a strict class system, and a belief in heavenly reward for earthly suffering. In the Age of Reason, such ideas seemed unscientific and irrational. A just society, Enlightenment thinkers taught, should ensure social justice and happiness in this world. While many people embraced these new ideas, other groups rejected calls for change.

Writers Confront Censorship

Most, but not all, government and church authorities felt they had a sacred duty to defend the old order. They believed that God had set up the old order.

To protect against the attacks of the Enlightenment, they waged a war of censorship, or restricting access to ideas and information. They banned and burned books and imprisoned writers.

To avoid censorship, writers like Montesquieu and Voltaire sometimes disguised their ideas in works of fiction. In the Persian Letters, Montesquieu used two fictional Persian travelers, named Usbek and Rica, to mock French society. The hero of Voltaire's satirical novel Candide, published in 1759, travels across Europe and even to the Americas and the Middle East in search of “the best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire slyly uses the tale to expose the corruption and hypocrisy of European society.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments