I'm skimming Louis Post's book "Social Service" (1909) and came across a couple of elegant paragraphs about Laissez faire.
Doesn't unrestricted competition mean to let everybody alone? That
depends upon what you mean by letting alone. It does not mean to let
everybody or anybody alone to interfere with production, with
service, with industry. Such interferences, whether by government or
highwaymen, are precisely what ought to be stopped in the interest
unrestricted competition. Unrestricted competition does mean that
everybody should be let alone in production, in trade, in service,
usefulness to his fellows, in making the world better and richer,
in securing a fair distribution of service among those who render
Truly enough, "laissez faire" is the word — "let alone," that is the watchword of competition. But it isn't all of it. As the old democratic economists of France put it — those preceptors of Adam Smith — it was "laissez faire, laissez aller." Now, how would you translate that, Doctor? Don't you think that George's free translation of "a fair field and no favor" will do? Or we might make it "a square deal and no odds," or best of all, maybe, "equal rights and no privileges."
There is no competition in the policy of "let alone," unless you abolish privileges. But with equal rights and no privileges, can you imagine anything fairer or squarer or juster in industry, in trade, in social service, than the policy of "let alone"? This doesn't mean a "struggle for existence and survival of the fittest" in the sense of survival of the strong at the expense of the weak, nor even of survival of the more productive at the expense of the less productive. It means fair distribution in proportion to production. It means that he who renders the most and the best service in his specialty shall get the most and the best service from other specializers, while those who render the least and the poorest shall nevertheless get the equivalent of what they do render. And it leaves the decision to those who in equal freedom make the deal for the service.
Competition is the natural regulator of the law of the line of least resistance. Without such regulation that law might stimulate the strongest — not the strongest in rendering service, but the strongest in extorting service — to get service without giving an equivalent service of his own. There is your savage "tooth and claw" condition, Doctor. But under free competition this would be impossible, for free competition restrains the individual desires of each by the opposition of the individual desires of others. In other words, competition tends to produce an equilibrium of the self-serving impulse at the most useful level of social service.
It is a word of confusing connotations, this word "competition," as are all living words; and it may not be the best word for conveying my idea. But I can't manufacture words, Doctor. All I can do is to make unto myself a definition, and always to use my word in that sense; and all I can ask you to do is to adopt my definitions when you try to understand my discourse.
Though competition may not be quite synonymous with natural co-operation, it is closely related to it, and in such a manner as to justify me, I think, in characterizing it as the life principle of natural co-operation.
Monopoly, on the other hand, whether its purpose be malevolent or benevolent, is the death principle of natural co-operation.
So it seems to me that you will grasp the significance of competition best by contrasting it with monopoly.
To sum it all up, there are only two ways of regulating co-operative service, that social service which springs from individual desires for selfservice. One way is by monopoly; the other is by free competition. Monopoly is pathological, and socially destructive; competition is natural, and socially creative.
Ed Dodson's excellent library resides on the website The School of Cooperative Individualism
Louis F. Post was editor of Henry George's weekly newspaper, The Standard, for a year or so, and went on to edit The Public for a number of years, and then became an Assistant Secretary of Labor in Woodrow Wilson's administration.