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By Arthur J. Taylor

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Laissez-faire in commerce, as propounded most explicitly by Adam Smith and 39 McCulloch, gained its victory because it rationalised a course of action which the interests of the newly assertive mercantile and manufacturing classes and the exigencies of national finance were increasingly seen to require. Before the end of the nineteenth century the conditions which had so strongly favoured the cause of free trade began to disappear. British industry came under increasing pressure from foreign competitors and for a period the export trade stagnated.

In particular it has tended to be based on an examination of government policy in certain major fields of public concern. It is proposed to bring six of these fields under scrutiny. The areas chosen for investigation are important both in that they touched the interests of the community widely and deeply, and in that the discussions of policy brought sharp controversy into nineteenth-century political life. Two of the areas are essentially economic in character (free trade and the railways); two straddle the margin between the economic and the social (factory reform and Poor Law reform); and two are predominantly social (public health and education).

All were convinced free traders in the full tradition of Adam Smith and through their work, particularly in the collection and deployment of statistical evidence, they exercised a powerful influence on the deliberations of the Select Committee on Import Duties in 1840 and on the commercial legislation of the succeeding decade. 39 For the most part, however, civil servants in the established government offices lacked both the commitment and the opportunity to bring the new economic teaching to the service of policy.

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