This dissertation examines the intellectual debate over the concept of laissez faire in American political thought, which took place between 1880 and 1914. It presents an account of how the concept of laissez faire rose to prominence in American political thought during the Gilded Age as well as an account of how critics responded. The Gilded Age was a period of revolutionary economic change which prompted a renewed debate over the proper role of government. Much of the existing scholarship devoted to this period takes the form of historical overview or extensive focus on a particular thinker. My own analysis focuses on the specific arguments of three particular thinkers: Henry Demarest Lloyd, Thorstein Veblen, and Herbert Croly.
In order to explain the various features of this intellectual debate, I present a conceptual analysis of laissez faire and identify its key components. I also provide a critical comparison of the competing economic visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to illustrate the relationship between laissez faire thinking and the American Founding. I then present the laissez faire arguments of nineteenth-century thinkers, particularly the Social Darwinists. Finally, I critically appraise the arguments presented by Lloyd, Veblen, and Croly in order to show how the prevailing notions about the proper role of government were changing.
In this research, I show that the debate over laissez faire was about more than identifying the appropriate economic policy for the United States. It centered upon competing theories of society, human nature, and economic progress. In criticizing laissez faire, Lloyd, Veblen, and Croly also challenged the traditional American commitment to individualism, and in so doing, they laid the intellectual groundwork for a more affirmative government and the emergence of the welfare state in the twentieth century.