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Francois Quesnay

Francois Quesnay

“Laissez-faire, laissez passe” - Francois Quesnay

Literally translated, that quotation means, “Let be and let pass.” You’ve likely heard the phrase, “laissez faire” at some point in time. It might be in reference to someone’s attitude or outlook on life, but do you know of the origin of this statement?

It actually comes from the economic theories of Francois Quesnay, a French Enlightenment economist who lived just before the French Revolution and was a member of the court of Louis XV.

Francois Quesnay founded the economic “school” called the Physiocrats. In this context, the “school” of Physiocracy is not a physical institution but a school of thought. Physiocracy was one of two prevailing schools of economic thought in the Enlightenment, the other being Mercantilism.

School of Thought: A set of guiding principles that describe the perspective of a group of people who share an opinion, outlook, or discipline.

“Laissez faire” describes Francois Quesnay’s belief that it was in the economy's best interest for the government to stay out of it. He also felt land was used to determine the wealth of nations. Agriculture and land development were considered “natural” sources of wealth, whereas taxation was a barrier to increasing it. The theories of the Physiocrats were a precursor to modern economic concepts like free-market capitalism and free-trade.

Francois Quesnay: Biography

Who was Francois Quesnay, and how did he become an economist who would influence modern economy?

Francois Quesnay: Biography

Francois Quesnay was born on June 4th, 1694, in Mere, France, near Paris. When he was 16 years old, he moved to Paris properly in order to study medicine. At the time of the Enlightenment, being a surgeon would have raised him into the wealthier Middle Class, as opposed to the Peasant Class he was born into.

Fun Fact: Most surgeons of this time were former barbers. Anatomy was taught in school; however, the physical part of the job was taught by doing, in apprenticeships.

He started his career as an apprentice (medical schools worked very differently back then) and continued to work and study throughout his life in the medical profession. In 1744 he graduated as a medicine doctor and was made “physician in ordinary” to King Louis XV. He lived in the Palace of Versailles along with the rest of the King’s court.

He developed an interest in economics while living at Versailles, and at the age of 60 he published his first few articles on the subject. In 1758 he published the “Tableau Economique,” which outlined his circular view of the economy and provided the basis for the Physiocrat’s view of economy.

“Calculations are to the economic science what bones are to the human body. Without them it will always be a vague and confused science, at the mercy of error and prejudice.” - Francois Quesnay

Francois Quesnay Laissez Faire Tableau Economique StudySmarterFrancois Quesnay, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Explaining the Tableau Economique is a whole AP class in and of itself. At its core it is a cyclical economic model showing that agricultural profit moved through the economy in the forms of rent, wages, and goods. Quesnay and the Physiocrats believed only the agricultural class could produce a surplus that would be used in the next cycle (time period) and were the only source of growth for the economy.

François Quesnay Laissez Faire Tableau Economique Explained StudySmarterMorris Lewis, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The following video explains the Tableau Economique in greater detail, and in a more contemporary context:

Quesnay’s 'Tableau Économique' and the problem of rent

Tableau Economique: Historiography

The Tableau Economique, in its diagram and theory, are very neatly tied up in a cyclical, natural order. Almost too well tied. In taking a modern look at the Tableau Economique, historians notice that Francois Quesnay adapted some of his figures so that they would fit his philosophy.

Francois Quesnay defined three classes in his Tableau: landowners (Proprietary Class), farmers (Productive Class), and the Sterile Class. The “Sterile” class was defined as those who consumed everything they produced and provided no profit in their goods to sell in the next year. Included in the “sterile” class were the arts, crafts (such as textiles), manufacturing, and industry.

His theory was based on the idea that only agriculture and land produced wealth for the French economy. Therefore, when constructing the Tableau Economique he ensured that the figures matched what he already believed and the chart looks as if agriculture and land create a natural cycle of wealth, while industry is a dead end.

Laissez-Faire and the Physiocrats

What was the basis of the economic school of thought Francois Quesnay founded? How does it support his idea of “Laissez-Faire”?


Fun Fact: The name “Physiocrat” comes from the Greek words for “government of nature.” It is considered the first scientific model of economics and was influenced by Francois Quesnay’s medical background. As such it mimicked natural cycles such as the flow of blood in the body.

The Physiocrats were a group of French economists, led by Francois Quesnay, who believed that government policy should not interfere with natural economic laws, and that land is the source of a nation’s wealth. Their philosophies were in direct contrast to Mercantilism, the other major economic philosophy of the 18th Century. Mercantilism emphasized more governmental policies and regulation, as well as foreign trade and manufacturing as sources of economic wealth.

Physiocracy vs. Mercantilism

  • Believed agriculture was the ultimate source of wealth for a nation
  • Believed trade and industry was the ultimate source of wealth for a nation.
  • Value lies in production; emphasis on agriculture as a means to produce a profit.
  • Value lies in exchange; emphasis on manufacturing as a means to provide and trade goods.
  • Laissez-faire & natural order; less governmental interference
  • Control and regulation; more governmental interference.
  • Active only in France
  • Active in many European nations such as: England, Germany, France, Italy, and Austrial
  • Emphasis on the rural/pastoral
  • Emphasis on urban areas, like cities.


“Laissez-faire” literally translates to: “let be,” and it was the core belief of the Physiocrat’s economic model. To them, natural self-regulation was better than artificial governmental interference. They believed that natural regulation would lead to wealth in the economy, as the economy would self-regulate based on supply and demand.

To Francois Quesnay advocated for the elimination of high taxes and duties, believing that this would increase competition for French goods. In his words, the government should just let the economy be, and allow it to follow its natural cyclical order.

Laissez-Faire Historiography

The idea of less governmental regulation and more individual control led to widespread poverty in 18th century France. In the 1770s, King Louis XVI — influenced by Francois Quesnay’s proteges — eliminated regulations on France’s heavily controlled grain industry. A poor harvest struck the country, leading to scarcity (as merchants hoarded grain to wait for prices to rebound, or sold to foreign markets for a better price) and high prices. Thousands of French peasants starved, and riots ensued for months until the government stepped in and regained control of the market.

Contribution of the Physiocrats

What did the Physiocrats contribute, and why do we still study them today?

Laissez-Faire and Capitalism

The theories initially developed by Francois Quesnay — especially free market trade, and a reduction in governmental regulation — were further developed by economists such as Adam Smith and Karl Marx, in different capacities.

Adam Smith further developed the idea of Laissez-Faire into notions of Free Trade in his book, The Wealth of Nations. This continued to be refined to the theories of Free-Market Capitalism we know of today.

Karl Marx wrote about Quesnay’s theories of Surplus Value in agriculture in his book, Capital Vol. 2. He took the theory that agriculture was the ultimate source of wealth in a different direction, writing about how the unpaid value of the worker leads to exploitation or capitalist accumulation.

François Quesnay - Key Takeaways

  • François Quesnay was born on June 4, 1694, in France, to peasant class parents.
  • At 16 he apprenticed as a surgeon in Paris, eventually receiving a medicine doctor and becoming King Louis XV's "physician in ordinary."
  • While in court at Versailles he became interested in economics, and at the age of 60 began publishing his economic theories.
  • François Quesnay was the founder of Physiocracy,
    • Physiocrats believed that government policy should not interfere with natural economic laws, and that land is the source of a nation’s wealth.
    • Laissez-faire, laissez passe = "Let it be, let it pass"
      • In economics, this is the idea that the government needs to remove itself from the economy and "let it be"
  • Francois Quesnay wrote the Tableau Economique in 1759
    • The Tableau Economique was a cyclical chart demonstrating the flow of wealth through the economy, focusing on agriculture and the profit generated from the land.
  • Laissez faire has carried through history and is the basis of free-market capitalism.

Frequently Asked Questions about Francois Quesnay

francois quesnay was an 18th century french economist and physician?

Francois Quesnay is known for the Tableau Economique and Laissez-Faire

Francois Quesnay contributed to the development of free market capitalism.

The Tableau Economique showed the cyclical nature of how profit moved through an agricultural-based economy

Francois Quesnay thinks foreign trade should be free. 

Final Francois Quesnay Quiz


Who were some economists who were influenced by the ideas of François Quesnay

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Adam Smith & Karl Marx are two economists influenced by François Quesnay

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Where did François Quesnay live?

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Versailles, France

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What was François Quesnay's school of thought?

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Laissez faire, laissez passe translates to? 

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let it be, let it pass

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What is the Tableau Economique

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A cyclical diagram showing the flow of wealth in a nation's economy, according to the Physiocrats

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Who were the Physiocrat's main opposition in terms of economic thought?

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What was the main difference between the Physiocrats and the Mercantilists

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Physiocrats believed agriculture was the source of a nation's wealth, while Mercantilists believed industry was the source of a nation's wealth. 

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Where does the phrase "Physiocrat" come from?

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The Greek words for "government of nature"

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True or false: François Quesnay believed in government regulation.

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True or False: François Quesnay's ideas are the basis for free-market capitalism. 

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