Enlightened Despotism

The term enlightened despotism refers to a political model in which, during the second half of the 18th century, the principles of the Old Regime converged, based on absolute monarchy, with some ideas from the Enlightenment, such as faith in reason as engine of societies. This model expanded throughout Europe, with a major impact on Russia, Austria, Prussia, Spain or France. 

Characteristics of enlightened despotism 

The enlightened despotism gathered the essence of the Old Regime: the absolute monarchy. Under this political system, the monarch held the absolute sovereignty of the State. Thus, there were no constitutions, the rights were granted by the sovereigns, which found no limits to the exercise of power, which was absolute and indivisible.

However, enlightened despotism appreciated the interest in carrying out reforms in the line marked by enlightened philosophers. The idea that human reason was a key element for social, cultural and economic development was accepted. In addition, it was claimed that rationality was the basis of decisions made by human beings. This gave rise to a certain desire for the ideals of progress, reform and philanthropy that broke, although not totally, with the principles of medieval tradition, as if the monarch’s power had absolute origin. Against this, the idea was established, based on Hobbes’s conceptions , that there was a contract between the sovereign and the people social that should be fulfilled by all parties.

Consequently, the enlightened despotism did not mean any kind of revolution or alteration of the socio-political order. Rather, it should be understood as the implementation of a series of reforms that, quietly, and from above, when assuming part of the Enlightenment postulates, with the aim of achieving a certain social, economic and cultural development. In fact, the expression that best defines enlightened despotism is: “Everything for the people, but without the people.”

Economy and enlightened despotism

During the second half of the 18th century, some countries in Europe were experiencing a difficult economic situation. The economic recession accentuated social conflicts, which meant a breeding ground for insurrections and violent revolts. Faced with a conflictive scenario, some European monarchs decided to implement reforms aimed at improving the standard of living of the people, also called the  Third State.

Among the enlightened monarchs he had implanted the idea of modernizing their states, also from the economic point of view and finances . In this way, measures were implemented to develop agriculture, commerce and industry .

Physiocracy and laissez faire

Among the main ideas that began to forge stands out the freedom of trade, with a strong tendency to free trade. This was reflected in the current known as physiocracy, which was opposed to the theses of mercantilism, which provided for an important role of the state in the economy.

The doctrine of physiocracy could be summed up with the expression laissez faire . This word, physiocracy, comes from the Greek, and its meaning is “government of nature.” Consequently, physiocrats pointed out that human laws, and therefore economic laws, should be in harmony with the laws of nature. From this, it was derived that agriculture is the basis of a strong economy and that in the primary sector nature allowed that the product obtained would exceed the inputs invested, which would eventually generate an economic surplus. For the physiocrats, other activities, such as manufacturing or commerce, remained in the background.

In relation to the freedom that should govern the economic functioning, the physiocrats were suspicious of any type of intervention , both of intermediaries in the processes of production and distribution, and of the state, especially, of government controls: monopolies or taxes, among others. For the physiocrats, it was an indispensable element to develop macroeconomic strategies, in such a way that it generated a coherent order, not only in the economic field, but also in the social and political one. For the defenders of this theory, economic development and social development were absolutely indissoluble elements.

Physiocracy and enlightened despotism, drank from an optimistic vision of the human being and a firm faith in human reason and unstoppable and incontestable progress, which would never reverse his march towards a better and better society.

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