Physiocracy (French: Physiocratie; from the Greek for "government of nature") is an economic theory developed by a group of 18th-century Enlightenment French economists who believed that the wealth of nations was derived solely from the value of "land agriculture" or "land development" and that agricultural products should be highly priced. Their theories originated in France and were most popular during the second half of the 18th century. Physiocracy is one of the first well-developed theories of economics.
The most significant contribution of the physiocrats was their emphasis on productive work as the source of national wealth. This is in contrast to earlier schools, in particular mercantilism, which often focused on the ruler's wealth, accumulation of gold, or the balance of trade. Whereas the mercantilist school of economics said that value in the products of society was created at the point of sale, by the seller exchanging his products for more money than the products had "previously" been worth, the physiocratic school of economics was the first to see labor as the sole source of value. However, for the physiocrats, only agricultural labor created this value in the products of society. All "industrial" and non-agricultural labors were "unproductive appendages" to agricultural labor.
At the time the physiocrats were formulating their ideas, economies were almost entirely agrarian. That is presumably why the theory considered only agricultural labor to be valuable. Physiocrats viewed the production of goods and services as equivalent to the consumption of the agricultural surplus, since the main source of power was from human or animal muscle and all energy was derived from the surplus from agricultural production. Profit in capitalist production was really only the "rent" obtained by the owner of the land on which the agricultural production was taking place.
"The physiocrats damned cities for their artificiality and praised more natural styles of living. They celebrated farmers." They called themselves Les Économistes, but are generally referred to as physiocrats to distinguish them from the many schools of economic thought that followed them.
Physiocracy is an agrarianist philosophy which developed in the context of the prevalent European rural society of the time. In the late Roman Republic, the dominant senatorial class was not allowed to engage in banking or commerce but relied on their latifundia, large plantations, for income. They circumvented this rule through freedmen proxies who sold surplus agricultural goods.
Other inspiration came from China's economic system, then the largest in the world. Chinese society broadly distinguished four occupations, with scholar-bureaucrats (who were also agrarian landlords) at the top and merchants at the bottom (because they did not produce but only distributed goods made by others). Leading physiocrats like François Quesnay were avid Confucianists who advocated China's agrarian policies. Some scholars have advocated connections with the school of agriculturalism, which promoted utopian communalism. One of the integral parts of physiocracy, laissez faire, was adopted from Quesnay's writings on China, being a translation of the Chinese term wu wei. The concept natural order of physiocracy originated from "Way of Nature" of Chinese Taoism.