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All about Mercantilism

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Mercantilism is the economic theory holding that the prosperityof a nation depends upon its supply of capital and that the global volume of trade is unchangeable. The amount of capital, represented by bullion (amount of precious metal held by the state), is best increased through a balance of trade with large exports and low imports. Mercantilism suggests that the government should advance these goals by playing an active, protectionist role in the economy by encouraging exports and discouraging imports, especially through the use of tariffs. The economic policy based on these ideas is often called the mercantile system.


Scholars are divided on why mercantilism was the dominant economic ideology for two and a half centuries. One group, represented by Jacob Viner, argues that mercantilism was simply a straightforward, commonsense system that the people of the time simply did not have the analytical tools to discover was actually deeply fallacious. The second school, supported by scholars such as Robert B. Ekelund, contends that mercantilism was not a mistake, but rather the best possible system for those who developed it. This school argues that mercantilist policies were developed and enforced by rent-seeking merchants and governments. Merchants benefited greatly from the enforced monopolies, bans on foreign competition, and poverty of the workers. Governments benefited from the high tariffs and payments from the merchants. Whereas later economic ideas were often developed by academics and philosophers, almost all mercantilist writers were merchants or government officials.

Mercantilism developed at a time when the European economy was in transition. Isolated feudal estates were being replaced by centralized nation-states as the locus of power. Technological changes in shipping and the growth of urban centers led to a rapid increase in international trade. Mercantilism focused on how this trade could best aid the states. Another important change was the introduction of double-entry bookkeeping and modern accounting. This accounting made extremely clear the inflow and outflow of trade, contributing to the close scrutiny given to the balance of trade.

Prior to mercantilism, the most important economic work done in Europe was by the medieval scholastic theorists. The goal of these thinkers was to find an economic system that was compatible with Christian doctrines of piety and justice. They focused mainly on microeconomics and local exchanges between individuals. Mercantilism was closely aligned with the other theories and ideas that were replacing the medieval worldview. This period saw the adoption of Niccolò Machiavelli's realpolitik and the primacy of the raison d'état in international relations. The mercantilist idea that all trade was a zero sum game, in which each side was trying to best the other in a ruthless competition, was integrated into the works of Thomas Hobbes. This dark view of human nature also fit well with the Puritan view of the world, and some of the most stridently mercantilist legislation, such as the Navigation Acts, was introduced by the government of Oliver Cromwell.

Mercantilism was the dominant school of economics throughout the early modern period (from the 16th to the 18th century). Domestically, this led to some of the first instances of significant government intervention and control over the economy, and it was during this period that much of the modern capitalist system was established. Internationally, mercantilism encouraged the many European wars of the period and fueled European imperialism. Belief in mercantilism began to fade in the late 18th century, as the arguments of Adam Smith and the other classical economists won out. Today, mercantilism as a whole is rejected by all serious economists, though some elements are looked upon favorably.



Mercantilist ideas were the dominant economic ideology of all of Europe in the early modern period, and most states embraced it to a certain degree. Mercantilism was centred in England and France, and it was in these states that mercantilist polices were most often enacted. Mercantilism arose in France in the early 16th century, soon after the monarchy had become the dominant force in French politics. In 1539, an important decree banned the importation of woolen goods from Spain and some parts of Flanders. The next year, a number of restrictions were imposed on the export of bullion. Over the rest of the sixteenth century further protectionist measures were introduced. The height of French mercantilism is closely associated with Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister for 22 years in the 17th century, to the extent that French mercantilism is sometimes called Colbertism. Under Colbert, the French government became deeply involved in the economy in order to increase exports. Protectionist policies were enacted that limited imports and favored exports. Industries were organized into guilds and monopolies, and production was regulated by the state through a series of over a thousands directives outlining how different products should be produced. To encourage industry foreign artisans and craftsmen were imported. Colbert also worked to decrease internal barriers to trade, reducing internal tariffs and building an extensive network of roads and canals. Colbert's policies were quite successful, and France's industrial output and economy grew considerably during this period, as France became the dominant European power. He was less successful in turning France into a major trading power, and Britain and the Netherlands remained supreme in this field.

In England, mercantilism reached its peak during the Long Parliament government. Mercantilist policies were also embraced throughout much of the Tudor and Stuart periods, with Robert Walpole being another major proponent. In Britain, government control over the domestic economy was far less extensive than on the Continent, limited by the common law tradition and the steadily increasing power of Parliament.  Government-controlled monopolies were common, especially before the English Civil War, but were often controversial.  British mercantilist writers were themselves divided on whether domestic controls were necessary. British mercantilism thus mainly took the form of efforts to control trade. A wide array of regulations was put in place to encourage exports and discourage imports. Tariffs were placed on imports and bounties given for exports, and the export of some raw materials was banned completely. The Navigation Acts expelled foreign merchants from England's domestic trade. The nation aggressively sought colonies and once under British control, regulations were imposed that allowed the colony to only produce raw materials and to only trade with Britain. This led to friction with the inhabitants of these colonies, and mercantilist policies were one of the major causes of the American Revolution. Over all, however, mercantilist policies had an important effect on Britain helping turn it into the world's dominant trader, and an international superpower. One domestic policy that had a lasting impact was the conversion of "waste lands" to agricultural use. Mercantilists felt that to maximize a nation's power all land and resources had to be used to their utmost, and this era thus saw projects like the draining of The Fens.

Mercantilism helped create trade patterns such as the triangular trade in the North Atlantic, in which raw materials were imported to the metropolis and then processed and redistributed to other colonies.
Mercantilism helped create trade patterns such as the triangular trade in the North Atlantic, in which raw materials were imported to the metropolis and then processed and redistributed to other colonies.

The other nations of Europe also embraced mercantilism to varying degrees. The Netherlands, which had become the financial centre of Europe by being its most efficient trader, had little interest in seeing trade restricted and adopted few mercantilist policies. Mercantilism became prominent in Central Europe and Scandinavia after the Thirty Years' War, with Christina of Sweden and Christian IV of Denmark being notable proponents. The Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors had long been interested in mercantilist policies, but the vast and decentralized nature of their empire made implementing such notions difficult. Some constituent states of the empire did embrace Mercantilism, most notably Prussia, which under Frederick the Great had perhaps the most rigidly controlled economy in Europe. During the economic collapse of the seventeenth century Spain had little coherent economic policy, but French mercantilist policies were imported by Philip V with some success. Russia under Peter I (Peter the Great) attempted to pursue mercantilism, but had little success because of Russia's lack of a large merchant class or an industrial base.

Mercantilism also fueled the intense violence of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. Since the level of world trade was viewed as fixed, it followed that the only way to increase a nation's trade was to take it from another. A number of wars, most notably the Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Franco-Dutch Wars, can be linked directly to mercantilist theories. The unending warfare of this period also reinforced mercantilism as it was seen as an essential component to military success. It also fueled the imperialism of this era, as each nation that was able attempted to seize colonies that would be sources of raw materials and exclusive markets. During the mercantilist period, European power spread around the globe. As with the domestic economy this expansion was often conducted under the aegis of companies with government guaranteed monopolies in a certain part of the world, such as the Dutch East India Company or the Hudson's Bay Company.