The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics


by Laura LaHaye
About the Author
Mercantilism is economic nationalism for the purpose of building a wealthy and powerful state. Adam Smith coined the term "mercantile system" to describe the system of political economy that sought to enrich the country by restraining imports and encouraging exports. This system dominated western European economic thought and policies from the sixteenth to the late eighteenth century. The goal of these policies was, supposedly, to achieve a "favorable" balance of trade that would bring gold and silver into the country. In contrast to the agricultural system of the physiocrats, or the laissez-faire of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the mercantile system served the interests of merchants and producers such as the British East India Company, whose activities were protected or encouraged by the state.

The most important economic rationale for mercantilism in the sixteenth century was the consolidation of the regional power centers of the feudal era by large competitive nation-states. Other contributing factors were the establishment of colonies outside Europe, the growth of European commerce and industry relative to agriculture, the increase in the volume and breadth of trade, and the increase in the use of metallic monetary systems, particularly gold and silver, relative to barter transactions.

During the mercantilist period, military conflict between nation-states was both more frequent and more extensive than at any time in history. The armies and navies of the main protagonists were no longer temporary forces raised to address a specific threat or objective, but were full-time professional forces. Each government's primary economic objective was to command a sufficient quantity of hard currency to support a military that would deter attacks by other countries and aid its own territorial expansion.

Most of the mercantilist policies were the outgrowth of the relationship between the governments of the nation-states and their mercantile classes. In exchange for paying levies and taxes to support the armies of the nation-states, the mercantile classes induced governments to enact policies that would protect their business interests against foreign competition.

These policies took many forms. Domestically, governments would provide capital to new industries, exempt new industries from guild rules and taxes, establish monopolies over local and colonial markets, and grant titles and pensions to successful producers. In trade policy the government assisted local industry by imposing tariffs, quotas, and prohibitions on imports of goods that competed with local manufacturers. Governments also prohibited the export of tools and capital equipment and the emigration of skilled labor that would allow foreign countries, and even the colonies of the home country, to compete in the production of manufactured goods. At the same time, diplomats encouraged foreign manufacturers to move to the diplomats' own countries.

Shipping was particularly important during the mercantile period. With the growth of colonies and the shipment of gold from the New World into Spain and Portugal, control of the oceans was considered vitally important to national power. Because ships could be used for merchant or military purposes, the governments of the era developed strong merchant marines. In France Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the minister of finance under Louis XIV from 1661 to 1683, increased port duties on foreign vessels entering French ports and provided bounties to French shipbuilders.

In England the Navigation Laws of 1650 and 1651 prohibited foreign vessels from engaging in coastal trade in England and required that all goods imported from the continent of Europe be carried on either an English vessel or a vessel registered in the country of origin of the goods. Finally, all trade between England and her colonies had to be carried in either English or colonial vessels. The Staple Act of 1663 extended the Navigation Act by requiring that all colonial exports to Europe be landed through an English port before being reexported to Europe. Navigation policies by France, England, and other powers were directed primarily against the Dutch, who dominated commercial marine activity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

During the mercantilist era it was often suggested, if not actually believed, that the principal benefit of foreign trade was the importation of gold and silver. According to this view the benefits to one nation were matched by costs to the other nations that exported gold and silver, and there were no net gains from trade. For nations almost constantly on the verge of war, draining one another of valuable gold and silver was thought to be almost as desirable as the direct benefits of trade.

Adam Smith refuted the idea that the wealth of a nation is measured by the size of the treasury in his famous treatise, The Wealth of Nations, a book rightly considered to be the foundation of modern economic theory. Smith made a number of important criticisms of mercantilist doctrine. First, he demonstrated that trade, when freely initiated, benefits both parties. In modern jargon it is a positive-sum game. Second, he argued that specialization in production allows for economies of scale, which improves efficiency and growth. Finally, Smith argued that the collusive relationship between government and industry was harmful to the general population. While the mercantilist policies were designed to benefit the government and the commercial class, the doctrines of laissez-faire, or free markets, which originated with Smith, interpreted economic welfare in a far wider sense of encompassing the entire population.

While The Wealth of Nations is generally considered to mark the end of the mercantilist era, the laissez-faire doctrines of free-market economics also reflect a general disenchantment with the imperialist policies of nation states. The Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the Revolutionary War in the United States heralded the end of the period of military confrontation in Europe and the mercantilist policies that supported it.

Despite these policies and the wars that they are associated with, the mercantilist period was one of generally rapid growth, particularly in England. This is partly because the governments were not very effective in enforcing the policies that they espoused. While the government could prohibit imports, for example, it lacked the resources to stop the smuggling that the prohibition would create. In addition, the variety of new products that were created during the industrial revolution made it difficult to enforce the industrial policies that were associated with mercantilist doctrine.

By 1860 England had removed the last vestiges of the mercantile era. Industrial regulations, monopolies, and tariffs were abolished, and emigration and machinery exports were freed. In large part because of her free trade policies, England became the dominant economic power in Europe. England's success as a manufacturing and financial power, coupled with the United States as an emerging agricultural powerhouse, led to the resumption of protectionist pressures in Europe and the arms race between Germany, France, and England, which ultimately resulted in World War I.

Protectionism remained important in the interwar period. World War I had destroyed the international monetary system based upon the gold standard. After the war manipulation of the exchange rate was added to the government's list of trade weapons. A country could simultaneously lower the international prices of its exports and increase the local currency price of its imports by devaluing its currency against the currencies of its trading partners. This "competitive devaluation" was practiced by many countries during the Great Depression of the thirties and led to a sharp reduction in world trade.

A number of factors led to the reemergence of mercantilist policies after World War II. The Great Depression created doubts about the efficacy and stability of free-market economies, and an emerging body of economic thought ranging from Keynesian countercyclical policies to Marxist centrally planned systems created a new role for governments in the control of economic affairs. In addition, the wartime partnership between government and industry in the United States created a relationship—the military-industrial complex, in Eisenhower's words—that also encouraged activist government policies. In Europe the shortage of dollars after the war induced governments to restrict imports and negotiate bilateral trading agreements to economize on scarce foreign exchange resources. These policies severely restricted the volume of intra-Europe trade and impeded the recovery process in Europe in the immediate postwar period.

The economic strength of the United States, however, provided the stability that permitted the world to emerge out of the postwar chaos into a new era of prosperity and growth. The Marshall Plan provided American resources that overcame the most acute dollar shortages. The Bretton Woods agreement established a new system of relatively stable exchange rates that encouraged the free flow of goods and capital. Finally, the signing of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) in 1947 marked the official recognition of the need to establish an international order of multilateral free trade.

The mercantilist era has passed. Modern economists accept Adam Smith's insight that free trade leads to international specialization of labor and, usually, to greater economic well-being for all nations. But some mercantilist policies continue to exist. Indeed, the surge of protectionist sentiment that began with the oil crisis in the midseventies and expanded with the global recession of the early eighties has led some economists to label the modern pro-export, anti-import attitude as "neomercantilism."

Although several rounds of multilateral trade negotiations have succeeded in reducing tariffs on most industrial goods to less than 5 percent, trade in agricultural goods remains heavily protected though tariffs or subsidies in Europe, Japan, and the United States. Countries have also responded to GATT by erecting various nontariff barriers to trade. The Long Term Arrangement on Cotton Textiles (1962) was the first major departure from the key GATT rule of nondiscrimination. Discriminatory nontariff barriers are typically used by industrialized countries to protect mature industries from competition from Japan and newly industrialized countries like Brazil, Korea, and Taiwan. These nontariff barriers include voluntary export restraints, orderly marketing arrangements, health and safety codes, and licensing requirements. And the U.S. Jones Act, which prohibits shipment of goods between U.S. ports on foreign ships, is the modern counterpart of England's Navigation Laws.

Modern mercantilist practices arise from the same source as the mercantilist policies in the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Groups with political power use that power to secure government intervention to protect their interests, while claiming to seek benefits for the nation as a whole.

Of the false tenants of mercantilism that remain today, the most pernicious is the idea that imports reduce domestic employment. This argument is most often made by American automobile manufacturers in their claim for protection against Japanese imports. But the revenue that the exporter receives must be ultimately spent on American exports, either immediately or subsequently when American investments are liquidated. Another mercantilist view that persists today is that a current account deficit is bad. When a country runs a current account deficit, it is borrowing capital from the rest of the world in order to purchase more goods and services than it sells. But this policy promotes economic wealth if the return on the capital borrowed exceeds the cost of borrowing. Many developing countries with high internal returns on capital have run current account deficits for extremely long periods, while enjoying rapid growth and solvency.

About the Author

Laura LaHaye is an adjunct professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She was an economics professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago from 1981 to 1989 and was previously a research economist with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1981.

Further Reading

Salvatore, Dominick, ed. The New Protectionist Threat to World Welfare. 1987.

Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations, Edwin Cannan edition. 1937.

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