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 centuries. The goal of these policies was, supposedly, to achieve a “favorable” balance of trade that would bring gold and silver into the country and also to maintain domestic employment. 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 other 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 pensionsto 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 vital 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 Act of 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 its 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 re-exported 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 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. 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 generalpopulation. 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 publication of 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 with which they were associated, the mercantilist period was one of generally rapid growth, particularly in England. This is partly because the governments were not very effective at enforcing the policies 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 its 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 that ultimately resulted in World War I.