Mercantilism, Royal Navy, Napoleon, Pax Britannica, Corn Laws, David Ricardo, Comparative Advantage, European Union and NAFTA

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 22nd, 2012

History 101

Mercantilism gave Britain the Royal Navy which Ushered in the Pax Britannica

Great Britain had a rough go of it at the end of the 18th century.  They lost their American colonies in the American Revolutionary War.  A war that started over the issue of taxation to pay for the previous Seven Years’ War.  So instead of securing new revenue to pay down old debt they incurred new debt.  The French Revolution closed out the century.  Causing concern for some in Britain that their monarchy may be the next to fall.  It didn’t.  For the constitutional monarchy and representative government in Britain was a long cry from the absolute monarchy that they had in France.  So revolution did not come to Britain.  But war did.  As the French expanded their revolution into a European war.  Pulling the British back into war with their old enemy.

With a large conscripted French Army and the concept of total war France made total war.  Napoleon Bonaparte won a lot of battles.  Conquered much of Europe.  Even marched back and conquered Paris.  Proclaimed himself emperor of France.  And continued waging war.  Including an ill-conceived invasion of Russia.  Which marked the beginning of the end for Napoleon.  And the French Empire.  Weakened from war France saw her old nemesis, Great Britain, rise as the first superpower since the Roman Empire.  And like the Romans’ Pax Romana Britain entered a century of peace.  Pax Britannica.

The reason the British could do this was because of their mercantile past.  They set up colonies and international trade networks.  And they used the proceeds from that lucrative trade to finance the greatest naval power then in the world.  The Royal Navy.  And the Royal Navy would help keep the peace in the Pax Britannica.  She became the world’s policeman.  Making the world safe for trade.  Especially on the high seas.  But then something interesting happened.  She broke from her mercantile past.  Because they saw the shortcomings of mercantilism.  One of which produced wealthy landowners at the expense of a hungry population.

When the British repealed the Corn Laws in 1846 Food Prices fell and the Standard of Living Rose 

The British Corn Laws were a series of laws protecting those who grew cereal crops.  The stuff we grow that has edible grains.  Corn, rice, wheat, barley, etc.  What we call staple crops as they form the basic sustenance of humans everywhere.  We grow these in greater abundance than all other foods.  And when you look at the grain size you come to one realization.  It takes a lot of land to grow these crops.  And who owns large tracts of land?  The landowning aristocracy.  A small group of people with a lot of wealth.  And a lot of political influence.  Hence the Corn Laws. 

The Corn Laws were legislation with one goal.  To prevent the British people from buying less expensive food.  By either forbidding any importation of cheaper grains until the domestic price had reached a certain price level.  Or adding tariffs to the less expensive imports so the landowners could still sell their grains at higher prices.  Thus preserving their wealth.  And they made specious arguments about how lower-priced food was actually bad for the people.  For it was just a way for manufacturers to maximize their profits.  For if food was cheaper they could pay their workers less.  Being the greedy bastards that they were.  So the only fair thing to do was to keep food prices high.  To keep the living wage high.  To force manufacturers to pay their workers more.  You see, the only way to help the poor and middle class was to let the wealthy landowners become even wealthier.  By keeping the price of the food they sold high.

Opposition grew to the Corn Laws.  People studied the works of their fellow countrymen.  Adam Smith and David Hume (both Scottish).  And the Englishman David Ricardo.  All great economists and thinkers.  Who were all proponents of free trade.  Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage basically proved the case of free trade over the protectionism of mercantilism.  Eventually the political power of the landowners could not overcome the economic arguments.  Or a famine in Ireland.  And, in 1846, they repealed the Corn Laws and adopted free trade.  Food prices fell.  Leaving people with more disposable income.  To purchase the goods the Industrial Revolution was making.  Increasing their standard of living.  While small famers had to leave their farms being unable to farm efficiently enough to pay their bills at the prevailing prices.

The Success of NAFTA proves David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage

Mercantilists and other opponents to free trade like to point at the human costs.  Small farmers losing their farm.  Just so they can preserve some semblance of privilege to protect the high prices in their industry.  But it was becoming more and more difficult to make the argument that the masses were better off paying higher prices.  Because they’re not.  Lower consumer prices increase the standard of living for everyone.  Higher living standards create healthier living conditions.  And reduces child mortality.   For the greatest killer of children in the world is poverty.

The British were both a military and an economic superpower during the 19th century.  But someone was chasing her.  The Untied States.  Who was feeling her economic oats.  Her economy would catch up and surpass the British.  Making it the mightiest economic power of all time.  How did this happen?  Two words.  Free trade.  The United States was the largest free trade zone in the world.  The economic advantages of all those states trading with each other freely across their state borders made Europe stand up and take notice.  And in response created treaties that ultimately led to the European Union and the Eurozone.  To replicate the large free trade zone of the United States.

Back across the Atlantic the Americans, Canadians and the Mexicans took it up a notch.  And created the North American Free Trade Agreement.  NAFTA.  Extending the free trade that existed in each of their countries across their international borders.  The mercantilist fought against this.  Because protectionism, restrictions and tariffs helped the privileged few protect the high prices in their industry.  In America they talked about a great sucking sound as all American jobs went to low-wage Mexico.  Some manufacturers did move to Mexico.  Primarily because like the small farmers in Britain after the repeal of the Corn Laws they could no longer sell at prices to meet all of their costs.  But it was not as the mercantilists predicted.  Yes, imports increased.  In 2010 they were up 235% from pre-NAFTA 1993.  But exports were up, too.  Some 190% for the same period.  Proving Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage.  By focusing on what we do best and trading for everything else all countries do better.

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