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When the British repealed the Corn Laws in 1846 Food Prices fell and the Standard of Living Rose 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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British Corn Laws and Empire, the U.S. Free Trade Zone and the Eurozone

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 29th, 2011

History 101

With the Royal Navy, the Steamship, the Railroad and the Telegraph, Great Britain Peacefully Ruled and Led the World

The British Corn Laws were on the books from 1815 to 1846.  To protect domestic cereal farmers from less expensive food imports.  By adding a tariff to these grain imports.  Increasing their price.  So they weren’t any cheaper than the domestically grown grain.  Interestingly it was the few great landowners who wanted these tariffs.  Not the people who had to buy the food.  For paying more for food meant they had less to spend on clothing and other things.

When it came to consumer prices the people were always for free trade.  Because whatever they earned it never seemed enough.  So paying more in taxes was never a good thing.  These wealthy landowners even put forth the argument that paying higher food prices meant higher wages.  In a feeble attempt to maintain these tariffs.  They said that manufacturers just wanted cheaper food so they could pay cheaper wages.  Because if food wasn’t that expensive their workers wouldn’t need as much pay.  And, of course, the greedy manufacturers would just pocket more profits.  Much like the greedy landowners were doing thanks to the Corn Laws.  But their greed was somehow different.

Well, free trade won out.  Eventually.  And they repealed the Corn Laws in 1846.  And, as expected, food prices plummeted.  Soon they imported more food than they grew.  Because it was cheaper.  And it freed up more money for use elsewhere in the economy.  Stimulating innovation and invention.  Taking the Industrial Revolution to new heights.  And raising the standard of living for all people.  Not just the wealthy landowners.  The British Empire reached its zenith in the 19th century.  After the defeat of Napoleon there was about a century of peace called the Pax Britannica.  Where Great Britain became the global policeman.  With the Royal Navy, the steamship, the railroad and the telegraph, Great Britain peacefully ruled and led the world.

The U.S. was a Large Free Trade Zone with a Common Currency, Language, People and Customs

The British were the most advanced nation in the 19th century world.  And the richest.  Her empire dominated trade.  Her rule of law and common currency made that trade efficient.  It was a giant free trade zone within her empire.  But it couldn’t last.  The cost of maintaining the empire, plus a world war, was just too much.  Her economic might faded.  While another rose.  In a former colony.  The United States.

The sun never set on the British Empire.  Because it was that big.  Reaching around the globe.  Connected by long lines of communication.  And an imperial British culture uniting different peoples.   Who knew different cultures, laws and money.  Whereas as the United States had all the advantages of empire (size and range of resources) without any of the disadvantages.  The U.S. was a large free trade zone with a common currency, language, people and customs.  The states comprising the U.S. were as big as countries in other parts of the world.  But trade could flow between any two states without custom duties, tariffs or even inspections.  It was truly free.

When the Industrial Revolution reached the United States, the economy took off and never looked back.  By the end of the 19th century she was challenging the British Empire.  And rapidly overtook her.  There was another global policeman in town.  All because of a giant free trade zone that was as big as a continent.

The ‘United States’ of Europe created the Eurozone and a Common Currency (the Euro) to Compete with the U.S.

The United States is such the perfect model of free market capitalism that Europe created the Eurozone and a common currency (the Euro) to compete with the U.S.  And it worked.  For awhile.

The ‘united states’ of Europe as a whole has a larger economy than the U.S.  But they have their problems.  For a common currency is only part of America’s success.  The U.S. is a united federation of states with one set of federal laws, language and culture for interstate commerce.  Something Europe doesn’t have.  And probably never will.  European countries have far too much history and culture.  And nationalism.  They will never unite politically.  Like the United States.  Or the British Empire, for that matter.

The key to the British Empire was that it was British.  One currency.  One language.  One set of laws.  One culture.  For interstate trade, at least.  Just like in the country that surpassed her.  The United States.  Still, there’s nothing wrong with being a smaller economic power than the U.S.  As long as you have free trade your people can enjoy a high standard of living.  Without the added responsibility of being the global policeman.

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