Mercantilism

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 14th, 2012

Economics 101

Wealth is the Stuff we use our Talent and Ability to Make

Mercantilism gave us the United States.  For it was because of these policies that the British established colonies in North America.  And it was those same policies that led to American Independence.  Because those polices pissed off the Americans. 

The mercantile system came into being as nation states arose from feudal estates.  Kings arose and consolidated these estates into larger kingdoms.  Then one king arose to consolidate the kingdoms into a nation.  Creating Spain, France, the Netherlands, England, etc.  Enlightened thinking and better technology created food surpluses.  With food surpluses a middle class of artisans arose.  And manufactured goods.  People met in markets to trade their food and goods.   These markets grew into cities.  All of this economic activity created wealth.  Food.  And manufactured goods.  That we bought with money.  Often silver and gold. 

There was wealth.  And there was money.  Two different things.  Wealth is the stuff we use our talent and ability to make.  Food and manufactured goods, for example.  And the more food and manufactured goods a nation has the wealthier that nation is.  This is a critical point.  And the mercantile policies ultimately failed because those policies mistook money for wealth.  But money is not wealth.  It’s a temporary storage of wealth.  To make our trading of food and manufactured goods easier.  By reducing the search costs to find people to trade with.  Which is why the barter system failed in a complex economy.  It just took too long to find people to trade with.  Money solved that problem.  Because you could trade what you had for money.  Then trade your money for what you wanted.

England used the Positive Flow of Bullion to Finance the Building of the Royal Navy

Mercantilism focused on the money.  And used wealth to accumulate it.  Instead of the other way around.  The way most advanced nations do today.  These European nations accumulated money with international trade.  Beginning in the 15th century they started looking at the balance of trade between nations.  And did everything they could to maintain a positive balance of trade.  Meaning they tried to export more than they imported.  Why?  Well, nations often did trade with each other.  So they owed each other money.  And when you settled your account if other nations owed you more than you owed them there was a net flow of money to you.  Bullion.  Silver and gold.  Which is what they wanted.

To maintain a positive balance of trade the government actively intervened into the economy.  It set up monopolies.  It provided subsidies for manufacturers who exported their goods for bullion.  It placed tariffs on imports.  Or simply blocked the importation of any goods that they produced domestically.  They set up colonies to harvest raw materials to ship back to the mother country.  Which would use those raw materials in their factories to produced higher valued finished goods.  That they would export.  Especially to their colonies.  Which were convenient captive markets for their finished goods.  On the mother country’s ships.  Through the mother country’s ports.  Where they, of course taxed it.  Guaranteeing that at every step of the way they added to the positive bullion flow back to the mother country.

And it worked.  To a certain extent.  England used that positive flow of bullion to finance the building of the Royal Navy.  Which proved invaluable in the wars that followed in the mercantile world.  For mercantilism is a zero-sum game.  For every winner there had to be a loser.  Which is why this era was an era of world war.  To wrest control of those colonies.  And those sea lanes.  Great Britain came out the victor.  Thanks to their Royal Navy.  But it wasn’t all good.  For Spain found gold in the New World.  And they took it.  Shipped it back to the Old World.  Just like a good mercantilist would.  Which caused problems in the Old World.  Because money is not wealth.  It’s a temporary storage of wealth.  And when they inflated their money supply it took more of it to hold the same amount of value it once did.  Because there was so much of it in circulation.  And what happens during inflation?  Prices rise.  Because the money is worth less it takes more of it to buy the same things as it did before.  So by hording bullion to create wealth they actually destroyed wealth.  With wealth-destroying inflation.

With the Boston Tea Party the Americans Renounced Mercantilism and Demanded Free Trade

Spain was one of the greatest mercantile nations of the era.  But they quickly became a shadow of their former self.  Even though they had more bullion than their European neighbors.  For it turned out that those mercantile policies hindered economic growth.  Which is the true source of wealth.  Economic growth.  Where people use their talent and ability to create things.  That’s where the true value lay.  Not the money that held that value temporarily.  All those mercantilist policies did was raise domestic prices.  And allocated scarce resources poorly. 

It turned out free trade was the secret to wealth.  For free trade can increase wealth.  For both nations.  Thanks to something we call comparative advantage.  Instead of both nations manufacturing all of their goods they should only manufacture those goods that they can manufacture best.  And trade for the goods they can’t manufacture best.  This more efficiently allocates those scarce resources.  And produces a greater total amount of wealth.  By allowing people to buy lower cost imports they have more money left over to buy other stuff.  Increasing the overall amount of economic activity.  Which is why when Great Britain adopted free trade in the 19th century the British Empire went on to rule the world for a century or so.  And led the Industrial Revolution.  By creating wealth.  Goods and services people created with their talent and ability.  That changed the world.  And ushered in the modern era.  Something no amount of bullion could do.

But before Britain adopted free trade they were struggling with one of their belligerent colonies.  Their British American colonies.  Who were unhappy over taxation without representation in Parliament.  And the mother country forcing them to buy only British tea shipped on British ships at higher prices than they could get from the Dutch.  The British thought they found a solution to their problem.  By permitting their British East India Company monopoly to ship their tea directly to America without passing through an English port.  The tea was cheaper because of this.  But it also would set a precedent for taxation without representation.  Something the Americans weren’t about to accept.  So they threw that tea into Boston Harbor.  What we affectionately call the Boston Tea Party.  Renouncing mercantilism.  And demanding the right to engage in free trade.  Which they got after winning their independence.  And the mother country would follow suit in a few decades.  Because they, too, would learn that free trade was better than mercantilism.

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