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Mercantilism Revisited

Author(s): D. C. Coleman
Source: The Historical Journal, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Dec., 1980), pp. 773-791
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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The Historical Journal, 23, 4 (I980), pp. 773-79I-
Printed in Great Britain

MERCANTILISM REVISITED

D. C. COLEMAN
Pembroke College, Cambridge

The intention of this paper' is to look at some of the problems which arise in
attempts to provide 'explanations' of mercantilism and especially its English
manifestations. By 'explanations' I mean the efforts which some writers have
made causally to relate the historical appearance of sets of economic notions
or general recommendations on economic policy or even acts of economic
policy by the state to particular long-term phenomena of, or trends in,
economic history. Historians of economic thought have not generally made
such attempts. With a few exceptions they have normally concerned themselves
with tracing and analysing the contributions to economic theory made by those
labelled as mercantilists. The most extreme case of non-explanation is provided
by Eli Heckscher's reiterated contention in his two massive volumes that
mercantilism was not to be explained by reference to the economic circumstances
of the time; mercantilist policy was not to be seen as 'the outcome of the
economic situation'; mercantilist writers did not construct their system 'out
of any knowledge of reality however derived '.2 So strongly held an anti-
determinist fortress, however congenial a haven for some historians of ideas,
has given no comfort to other historians - economic or political, Marxist or
non-Marxist - who obstinately exhibit empiricist tendencies. Some forays
against the fortress have been made.3 Barry Supple's analysis of English
commerce in the early seventeenth century and the resulting presentation of
mercantilist thought and policy as 'the economics of depression' has passed
into the textbooks and achieved the status of an orthodoxy.4 More recently
Peter Earle, in his examination of the economic ideas of Defoe, has related
those ideas, or some of them, specifically to the alleged stagnation of European
commerce in the middle and later decades of the seventeenth century.5 Still

' This is an amended version of the Neale Lecture in English History given at University
College, London, on 6 December I979.
2 E. F. Heckscher, Mercantilism, revised edition, ed. E. F. Soderlund (2 vols., London, I955),
I, 20; II, 347.

3 Including my own attempt at 'explaining' some attitudes labelled mercantilist, in 'Labour


in the English economy in the seventeenth century', Economic History Review, 2nd series, VIII (I956).
See also D. C. Coleman (ed.), Revisions in mercantilism (London, 1969).
B. E. Supple, Commercial crisis and change in England, i6oo0- i6 (Cambridge, I959), part III,
passim; Charles Wilson, England's apprenticeship, I63-I763 (London, i965), ch. 3.
5 Peter Earle, 'The economics of stability: the views of Daniel Defoe' in D. C. Coleman and
A. H. John (eds.), Trade, government and economy in pre-industrial England (London, 1976), p. 279. See
also, for an extended treatment, his The world of Defoe (London, I976), pp. I07-57.

ooi8-246X/8o/2828-376o $02.50 (D I980 Cambridge University Press


773

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774 D. C. COLEMAN

more recently a Swedish scholar, Lars Magnusson, has conducted a different


kind of assault on Heckscher's anti-determinist citadel, seeking both to tie
mercantilism to economic reality and to defend its value as a 'theoretical and
politico-economic notion' against those who have been so irreligious as to doubt
its usefulness or even its existence.6 And Joyce Appleby has set out to explain
the emergence from about i 620 of what she sees as a line of economic reasoning,
as well as of a check to it between I696 and I 7 I 3, by relating both to certain
developments in English economic and social history, thereby attempting to
do what Heckscher said should not be done.7
So much for some examples of attacks upon his fortress. I will return to them.
But first we must begin at the beginning; and in the beginning was Adam
Smith. We must return to him for the substantial reason that he invented the
concept of 'the mercantile system'; and for the insubstantial reason that the
bicentenary of the publication of the Wealth of nations has, in the last few years,
brought an eruption of historical reflexions thereupon.

II

Adam Smith could perhaps be reasonably described as the first economic


historian to go in for model building - even though he had more prestigious
claims upon posterity. His view of past societies was fashioned in general by
his interest in what his first biographer Dugald Stewart had already, in I 793,
called 'theoretical or conjectural history';8 and specifically by his four-stage
theory of economic development. There was a 'natural order of things which
must have taken place' in every growing society.9 The sequence was, broadly
speaking: hunting, pasturage, farming, and commerce. Though not every
European society conformed to it, this was the model, the four-stage analysis
set out in book iII of the Wealth of nations in I 776.10 Despite Smith's concern
with human liberty the model is a very deterministic construction. Andrew
Skinner has indeed recently observed that it is 'remarkable for the almost
Marxian reliance which it placed on economic forces'." In book iv Smith

6 Lars Magnusson, 'Eli Heckscher, mercantilism, and the favourable balance of trade',
Scandinavian Economic History Review, xxvi, no. 2 (I 978), I I 4.
7 Joyce Oldham Appleby, Economic thought and ideology in seventeenth-century England (Princeton,
NJ., 1978). See also her article 'Ideology and theory: the tension between political and economic
liberalism in seventeenth-century England', American Historical Review, LXXVI (I976).
8 Dugald Stewart, Biographical memoirs of Adam Smith... William Robertson... and Thomas Reid
(Edinburgh, i8i i), p. 49. The memoir of Smith was originally read by Stewart to the Royal
Society of Edinburgh in 1793.
9 Wealth of nations, p. 360. Unless otherwise stated, the references here given are to the Cannan
edition in the one-volume Modern Library format (New York, I937).
10 Though probably developed earlier, c. 1750, as well as independently by Turgot. See
R. L. Meek, 'Smith, Turgot and the "four stages theory"', History of Political Economy, iII (I97I).
Also H. M. Hopfl, 'From savage to Scotsman: counterfactual history in the Scottish
Enlightenment', Journal of British Studies (Spring 1978).
" Andrew S. Skinner, 'Adam Smith: an economic interpretation of history' in Andrew
S. Skinner and Thomas Wilson (eds.), Essays on Adam Smith (Oxford, 1975), p. 155. It might seem
more chronologically appropriate to say that Marx was remarkable for the almost Smithian
reliance which he placed on economic forces.

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MERCANTILISM REVISITED 775

constructed the particular piece of the model, that corresponding to the


commercial stage of development, which he called ' the mercantile system'. He
constructed it in order, of course, to demolish it. Despite all the bicentennial
eulogies lavished upon Smith it is perhaps permissible to suggest that continued
contemplation of this particular piece of the model by later generations has
led to much misguided effort. As everybody knows, the 'principle of the
mercantile system', according to Smith, was a doctrine, an idea, a fallacious
idea to which, he alleged, universal credence was given - to wit that gold and
silver constituted wealth and a favourable balance of trade was the national
means to acquire that wealth. The historical agents responsible for this
principle were businessmen in pursuit of monopoly, the 'monopolizing spirit
of merchants and manufacturers'; they it was who 'originally both invented
and propagated this doctrine '.2 Smith's main preoccupation, however, was
with policy rather than doctrine. Although he singled out a few writers for
mention, for example Thomas Mun as the first main exponent of the doctrine,
he spent far more time and effort in attacking the various practical 'restraints'
in the British economy from approximately I66o onwards which had brought
into being what was to him 'the modern system ... best understood in our own
13
country and in our own times .
So here was a dual explanation. The commercial stage - full of high
potential if only freedom could prevail - was part of a natural order of stages
in a theory of economic growth; and certain specified groups of people in
society - merchants and manufacturers - had distorted that natural order and
so created the mercantile system. That system, as then set out by Smith, then
became a model in which the constituent parts moved in accordance with one
primary principle and a set of linkages which actuated the movements of
governments.
For the historian such an explanatory device leaves much to be desired. It
seems to suffer from that tension between Smith as orthodox historian and
Smith as speculative or conjectural historian to which the editors of the new
Glasgow edition of the Wealth of nations have recently drawn our attention.
Smith's concern was to delineate 'an ideal account of historical evolution' not
to make it conform to any actual historical situation; historical evidence was
of secondary importance in his grand design of a comprehensive system.'4 His
historical treatment of the mercantile system is weakened accordingly. He
believed that the 'natural efforts of every individual to better his own
condition '15 when allied to liberty would motivate the 'invisible hand' and
thus create wealth and prosperity. But if this natural law thus operated, why,
it might be asked, should that same natural effort be peculiarly castigated as
'sneaking arts' and 'impertinent jealousy', impelled by a 'monopolizing

12 Wealth of nations, pp. 460-I.


13 Ibid. p. 397. As Professor Coats has observed, he was more interested in this context 'in the
beliefs of practical men than in intellectual achievements as such'; A. W. Coats, 'Adam Smith
and the mercantile system' in Essays on Adam Smith, p. 220.
14 Wealth of nations, ed. R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, textual ed. W. B. Todd (2 vols.,
Oxford, I976), I, 55-6. 15 Wealth of nations, p. 508.

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776 D. C. COLEMAN

spirit', 16 when it directed the actions of merchants and manufacturers who


were undoubtedly engaged in seeking to better their own conditions? How was
it that of all periods in the history of England that which, according to Smith,
had seen this deplorable mercantile system come into being, i.e. that since I 66o,
had also seen a substantial increase in 'the annual produce of the land and
labour of England', despite wars, fire, plague and rebellion, so much so that
he could call it 'the happiest and most fortunate period of them all' ?17 Smith's
own answer reflected his concern with liberty. It was counterfactual and
relativistic in terms of political freedom: had it not been for government
interference British economic growth would have been greater; but the greater
political and economic freedom enjoyed by Britain ensured that it was
wealthier than other countries.18 Whether or not these statements are true is
not my present concern. Suffice to say that as an historical explanation of how
it came about that governments should have fallen for the wiles of these
scheming businessmen - albeit with less alacrity in England than elsewhere - it
is notably unsatisfactory. Why, for instance, was France so mercantilist a state?
Because Colbert was 'imposed upon by the sophistry of merchants and
manufacturers'; because he had 'embraced all the prejudices of the mercantile
system'. And why had he done so? Because that system, essentially one of
' restraint and regulation' could not fail to appeal to Colbert's administrative
mind, to be agreeable to 'a laborious and plodding man of business who had
been accustomed to regulate the different departments of public offices'. 19 The
civil servant as natural mercantilist is an appealing thought but unimpressive
as an historical explanation for the rise and persistence of mercantilism in
France. Or again, if all was as monopolistic as Smith's mercantile system model
would have us believe, how was it that during this very period of its existence
from i 66o onwards prices and profits in England seem not to have behaved
as they should have done? For, instead of monopolistically rising or even being
maintained, the rate of profit and the general level of prices both fell and in
general real wages rose. Various explanations are, of course, available to
account for this phenomenon but they do not normally give support to the
alleged importance of the mercantile system according to Smith. And, finally,
it is a notable historical irony that Smith should have been inventing the
mercantile system on the very threshold of the industrial revolution which,
unknown to him, was to surge ahead in a British economy surrounded by a
wall - of varying thickness and sometimes crumbling - but a wall nevertheless
of duties, prohibitions, drawbacks, bounties, treaties and the like which he so
deplored as inhibitors of economic growth, stiflers of commercial freedom, and
stranglers of initiative.
Whatever we may think today of Smith's explanation of the mercantile
system, his work, because of the immense influence of the Wealth of nations as
a whole, had been the starting point for all subsequent explorations of
mercantilism. Those explorations fall into two broad categories corresponding

16 Ibid. p. 460. 17 Ibid. pp- 327-8.


18 Ibid. pp. 328, 5o8-9. See also Coats, loc. cit., pp. 228-9. 19 Ibid. pp. 434, 627.

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MERCANTILISM REVISITED 777

to an ambivalence in Smith's own work. One has a pedigree which follows the
stage-theory line, manifesting itself in the German historical school, and in the
particular sort of explanatory model developed by Marx and extended by
modern Marxist historians and neo-Marxist disciples. The other, following
the path of the 'invisible hand' and classical economic liberalism, led to
Heckscher's massive work, the anti-determinist position of which was par-
ticularly applauded by economists of a laissez-faire persuasion.20 Some of
the modern attempts at explanation are more eclectic, combining elements
of both lines of thought. Unfortunately, because of their common starting
point and the confusion which it generated about the very nature of mer-
cantilism, the results sometimes merely make confusion worse confounded.
Some of the recent examples demonstrate these contradictions.

III

Let us take Lars Magnusson's approach first. According to him mercantilism


can be given 'rational content' by coupling it to the period of 'merchant
capitalism' in Western Europe which saw 'primary accumulation' in the hands
of merchant capitalists and Verleger who enjoyed monopoly powers that
permitted them to depress costs and inflate selling prices. Thereby:

The emphasis placed by the mercantilists upon trade as the source of value and as the
general driving force of progress becomes fully comprehensible in the context of
merchant capitalism, as does the role of the state in the reproduction of unequal
exchange. Viewed in this way the mercantilist theories and notions become primarily
rationalisations of reality.2'

Mr Magnusson is quite explicit about the pedigree of his explanation: it comes


from Karl Marx by way of Maurice Dobb. Likewise the reason for offering
it: 'Heckscher argued that mercantilist ideas had no material base in the
societies from which they sprang. But if mercantilism is interpreted in terms
of links with merchant capitalism this view becomes untenable. '22 He then
applies his approach to explaining the relationship between practice and theory
in eighteenth-century Sweden, a time and place in which 'the social and class
prerequisites of mercantilist theory and practice were present', and concludes,
inter alia, that 'sophisticated merchant capitalist practice' readily correlated
with mercantilist ideas.23 So here we have one sort of recent approach - newly
presented as original though with respectable ancestry - designed to persuade
us that mercantilism is still a useful concept in aiding the understanding of both
the ideas of mercantilist writers and the economic practices of contemporary
governments.
In her essay in explanation Mrs Appleby starts by asking how it came about
that Adam Smith should so readily have assumed that human beings were

20 D. C. Coleman, 'Eli Heckscher and the idea of mercantilism', Scandinavian Economic History
Review, v, no. I (I957), 8, reprinted in Revisions in mercantilism.
21 Magnusson, loc. cit., p. I 4 22 Ibid. pp. I I4I5 2 Ibid. pp. I I7, I2I.

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778 D. C. COLEMAN

inherently concerned with material self-betterment, and seeks an answer to this


question by examining the way in which 'the English first described their
commercial economy'.24 In practice, this means that she has traced a line of
economic thought which she sees exhibited in seventeenth-century printed
tracts ranging from Malynes, Misselden and Mun in the earlier years to such
writers as Barbon, North, Houghton and Martin at the end of the century.
In this sequence, she says, abstract economic theorizing got under way and
with it the idea of laissez-faire. By the later decades of the century, according
to her reading, society was being seen by such writers as an 'aggregation of
self-interested producer-consumers' 25 a comprehensive new theory ofeconomic
growth had been formulated, the dynamic notions of which put out of court
the old static balance-of-trade theory; and liberal ideas were 'circulating as
freely in England as East Indian calicoes'.26 How is this to be explained? The
answer, it seems, lies with the expansion of English overseas trade beginning
in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries which brought into being
'a new commercial economy'. Nobility, gentry, and merchants alike were
involved in the ' restructuring of their country's economy' consequent upon the
new, world-wide trades. As a result Englishmen were moved to try to explain
' the new market forces in their lives'; competition with, and envy of, the Dutch
economy stimulated analysis which 'of necessity required the creation of an
economic model'. Obstacles created by the depression of the I62os and the
'patrimonialism' of James I acted as stimulants to what became a flood of
economic writings advocating economic freedom.27
Just as one detected trend in economic ideas is thus explained by reference
to changes in market circumstances, so Mrs Appleby also detects and explains
what she sees as the crucial check to this development. In the last decades of
the seventeenth century all these rampaging notions of economic liberalism
were apparently hit on the head by two hammer blows. One wasJohn Locke's
view of money, emphasizing the specie content of coin and adumbrated during
the recoinage crisis of i696. His views revived the moribund balance-of-trade
explanation for economic growth; and the urge to secure more gold and silver
by overseas trade was thereby reasserted in the public mind. The second blow
originated in the divergence of interest between overseas trade and
manufacturing industry. The failure of clothiers' profits (and landlords' rents)
to rise like the returns on merchant capital stimulated a new enthusiasm for
protection; and spokesmen for manufacturing interests put forward a new
model of economic development stressing the need to mobilize the national
resources. War provided the occasion for action. Political decisions made
between i 696 and I 713 are said to have 'turned England towards a different
course of economic development'. The economic liberals were swept aside;
protectionism and the balance of trade triumphed. And so, according to Mrs
Appleby, there came upon the scene 'the first appearance in England of
anything that could be called mercantilism '.28

24 Appleby, Economic thought, p. 4- 25 Ibid. p. I73- 26 Ibid. p. I98.


27 Ibid. pp. 5, 30-I, 53, 79. 28 Ibid. pp. I27, I94, 238, 248, 250-I, 267.

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MERCANTILISM REVISITED 779

This explanation of mercantilist ideas and actions is eclectic in its intellectual


origins: though Smith, and a touch of Marx, are in the pedigree, Max Weber,
Karl Polanyi and C. B. Macpherson figure in a family tree which has now
acquired sociological branches. Adopting Macpherson's concept of a 'possessive
market society' and seeing the early seventeenth century as a time when
'invested capital moved England towards a market economy',29 Mrs Appleby
presents the new economic liberalism as a rational manifestation of the new
expansive forces. Its rejection at the end of the century then followed because
the values embedded therein were as yet 'incompatible with the ideological
imperatives of English society'.30 They were, in short, ahead of their time.
Smith's malign businessmen are replaced by groups who combined to ensure
that their class interests as producers and traders were protected against the
poor who might be infected as consumers, by 'economic rationality'. And so
mercantilism arrives. The model is in some ways more abstract than Smith's;
governments and their financial needs, for example, are almost invisible.
However, it has still to be fed with some historical facts, and it evidently
requires a pattern of economic development in which there is a pronounced
discontinuity circa I6oo. If the overseas expansion of trade is to be the
determinant of the new printed expressions of economic liberalism something
must be said of life before the flood. Why had the flood of print bearing the
new ideas not come before? It did not, as one might suppose, have anything
to do with the relative dearness of paper and print in sixteenth-century
England. It was because 'there was little in the contained, face-to-face direct
consumption economies of the late Middle Ages to stimulate speculation on
economic life'. Before the flood economic life went on 'in stable rural parishes',
attended by 'a primitive agricultural technique'. Only with the new commercial
society, created by England's 'globe-girdling trades', did there come the
'involvement of people and land in the logic of the market'. Only by the I 670s
had 'the underemployment of England's poor surfaced as a major problem'.
The new colonial trades, it seems, differed from the old by involving both
exports and imports. And James I's monopolies meant that 'the typical
Englishman lived in a house built with monopoly bricks... heated by monopoly
coal ... ate monopoly currants, monopoly salmon [and] monopoly lobsters '.31
Such statements, whatever may be thought of their accuracy, belong to a
version of English economic history which, with its insistence upon a discon-
tinuity whereby a medieval subsistence economy is newly subjected to, and
transformed by, market forces cira I 6oo, runs counter to most modern findings
on the subject.32 A recent observation about Adam Smith's use of history that

29 Appleby, 'Ideology and theory', loc. cit., p. 5I5. According to Macpherson, 'the possessive
market model... does not require a state policy of laissez-faire; a mercantilist policy is perfectly
consistent with the model and may indeed be required at some stages in the development of a
possessive market society'; C. B. Macpherson, The political theory of possessive individualism (Oxford,
I962), p- 5-
30 Appleby, 'Ideology and theory', loc. cit., p. 5I5.
31 Appleby, Economic thought, pp. 25, 30-I, 33 (my italics), 54, 84-5, I05, I27, I30.
32 And still more so to Dr Alan Macfarlane's views as expressed in his Origins of English
individualism (Oxford, I978).

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780 D. C. COLEMAN

he 'worked from the system to the facts not from the facts to the system '33 seems
applicable to other explanations of mercantilism.
When we put these two recent explanations side by side it is evident that
they have only occasional points of contact. In the one, English mercantilism
emerged around I7I3, with responsibility attaching to a combination of
landlords and manufacturers exercising sway over government; in the other,
it emerged at various times and places in Western Europe between the end
of the 'feudal mode of production' and the onset of the industrial revolution,
with responsibility attached primarily to merchant capitalists.34 In the one,
commercial expansion stimulated notions of economic liberalism formulated
in a new language of abstract economic analysis; in the other, merchant
capitalism and monopolistic exploitation provided the rationale for the
balance-of-trade theory. At the time when Mrs Appleby has mercantilism
beginning in England, most branches of English trade (with the notable
exception of that to the East) had been freed from the control of monopolistic
companies. Conversely, in the later sixteenth century, when most of English
overseas trade was controlled by such companies, England was, apparently,
barely emergent from a subsistence economy with mercantilism hardly a cloud
on the horizon.
And so on. For all their differences, however, both depend upon a legacy
of Adam Smith: the model-building, the 'conjectural history', the stage-theory
of growth, all of which made their appearance in the Scottish enlightenment
of the eighteenth century to which Smith was so distinguished a contributor.
Sundry well-known hands have modified, refined and built upon those ideas,
in economics and in sociology. Whatever their value in helping us to
understand the long-term economic and social past, they do create methodo-
logical problems. The use of the concept of mercantilism provides a specific
example of one of those problems made manifest. For it has the effect of too
easily diverting attention away from the reality, the quality, and the nature
of what passes for the economic writings of the time, their authors, and the
immediate political context in which must be seen both the writings themselves
and the acts of government policy which seem to reflect the views expressed
therein. Instead of trying to fit economic notions into a pre-conceived structure
and thus to 'explain' them it might be fruitful to look more closely at the nature
and contents of a few characteristic features of mercantilist thoughts and deeds.

3 Wealth of nations (ed. Campbell and Skinner), editors' introduction, I, 56.


34 The historical timetable of mercantilism has long been variously set out and has posed
problems to would-be explainers, but Mr Magnusson's version does at least correspond to that
of earlier Marxist or neo-Marxist interpreters who saw mercantilism as 'the ideology of the
monopoly trading companies'. See A. V. Judges, 'The idea of the mercantile state', Transactions
of the Royal Historical Society, 4th series, XXI (I939), reprinted in Revisions in mercantilism, pp. 58-9
n. 2.

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MERCANTILISM REVISITED 78I

IV

When so doing it is useful to try to avoid anachronistic questions. Take, for


example, the well-known mercantilist obsession with overseas trade as the
source of wealth and the converse dismissal of internal trade as irrelevant to
it. Defoe's dictum that wealth could increase only by as much of the produce
of land and labour as could be exported 'for nothing that is consumed at home
is an advantage to the national wealth , though enunciated in I 7 I 3,
summarizes an attitude stretching well back into the sixteenth century. From
our own vantage point it might seem tempting to pose a seemingly obvious
question: why were commentators of that age so obsessed with overseas trade
at a time when, so far as we can tell, it generally formed a very small proportion
of total economic activity, when the value of the national produce exported
was probably much smaller than that consumed on the home market? But such
a question would, of course, be anachronistic. Contemporaries not only did
not know what that proportion was, they did not even think in those terms.
Although Burghley was taking a quantitative interest in English overseas trade
in the I56oS36 it was not until the I69os that regular statistics of it began to
be kept37 and that some political arithmeticians began to make tentative
estimates of the proportions of the home and overseas markets. Gregory King's
calculations seem to suggest that he thought the home market accounted for
about I3 per cent of output. The methods which he used, however, seem to
rely heavily on guesswork, notably in an attempt which he made in about I 696
to assess the value of all 'the produce of England in things for foreign trade'
and then to divide it between home consumption and exports; this produced
figures of about 87 per cent for the home market and i 3 per cent for export.38
But, for the reasons so valuably demonstrated by Geoffrey Holmes, in relation
to others of King's calculations, his arithmetic had a personal political
dimension and the year i688 an especial significance for him.39 So when, in
a different piece of writing, he sought specifically to demonstrate the national
importance of foreign trade in that climacteric tory year, I 688, some different
proportions appear. In the eighteen years I670-88, he contended, the 'actual
stock of wealth' of the country had increased by C33m and in i688 that
increase was /2 4m per annum. He then divided that increase between foreign
trade and home market and allotted 71 per cent to foreign trade and 29 per
cent to 'inland trade and labour', thus almost reversing the proportions he

35 Mercator or Commerce Retrieved, no. 48 (io-i 2 September I 7 I 3), generally attributed to Daniel
Defoe.
36 See L. Stone, 'Elizabethan overseas trade', Economic History Review, 2nd series, iI (I949).
37 As distinct from statistics which economic historians have derived from earlier contemporary
data kept for customs purposes.
38 This calculation is to be found in King's MS journal, the so-called 'Burns journal', published
in facsimile in T. P. R. Laslett (ed.), The earliest classics: John Graunt and Gregory King, Pioneers of
demography series (London, I973), p. 207.
39 G. S. Holmes, 'Gregory King and the social structure of pre-industrial England', Transactions
of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, xxvii (I977).

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782 D. C. COLEMAN

elsewhere gave for home and overseas markets for national output.40 The two
calculations are not of course strictly comparable but the disparity does suggest
that Adam Smith's remark 'I have no great faith in political arithmetic' was
more than a little justified.
All these calculations, however, were merely part of other efforts concerned
to emphasize the significance of overseas trade. Most contemporaries did not
yet look at trade in this quantitative way; the very irreconcilabilities of King's
guesses are indeed pointers in that direction. The aggregation of individual
actions which we call 'overseas trade' was seen by commentators and
statesmen as a series of acts valuable or damaging to the State. Their
significance, unlike that of internal trade, was seen as lying in their contribution
to the country's position in wealth and strength relative to other countries. The
specified task of the commissioners of trade and plantation on which they
reported in I697, 'to examine what trades are or may prove hurtful or are or
may be made beneficial',4' was not different in kind from Burghley's approach
to what he had seen as similar problems calling for action over a century earlier,
where England's commerce was a good way short of being 'globe-girdling'.
It is this politico-economic dimension which also makes relevant the
circumstances and political orientation of those who penned the tracts or
documents in which such ideas appear. Schumpeter, like some other historians
of economic thought, scorned the relevance of such considerations, emphasized
that it was unsafe to talk about motives, and concluded that 'little more than
triviality results from stressing this '.42 In so far as his concern was with
economic analysis, with the logical coherence of trains of reasoning, he was
right. Mrs Appleby also regards as 'irrelevant' the self-interest of seventeenth-
century pamphleteers because her enquiry, she says, is concerned with 'why
certain explanations satisfied and others did not'.43 Now this, it seems to me,
makes her concern different from Schumpeter's. She does not ask: who read
the tracts, how many readers, how influential?44 Instead she uses a sociological
criterion of acceptance (or non-acceptance) i.e. whether or not the ideas
become ideology, which is defined as 'a system of meaning shared by members
of a society '.45 In practice, however, as she tells us that it was a series of political
decisions made between I696 and 1713 that created English mercantilism46
it would seem that the effective criterion, on that issue at least, was endorsement
(or non-endorsement) by the government. This being so, the political affiliations

40 This calculation is in the tract called ' Of the Naval Trade of England, AO. i688 and the National
Profit arising thereby, published in G. E. Barnett (ed.), Two tracts by Gregory King (Baltimore, I936),
p. 63.
41 Calendar of MSS of the Houses of Lords, vol. x, new series (I 7 I 2- I 4), I 53-62.
42 Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of economic analysis (Oxford, I954), p. 337 n. 6.
43 Appleby, Economic thought, p. 22.
44 Just how widely read were the economic tracts of the day is a topic worthy of further enquiry.
It is noteworthy that even so important a writer on economic matters as John Locke seems to
have possessed only a comparatively small number of the major tracts. See J. Harrison and
T. P. R. Laslett (eds.), The library of John Locke (2nd edn, Oxford, I97I), esp. pp. i8, 25.
45 Appleby, Economic thought, p. 5. 46 See above, p. 778.

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MERCANTILISM REVISITED 783

and interests of those who made the recommendations can hardly be irrelevent
to an historian interested in explanations; and if such explanations are to claim
historical reality they can hardly ignore the varying political stances of such
men as, say, Child, Davenant, or Martin. King's pioneering calculations, as
Professor Holmes has shown, were not impervious to his high tory views. Let
us take, for example, Henry Martin's Considerations on the East India trade of I 701.
It mayjustly be described as a work of' unprecedented analytic skill' but when
used as a piece of evidence it should certainly not be treated as though it were
just a tract about the East India Company,47 thereby ignoring the fact that
Martin's enthusiasm for competition manifest therein rested upon the need to
justify the New East India Company created by the whig government in 1698
with the joint intention of raising a loan of C2m and of embarrassing the tory
Old East India Company. And the same author's enthusiasm for protection
against competition whilst writing as a whig contributor to The British merchant,
a decade or so later, hardly suggests that his economic ideas should be seen
as part of the trend of economic liberalism, or at least not without playing tricks
with history.
Several modern writers, including Mr Magnusson, have pointed to the
apparently recurrent assumption, sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit,
made by mercantilist writers, namely that there is a fixed cake of trade and/or
economic activity, and that one nation's gain therein must be another's loss.
Heckscher quoted from Bacon and Montaigne ('no man profiteth but by the
loss of others') to exhibit the intellectual foundations of such a view at the end
of the sixteenth century and from Colbert to show its practical application in
economic administration towards the end of the seventeenth century.48 It is
not difficult to find comparable observations in England, be they from the likes
of Charles Davenant and others whom Schumpeter categorized as 'consultant
administrators and pamphleteers' or from the pens of such men as Pepys and
Swift, names which do not normally occur in histories of economic thought
or treatises on mercantilism.49 Pepys, to take one example, recorded in
February I 664:

.. thence to the coffee-house with Capt. Cocke, who discoursed well of the good effects
in some kind of a Dutch war and conquest (which I did not consider before, but the
contrary), that is that the trade of the world is too little for us two, therefore one must
down.50

Are such utterances tributes to what Heckscher called 'a matter of recognized
mercantilist doctrine'? Is this a crucial notion to be explained by reference to
current economic circumstances?
As a start it is worth looking at what Montaigne in fact wrote in the 158os

Cf. Appleby, Economic thought, pp. i68, 262.


48 Heckscher, Mercantilism, II, 26-7.
4 Schumpeter, Economic analysis, pp. I59ff. For an example from Davenant, see his Discourse
on the plantation trade (London, I698) in Works, ed. C. Whitworth (5 vols., London, I77I), II I2.
50 Diary, 2 Feb. I 663-4. For an example from Swift see J. Swift, The conduct of the allies (I 7 I 2,
ed. C. B. Wheeler, Oxford, I9I6), p. 32.

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784 D. C. COLEMAN

and the context of his much-quoted adage. Chapter xxi of the first book of
his essays is entitled, in John Florio's translation of I603, 'The Profit of one
Man is the Damage of Another'. The text of the chapter is as follows.

Demades the Athenian condemned a man of the city, whose trade was to sell such
necessaries as belonged to burials, under colour he asked too much profit for them: and
that such profit could not come unto him without the death of many people. This
judgment seemeth to be ill taken, because no man profiteth but by the loss of others:
by which reason a man should condemn all gain. The merchant thrives not but by the
licentiousness of youth; the husbandman by dearth of corn; the architect but by the
ruin of houses; the lawyer by suits and controversies between men: honour itself and
practice of religious ministers is drawn from our death and vices. 'No physician
delighteth in the health of his own friend', saith the ancient Greek comic; 'nor no
soldier is pleased with the peace of his city, and so of the rest'. And which is worse,
let every man sound his own conscience, he shall find that our inward desires are for
the most part nourished and bred in us by the loss and hurt of others; which when I
considered, I began to think, how nature doth not gainsay herself in this, concerning
her general policy: for physicians hold that 'the birth, increase, and augmentation of
every thing is the alteration and corruption of another'.

Montaigne concludes with a couplet from Lucretius which in Florio's translation


reads:

What ever from its bounds doth changed pass


That strait is death of that which erst it was.51

Despite its references to the merchant and the husbandman this essay seems
to me a long way from being a contribution to economic analysis. And it
certainly has no originating relationship with the economic circumstances of
Montaigne's sixteenth-century France, if only because the major part of the
whole essay is lifted, almost word for word and complete with the reference
to the obscure Athenian orator Demades, from Seneca's De Beneficiis.52 It
belongs indeed to that literary tradition of comment upon human life and
morality which has spawned a variety of aphorisms and aper,us, saws and
proverbs, essays, epigrams, maxims, analects - call them what you will. For
many people, including the educated, such notions seeping into common
consciousness, helped, along with religion, ritual and magic, to provide a body
of insights necessary for the comprehension of social existence. And as men
turned towards a closer examination of what we today call economic pheno-
mena, such maxims and aphorisms formed important ingredients of their

51 The essays of Michael, lord of Montaigne (translated John Florio, I603, facsimile edn, Menston,
England, I969), p. 46. Spelling modernized.
52 See Montaigne, Essais, ed. M. Rat (2 vols., Paris, I962), I, I I I-I2, and 695. F. Prechac (ed.),
Seneque, Des Bienfaits (2 vols., Paris, I926),II, 69-7I. The popularity of both Montaigne and Seneca
in London c. i6oo can perhaps be judged by the fact that Florio's I603 translation of the Essays
had gone into three editions by I632, new translations being later made in I693 and in I7II;
and that, apart from a translation of Seneca's works in I6I4 the De Beneficiis had been the subject
of a separate translation, by Arthur Golding, published in London in I578 (The Woorke of the
excellent Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca concerning Benefyting, London, I578; facsimile edition,
Amsterdam, I974).

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MERCANTILISM REVISITED 785

early ideas on this subject. Such ingredients cannot in themselves be


explained by reference to contemporary economic circumstances.
This does not mean that we must retreat to Heckscher's anti-determinist
position. But it does point to the need to look carefully at both the context and
the content of mercantilist utterances. Let us then go a stage further and look
at the context of Bacon's commitment to the same notion: 'for whatsoever is
somewhere gotten is somewhere lost'. It occurs, significantly enough, in his
essay, 'Of seditions and troubles'. He is considering the causes of and remedies
for sedition. 'Want and poverty in the estate' is a material cause. To remove
it he offers such remedies as:

...the opening and well-balancing of trade; the cherishing of manufactures; the


banishing of idleness; the repressing of waste and excess by sumptuary laws; the
improvement and husbanding of the soil; the regulating of prices of things vendible;
the moderating of taxes and tributes.

From this catalogue of desiderata for the purpose of repressing sedition - a


catalogue which would not have aroused much dissent amongst the governing
strata of England at any time from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries
- he moves on to a more specific recommendation.

It is likewise to be remembered that forasmuch as the increase of any estate must be


upon the foreigner (for whatsoever is somewhere gotten is somewhere lost), there be
but three things which one nation selleth unto another: the commodity as nature
yieldeth it; the manufacture; and the vecture or carriage. So that, if these three wheels
go, wealth will flow as in a spring tide. And it cometh many times to pass that materiam
superabit opus, that the work and carriage is more worth than the material, and enricheth
the state more; as is notably seen in the Low-Countreymen who have the best mines
above ground in the world.53

So, embedded amidst the general economic and social recommendations for
the achievement of a political end is both the 'timeless' aphorism and the
specifically 'timed' reference to the Dutch dominance of European trade and
shipping in the early seventeenth century. It is a structure characteristic of
many mercantilist pronouncements.
In Bacon's essay the notion has been transferred from the plane of individual
moral behaviour in a society (where it remained in Montaigne's essay) to that
of national economic behaviour in the competitive international market. It is
easy to say that this somehow 'reflected economic circumstances'; or, with
rather more sleight of hand, that it reflected a transformation of the English
economy by market forces. But what happened next? Thereafter the notion
rapidly became linked to the balance-of-trade dogma, thereby producing
Smith's 'principle of the mercantile system', i.e. that the favourable balance
of trade was the only, or at any rate the main, route to increasing the nation's
relative share in a fixed amount of the world's wealth. If such a proposition

53Francis Bacon, 'Of seditions and troubles', essay xv in Essays, ed. M. J. Hawkins (London,
1972), pp. 45-6.

27 HIS 23

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786 D. C. COLEMAN

is to be explained by reference to economic circumstances it is pertinent to ask


how it was that after a century or so of overseas commercial expansion by the
countries of western Europe men should apparently still believe in fixity. And
there is indeed a good deal of evidence that in the later seventeenth century
a number of contemporary writers on such matters did hold such a belief.
One sort of explanation runs like this: between about I620 and I 730 there
was stagnation in output, trade, incomes, and population over much of Europe;
therefore while world trade grew only slowly the nations of Europe would 'fight
to keep what they already had and if possible increase it at the expense of other
countries'.54 Peter Earle, from whom I have thus quoted, uses this explanatory
device specifically in relation to some of Defoe's ideas, but it can be found in
more general terms in some textbooks, not excluding my own contribution to
that market.55 It is not implausible as a rationalization of a set of attitudes,
and it seems at least to fit some of the facts for some of the time. Yet, if it is
partly true it is also partly misleading precisely because it is too rational. For
it evades the unreasoning acceptance of the long-enduring aphorism on loss
and gain irrespective of economic circumstances; and it ignores the fact that
its companion notion on the balance of trade had by that time acquired
something of the same quality, i.e. a maxim to be accepted by all. In no sense
did the so-called 'doctrine of the balance of trade' resemble the testable
hypothesis of modern economics, though it was certainly on its way to being,
for its time, something akin to those 'immutable laws of supply and demand'
beloved of a generation of popularizers of classical economics.
When the author of the sixteenth-century Discourse of the commonweal makes
the 'doctor' in his discourse observe 'we must always take heed that we buy
no more of strangers than we sell them; for so we should impoverish ourselves
and enrich them',56 it is highly unlikely that he saw himself as enunciating some
great new truth. Nor is it likely that the fifteenth-century pope who advised
the magistrates of Siena to 'keep an account of your exports and imports; a
state is badly off that buys more than it sells '7 believed himself to be doing
anything other than give a sensible admonition in accordance with received
wisdom. So when, in the context of the I622 depression, Thomas Mun wrote
his by now much-quoted sentence, 'the ordinary means... to increase our
wealth and treasure is by foreign trade wherein we must ever observe this rule:
to sell more to strangers yearly than we consume of theirs in value',58 he was
doing little more than elaborate, as had Montaigne and Bacon in different ways
and in different contexts, on an ancient maxim. This is not to deny that both
the idea of the 'balance' of trade - a concept probably derived from Italian
double-entry book-keeping practices - and Mun's exposition thereof marked
54 Earle, 'Economics of stability', loc. cit., p. 279.
55 The economy of England, I45o-i750 (Oxford, I977), pp. I32-3.
56 The discourse of the commonweal (ed. E. Lamond, Cambridge, I 929), p. 63. Spelling modernized.
57 Quoted Raymond de Roover, Business, banking, and economic thought, ed. J. Kirshner (Chicago,
I974), p. 362.
58 Thomas Mun, England's treasure by foreign trade in J. R. McCulloch (ed.), Early English tracts
on commerce (Cambridge, I952), p. I25. Spelling modernized.

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MERCANTILISM REVISITED 787

advances in the analytical treatment of the subject. It is simply to emphasize


what some modern attempts to 'explain' mercantilism too often ignore, to wit
that much of the content of mercantilist writing is a compound of popular
maxims and vague expositions held together by a cement in which logic, and
what classical economics and its modern derivatives regard as rationality were
very variable ingredients.
The loss-and-gain notion was something which had exercised the minds of
writers and moralists certainly from ancient Athens and Rome onwards.
Schumpeter observed of it that 'the slow disintegration of one of the oldest
elements of popular economic thought is one of the most important points to
remember concerning the history of analysis in the seventeenth century'.59 In
practice it was slower than even he appreciated; and its alliance with that other
popular element - the balance-of-trade maxim - helped to ensure the long
survival. The characteristic content of so many mercantilist writings - maxim,
economic means to a political end, and conflict over a cake seen as fixed in
size - is particularly obvious in some of the propaganda and crude arguments
printed at the time of the battle over the Anglo-French commercial treaty of
Utrecht in I 713, even in the very title of the prominent tract, General maxims
of trade.60 In a dilute and more sophisticated form it is also to be seen in the
work of one who has come down to us as an embodiment of that new, rational,
calculating, statistical, bourgeois man who is supposed, according to some
authorities, to have been hatched out in post-Civil War England: Gregory
King.
Among King's notes are drafts of intended chapters, some of which appeared
in his Natural and political observations and conclusions when it was first printed in
I802, and some of which did not. Amongst the examples of the latter was one
which he headed 'Of the riches and poverty of a government'; he then crossed
out the word 'government' and substituted the word 'nation'; on the next page
the substituted headings are reversed. The confusion is significant. What
follows under the headings is a set of maxims, rules or aphorisms concerning
what we would think of today as the nation's economy but which he called
'government'. Some of the aphorisms are linked together to form a set of
recommendations or politico-economic desiderata.6' His opening statement
runs: 'A nation ['Government' crossed out] may... be said to be rich when
it abounds with men and money over and above the proportion of its
neighbouring governments, or over and above the necessities of its own'.
Almost as though he could have foreseen Adam Smith's subsequent strictures,
he writes in the margin a note saying: 'by money I understand not only gold
and silver in specie, coined or uncoined, but all staple (unperishable)
commodities'. From this start there follows a sequence of familiar mercantilist
recipes, for example:

59 Schumpeter, Economic analysis, p. 360.


60 See my 'Politics and economics in the age of Anne: the case of the Anglo-French trade treaty
of I 7 I 3' in Trade, government and economy, pp. I 87-2 I I.
.61 'Burns journal' in Earliest classics, pp. I 6 I-2.

27-2

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788 D. C. COLEMAN

Wealth is a foundation for multiplying people if it be improved.

An excess of wealth may eat up a government by sloth and luxury.

A government may be rich extrinsically, intrinsically, and potentially.

It is extrinsically so in relation to its neighbours ... when it hath an overplus of men


and money sufficient to maintain, assert or defend its own civil rights and necessities
especially on emergent occasions.

Potential wealth is a 'real value'. The significance of his interchangeable use


of 'government' and 'nation' becomes clear when he considers these values.
For 'real value', he says, 'is promoted and obtainable by the wise economy
of the Government improving the natural advantages of the country'.
Conversely, the 'other values', i.e. his 'intrinsic' and 'extrinsic' values, are
promoted by the 'natural propensity of the people to improve and better their
condition'.
With this observation we have come full circle to Adam Smith's belief in
the 'uniform, constant and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his own
condition', a desire which, he believed, 'comes with us from the womb and
never leaves us till we go into the grave'.62 Thus expressed, this notion seems
to me demonstrably untrue, but its truth or otherwise is not my concern here.
Evidently King, writing some eighty years earlier, also believed in the same
propensity. But was King, the 'deeply conservative... divine-right Tory' (to
quote Professor Holmes) persuaded to that belief by his acceptance of an
ideology induced by his compatriots having had a new experience of market
forces a generation earlier? And did King's contention that it was the
government's job to promote economic improvement (rather as Burghley had
thought over a century earlier) owe anything to that conflict of interests
between trade and manufacture which, according to Mrs Appleby, was the
proximate cause of the beginning of mercantilism in England? And how does
King thereby fit into the picture of 'free-trading Tories' of that age, as painted
by William Ashley in I900 and which Mrs Appleby seems to wish to revive?63
Alternatively, are such rules, maxims, or aphorisms (King, incidentally, in a
draft letter to accompany some of the material which ultimately appeared in
his Natural and political observations, described his work as 'conclusions or
aphorisms '),64 are they really the 'rationalizations of reality' of which Mr
Magnusson speaks, corresponding to the era of 'merchant capitalism'? Does
this thereby make of mercantilism a useful general concept in theory and
practice, justifying Heckscher's mighty work but putting him right on his
refusal to relate it to contemporary economic circumstances?

62 Wealth of nations, pp. 324, 326.


63 The reference is to W. J. Ashley, 'The Tory origins of free trade policy' in his Surveys historic
and economic (London, I900); and Appleby, Economic thought, p. 267 and n. 55.
64 'Burns journal' in Earliest classics, p. 269.

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MERCANTILISM REVISITED 789

As will perhaps be evident by now, I remain sceptical about some attempts


to 'explain mercantilism' by using variants of Adam Smith's model. Although
Marx did not himself have very much to say about the mercantile system,
Smith's denunciations of monopoly-seeking merchants and manufacturers
fitted snugly into his account of capital accumulation. And subsequent Marxist
or neo-Marxist writers have evolved patterns of explanation in which the ideas
of mercantilism are seen as corresponding to a stage of economic development.
In much the same way as we are told today that Fascism or Nazism was the
characteristic ideology of capitalism at its monopoly stage, so we are told that
mercantilism was the economic policy of an age of primitive accumulation or
that it corresponds to an era of merchant capitalism and monopoly power.
Other variants owe rather less to Marx and stage-theory and more to the
concept of the market economy to which appertains a particular ideology. In
so far as this type of explanatory model offers scope for an examination of
interest groups and the relationship between ideas and perceived changes in
the market, it represents an advance on the inflexibility of stages. But, aside
from the circularity involved in saying in effect that ideas do not become a
satisfying ideology because the social time was not ripe, it also seems to have
a tendency to play havoc with history. It creates evident difficulties for users
when trying to decide when the market economy has arrived, what preceded
it, how it functioned, and what were the motivations of those who wrote about
it.
Heckscher's stand on his anti-determinist position was entirely consonant
with the line of descent from Adam Smith through the classical economists.
He did not adopt a stage-theory of economic growth; he saw mercantilism
simply as a system of thought and policy which aimed to achieve certain ends.
But in shunning any attempt to give it correspondence to contemporary
economic circumstances he left a vacuum which many historians have
naturally abhorred. They have tried to fill that vacuum, and rightly so. But
in so doing it still seems to me salutary to heed the warnings of such scholars
as Schumpeter who many years ago commented upon mercantilism as an
imaginary entity. Historical labels have, however, a remarkable talent for
survival and are extraordinarily difficult to remove. Whatever historians say
about mercantilism, economists and other social scientists simply use it today
as a shorthand for protection and other sorts of state intervention. Mercantilism
had become neo-mercantilism by the 1930S; and it has, of course, been with
us again in the depressed 1970s.65 With us too are the old myths. Even so
distinguished an authority as the director of the London School of Economics
was recently reported as seeing 'a new era of mercantilism setting in '.66 The
Times, back in August 1973, was telling us (in a leader significantly entitled
65 See, for example, J. Marcus Fleming, 'Mercantilism and free trade today' in T. Wilson and
A. S. Skinner (eds.), The market and the state. Essays in honour ofAdam Smith (Oxford, I 976), pp. I 64-99.
66 The Guardian, 8 Oct. I979.

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790 D. C. COLEMAN

'In defence of free trade') that mercantilism rested on the notion that 'the
wealth of a nation consists of the quantity of precious metal within its
borders'.67 Appropriately it was an historian, Robert Skidelsky, who wrote to
put The Times right and to upbraid it for repeating that 'slovenly inaccuracy'.
In his letter he also made a plea for mercantilism as 'an important element
in any modern economic system', for the need to 're-integrate the mercantilist
approach into a liberal political economy'.68 In so doing he was, consciously
or unconsciously, providing apt support for A. V. Judges' forty-year-old
definition of mercantilism as 'an imaginary system conceived by economists
for purposes of theoretical exposition and mishandled by historians in the
service of their political ideals '.69
Yet its revival and persistence in depressed times suggests that the perception
ofeconomic difficulties offers a clue to helping us towards a better understanding
of some at least of those ideas and actions which, for want of a better shorthand,
we are likely to go on calling mercantilist. It is very tempting to present them
as the policies pertinent to a phase of nil economic growth. Tempting, but much
too facile. For we shall never understand them historically, and least of all their
practical manifestations in government policy, unless we address ourselves to
their political and social context, as well as to the nature and conjuncture of
economic circumstances and the mainly pre-analytical contemporary percep-
tions thereof. For England this means, I think, seeing mercantilist ideas and
actions as utterances or moves in a bargaining process, as, so to speak, a series
of games involving Crown, parliament, and sets of interest groups. The varying
strengths of the contending parties determined the outcome. In English history
the forms which mercantilism took were the product not so much of an
over-developed monarchy ruling over an under-developed economy (though
it was sometimes that) as of a central executive which believed itself to be strong
but in reality was often weak. It rarely possessed anything remotely describable
as 'economic policy' but it always had financial problems for the solution of
which it had to parley with both the creators of wealth and the payers of taxes.70
The parleying, manoeuvring and bargaining were pervasive, continuous,
multi-faceted and especially evident in times of depression and war. Those who
penned the tracts and pamphlets which provide historical evidence were often,
though not always, writing for the performers in the bargaining game, and
should be seen as such. I am not suggesting either that those who ultimately
shaped the economic actions of the State were wholly uninfluenced by the ideas
expressed by economic writers or that the latter were all mere hirelings devoid
of any capacity for making logical advances in economic analysis. That would
be patently absurd. I am concerned simply to emphasize my unrepentant
67 The Times, 22 Aug. I973. 68 The Times, 27 Aug. I973-
69 'The idea of the mercantile state', loc. cit., p. 59.
70 Some characteristic specimens of this process can be seen analysed in, to give a few instances,
C. Edie, 'The Irish cattle bills: a study in restoration politics', Transactions of the American
Philosophical Society, new series, LX, part 2 (Philadelphia, I970), 5-62; P. Langford, The excise crisis
(Oxford, I 975); M. J. Jubb, 'Fiscal policy in England in the I 720S and I 730s', unpublished Ph.D.
thesis (Cambridge, I978).

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MERCANTILISM REVISITED 79I

support for George Unwin's dictum that we need a corrective to the tendency
' as misleading as it is all but universal. . . to overestimate the active part which
wise forethought and the deliberate pursuit of clear ideas has played in the
economic history of nations' .71 That was written as long ago as I 9 I 3. The rise
of the professional economist since that date has in no way diminished the need
for the corrective. If we wish to use theoretical tools to help us - and I am not
proposing that we should eschew them - some form of bargaining theory might
well prove useful, more useful indeed than the models devised by Smith or Marx
or Weber. As for mercantilism, in the end, though we may never succeed in
disposing of the word we should at least understand that mercantilism is one
of those non-existent entities that had to be invented in order to prevent the
study of history from falling into the abyss of antiquarianism.

71 G. Unwin, Studies in economic history (London, I927), p. I58.

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