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A painting of a French seaport from 1638, at the height of mercantilism

Mercantilism is an economic theory that holds the prosperity of a nation is dependent upon its supply of capital, and that the global volume of international trade is "unchangeable." Economic assets or capital, are represented by bullion (gold, silver, and trade value) held by the state, which is best increased through a positive balance of trade with other nations (exports minus imports) and assumes wealth and monetary assets are identical. Mercantilism suggests that the ruling government should advance these goals by playing a protectionist role in the economy; by encouraging exports and discouraging imports, notably through the use of tariffs and subsidies."definition">


Mercantilism was the dominant school of thought throughout the early modern period (from the 16th to the 18th century). Internationally, mercantilism encouraged the many European wars of the period and fueled European imperialism. Academic belief in mercantilism began to fade in the late 18th century, as the arguments of Adam Smith and the other classical economists won out. Today, mercantilism (as a whole) is rejected by economists, though some elements are looked upon favorably by non-economists.

The related school of economic nationalism, which emphasizes the nation and government intervention but deemphasizes bullion in favor of productive capacity, has been and continues to be a dominant model of development economics, as practiced in the 19th century in United States in the National System, Germany in the Zollverein, and Japan, and as practiced in the late 20th and early 21st century by other Asian nations such as the Four Asian Tigers of Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, and most significantly, China.The export-led economies of present-day Japan and Germany are also cited as latter-day variants of mercantilism.


Most of the European economists who wrote between 1500 and 1750 are today generally considered mercantilists; this term was initially used solely by critics, such as Mirabeau and Smith, but was quickly adopted by historians. Originally the standard English term was "mercantile system". The word "mercantilism" was introduced into English from German in the early 19th century.

The bulk of what is commonly called "mercantilist literature" appeared in the 1620s in Great Britain. Smith saw English merchant Thomas Mun (1571-1641) as a major creator of the mercantile system, especially in his posthumously published Treasure by Foreign Trade (1664), which Smith considered the archetype of manifesto of the movement. Perhaps the last major mercantilist work was James Steuart’s Principles of Political Economy published in 1767.

Beyond England, Italy, France, and Spain produced noted writers who pursued mercantilist themes in their work, indeed the earliest examples of mercantilism are from outside of England: in Italy, Giovanni Botero (1544–1617) and Antonio Serra (1580–?), in France, Jean Bodin, Colbert and some other precursors to the physiocrats, in Spain, the School of Salamanca writers Francisco de Vitoria (1480 or 1483–1546), Domingo de Soto (1494–1560), Martin de Azpilcueta (1491–1586), and Luis de Molina (1535–1600). Themes also existed in writers from the German historical school from List, as well as followers of the "American system" and British "free-trade imperialism," thus stretching the system into the nineteenth century. However, many British writers, including Mun and Misselden, were merchants, while many of the writers from other countries were public officials. Beyond mercantilism as a way of understanding the wealth and power of nations, Mun and Misselden are noted for their viewpoints on a wide range of economic matters.

The Austrian lawyer and scholar Philipp Wilhelm von Hornick, in his Austria Over All, If She Only Will of 1684, detailed a nine-point program of what he deemed effective national economy, which sums up the tenets of mercantilism comprehensively:

  • That every inch of a country's soil be utilized for agriculture, mining or manufacturing.
  • That all raw materials found in a country be used in domestic manufacture, since finished goods have a higher value than raw materials.
  • That a large, working population be encouraged.
  • That all export of gold and silver be prohibited and all domestic money be kept in circulation.
  • That all imports of foreign goods be discouraged as much as possible.
  • That where certain imports are indispensable they be obtained at first hand, in exchange for other domestic goods instead of gold and silver.
  • That as much as possible, imports be confined to raw materials that can be finished [in the home country].
  • That opportunities be constantly sought for selling a country's surplus manufactures to foreigners, so far as necessary, for gold and silver.
  • That no importation be allowed if such goods are sufficiently and suitably supplied at home.

Other than Von Hornick, there were no mercantilist writers presenting an overarching scheme for the ideal economy, as Adam Smith would later do for classical economics. Rather, each mercantilist writer tended to focus on a single area of the economy. Only later did non-mercantilist scholars integrate these "diverse" ideas into what they called mercantilism. Some scholars thus reject the idea of mercantilism completely, arguing that it gives "a false unity to disparate events". Smith saw the mercantile system as an enormous conspiracy by manufacturers and merchants against consumers, a view that has led some authors, especially Robert E. Ekelund and Robert D. Tollison to call mercantilism "a rent-seeking society". To a certain extent, mercantilist doctrine itself made a general theory of economics impossible. Mercantilists viewed the economic system as a zero-sum game, in which any gain by one party required a loss by another. Thus, any system of policies that benefited one group would by definition harm the other, and there was no possibility of economics being used to maximize the "commonwealth", or common good. Mercantilists' writings were also generally created to rationalize particular practices rather than as investigations into the best policies.

Mercantilist domestic policy was more fragmented than its trade policy. While Adam Smith portrayed mercantilism as supportive of strict controls over the economy, many mercantilists disagreed. The early modern era was one of letters patent and government-imposed monopolies; some mercantilists supported these, but others acknowledged the corruption and inefficiency of such systems. Many mercantilists also realized that the inevitable results of quotas and price ceilings were black markets. One notion mercantilists widely agreed upon was the need for economic oppression of the working population; laborers and farmers were to live at the "margins of subsistence". The goal was to maximize production, with no concern for consumption. Extra money, free time, or education for the "lower classes" was seen to inevitably lead to vice and laziness, and would result in harm to the economy.


Scholars are divided on why mercantilism was the dominant economic ideology for two and a half centuries. One group, represented by Jacob Viner, argues that mercantilism was simply a straightforward, common-sense system whose logical fallacies could not be discovered by the people of the time, as they simply lacked the required analytical tools. The second school, supported by scholars such as Robert B. Ekelund, contends that mercantilism was not a mistake, but rather the best possible system for those who developed it. This school argues that mercantilist policies were developed and enforced by rent-seeking merchants and governments. Merchants benefited greatly from the enforced monopolies, bans on foreign competition, and poverty of the workers. Governments benefited from the high tariffs and payments from the merchants. Whereas later economic ideas were often developed by academics and philosophers, almost all mercantilist writers were merchants or government officials.

A third explanation for mercantilism is monetary. European trade exported bullion to pay for goods from Asia, thus reducing the money supply and putting downward pressure on prices and economic activity. The evidence for this hypothesis is the lack of inflation in the English economy until the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars when paper money was extensively used.

Mercantilism developed at a time when the European economy was in transition. Isolated feudal estates were being replaced by centralized nation-states as the focus of power. Technological changes in shipping and the growth of urban centers led to a rapid increase in international trade. Mercantilism focused on how this trade could best aid the states. Another important change was the introduction of double-entry bookkeeping and modern accounting. This accounting made extremely clear the inflow and outflow of trade, contributing to the close scrutiny given to the balance of trade.Of course, the impact of the discovery of America cannot be ignored. New markets and new mines propelled foreign trade to previously inconceivable heights. The latter led to “the great upward movement in prices” and an increase in “the volume of merchant activity itself.”

Prior to mercantilism, the most important economic work done in Europe was by the medieval scholastic theorists. The goal of these thinkers was to find an economic system that was compatible with Christian doctrines of piety and justice. They focused mainly on microeconomics and local exchanges between individuals. Mercantilism was closely aligned with the other theories and ideas that were replacing the medieval worldview. This period saw the adoption of the very Machiavellian realpolitik and the primacy of the raison d'état in international relations. The mercantilist idea that all trade was a zero sum game, in which each side was trying to best the other in a ruthless competition, was integrated into the works of Thomas Hobbes. The dark view of human nature also fit well with the Puritan view of the world, and some of the most stridently mercantilist legislation, such as the Navigation Acts, were enacted by the government of Oliver Cromwell.


Mercantilist ideas were the dominant economic ideology of all of Europe in the early modern period, and most states embraced it to a certain degree. Mercantilism was centered in England and France, and it was in these states that mercantilist polices were most often enacted. Mercantilism arose in France in the early 16th century, soon after the monarchy had become the dominant force in French politics. In 1539, an important decree banned the importation of woolen goods from Spainmarker and some parts of Flanders. The next year, a number of restrictions were imposed on the export of bullion. Over the rest of the sixteenth century further protectionist measures were introduced. The height of French mercantilism is closely associated with Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister for 22 years in the 17th century, to the extent that French mercantilism is sometimes called "Colbertism". Under Colbert, the French government became deeply involved in the economy in order to increase exports. Protectionist policies were enacted that limited imports and favored exports. Industries were organized into guilds and monopolies, and production was regulated by the state through a series of over a thousands directives outlining how different products should be produced. To encourage industry, foreign artisans and craftsmen were imported. Colbert also worked to decrease internal barriers to trade, reducing internal tariffs and building an extensive network of roads and canals. Colbert's policies were quite successful, and France's industrial output and economy grew considerably during this period, as France became the dominant European power. He was less successful in turning France into a major trading power, and Britain and the Netherlands remained supreme in this field.

In England, mercantilism reached its peak during the Long Parliament government (1640-1660). Mercantilist policies were also embraced throughout much of the Tudor and Stuart periods, with Robert Walpole being another major proponent. In Britain, government control over the domestic economy was far less extensive than on the Continent, limited by common law and the steadily increasing power of Parliament. Government-controlled monopolies were common, especially before the English Civil War, but were often controversial. British mercantilist writers were themselves divided on whether domestic controls were necessary. British mercantilism thus mainly took the form of efforts to control trade. A wide array of regulations was put in place to encourage exports and discourage imports. Tariffs were placed on imports and bounties given for exports, and the export of some raw materials was banned completely. The Navigation Acts expelled foreign merchants from England's domestic trade. The nation aggressively sought colonies and once under British control, regulations were imposed that allowed the colony to only produce raw materials and to only trade with Britain. This led to friction with the inhabitants of these colonies, and mercantilist policies were one of the major causes of the American Revolution. Over all, however, mercantilist policies had an important effect on Britain helping turn it into the world's dominant trader, and an international superpower. One domestic policy that had a lasting impact was the conversion of "waste lands" to agricultural use. Mercantilists felt that to maximize a nation's power all land and resources had to be used to their utmost, and this era thus saw projects like the draining of The Fensmarker.

The other nations of Europe also embraced mercantilism to varying degrees. The Netherlands, which had become the financial center of Europe by being its most efficient trader, had little interest in seeing trade restricted and adopted few mercantilist policies. Mercantilism became prominent in Central Europe and Scandinavia after the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), with Christina of Sweden and Christian IV of Denmark being notable proponents. The Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors had long been interested in mercantilist policies, but the vast and decentralized nature of their empire made implementing such notions difficult. Some constituent states of the empire did embrace Mercantilism, most notably Prussia, which under Frederick the Great had perhaps the most rigidly controlled economy in Europe. During the economic collapse of the seventeenth century Spain had little coherent economic policy, but French mercantilist policies were imported by Philip V with some success. Russiamarker under Peter I (Peter the Great) attempted to pursue mercantilism, but had little success because of Russia's lack of a large merchant class or an industrial base.

Mercantilism also fueled the intense violence of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. Since the level of world trade was viewed as fixed, it followed that the only way to increase a nation's trade was to take it from another. A number of wars, most notably the Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Franco-Dutch Wars, can be linked directly to mercantilist theories. The unending warfare of this period also reinforced mercantilism as it was seen as an essential component to military success. It also fueled the imperialism of this era, as each nation that was able attempted to seize colonies that would be sources of raw materials and exclusive markets. During the mercantilist period, European power spread around the globe. As with the domestic economy this expansion was often conducted under the aegis of companies with government-guaranteed monopolies in a certain part of the world, such as the Dutch East India Company or the Hudson's Bay Company (operating in present-day Canada).


Adam Smith and David Hume are considered to be the founding fathers of anti-mercantilist thought. A number of scholars found important flaws with mercantilism long before Adam Smith developed an ideology that could fully replace it. Critics like Hume, Dudley North, and John Locke undermined much of mercantilism, and it steadily lost favor during the 18th century. In 1690, John Locke made perfectly clear that prices vary in proportion to the quantity of money, but in general, the mercantilists did not put this together . Locke's Second Treatise also points towards the heart of the anti-mercantilist critique: that the wealth of the world is not fixed, but created by human labor (represented embryonically by Locke's labor theory of value). Mercantilists failed to understand the notions of absolute advantage and comparative advantage (although this idea was only fully fleshed out in 1817 by David Ricardo) and the benefits of trade . For instance, suppose Portugal was a more efficient producer of both wine and cloth than England, yet in England it was relatively cheaper to produce cloth compared to wine. Thus if Portugal specialized in wine and England in cloth, both states would end up better off if they traded. This is an example of the reciprocal benefits of trade due to a comparative advantage. In modern economic theory, trade is not a zero-sum game of cutthroat competition because both sides can benefit.

Hume famously noted the impossibility of the mercantilists' goal of a constant positive balance of trade . As bullion flowed into one country, the supply would increase and the value of bullion in that state would steadily decline relative to other goods. Conversely, in the state exporting bullion, its value would slowly rise. Eventually it would no longer be cost-effective to export goods from the high-price country to the low-price country, and the balance of trade would reverse itself. Mercantilists fundamentally misunderstood this, long arguing that an increase in the money supply simply meant that everyone gets richer.

The importance placed on bullion was also a central target, even if many mercantilists had themselves begun to de-emphasize the importance of gold and silver. Adam Smith noted at the core of the mercantile system was the "popular folly of confusing wealth with money," bullion was just the same as any other commodity, and there was no reason to give it special treatment. More recently, scholars have discounted the accuracy of this critique. They believe Mun and Misselden were not making this mistake in the 1620s, and point to their followers Child and Davenant, who, in 1699, wrote: "Gold and Silver are indeed the Measure of Trade, but that the Spring and Original of it, in all nations is the Natural or Artificial Product of the Country; that is to say, what this Land or what this Labour and Industry Produces." The critique that mercantilism was a form of rent-seeking has also seen criticism, as scholars such Jacob Viner in the 1930s point out that merchant mercantilists such as Mun understood that they would not gain by higher prices for English wares abroad.

The first school to completely reject mercantilism was the physiocrats, who developed their theories in France. Their theories also had several important problems, and the replacement of mercantilism did not come until Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. This book outlines the basics of what is today known as classical economics. Smith spends a considerable portion of the book rebutting the arguments of the mercantilists, though often these are simplified or exaggerated versions of mercantilist thought.

Scholars are also divided over the cause of mercantilism's end. Those who believe the theory was simply an error hold that its replacement was inevitable as soon as Smith's more accurate ideas were unveiled. Those who feel that mercantilism was rent seeking hold that it ended only when major power shifts occurred. In Britain, mercantilism faded as the Parliament gained the monarch's power to grant monopolies. While the wealthy capitalists who controlled the House of Commons benefited from these monopolies, Parliament found it difficult to implement them because of the high cost of group decision making.

Mercantilist regulations were steadily removed over the course of the Eighteenth Century in Britain, and during the 19th century the British government fully embraced free trade and Smith's laissez-faire economics. On the continent, the process was somewhat different. In France economic control remained in the hands of the royal family and mercantilism continued until the French Revolution. In Germany mercantilism remained an important ideology in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the historical school of economics was paramount.


In spite of Adam Smith's repudiation of mercantilism, it was favored in the United States by such prominent figures as Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Henry Charles Carey, and Abraham Lincoln and in Britain by such figures as Thomas Malthus. When Britain passed its Corn Laws in 1815, Malthus thought such restrictions were a good idea, but Ricardo disagreed. Eventually Smith's view was accepted in the English-speaking world, and in 1849 the corn laws were repealed largely on "Free Market" arguments given by Sir Robert Peel.

Adam Smith rejected the mercantilist focus on production, arguing that consumption was the only way to grow an economy. Keynes argued that encouraging production was just as important as consumption. Keynes also noted that in the early modern period the focus on the bullion supplies was reasonable. In an era before paper money, an increase for bullion was one of the few ways to increase the money supply. Keynes and other economists of the period also realized the balance of payments is an important concern. Since the 1930s, all nations have closely monitored the inflow and outflow of capital, and most economists agree that a favorable balance of trade is desirable. Keynes also supported government intervention in the economy as necessity, as did mercantilism. Today the word remains a pejorative term, often used to attack various forms of protectionism. The similarities between Keynesianism, and its successor ideas, with mercantilism have sometimes led critics to call them neo-mercantilism. Some other systems that do copy several mercantilist policies, such as Japan's economic system, are also sometimes called neo-mercantilist. In an essay appearing in the 14 May 2007 issue of Newsweek, economist Robert J. Samuelson argued that China was pursuing an essentially mercantilist trade policy that threatened to undermine the post-World War II international economic structure.

The Austrian School of economics, always an opponent of mercantilism, describes it this way:

One area Smith was reversed on well before Keynes was in the use of data. Mercantilists, who were generally merchants or government officials, gathered vast amounts of trade data and used it considerably in their research and writing. William Petty, a strong mercantilist, is generally credited with being the first to use empirical analysis to study the economy. Smith rejected this, arguing that deductive reasoning from base principles was the proper method to discover economic truths. Today, many schools of economics accept that both methods are important, the Austrian School being a notable exception.

In specific instances, protectionist mercantilist policies also had an important and positive impact on the state that enacted them. Adam Smith himself, for instance, praised the Navigation Acts as they greatly expanded the British merchant fleet, and played a central role in turning Britain into the naval and economic superpower that it was for several centuries. Some economists thus feel that protecting infant industries, while causing short term harm, can be beneficial in the long term.

Nonetheless, The Wealth of Nations had a profound impact on the end of the mercantilist era and the later adoption of free market policy. By 1860, England removed the last vestiges of the mercantile era. Industrial regulations, monopolies and tariffs were withdrawn.

Mercantilism today

Despite common assertions that the world system is neo liberal, some have challenged this, arguing that the current system does not represent a 'positive sum' game in which all benefit. Some suggest disparities of wealth and power have been exacerbated rather than allieviated by current financial practices and institutions.

In response to this situation, the term 'Structural Mercantilism' has been developed to describe the institutional and ideational structures perceived to have been built by, and in the interests of, rich countries and corporations.


  1. Magnusson (2003), p. 46.
  2. Magnusson (2003), p. 47.
  3. Magnusson (2003), p. 50.
  4. Landreth & Colander (2002), p. 44.
  5. Ekelund & Tollison (1981), p. 9.
  6. Landreth & Colander (2002), p. 48.
  7. Ekelund & Hébert (1975), p. 46.
  8. Ekelund & Hébert (1975), p. 61.
  9. Niehans (1990), p. 19.
  10. Landreth & Colander (1981), p. 43.
  11. Wilson (1963), p. 10.
  12. Landreth & Colander (2002), p. 53.
  13. Hermann Kellenbenz. The Rise of the European Economy. pg. 29
  14. E.N. Williams. The Ancien Regime in Europe. pg. 177-83
  15. E. Damsgaard Hansen. European Economic History. pg. 65
  16. Christopher Hill. The Century of Revolution. pg. 32
  17. Wilson pg. 15
  18. Ekelund & Hébert (1975), p. 43.
  19. Magnussen (2003), p.46.
  20. Referenced to Davenant, 1771 [1699], p. 171 in Magnussen (2003), p. 53.
  21. Magnussen (2003), p. 54.
  22. Niehans (1990), p. 19.
  23. Ekelund & Tollison (1981).
  24. Wilson (1963), p. 6.
  25. See Donald Markwell (2006), John Maynard Keynes and International Relations: Economic Paths to War and Peace, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.
  26. Wilson (1963), p. 3.
  27. Hansen, p. 64.
  28. Gee, T, The World System is not Neo Liberal: The Emergence of Structural Mercantilism, Critique, Volume 37, Issue 2 May 2009 , pages 253 - 259


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