Schools of Thought in Economics
Edited by Gilbert Faccarello and Heinz D. Kurz
Chapter 5: Mercantilism and the science of trade
Gathering under a single name the great diversity of authors who wrote on economic matters from the early seventeenth century until the second third of the eighteenth century seems to be an impossible task. However, this is what has been done in the past. Many economists and economic historians have called these writers “mercantilists”, a generic term which gave rise to discussions but was widely adopted (see Wilson 1957; Herlitz 1964; Rashid 1980; Magnusson 1994, 1995, 2008; Pincus 2012; Stern and Wennerlind 2014). The history of mercantilism appears as a series of “disconnected still pictures” (Herlitz 1964: 101): initially considered as an inconsistent doctrine, mercantilism was later presented as a coherent system and then sometimes as an imaginary or uninfluential construction. The debate on mercantilism has been deeply entangled in the discussion on “liberty” versus “protection”. Many scholars questioned the traditional boundary delimited by Smith’s work and corrected “Smith’s caricature” of this literature (Rashid 1980: 5), adding to the picture “late” or “moderate” or “liberal mercantilists” (see Ingram 1888; Cossa 1892; Schatz and Caillemer 1906; Grampp 1952; Hutchison 1982). The fact remains that to some extent scholars accepted the designation, the description suggested by the writings of Smith, Quesnay or Mirabeau (below), and the subsequent idea of a more or less common body of doctrines beyond the particularities of national economies and commercial empires. For most of them, mercantilism was a truly modern policy, not a remnant of the Middle Ages, and a body of doctrine sufficiently homogeneous and unified to be compared to that of laissez-faire. What unified the doctrine was the great emphasis put on foreign trade as a means of national enrichment and an expression of rivalry between nations, leading to a discussion whether the wealth of a nation tended towards a limit if it came only from internal resources, namely, land and raw materials, and whether this limit could be pushed as far as possible with the deployment of labour.
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