The Pathos of Politics (38) Mercantilism


The Christian view of economics in the Middle Ages was one of deprecation. The focus was on the next world, not this one. Into the 18th century, the Protestant work ethic had yet to permeate western culture in extoling the spiritual value of earthly endeavors.

Agrarian economies pervaded the 18th-century world. In Europe, a sizable aristocracy and nobility fed off the land and its peasant tillers with relative ease. The skilled trades were circumscribed by guilds, which above all protected its members.

The discovery of the New World and attendant colonialism, both west and east of Europe (the Americas and Asia), wrought significant societal changes. Widescale emigration facilitated more open societies in Europe, as the ruling class had incentive to reform so as to render society more livable.

Colonialism fueled the rise of nation-states. As the spoils of new territories became apparent, the military means for conquest and defense grew paramount. This spurred technological innovation in many corners, and in the minds of men. Most poignantly, the discovery of the New World fired the imagination, leading to questioning established maxims.

Concepts of polity and political economy were affected by this gyre of societal changes. The knee-jerk response was mercantilism: promoting governmental regulation of the economy to augment state power and thereby be able to best rival nations.

Mercantilism was the dominant policy of European governments from the 16th century into the 18th. It intended to provide the means for countries to compete at the national level. Around the world, a mercantilist mentality lingers in statist politicians to this day. American President Donald Trump is exemplary (even as Trump is schizophrenically statist in his authoritarian reflexes and anarchist in his destruction of effective governmental power).

The prime dictate of mercantilism was accumulation of monetary reserves through a positive balance of trade, particularly of manufactured goods. Policies directed to this goal motivated colonial expansion, and frequently led to war.

High tariffs were a ubiquitous centerpiece of mercantilist policy. Other tactical policies aimed at enriching state coffers included restricting domestic consumption through non-tariff trade barriers, limiting wages, export subsidies, and banning the export of precious metals (silver and gold).

This political emphasis pushed innovation, beginning with ways to generate and apply mechanical power as a means to empower more production. The steam engine was a key component of industrial development, as it allowed factories to be located where waterpower was unavailable.

The elites in ancient times afforded affluence by owning slaves. The antebellum American South illustrated how slavery discourages practical scientific progress. The South’s technological backwardness practically guaranteed its loss to the North in the Civil War.

In a very real sense, machines are modern slaves: a substitute of metal for flesh and bone. During industrialization, this replacement meant displacement of manpower.

The advent of the machine age begat what Austrian American economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”: destroying old ways and creating new ones. Especially for experienced workers, this meant livelihood losses by devaluing traditional skills. It also meant lower wages, as there was a surfeit of labor.

These developments kicked exploitation of every sort into a higher gear: the paradoxical practice of being inhumane in the ostensible service of humanity. The societal effects were to reverberate to present day.