November 25, 2022


Mercantilist Follies, Then and Now : Discredited mercantilist notions shape many of our present economic debates. (Samuel Gregg, 9/22/22, Law & Liberty)

At the 2022 American Economic Forum organized by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, I had occasion to listen to an after-dinner speech about trade--more precisely, an economic nationalist view of trade--by former US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer. Chatting afterwards with students attending the Forum, one of them asked me what I thought of Ambassador Lighthizer's remarks. My response was: "It was mercantilism, updated for the twenty-first century." "What's mercantilism?" she inquired.

What indeed is mercantilism? It's not a word used commonly today, but mercantilism is shorthand for a set of economic, political, and legal ideas and practices that dominated the European world between 1500 and 1800. "The Mercantile System," as Adam Smith called it, was also the target of Book IV of his Wealth of Nations. It was, as Smith himself later wrote to a Danish correspondent, "a very violent attack . . . upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain." Smith's broadside, however, drew back the curtain to show what mercantilism really entailed. The picture that emerged was not a pretty one, but it illustrates why free trade abroad and free markets at home are far preferable to the neo-mercantilist alternatives on offer today.

Yeah, but trade with foreigners gives you cooties...

Posted by at November 25, 2022 12:00 AM