commerce (in economics)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

commerce (in economics)

commerce, traffic in goods, usually thought of as trade between states or nations. Engaged in by all peoples from the earliest times, it has been carried on in some areas and by some peoples more than others, because of special geographical, technological, or economic advantages. The Egyptians, the Sumerians and later inhabitants of Mesopotamia, the Cretans, the Syrians, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Arabs, and the Western Europeans have excelled in commerce, tapping the resources of the East, Oceania, the Americas, and Africa.

The Rise of Commerce in Europe

The Crusades did much to widen European trade horizons and prefaced the passing of trade superiority from Constantinople to Venice and other cities of N Italy. In the 15th and 16th cent. with the sudden expansion of Portugal and Spain the so-called commercial revolution reached a climax. In N and central Europe, the earlier supremacy of the Hanseatic League, the Rhenish cities, and the cities of N France and Flanders was eclipsed by the rise of national states. Antwerp began its long career of glory when the Spanish were losing hegemony, and the Dutch briefly triumphed in the race for world commerce in the 17th cent. The Dutch in turn gave way to a British-French rivalry that by 1815 left Great Britain paramount.

The rise of the chartered company under the auspices of the national state had much to do with the expansion of trade, as did the modern corporation, which later displaced the chartered company. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and the 19th cent. also fostered the development of commerce, generating both products for trade and the means for trading them. World commerce was aided materially by the invention of the astrolabe, the mariner's compass, and the sextant; by the development of iron and steel construction; by the application of steam to both land and water transport; and by the more recent development of the telephone, telegraph, cable, radio, and the Internet, and of inventions such as refrigeration, the gasoline engine, the electric motor, the airplane, and the computer.

International Trade Today

The theory of commerce as imposed by the national state has varied from the mercantilism of the 17th and 18th cent. and the protective tariff of the 19th and 20th cent. to the free trade that Britain long upheld. After World War II the cold war limited trade between Communist and capitalist countries until the late 1980s, but the need for commercial expansion led to the creation of a number of international and regional systems designed to remove trade barriers. The International Monetary Fund was established in 1944 to help nations finance temporary trade deficits. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), signed in 1947 by 23 major industrial countries to reduce tariffs, evolved into an ongoing mechanism for reducing trade barriers, and after eight rounds of negotiations, the Uruguay Round (the last round, 1995) created the World Trade Organization.

In 1957 the European Economic Community was created, and in the 1980s and early 90s European leaders signed a series of agreements that created a unified West European economy in 1993 (see European Union). In 1992 leaders from the United States, Canada, and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); Mercosur was established a year earlier in South America. Nonetheless, national economic interests have been difficult to overcome, and a number of countries, including the United States, passed protectionist legislation and enacted retaliatory tariffs in the 1980s and 90s.

Bibliography

See M. Beard, A History of Business (2 vol., 1938; repr. 1962–63); C. S. Belshaw, Traditional Exchange and Modern Markets (1965); W. Culican, The First Merchant Venturers (1967); R. S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages (1971); R. Rosencrance, The Rise of the Trading State (1986); W. Gill, Trade Wars against America (1990); A. K. Smith, Creating a World Economy (1991); J. J. Schott, ed., The World Trading System (1996).

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