Reconsideration of Economic Views of a Classical Empire and a Nation-State during the Mercantilist Ages

By Bulut, Mehmet | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Reconsideration of Economic Views of a Classical Empire and a Nation-State during the Mercantilist Ages


Bulut, Mehmet, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


I

Introduction

DIFFERENT SOCIETIES ESTABLISHED and developed different types of states and empires in history. It is evident that in spite of some similarities, the nature of characteristics of the political and economic aims of the empires (1) and national states are different. (2) Because of the Dutch commercial supremacy and strong position of the Ottoman Empire during the early modern period, it would be interesting to concentrate on the comparison of the Dutch and Ottoman economic policies in order to understand the main differences between the imperial and national views of the economy.

The Ottoman state evolved from the frontier of the Byzantine Empire in the Asia Minor principality at the end of the 13th century to become a world empire extending from Eastern Europe to the Indian Ocean in the 16th century. It encompassed the Balkans, Anatolia, and North Africa, and stretched from the Danube River to the Red Sea and from the Caspian Sea to the Morean peninsula. According to Mantran, by the middle of the 16th century the Ottoman Empire had become the dominant state controlling all the trade routes from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean since the Byzantine Empire had lost its possessions in much of the area in the 7th century. (3) Providing safety was the most crucial issue for economic activities during that period. Due to its economic, political, and naval power, the Ottoman Empire was able to provide a safe situation for the economic actors and dominate the trading routes between Asia and Europe for a long time. (4)

The Dutch cities and provinces were under Spanish rule until the 1570s. In the United Provinces, the social, economic, political, and religious tensions increased under Philip II (1556-1598). In 1566, the Southern Netherlands and, in 1572, the Northern Netherlands rebelled. After the beginning of the revolt against Spain, the Dutch were enmeshed in a bitter war of independence that ended only in 1648. (5) The Dutch Republic became a big economic power in the 17th century. It seems a paradox that a state being established during a war that lasted 80 years should at the same time become a commercial power in Europe.

Wallerstein considers the Ottoman Empire a "world empire," while Braudel regards it as a "world economy" during the 16th and 17th centuries. (6) Faroqhi adds that "this means that these lands were not only a political unit but, in part due to the pax ottomana, (7) formed an area in which inter-regional trade was facilitated by relative security on the caravan routes." (8) According to Cipolla, "the seventeenth century was a black century for Spain, Italy and Germany and at least a grey one for France, but for Holland it was the Golden Age, and for England, if not golden, at least silver." (9)

II

The Government and Economy in the Ottoman Empire

DESPITE PRAGMATISM, FLEXIBILITY, and a considerable ability to adapt their institutions to changing circumstances, the Ottoman Empire continued to follow its strong central authority over the economy and society and traditional order such as state ownership of land, strict control on urban guilds and traders, and restrictions on private capital accumulation in the 16th and 17th centuries.

It is evident that the government was responsible for many aspects of the economy in the classical Ottoman period. According to Inalcik, in order to increase revenues, the Ottomans developed economic activities and increased production, and to achieve this "all political and social institutions and all types of economic activity were regulated by the state." (10) It was obviously an advantage to have variety in the marketplace, so a large number of guilds were supported to ensure that they would continue to produce a wide diversity of goods. Stable prices were seen as beneficial to both sellers and buyers, so prices were fixed. Social unrest was a great fear; therefore, guildsmen were virtually guaranteed employment and the government labored mightily to ensure that supply and demand were not allowed to affect the supply or price of grain in the capital. …

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