Mercantilism: The Shaping of an Economic Language

Mercantilism: The Shaping of an Economic Language

Mercantilism: The Shaping of an Economic Language

Mercantilism: The Shaping of an Economic Language

Synopsis

Ever since the Physiocrats and Adam Smith, mercantilism or 'the mercantile system' have been described as the opposite of classical political economy. This view is very much brought into question by the current book. It argues that the sharp distinction between mercantilism and 19th century laissez-faire economics has obscured the meaning, content and contribution of the former.
This book presents a full-scale account of the development of mercantilism as a trend of economic thought during the 17th and 18th centuries. Instead of accepting existing interpretations, it begins with the most fundamental questions: What was mercantilism? Did it have a central message? Was it really a coherent school of thought?
A central theme of the book is its critique of narrow definitions of its subject. Mercantilism must be understood as a series of written texts appearing in a particular political and economic context, rather than as an all-embracing system of economic thought. Within this context a language and vocabulary of economics was developed that was an essential precondition for the subsequent growth of economic thought and knowledge. In this sense mercantilism was much more modern than has been previously appreciated.

Excerpt

There are several reasons for yet another book on mercantilism. The first and most important is, that after decades of relentless criticism of Heckscher’s all-encompassing treatment of mercantilism, the time is ripe for another attempt to interpret it as a systematic phenomenon. As noted by the great economic historian R.H. Tawney, many years ago, mercantilism, like capitalism and feudalism, is one of those ‘isms’ that refuses stubbornly to die out. The reason for this is simple: mercantilism will not disappear merely by eschewing the word. The word is still useful in understanding the intellectual and political environment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—so why not use it?

However, as Tawney further noted, the word ‘mercantilism’ is open to misuse. A clear case of this has been its frequent employment as a term for the general process of state-making in the Early Modern Epoch. Thus the deconstruction of mercantilism in its widest definition is a pressing task. In such an undertaking I suggest we should not avoid the term itself but treat it as it appeared historically—as a series of written texts; pamphlets, tracts, books. More than anything, mercantilism was a literature, a discourse, on trade and economics which appeared mainly in one specific national context, the English, but was linked to other national discursive traditions as well, and to the polity and economy of the ‘real’ world. At the same time, it was a distinctively separate phenomenon which demanded recognition as such.

A second reason for another book on mercantilism is the need for a revision of mercantilism as it has been depicted by most historians of economic thought. Since Adam Smith, and until recently, mercantilism has been regarded as the opposite of economic liberalism and as far removed as possible from classical and neo-classical economics. As I attempt to show, this is far from the case. The misguided view has served a useful purpose however, notably in illustrating the superiority of modern economics (certainly with respect to technical perfection), but an exploration of the world of the mercantilists raises doubt as to whether economics has improved as greatly as we might wish to believe.

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