The Economic Mind in America: Essays in the History of American Economics

By Malcolm Rutherford | Go to book overview

17

THE INTERNATIONAL DIMENSION OF AMERICAN ECONOMICS 1

Craufurd D. Goodwin and Stephen Meardon

THE EARLY YEARS: TURNING INWARD

Before the American Revolution, economic thinkers in the American colonies necessarily thought in global terms. After all, they were part of the British Empire, which was present on all the continents, and as it prospered so might they. They argued against a variety of imperial policies that seemed inimical to their local welfare, such as the Navigation Acts, metropolitan monopolies in the sale of such goods as tea, and taxation without representation. But always these were disputes within an imperial family on which, it must be remembered, the sun never set.

Benjamin Franklin, a leading example of an enlightened North American Mercantilist writer, was highly optimistic about the ultimate place of America within the British Empire. He saw the old world nearly fully populated and the new as brimming with undeveloped resources and opportunities. It was necessary in America mainly to think of how best to exploit the open spaces. Franklin was confident that the imperial center of gravity would ultimately shift westward and that even the seat of government would move from London to America. The implication of this train of thought was that the colonists for their own good needed to stay well informed both about the economic details of the empire and about the prevailing state of thinking in Britain about economic policies (see Dorfman 1966:178-206).

The new conception articulated during the second half of the eighteenth century, and epitomized in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, of a world economy made up of freely interconnected national markets and with interference from government mainly to assure peace and justice, could be welcomed by colonists whether or not they understood the theoretical underpinnings of the policy conclusions. Franklin, for example, applauded the writings of Smith and the Physiocrats while still thinking in Mercantilist categories. After all, notions like laissez-faire and extension of the market leading to improved division of labor were wholly consistent with the colonists’

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