The Political Economy of Mercantilism
Routledge (2015) 230 pages
Mercantilism has become one of those historical concepts where its historiography is worthy of academic study in its own right. Despite some attempts, there has been no stemming the flow of contributions to the burgeoning debate over what mercantilism is, what mercantilists thought, and the suitability of its continued use by historians of early modern political economy. The latest offering to this debate is Lars Magnusson’s The Political Economy of Mercantilism (2015), which is building on ground laid by Magnusson in 1994, with Mercantilism: The Shaping of an Economic Language. This earlier text was a welcome addition to the literature on mercantilism, focussing on the so-called mercantilist texts as part of a discourse within which a new economic language emerged to describe the changing nature of the early modern European economy and that provided a new conceptual framework for understanding it. Magnusson challenged both those who argued that mercantilism was a coherent doctrine with an identifiable program, as well as those, led by Donald Coleman, who denounced the concept as anachronistic and misleading.
In this new book, Magnusson uses much of the same material from his earlier work, updated and with additions, with the aim of broadening the historical context from which this new economic language emerged. One of the strengths of the book is its coverage of the scholarly debates over the definition and essence of mercantilism during the last two and a half centuries: from its original critics, Marquis de Mirabeau and Adam Smith, through the revisionist German and British Historical Economists of the nineteenth century, to the extensive debates that have raged through the twentieth century. The ever increasing historiography has become a daunting task for anyone approaching the topic of early modern political economy and Magnusson does an excellent job of providing a readable and stimulating discussion of the history of this contentious concept.
As in his earlier work, Magnusson hones in on some key aspects of the debates that constituted mercantilist discourse: the quest for plenty and power that drove international trade in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe; the conflict between theories of the balance of trade and of competing notions of wealth; the English debates over the attempts to understand and deal with the apparent decline of foreign trade in the 1620s, conducted by Thomas Mun, Edward Misselden, and Gerard Malynes, among others; and, the ‘new science of trade’ that grew out of these earlier debates and was developed in the second half of the century by the likes of William Petty, Josiah Child, and Charles Davenant. With the focus on the language that was cultivated in this discourse, firmly placed in the historical context of the era, Magnusson offers a compelling framework with which to understand the ideas and arguments that were presented by the mercantilists.
The weakness of the book is its failure to acknowledge that the debate has moved on since the early 1990s. Magnusson is challenging a consensus that no longer exists, and one that he partially helped to break two decades ago. Indeed, Magnusson’s argument that mercantilism should be understood as a discourse was picked up by Steve Pincus, who described the concept as a ‘series of contests between competing political economic strategies’ and asserted that the ‘English conducted heated political economic and imperial debates rather than sharing a mercantilist consensus’. It would have been more interesting for Magnusson to engage with Pincus where there are clearly still differences between the two, particularly regarding the latter’s emphasis on role of party-political ideologies. Magnusson does broach these differences (on p. 47) but all too briefly. Further, the notion that mercantilists were all guilty of conflating money with wealth, which Magnusson sought to refute, had been debunked by Carl Wennerlind in his contribution to the excellent collection of essays in Mercantilism Reimagined (2014). Again, there is room here for further analysis, but Magnusson fails to take it up.
Although Magnusson does not advance much that is new to the academic interpretation of mercantilism, there is a good deal to commend this book. In particular, if you are a student or are otherwise new to early modern political economy of Western Europe then this is an excellent place to start. The existing literature is intimidating to the hardiest of scholars and Magnusson offers a coherent and engaging introduction to it, together with presenting some of the key debates of mercantilist discourse. However, if one is seeking to go beyond such introductions and looking for something that takes the concept of mercantilism in a new direction, one is likely to be somewhat disappointed.
Pincus, Steve, ‘Rethinking Mercantilism: Political Economy, the British Empire, and the Atlantic World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’, The William and Mary Quarterly 69:1 (January 2012), pp. 3-34
Wennerlind, Carl, ‘Money: Hartlibian Political Economy and the New Culture of Credit’, Mercantilism Reimagined; Political Economy in Early Modern Britain and Its Empire, edited by Philip J. Stern and Carl Wennerlind (Oxford, 2014)