Mercantilist ideas were the dominant economic ideology of all of Europe in the early modern period, and most states embraced it to a certain degree.
Mercantilism was centered in England and France, and it was in these states that mercantilist polices were most often enacted. Mercantilism arose in France in the early 16th century, soon after the monarchy had become the dominant force in French politics. In 1539, an important decree banned the importation of woolen goods from Spain and some parts of Flanders.The next year, a number of restrictions were imposed on the export of bullion. Over the rest of the sixteenth century further protectionist measures were introduced.
The height of French mercantilism is closely associated with Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister for 22 years in the 17th century, to the extent that French mercantilism is sometimes called “Colbertism”. Under Colbert, the French government became deeply involved in the economy in order to increase exports. Protectionist policies were enacted that limited imports and favored exports.Industries were organized into guilds and monopolies, and production was regulated by the state through a series of over a thousand directives outlining how different products should be produced. To encourage industry, foreign artisans and craftsmen were imported. Colbert also worked to decrease internal barriers to trade, reducing internal tariffs and building an extensive network of roads and canals.
Colbert’s policies were quite successful, and France’s industrial output and economy grew considerably during this period, as France became the dominant European power.He was less successful in turning France into a major trading power, and Britain and the Netherlands remained supreme in this field. In England, mercantilism reached its peak during the Long Parliament government (1640–1660). Mercantilist policies were also embraced throughout much of the Tudor and Stuart periods, with Robert Walpole being another major proponent. In Britain, government control over the domestic economy was far less extensive than on the Continent, limited by common law and the steadily increasing power of Parliament.
Government-controlled monopolies were common, especially before the English Civil War, but were often controversial. British mercantilist writers were themselves divided on whether domestic controls were necessary. British mercantilism thus mainly took the form of efforts to control trade. A wide array of regulations was put in place to encourage exports and discourage imports.
Tariffs were placed on imports and bounties given for exports, and the export of some raw materials was banned completely.The Navigation Acts expelled foreign merchants from England’s domestic trade. The nation aggressively sought colonies and once under British control, regulations were imposed that allowed the colony to only produce raw materials and to only trade with Britain. This led to friction with the inhabitants of these colonies, and mercantilist policies were one of the major causes of the American Revolution. Over all, however, mercantilist policies had an important effect on Britain helping turn it into the world’s dominant trader, and an international superpower.One domestic policy that had a lasting impact was the conversion of “waste lands” to agricultural use. Mercantilists felt that to maximize a nation’s power all land and resources had to be used to their utmost, and this era thus saw projects like the draining of The Fens.
Mercantilism helped create trade patterns such as the triangular trade in the North Atlantic, in which raw materials were imported to the metropolis and then processed and redistributed to other colonies. The other nations of Europe also embraced mercantilism to varying degrees.The Netherlands, which had become the financial center of Europe by being its most efficient trader, had little interest in seeing trade restricted and adopted few mercantilist policies. Mercantilism became prominent in Central Europe and Scandinavia after the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). The Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors had long been interested in mercantilist policies, but the vast and decentralized nature of their empire made implementing such notions difficult. Some constituent states of the empire did embrace Mercantilism, most notably Prussia, which under Frederick the Great had perhaps the most rigidly controlled economy in Europe.During the economic collapse of the seventeenth century Spain had little coherent economic policy, but French mercantilist policies were imported by Philip-V with some success.
Russia under Peter I (Peter the Great) attempted to pursue mercantilism, but had little success because of Russia’s lack of a large merchant class or an industrial base. Mercantilism also fueled the intense violence of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. Since the level of world trade was viewed as fixed, it followed that the only way to increase a nation’s trade was to take it from another.A number of wars, most notably the Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Franco-Dutch Wars, can be linked directly to mercantilist theories. The unending warfare of this period also reinforced mercantilism as it was seen as an essential component to military success. It also fueled the imperialism of this era, as each nation that was able attempted to seize colonies that would be sources of raw materials and exclusive markets. During the mercantilist period, European power spread around the globe.As with the domestic economy this expansion was often conducted under the aegis of companies with government-guaranteed monopolies in a certain part of the world, such as the Dutch East India Company or the Hudson’s Bay Company (operating in present-day Canada).
Mercantilist domestic policy was more fragmented than its trade policy. While Adam Smith portrayed mercantilism as supportive of strict controls over the economy, many mercantilists disagreed. The early modern era was one of letters patent and government imposed monopolies; some mercantilists supported these, but others acknowledged the corruption and inefficiency of such systems.Many mercantilists also realized that the inevitable results of quotas and price ceilings were black markets. One notion mercantilists widely agreed upon was the need for economic oppression of the working population; laborers and farmers were to live at the “margins of subsistence”. The goal was to maximize production, with no concern for consumption.
Extra money, free time, or education for the “lower classes” was seen to inevitably lead to vice and laziness, and would result in harm to the economy.