Tuesday, September 16, 2014
16

El nuevo desafío mercantilista

CAMBRIDGE – La historia de la economía es en gran medida una lucha entre dos escuelas de pensamiento opuestas, el «liberalismo» y el «mercantilismo». El liberalismo económico, con su énfasis en los emprendimientos privados y el libre mercado es la doctrina dominante actual. Pero su victoria intelectual nos ha cegado respecto del gran atractivo –y frecuente éxito– de las prácticas mercantilistas. De hecho, el mercantilismo sigue vivo y goza de buena salud, y su continuo conflicto con el liberalismo probablemente será una importante fuerza que influirá sobre el futuro de la economía.

Actualmente se desecha por lo general al mercantilismo como un conjunto arcaico y patentemente equivocado de ideas de política económica. Y, en su apogeo, los mercantilistas ciertamente defendieron algunas nociones bastante extrañas, entre las cuales la más notoria era que la política nacional debía guiarse por la acumulación de metales preciosos: oro y plata.

El tratado de Adam Smith de 1776, La riqueza de las naciones, demolió hábilmente muchas de esas ideas. Smith demostró, en especial, que no debe confundirse al dinero con la riqueza. Según él, «la riqueza de un país no está constituida solamente por su oro y su plata, sino por sus tierras, viviendas y bienes de consumo de todo tipo».

Pero resulta más exacto pensar en el mercantilismo como una forma diferente de organizar la relación entre el estado y la economía –una visión no menos relevante hoy que en el siglo XVIII. Los teóricos mercantilistas, como Thomas Mun, fueron de hecho fuertes defensores del capitalismo; simplemente proponían un modelo diferente del liberalismo.

El modelo liberal percibe al estado como necesariamente predatorio y al sector privado como dedicado inherentemente a la búsqueda de beneficios. Por ello propone una estricta separación entre el estado y las empresas privadas. El mercantilismo, por el contrario, ofrece una visión corporativista en la cual el estado y las empresas privadas son aliados y cooperan en busca de objetivos comunes, como el crecimiento de la economía nacional o del poderío del país.

El modelo mercantilista puede ser ridiculizado como capitalismo estatal o amiguismo. Pero cuando funciona, como a menudo ha sido el caso en Asia, la «colaboración empresario-gubernamental» o el «estado proempresarial» rápidamente reciben abundantes elogios. Las economías retrasadas no han dejado de notar que el mercantilismo puede ser su aliado. Incluso en Gran Bretaña, el liberalismo clásico solo llegó a mediados del siglo XIX –esto es, después de que el país se hubiese convertido en la potencia industrial dominante del mundo.

Una segunda diferencia entre ambos modelos reside en la preferencia que se brinda a los intereses de los consumidores o de los productores. Para los liberales, reinan los consumidores. El objetivo final de la política económica es aumentar el potencial de consumo de los hogares, que requiere brindarles acceso sin obstáculos a los bienes y servicios al menor precio posible.

Los mercantilistas, por el contrario, enfatizan el sector productivo de la economía. Para ellos una economía sólida requiere una estructura productiva sólida. Y el consumo debe basarse en un alto nivel de empleo con salarios adecuados.

Estos modelos diferentes tienen implicaciones predecibles para las políticas económicas internacionales. La lógica del enfoque liberal es que los beneficios económicos del intercambio surgen de las importaciones: cuanto más baratas las importaciones, mejor, incluso si el resultado es un déficit comercial. Los mercantilistas, sin embargo, ven al comercio como una forma de apoyar la producción y el empleo locales, y prefieren impulsar las exportaciones en vez de las importaciones.

La China actual es la principal portadora de la antorcha mercantilista, aún cuando los líderes chinos jamás lo admitan –todavía el término conlleva demasiado oprobio. Gran parte del milagro económico chino es producto de un gobierno activista que ha apoyado, estimulado y subsidiado abiertamente a los productores industriales –tanto locales como extranjeros.

Si bien China ha abandonado muchos de sus subsidios explícitos a las exportaciones como condición para su participación en la Organización Mundial de Comercio (a la cual se unió en 2001), el sistema de apoyo mercantilista sigue en gran medida vigente. En particular, el gobierno ha administrado el tipo de cambio para mantener la rentabilidad de la industria manufacturera y esto ha resultado en un considerable superávit comercial (que se redujo recientemente, pero en gran medida como resultado de una desaceleración económica). Además, las empresas orientadas a las exportaciones continúan beneficiándose por variados incentivos fiscales.

Desde la perspectiva liberal, estos subsidios a las exportaciones empobrecen a los consumidores chinos y benefician a los consumidores en el resto del mundo. Un estudio reciente de los economistas Fabrice Defever y Alejandro Riaño, de la Universidad de Nottingham, calcula las «pérdidas» chinas en un 3 % del ingreso de ese país y los beneficios para el resto del mundo en aproximadamente el 1 % del ingreso mundial. Desde la perspectiva mercantilista, sin embargo, estos son sencillamente los costos de construir una economía moderna y prepararse para la prosperidad en el largo plazo.

Como muestra el ejemplo de los subsidios a las exportaciones, ambos modelos pueden coexistir alegremente en la economía mundial. Los liberales deben alegrarse cuando los mercantilistas subsidian su consumo.

De hecho esa es, en esencia, la historia de las últimas seis décadas: países asiáticos que sucesivamente se las ingeniaron para crecer enormemente aplicando distintas variantes del mercantilismo. Los gobiernos de los países ricos hicieron la vista gorda la mayor parte del tiempo mientras que Japón, Corea del Sur, Taiwán y China protegieron sus mercados locales, se apropiaron de «propiedad intelectual», subsidiaron a sus productores y regularon sus tipos de cambio.

Hemos llegado al fin de esta feliz coexistencia. El modelo liberal ha perdido su brillo, debido al aumento en la desigualdad y la difícil situación de la clase media en occidente, junto con la crisis financiera producida por la desregulación. Las perspectivas de crecimiento en el mediano plazo para las economías estadounidense y europeas van de moderadas a funestas. El desempleo continuará como una de las principales preocupaciones para los responsables de políticas. Es probable que entonces las presiones mercantilistas se intensifiquen en los países avanzados.

Como resultado, el nuevo entorno económico producirá más tensión que acomodamientos entre los países que busquen vías liberales y mercantilistas. Puede también despertar debates latentes desde hace mucho tiempo sobre el tipo de capitalismo que genera una mayor prosperidad.

Traducción al español por Leopoldo Gurman.

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  1. CommentedJose araujo

    First, there is no such thing as "liberalism" in economy, you have the classics and neo-classics. Mercantilism is an 17th-18th century theory and the major opposition came from the Physiocrats - Agrarian vs Trade.

    To major formal errors from a Professor of Social Sciences, but a bigger one on not recognizing that importance of Marxism, Keynesianism and Monetarism, all off them at par with the classics and neo-classics in the economic wall-of-fame.

    Last but not the least, supply-side economics is something you link to the "Neo-Classics", demand is linked to Keynesians, so a major error on the proposition Mercantilism-supply and "liberalism" (whatever that means) - demand.

  2. CommentedSithembiso Malusi Mahlaba

    Both economic concepts are neither bad nor good, but each one will be relevant to peculiar situation for specific objectives indeed. For developmental state mercantilism seems an appropriate approach, from my perspective in Afrika, up until such time, an element of liberalism to some degree can be factored in economic equation. There is nothing cast in stone indeed, as global forces can change directions at anytime, therefore any concept applied must evolve with changing times.

  3. CommentedRitesh Kumar Singh

    Chinese mercantilist policy (a combination of overt-covert subsidies, manupulation of exchange rate and export restriction with respect to industrial raw materials) have resulted in huge trade deficit for the US (of late for India as well). Troubled EU and US means China will have to look towards boosting domestic consumption as exporting to EU or the US will be more difficult going forward. This is perhaps the most serious limitation of mercantilism. Each country will grow if trade is fair...otherwise some countries will grow faster but slow growing countries will finally pull down everyone. The solution is to go for multilateral trade lineralization under WTO framwork...and not EU or the US going the mercantilist way.

  4. CommentedEtienne Schneider

    I do not think that Germany is a mercantilist country in the way the author describes it. Germany does not exercise so much control over companys, and especially not over banks and the financial sector as China does. Due to the centralised monetary policy of the ECB Germany would not even have the power even if it would like to do .

    The fact that Germany is profiting from the weak Euro is more a happy coincidence for Germany that the willingness of german policy makers to work towards a weak euro.

      CommentedAxel Cabrol

      Of course Germany is following a mercantilist model: Schroders and Harz reform was a clear trade off between consumption and productive investment in Germany. ove rthe last 10 yrs German rea wages stagnated: this is not exactly a preference for consumption.
      Moreover the German example shows the political/social control over companies or production is not only channeled through central government control.

  5. CommentedKir Komrik

    Thanks for the mainstream but reasonable perspective,

    imo, both mercantilism and liberalism are failures. It's just that the "liberals" don't realize it yet. It's not durable. It's unjust. It's unsustainable. It's time for fresh, new ideas that are truly original and not a rehash of old ones, imo. It's time for genuine global rule of law with General Federalism and Fiducial Economics, imo ... or a better idea if I hear one.

    - kk

    http://federalism.jux.com
    http://kirkomrik.wordpress.com

  6. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    Which is right or true, economics of liberalism or that of mercantilism? This questiion is meaningless like that of which is right or true, a microscope or a telescope. Each scope has its due area in which to function.

    Though it is hard for us to understand why people of the eighteenth century upheld mercantilism, there was much "turth" in the belief that hoarding precious metals bred wealth, because it made it possible for an emerigng nation-state, Great Britain or France or whatever, to accumulate capital for industrialization. (There was another important reason which was social and therfore political, namely to protect society from disintegrative economic forces. I do not think this reason is obsolete.)

    It misses the point if we compare the two economic theories on a purely theoretical plane. We must compare them, placing each in its own interacitons with its specific
    social conditions.




  7. CommentedJoshua Ioji Konov

    Great article Mr. Rodrik..
    from the prospective of "liberalism" and "mercantilism", the mostly productivity and big business liberalism's driven economy is less diverse and more globalization inclined, however, with the globalization and rising productivity, and with China's industrialization the reliance of the Transnational corporations to keep the entire world happily employed and fiscal reserves in plenty are just an illusion...., the point that China is subsidizing thus cutting on the consumer actually does not comply with the dataset that shows rapidly rising internal consumption for the last few years accelerated particularly by the new administration in China..., to balance salaries by governmentally run enterprises and projects, however could be partially replaced by a flourishing small and medium business and investors activities in the conditions of more fair competition..., which theory is not neither schools product, because only under most recent global market conditions of improving technologies and rising productivity in such globalization such new industrial capacity is possible that could carryon long term lack of Inflation diverse economic development..., Sincerely.

  8. CommentedPaul Hanly

    Germany can also be viewed as a mercantilist nation, benefiting from the weak Euro caused by the weakness in the periphery to export more than it otherwise could.

  9. Commentedsrinivasan gopalan

    Rodrik's subtle points of how a Marxist model has unobtrusively unleashed and underpinned mercantile forces to subsidize consumption of liberals in the western markets heightens the injustice to the people of the Middle Kingdom who had been the silent and hapless victims of the state-sponsored repressive policies. Cohabitation of mercantilism with market forces and central planning with communist ideologies has come a full circle now that the developed countries too remain the weakest link in global economy while the Asian countries including China and India are contributing to the growth stories in whatever limited way they could. A point to ponder is that in all the debate about capitalism, mercantilism or communism or state-guided public policies to shore up their export industry either through artificial managing of currencies or providing inexpensive infrastructure and liberal fiscal policies, most of the citizens of the world now feel the pinch and paroxysm of pain the resultant inequality has led to. It is time a root-and-branch rethinking emerged that would help identify each country's potentials and frailties so that they could be welded in a cohesive manner to achieve growth with equity to all. G.Srinivasan, Journalist, New Delhi

  10. CommentedMichael Muoio

    We have not managed our trade policy in the national interest, but rather in the interest of global corporatism.

    After essentially 32 years of wrong turns and existential damage, could Rumpelstiltskin be stirring?

    I certainly hope so but I see little evidence of it.

    Obama just did the Korean Free Trade deal and our trade deficit with them shot up 16% almost instantaneously.

    The fix on this one will be more than discussion and debate.

  11. Portrait of Pingfan Hong

    CommentedPingfan Hong

    "Today’s China is the leading bearer of the mercantilist torch":this statement needs some qualification. First of all, if Chinese trade policy in the past 30 years did have a streak of mercantilist, it must be imported from the West, as more than 50 per cent of Chinese exports have been produced by foreign companies in China, and those foreign companies are the teacher of mercantilism for Chinese policymakers. Secondly, in recent years, particularly after the global financial crisis, mercantilist policies have revived significantly in the US and Europe in the form of anti dumping and countervailing measures against China,while China has been calling for free trade in G20 and other international policy forums.

  12. CommentedJan Smith

    It is even worse than Professor Rodrik says. The neoliberals are in denial not only about the worldwide success of mercantilist industrial development. Wedded to the bizarre and extreme views of Say and Walrus, they ignore the Malthusian-Ecclesian-Keynesian tradition and, hence, cannot understand the nature and causes of the ongoing crisis.

    The neoliberals are divided into two camps. One camp says the economy will recover quickly and completely if left alone; the other camp says the economy will recover quickly and completely only if there is a massive and continuing transfer of debt from the private to the public sector.

    Could it be that both camps are wrong? That neoliberalism never will recover?

  13. Commentedaj mendespt

    "It may also reignite long-dormant debates about the type of capitalism that produces the greatest prosperity".

    Yes, but we need to consider more types of capitalism not just two. For instance the problems in Western countries are mostly due to the rise of managerial capitalism and its alliance with state capitalism.
    See these posts on capitalism:
    http://marques-mendes.blogspot.com/2011/07/capitalism-what-capitalism.html
    http://marques-mendes.blogspot.com/2011/10/1960s-and-now.html

  14. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    “Un-hindered access to the cheapest goods”, as Mr. Rodrik points out, could quite be the hallmark of the current mercantilism in vogue, but I am not so sure whether this is fairly ubiquitous across all products in the developed world; to pick a few like credit, higher education, health, welfare goods and public goods in general, could be out of sync with this general notion. State capitalism on the other hand has some brilliant examples as in the state of Gujarat in India, but I am not so sure whether the success rate for the start-up ventures there would eventually hold good for sustainable periods of time, when state subsidies in all forms get eased out and the more fundamental intrinsic factors that lead to success of businesses come to the fore.

    Procyon Mukherjee

  15. CommentedV S

    Ok, everyone knows the problems and the questions. But, where are the answers?! Or, at least a couple of possibilities?

      CommentedMichael Muoio

      Labor equalization tariffs applied directly or via VAT would be a good first step.

      CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I would argue that we still do not know the root of the problems, or more precisely we try very hard to ignore it.
      Instead we philosophize about different systems that all became obsolete.
      The root problem is that humanity is forcing an unnatural and unsustainable socio-economic system within a natural system that is regulated by strict natural laws.
      We are basing our life on the assumption that humans are above the system and can do whatever they like, inventing their subsystems, their own laws.
      Thus we invented and blew out of proportion the present overproduction/over consumption economy and its facilitating governing structures.
      The present system is basically built on implanting unnatural, artificial desires into humans, who otherwise would not have any willingness to consume, by sophisticated marketing and subsequent social pressure.
      This artificial bubble is then inflated continuously driving everybody, individuals and nations alike into debt burdens while piling up things nobody truly needs.
      According to certain estimates over 90% of the production of goods worldwide is simply obsolete, unnecessary for a normal, comfortable, modern human life, moreover is mostly harmful.
      We do not need to go backwards with theories, we need to learn and accept the system we exist in and apply its natural laws to consumption and lifestyle.
      Humans are part of the natural system, for a sustainable future and survival we need to adapt like any other species that want to continue on the evolutionary path.

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