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Mercantilism Reconsidered

CAMBRIDGE – A businessman walks into a government minister’s office and says he needs help. What should the minister do? Invite him in for a cup of coffee and ask how the government can be of help? Or throw him out, on the principle that government should not be handing out favors to business?

This question constitutes a Rorschach test for policymakers and economists. On one side are free-market enthusiasts and neo-classical economists, who believe in a stark separation between state and business. In their view, the government’s role is to establish clear rules and regulations and then let businesses sink or swim on their own. Public officials should hold private interests at arm’s length and never cozy up to them. It is consumers, not producers, who are king.

This view reflects a venerable tradition that goes back to Adam Smith and continues a proud existence in today’s economics textbooks. It is also the dominant perspective of governance in the United States, Britain, and other societies organized along Anglo-American lines – even though actual practice often deviates from idealized principles.

On the other side are what we may call corporatists or neo-mercantilists, who view an alliance between government and business as critical to good economic performance and social harmony. In this model, the economy needs a state that eagerly lends an ear to business, and, when necessary, greases the wheels of commerce by providing incentives, subsidies, and other discretionary benefits. Because investment and job creation ensure economic prosperity, the objective of government policy should be to make producers happy. Rigid rules and distant policymakers merely suffocate the animal spirits of the business class.