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The New Mercantilist Challenge

CAMBRIDGE – The history of economics is largely a struggle between two opposing schools of thought, “liberalism” and “mercantilism.” Economic liberalism, with its emphasis on private entrepreneurship and free markets, is today’s dominant doctrine. But its intellectual victory has blinded us to the great appeal – and frequent success – of mercantilist practices. In fact, mercantilism remains alive and well, and its continuing conflict with liberalism is likely to be a major force shaping the future of the global economy.

Today, mercantilism is typically dismissed as an archaic and blatantly erroneous set of ideas about economic policy. And, in their heyday, mercantilists certainly did defend some very odd notions, chief among which was the view that national policy ought to be guided by the accumulation of precious metals – gold and silver.

Adam Smith’s 1776 treatise The Wealth of Nations masterfully demolished many of these ideas. Smith showed, in particular, that money should not be confused for wealth. As he put it, “the wealth of a country consists, not in its gold and silver only, but in its lands, houses, and consumable goods of all different kinds.”

But it is more accurate to think of mercantilism as a different way to organize the relationship between the state and the economy – a vision that holds no less relevance today than it did in the eighteenth century. Mercantilist theorists such as Thomas Mun were in fact strong proponents of capitalism; they just propounded a different model than liberalism.