According to the dominant historical narrative, mercantilism was the economic theory prevalent in early modern Europe, until it was replaced when Adam Smith and other Enlightenment thinkers founded the current economic paradigm. Many historians challenge this view, and with good reason. In this piece, I will explain why the dominant view is wrong, and propose an alternate explanation: mercantilist policies were not the result of an economic theory at all, but were the result of state actors seeking to centralize power. Recasting these policies as coming from an economic theory was a rhetorical move that Smith and other early economists used to establish their own legitimacy.
There are several problems with the claim that mercantilism was an economic theory. The clearest is that the ostensible theory was not even named until later: “this term [mercantilism] was initially used solely by critics … but was quickly adopted by historians”, as the linked wikipedia page says. I’m not sure if the alleged mercantilists even considered themselves to be part of a continuous tradition of knowledge.
Less obvious but more important, to the extent that there is a mercantilist theory, it is a monetary theory and not an economic theory. To distinguish: by an economic theory, I mean a theory that explains the important facts about goods and services. By a monetary theory, I mean a theory that explains the important facts about money. (The difference between these would have been even more blindingly obvious in the early modern period than it is now, since prices fluctuated much more wildly then, especially food prices. So, it’s not the case that nobody noticed the difference.) The mercantilist focus on gold and silver is striking; the consistent pieces of policy (pursuing a positive balance of trade, high tariffs, often literal restrictions on exporting precious metal) are all aimed at causing effects on the landscape of money rather than on the landscape of goods or services.
If mercantilist policies weren’t the articulation of an economic theory, then what was going on? I believe mercantilist policies were the central government’s solution to the problem of taxation. While modern governments can impose taxes almost arbitrarily, early modern governments could not. Royalty made money from the farmland they owned, but as the economic center of gravity moved from the farms to the towns, this became less important, and they needed more money. The royalty lacked the local knowledge and “boots on the ground” to collect taxes outside of their demesne, and so had to act through the local power holders. In the manors, this meant acting through the nobility. (That’s a complicated topic beyond the scope of this piece, so I’ll just gesture at the British Parliament and the civil wars that accompanied its origins as an example of the power struggles this provoked.) In the towns, this meant acting through the guilds.
It wasn’t practical to simply extort money from the guilds, so they ended up in a more symbiotic relationship with the state. Essentially, the deal was that that the state would use force to shut down the guild’s competition, and in return the guild would pay taxes and help administrate their collection. In other words, the state would sell a monopoly to the guild. The guild would then submit to the collection of tariffs, or to paying duties on their merchandise, or some other tax on their transactions. (Notably, I know of no cases in this period where income or wealth were taxed directly. States couldn’t get away with that until later.) Jean-Baptiste Colbert pursued this policy more brazenly and systematically than anyone else I’ve looked at.
Through this lens, the mercantilist policies make more sense. The focus on money was because the purpose was to collect money, and so the central government wanted to bring more money into the country and track it as precisely as possible. The hodgepodge of regulations follows no systematic rule of economics, but does follow the pattern of a symbiotic trade between the state and the guilds. For example, a punitive tariff on imported wine will raise some money for the state, and more importantly, it is a favor to the domestic winemaker’s guild (which pays taxes, unlike foreign winemakers). Granting a monopoly to a favored shipping company makes no sense as an economic policy, but does make sense as a taxation policy.
Of course, whenever the state is pursuing a course of action, there will arise a demand for intellectual arguments that the state policies serve the common good, and thinkers will arise to fill this demand. Such thinkers made arguments for mercantilist policies, and some then generalized these arguments and made further recommendations. However, I have seen no evidence that these thinkers were influential or their recommendations adopted, and suspect that they had negligible effects.
Nevertheless, these intellectuals made a convenient foil for Adam Smith and his peers. By casting them as his foes, Smith was able to demolish them and demonstrate his superiority, thereby associating his own program with progress and rationalism, and leaving his opponents no intellectual ground to retreat to. (Smith was a capable persuader with sophisticated models of his audience, although many of his peers were not.) I think the real story is that Smith’s program was possible because his true foes, the guild merchants, were no longer necessary to the state due to the institutionalization of taxation infrastructure and/or the nascent factory system. However, because every historian of economics has read Smith, his account is widely known; and because his narrative of progress and rationalism matches modern sensibilities, his account is widely accepted.