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Prosperity of a fictional port city, painting by Claude Lorrain (1639)

Mercantilism (from French mercantile , 'commercial' , Latin mercator 'merchant' ) describes the prevailing economic policy and economic theory in the epoch of Christian-European early capitalism (from the 16th to the 18th century). With the need of the absolutistically ruled states for growing, secure income to pay the standing armies and the growing civil servants, as well as the representative expenses of the ruler, an economic policy practice characterized by interventionism developed in the various European states , which was based on the first approaches of an economic theory.

A common feature of mercantilist economic policy is the striving for the greatest possible promotion of productive forces at home and the generation of surpluses in foreign trade . Governments supported these goals by actively promoting exports of finished goods and inhibiting imports of finished goods. The economic policy recommendations also included the dismantling of guild privileges and the creation of an internal market by abolishing internal tariffs. During this time the first structures of the modern capitalist system emerged.

Towards the end of the 18th century, mercantilism was supplanted in France by the physiocracy , and in the rest of Europe by classical economics . Since the 19th century, an economic policy geared towards balance of payments surpluses and protectionist employment stabilization has been called neo-mercantilism .


Johann Joachim Becher (back left) as an advisor to Count Friedrich Kasimir von Hanau (1669). Painting by Johann David Welcker 1676.

Various currents of theoretical and practical economic policy, which are summarized under the term mercantilism, dominated political action from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The wide variety of practical recommendations cannot be understood as a closed theory. Nevertheless, the recommendations were based on theoretical considerations that represented the first approaches of an economic theory.

The primary goal of mercantilism was to increase the wealth of the respective ruler. The increase in state revenue should strengthen the power and influence of the sovereign. To this end, the main aim was to achieve high population growth . Another research focus was the relationship between wage levels and employment. In particular, through high population growth, the wage level should be kept low and the workforce high (promotion of price competitiveness compared to foreign production). In addition, it was expected that population growth would automatically increase domestic demand ( consumptio interna ). The promotion of domestic handicrafts and, above all, of manufactories should serve to increase production and to substitute domestic products for imports of finished goods. Monetary policy aimed to standardize coinage and avoid outflows of money abroad. In addition, mercantilists strove to create a single market by abolishing domestic tariffs and standardizing weights, measures, and coinage.

A basic assumption of mercantilism was the assumption of underemployment , which should be alleviated by active economic development. The connection between money in circulation , the amount of money and the level of employment was recognized early on . Therefore mercantilists sought in addition to the increase of the money supply trade surpluses on. The theory that domestic trade surpluses stimulate economic growth goes back to Thomas Mun . In the view of the mercantilists, trade surpluses cause increasing domestic employment and, if the money is not hoarded, also increasing domestic demand (consumptio interna).

First approaches to economic theory

It was not until the beginning of modern times that the first scholars began to deal with economic subjects, especially in the field of monetary theory. The theorists of mercantilism were among the pioneers of economics. It was only the mercantilist promise of increased tax income through economic development that motivated kings and princes to set up the first chairs for economics at universities. This became particularly clear in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, where u. a. Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff , Philip Wilhelm von Hornick , Georg Heinrich Zincke , Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi and Joseph von Sonnenfels received a teaching position in camera science . Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff was even commissioned by the Prussian king to found the Friedrichs University in Halle .

Active trade balance theorem

Title page of Mun's work England's Treasure by Foreign Trade , 1664

In the early modern period, thinking was dominated by the simple equation "wealth that is money". In addition, early monetarists like Thomas Gresham and John Hales and the bullionists around Thomas Milles used the state's precious metal reserves as a measure of the economic and military strength of a state, as there were no measures of national income at that time. In the United Kingdom , the currency was implemented most consistently and a bullionist monetary policy operated. Since money and gold were equated with wealth, an export ban on money and precious metals was issued. The export ban was supplemented by a foreign exchange control . All payment transactions with foreign countries had to be processed via the "King's Exchanger". He should make sure that with every deal more money flowed into England than out.

The bullionist view was declared too narrow by Thomas Mun in his major work England's Treasure by Forraign Trade (published 1664). It could not be a matter of achieving a surplus in foreign trade with every single state, but rather it could be sensible to import a lot of raw materials and raw materials in order to sell them abroad after processing in England at higher prices. Care should only be taken to ensure that there is a surplus in the overall balance of foreign trade.

“The ordinary means therefore to encrease our wealth and treasure is by Forraign Trade, wherein wee must ever observe this rule; to sell more to strangers yearly than wee consume of theirs in value. "

"That is why the usual means to increase our prosperity and to fill the treasure chest is in foreign trade, where we have to follow this rule: We have to sell more to foreigners than we buy from them in terms of value."

- Thomas Mun : England's treasure by forraign trade. 1630 (published 1664)

This was the first time that a logical separation of wealth and money was achieved. In addition, Mun created a foreign trade theory that broke away from the consideration of the capital account . The bullionists pursued the goal of a positive capital account by avoiding any capital outflow. Although this automatically led to a positive balance of payments, from Thomas Mun's point of view it restricted foreign trade and with it the development of the productive forces. Mun advised to achieve a positive balance of payments through appropriate organization of foreign trade. The focus thus shifted to the trade balance . Specifically, Mun recommended restricting all imports except raw materials, promoting exports of finished goods and, if possible, only allowing foreign trade through domestic transport companies. Jean Bodin had already developed similar recommendations in 1576 in his Les six livres de la république . An active trade balance ( trade surplus ) should be worked towards by means of export duties on goods whose import is essential for foreign countries, through low import duties on required raw materials and through high import duties on foreign finished products . These theses formed the core idea of ​​mercantilism.

Monetary theory

Jean Bodin

Jean Bodin developed a simple (naive) quantity theory of money against the background of the strong influx of precious metals from the colonies and the resulting inflation of gold and silver currencies ( price revolution ). Accordingly, the money supply and the money value are in an inverse relationship to one another, that is, the money value is lower, the higher the money supply.

Contrary to later criticism from Adam Smith , the leading mercantilists by no means advocated a simple equation of money with wealth. John Locke was the first to point out the relevance of the velocity of money in his work Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest, and Raising the Value of Money , written in 1668 but not published until 1692 . This insight was later deepened by Richard Cantillon in the Essai sur la nature du commerce en général . The mercantilists propagated a rapid speed of money circulation and condemned hoarding of money:

“The only value of money consists in its reversal: the more often it rolls from one hand to another, the more it brings in for its owner. But when it is locked in caste, it is not gold, but dead and inutile earth; and the more of it lying sterile [...]: the more all trade and change are weakened and prevented. "

- Theodor Ludwig Lau : Draft of a well-established policy (1717)

For most of the mercantilists, the functions as a medium of exchange as well as a unit of account and measure of value were in the foreground with regard to the functionality of money, but less so the function of preserving value. At the time of mercantilism, currencies usually consisted of Kurant coins . So precious metals had to be bought to expand the money supply. While Spain won a great deal of gold and silver from the colonies, many other European countries had little to no gold and silver mines. These states could only extract precious metals for coinage from foreign trade surpluses. By Wilhelm von Schröder the idea comes, the national economy by issuing country princely change a monetary giving pulse. The expansion of the money supply led to a further expansion of the money economy in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period , which in turn encouraged a stronger division of labor .

According to the simple quantity theory of money, it would actually have been assumed that an increase in the amount of money and the speed of money circulation, as aimed at by the mercantilists, would lead to price increases (i.e. an increase in inflation) and thus to a deterioration in price competitiveness if the supply of goods did not increase immediately lead to a deterioration in export opportunities and thus to a passive foreign trade balance. However, the mercantilists assumed a state of underemployment . The production capacities are underutilized, so that an increase in demand via an increased amount of money would lead to an increase in production without any major delay. An increasing money supply does not lead to an increase in inflation.


Josiah Child, portrayed by John Riley (date unknown)

Most theorists such as B. Josiah Child or Charles Davenant strictly rejected monopolies in principle, but saw advantages in individual monopoly societies. In practice, monopolies were rejected in the domestic market, but monopolies to eliminate foreign competition were sometimes advocated. In the German Reich, Johann Joachim Becher in particular turned against monopolies, i.e. the situation that a larger market is served by only one provider, because a monopoly only feeds one, although the market would enable business to secure a living for several providers if there was optimal competition. He also turned against Polypole , a situation in which several providers serve a market that is so small that it is only sufficient to secure the existence of one provider. He also called propoles (sales cartels) harmful because they lead to goods being initially piled up in the warehouse so that they can later be sold individually at excess prices. With this, Becher made a first contribution to the theory of market forms . With the Reichstag resolution of 1671, monopolies were banned, cartel agreements were prohibited and the granting of imperial privileges was abolished.

labour market

From the aim of promoting exports and reducing imports it follows that high production had to be achieved at competitive prices. For this it was necessary that a reserve of cheap and hardworking workers was available. In 1720, John Cary stated that hardworking people make up the nation's prosperity. Therefore, the unemployed should not be left to begging or, at best, dubious methods of earning money, but should be assigned a job by the state in workhouses with relatively low wages. In his work, An Essay Towards Regulating the Trade and Employing the Poor of this Kingdom , he praised the export of manufactured goods as a way of getting the wages of English day laborers paid from abroad. William Petty also saw the advantage that the work in the division of labor manufacturing system of the workhouses could be particularly efficient. In his Treatise of Taxes and Contributions (1662) he formulated that even a completely pointless activity triggered demand impulses, the multiplier effect of which would increase the wealth of the nation. The substitution of imports by the establishment of trades that previously produced abroad should also be promoted through low wages.

Market laws and market imbalances

James Denham-Steuart

A representative of late mercantilism was James Denham-Steuart . In his Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy (1767) he was the first to use the terms supply and demand . According to the Denham tax type, the market price is determined by the production costs plus the profit mark-up that the demand situation allows. His intellectual competitor, the founder of classical economics Adam Smith , in his work The Wealth of Nations (1776), saw the market price as essentially determined by the production costs; demand had less of an influence on the price than with Denham-Steuart. Both authors did not yet know the marginal utility . It was Alfred Marshall who developed the first modern market diagrams .

In practice, Denham-Steuart's market theory led him to criticize excessive state interventionism. Unlike Adam Smith, however, he believed that market imbalances could be eliminated through government intervention faster than the market itself can. Despite certain parallels, his work was therefore viewed rather critically by the classical economics of Adam Smith. On the other hand, it was widely received by the historical school of economics .


The settlement of colonies led to a population emigration from the mother country and was therefore not unreservedly welcomed by mercantilists. The advantage of colonies was that raw materials could be obtained from there that were actually or potentially subject to restrictions via other countries. In addition, the colonies served as a sales market for finished goods from the mother country. John Cary therefore recommended making the settlement of individual colonies dependent on whether the colonies could increase the level of employment in the mother country.

Features of cameralism

Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff (copper engraving by Martin Bernigeroth, 1701)

The cameralism is the German version of mercantilism, which gradually differs from the other variants. While most of the mercantilists concentrated on promoting trade and commerce, the camerealists such as Johann Joachim Becher and Philip Wilhelm von Hornick recommended an equilibrium development of agriculture, industrial production and trade so that domestic demand from all three sectors can be adequately served. Against the background of the massive population losses caused by the Thirty Years' War - in many territories of the German Reich the population had halved - even the agricultural sector had to record enormous decreases in production. Becher therefore formulated that the mercantilist formula: “The more people come together in one place, the more can live from one another” only works if all sectors expand. While other variants of mercantilism primarily seek profits from trade and therefore regard the prosperity of nations as a zero-sum game in which a nation can only achieve prosperity through more favorable trading conditions at the expense of other nations, according to cameralism, prosperity already arose through production . For the cameralists, the prosperity of nations was not a zero-sum game.

The theoretical basis of the Peuplierungspolitik , i.e. the (re-) settlement of depopulated or sparsely populated areas, was formed by the Teutsche Fürstenstaat by Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff , published in 1656 . Another important representative was Joseph von Sonnenfels . He even saw population growth as the real reason for the continued development of an economy. In his view, population growth is best stimulated by job creation. Accordingly, he assessed foreign trade less on the basis of current account data and more on the basis of the employment balance.

In addition, the mercantilist literature in Germany began to think about the budget , administrative and taxation procedures , state loans and state bookkeeping and to systematize them. Other well-known cameraists are Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi , Caspar Klock and Wilhelm von Schröder .

Little economic theory in France

In France there was an extensive mercantilist economic policy, but little theoretical work on it. Barthélemy de Laffemas introduced the underconsumption theory in his Les Trésors et richesses pour mettre l'Estat en splendeur . One of the early writings was Traité d'économie politique (1615), the Antoine de Montchrétien for Louis XIII. composed. The best known are individual writings by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban , some of which were banned by Louis XIV. In the reign of Louis XV. the theoretical work was already dominated by the physiocratic critics of French mercantilism. One of the last French theorists of mercantilism was François Véron de Duverger Forbonnais (1722–1800).

Economic policy

Jean-Baptiste Colbert , painting by Edward Colbert Villacerf (1683).

In economic policy, certain regional differences arose, which can be attributed to the fact that the promotion of the productive forces of a country or territory led to different economic policy preferences depending on the level of development and geographical conditions:

  • In England and the Netherlands a variant of mercantilism was persecuted, which is called "commercialism". The focus here was on promoting trade and traffic, especially trade with their own colonies.
  • In France, "Colbertism" dominated, named after the leading economic politician and finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert . A pronounced dirigistic trade, transport and trade policy dominated here. Colbertism radiated to many continental European states.
  • The German variant of mercantilism is known as cameralism. The name is derived from the Latin word camera (treasury). Since the situation of the state finances of the German principalities was particularly tense after the Thirty Years War, the financial and tax policy was of particular importance. The main task of the German princes was to repair the huge population losses caused by the Thirty Years' War and the associated economic and financial problems. The overriding maxim was therefore the “population policy”, that is, promoting population growth. The cameralists endeavored to achieve a balanced development of the domestic productive forces in agriculture, handicrafts and industry and trade.

Great Britain

The Royal Exchange in London, drawing by Thomas Bowles (1751)
Ships and offices of the British East India Company in Mumbai . Painting by Samuel Scott (ca.1732–1733)
A room in St James's Parish workhouse in London. Print by J. Hill published in: Microcosm of London Volume 3, 1810.


In contrast to almost all other European countries, England was free of internal tariffs even before mercantilism. By containment profitability of agriculture on the one hand increases, on the other hand, many farm workers were unemployed and crowded into the cities. There, the wages of the craftsmen came under pressure; so sank z. B. the wages of a carpenter from 1480 to 1630 by two thirds. In 1634, Charles I forbade the construction of mechanical sawmills so that the wood saws would not become unemployed.


Already under Elizabeth I , England began to promote foreign trade through the establishment and state support of trading companies such as the Moskovy Company (1554), the Levant Company (1581) and the British East India Company (1600). At the same time, foreign trade with England was severely hampered. In 1598 the branch of the Hanseatic merchants in London was closed with the Stalhof . The foreign trade companies in particular required expensive government aid; to reduce the dependence on state money, more private capital should be collected. In order to enable the capital market to become independent, in particular to facilitate the accumulation of capital, the Royal Exchange opened in London in 1571 . With the establishment of the Virginia colony (1584), no coherent strategy was initially pursued.

In 1620 there was a sales crisis in the export of English cloths to other European countries . Jacob I. therefore called a conference of experts at which u. a. Thomas Mun participated. A public controversy arose over economic policy, in which the up-and-coming commercial entrepreneurs demanded the abolition of all hereditary subservience so that there would continue to be plenty of cheap labor available. Furthermore, they demanded protective tariffs and mercantilist trade subsidies. With the demands they came into conflict with the landed gentry, who feared open competition between aristocratic large-scale agriculture and commercial enterprises for the supply of labor and advocated wage and price regulation. The conflict dragged on until the civil war from 1642 to 1649 , in which the commercial entrepreneurs supported the parliament and the landed gentry supported the king. With the defeat of the king and the appointment of Oliver Cromwell as lord protector, the landed nobility had also lost out. The mercantilist position of the tradesmen gained the upper hand. With the navigation files of 1651 it was determined that all overseas goods could only be transported on English ships. This represented a significant disadvantage of the colonies compared to the mother country. Compared to the other European countries, it was determined that imports to England were only allowed on English ships. The implementation in practice, however, depended on the negotiating position of the English king vis-à-vis other countries. Charles II renewed the export ban on wool and issued an import ban on foreign cloths. Tariffs were also levied on imports from the colonies. For finished goods in particular, the tariff was set so high that it practically prevented legal trade. The tariffs on trade between the colonies were often higher than the tariffs on trade with England. The disadvantage of the colonies led to tensions with England. a. to the Boston Tea Party . A typical mercantilist trade treaty was the Methuen Treaty , which England concluded with Portugal in 1703. In the contract it was agreed that English and Portuguese goods could be exported to the partner country and the Portuguese colonies at exceptionally low tariffs. As a result, the nascent Portuguese textile industry collapsed, while Portuguese wine displaced French Burgundy wine in the English market.

The increasing pauperism (structural poverty) was countered with the Poor Law of 1662 with the statute of an obligation to work. There were workhouses set up that were initially operated by private, were nationalized because of continuing unprofitability but then 1723rd Child labor has always been common in agriculture, and in the 18th century it also found its way into the textile industry. In 1720, trade unions were banned in order to keep the price level down. The influence of the guilds was completely eliminated. A side effect of this was the neglect of craftsman training. From 1672 Dutch craftsmen were specifically recruited, later also Huguenot skilled workers. In 1669, food imports from Holland and France and even Ireland and Scotland were banned. The export of grain was banned in 1689 due to the resulting food shortage. The Netherlands was largely eliminated in various naval wars between 1652 and 1674 as a European power factor and as a commercial competitor. The French colonial and trade competition was also largely eliminated in several wars between 1688 and 1763.

Mercantilism shaped the landscape in some regions of Great Britain both through the construction of shipping canals (e.g. Bridgewater Canal , Thames & Severn Canal), the early so-called narrowboat canals, as well as by draining swamps and similar projects. Maximizing agricultural production by converting “useless land” into agricultural land also increased the economic strength of a nation according to the mercantilist view, since with an increase in agricultural production, falling prices for food and consequently for manufacturing labor could be expected.

Turning away from mercantilism

In 1757 the control of minimum wages was lifted by a justice of the peace. The structuring of wages should be left to market forces alone. With the Eden Treaty of 1783, foreign trade between England and France was more closely aligned with free trade principles. Foreign trade policy remained mercantilist until the middle of the 19th century. Since then, English foreign trade policy has been determined by the idea of ​​free trade. With industrialization , which began earlier in England than in other countries, the productivity and competitiveness of English industry rose sharply. The move away from mercantilism and towards a free trade policy came at a time when free trade promised greater benefits. England did not grant its own colonies free trade in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and colonial policy remained mercantilist.


Louis XIV visits the Manufacture nationale des Gobelins , tapestry from 1667

Mercantilism had already set in in France in the early 16th century, soon after the monarchy had become the most important power in French politics and ousted the nobility from their regional influence. In 1539 a decree was issued according to which woolen goods from parts of the Habsburg-ruled areas (Spain and parts of Flanders) were no longer allowed to be imported. A year later, numerous restrictions were put in place against the export of gold.

After a period of 30 years of civil and religious wars, the victorious Huguenot Henri de Navarre decided to convert to Catholicism and reign as King Henry IV from 1594. He entrusted the office of finance minister to his old Huguenot friend and comrade in arms, Sully , who, when he took office, found a devastated country with fallow agriculture and abandoned handicrafts as well as completely broken state finances and trade shrunk by bands of robbers and dilapidated traffic routes. Sully was the most important early French exponent of mercantilism. The first economic policy measures served to open up domestic trade. Roads and canals were built for this purpose. The Canal du Midi, completed in 1681, was a particular technical masterpiece . With the ordonance civil of 1667, the judiciary was standardized and thus more manageable for merchants. Furthermore, all domestic tariffs should be abolished, this was achieved by 1664 for half of France. At the same time, the customs duties for imports continued to rise, for example the duty on English cloth increased from 6 livres (1632) to 30 livres (1653) to 80 livres (1667). Export duties have been reduced or eliminated entirely.

The high point of French mercantilism was closely linked to Jean-Baptiste Colbert , who became General Controller of Finance in 1665 and State Secretary of the Royal Household in 1669. Its variant of mercantilism is also known as "Colbertism". His goal was to increase French exports in order to bring more gold into the country and create a million new jobs in factories. In order to ensure the consistently high quality of the manufactured goods, he gave the guilds the task of controlling production. Top products received a royal seal of approval. Colbert extended working hours by reducing the number of church holidays. A ban on assemblies and strikes for workers should ensure low wages. Production methods, dimensions and colors of the products as well as working hours were later regulated in detail in trade regulations and checked by semi-state control bodies. With the Manufacture nationale des Gobelins , the state itself took on the production of very high-quality tapestries . In 1665 Colbert succeeded in winning the Dutch family of cloth manufacturers Van Robais to set up the Manufacture royale des Rames in Abbeville , which started the production of fine cloth in France. Countless mulberry trees were also planted to establish a silk trade in France . Entrepreneurs who mastered new production processes were recruited with tax rebates, a monopoly position or state loans.

The expansion of the navy was a prerequisite for participation in world trade. Under Louis XIV, France rose to become the third strongest sea power after England and the Netherlands. Colonies and trading posts were established, e.g. B. 1603 Newfoundland and 1659 Haiti. The French merchant fleet increased to 80,000 tons by 1683 (for comparison: England had 560,000 tons, the Netherlands and the Hanseatic League each over 100,000 tons).

Around 1700 the conseil de commerce recognized that one could not make France self-sufficient on the one hand and force other nations to buy French goods on the other. In turning away from Colbert's foreign trade policy, important port cities were declared free ports . After 1713, trade agreements that were more friendly to foreign trade were concluded.

Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation

Reception of Huguenots by Elector Friedrich Wilhelm. Painting by Ernst Albert Fischer-Cörlin (before 1893).
Frederick the Great inspects potato cultivation on one of his inspection trips ( The King Everywhere , painting by Robert Warthmüller ) (1886).
Austria about everything whenever it wants. That is a well-meaning Fürschlag, as if by means of a well-ordered compatriot economy, the Kayserl. To raise hereditary land in a short time above all other states of Europe / and to make more than some of the same / of those others independent. (1684) by Philipp von Hörnigk was one of the most influential theoretical works of mercantilism.

The Thirty Years War sank the population from 16 to 10 million. Production facilities and farm assets were largely destroyed. The mouths of the Rhine, Weser and Oder into the North or Baltic Sea were owned by the Netherlands and Sweden, so that trade was dependent on the tax, customs and staple policies of the Netherlands and Sweden. All attempts to standardize the coinage failed due to the particular interests of the German princes who had become sovereign. The attempt by Emperor Leopold I to implement a uniform economic policy for the empire ultimately failed. The economic policy of the German territories was characterized more by opposition than by togetherness.

Monetary policy

For the mercantilists, the simplification and standardization of coinage was an essential means of promoting trade. In the politically fragmented Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, a uniform coinage system could not be achieved, as each territorial ruler produced his own money. In addition, during the first and second tipper and wipper period, massive amounts of inferior coins were minted. The German merchants increasingly evaded the problems by processing cashless payments ( giro traffic ) through banks. This started the creation of deposit money by the banks. One of the first modern German banks was the Hamburger Bank , founded in 1619 , which created the Mark Banco as its currency of account . The benefits were so obvious that the establishment of further giro banks was subsidized by the state. Other larger banks were the Banco Publico founded in Nuremberg in 1621 , the Banco di Depositi founded in Leipzig in 1698, the Wiener Stadtbank founded in 1706 and the Königliche Giro- und Lehn-Banco founded in 1765 for Prussia.

Population policy

Many kings and princes tried to increase population growth by encouraging marriages. The population policy in Brandenburg-Prussia, which was particularly badly devastated by the Thirty Years' War, was exemplary. With the Edict of Potsdam in 1685, Elector Friedrich Wilhelm promised the Huguenots security and extensive privileges such as B. extensive exemptions from taxes and duties, subsidies for commercial enterprises and state salaries of Huguenot preachers. By 1720, 20,000 French Huguenots had settled in the country. It was mainly a matter of highly qualified craftsmen who established the production of high-quality goods and luxury goods such as hats, soaps, porcelain, fashion items and silk in Prussia and thus initiated an economic development that substituted for imports. Friedrich Wilhelm I pursued a planned settlement policy by trying to attract foreign bankers, merchants, manufacturers, textile and metal craftsmen with patents and privileges . In 1732 Brandenburg-Prussia settled 15,000 refugees from Salzburg . Frederick the Great had new settlement areas created by draining the Warta , Netze and Great Quarries . In the Warthebruch alone, 58,000 families could be settled in a thousand newly founded villages. During his reign, the population of Brandenburg-Prussia doubled. As a result of amelioration measures , the cultivated area for example in Silesia increased by 15% and in Western Pomerania by 10%.

The introduction of the potato , which is less demanding than grain cultivation and has a significantly higher yield per area, had a significant impact on agriculture and population development . The enforcement of potato cultivation required public awareness work in many places. In Prussia , Frederick II issued the first of his so-called potato orders in 1756 , with which he instructed his officials:

"[...] to make the rulers and subjects understand the benefits of planting this earthy plant, and to advise them that they plant the potatoes as a very nutritious food this spring"

- Frederick the Great : in one of his potato orders.

According to legend, he even had soldiers guard a potato field in order to induce the farmers to steal and cultivate the supposedly particularly valuable plants themselves. Potato cultivation achieved its final breakthrough in Germany after the famine of 1770/72.

The Austrian population policy concentrated on the "impopulation" of Greater Hungary, which was depopulated by the Turkish wars . In addition to voluntary immigrants, "drifters and work-shy" from the Austrian heartlands, insurgents from the Black Forest, Prussians prisoners of war and Austrian invalids were forcibly settled in order to revive agriculture and to build mines in the Banat in Greater Hungary.

Business promotion

Mercantilists endeavored to a. To limit the power of the guilds based on the compulsory guild , because a strong restriction of the access to the craftsmen stood against the goal of the expansion of the manual production. The Imperial Guild Regulations of 1731 also allowed “dishonest” people, such as the descendants of the night watchmen, city servants or shepherds, to learn a trade. Measures to limit the power of the guilds usually met with resistance and were thwarted whenever possible. For this reason, too, the state mercantilists encouraged the establishment of factories that were not organized in guilds. Several dozen people worked in factories for wages for the manufacturing entrepreneur. Unlike craftsmen, the individual workers did not manufacture the goods from start to finish, but in labor-sharing stages. The division of labor made it possible to specialize in individual work sections, which meant that productivity was higher than in traditional crafts.

In 1751, women were allowed to work on looms in Austria because the weaver's wages were “too high”. The beggars who were confined to the Gnadenstockhaus in Vienna were obliged to do spinning work. “Asocial people” were sent to workhouses. The textile factory established by Johann Joachim Becher in Vienna in 1675 also served as a training center for the professional training of workers in the textile trade. Maria Theresa issued training regulations in 1765, with which she became the "founder of the vocational school system in Austria".

The settlement of tradespeople and, in particular, factories was often encouraged by subsidies , tax privileges and discounted loans. Often buildings and wood from the state forests were also given free of charge. The financial support from the state should help the traders through the first dry spell. Many manufactories went bankrupt after the subsidies were discontinued because they had not been able to establish the companies with sufficient profitability. For example, the Prussian silk industry only survived as long as it received state aid. The settlement of war-important manufacturers such as B. the royal warehouse (a cloth manufacturer). In 1740 the Department for Manufactur- und Commerciensachen was founded in order to improve the production techniques of Prussian manufactories. Where no domestic entrepreneurs were available and no foreign entrepreneurs could be recruited, kings and princes tried to expand commercial activity by founding state manufactories.

Creation of a single market

The construction of roads and canals has increased transport capacities and reduced transport costs; thus the internal market was better developed. For example, the Friedrich Wilhelm Canal , built between 1662 and 1669, connected the Elbe to the Oder via the Spree. This led to an expansion of trade and inland shipping.

In Austria efforts have been made since 1604 to reduce internal customs borders in order to create a larger economic area. With the reform of 1775, however, there were still ten inland customs areas. The development of the Austrian internal market was mainly carried out through road construction. Canal projects were also considered, but failed due to lack of funds.

Export restrictions on raw materials
With the Prussian Edict of 1719, the use of foreign cloth and woolen goods was prohibited.

Assuming that raw materials are limited, a foreign trade policy was recommended that would reduce the export of raw materials and favor the import of raw materials. According to the recommendation of the mercantilists, raw materials should also be processed domestically, if possible, so that the increase in value occurs through domestic added value. This sometimes led to the state restricting the export of raw materials. For example, sheep farming in Brandenburg had declined sharply due to looting during the Thirty Years' War. In order to protect the domestic wool weavers, Brandenburg-Prussia temporarily banned the export of wool to England. In 1684 Brandenburg-Prussia once again issued a ban on the export of wool in order to promote the domestic textile industry on the occasion of the immigration of Huguenot textile manufacturers. This was flanked by a ten percent import duty for foreign textiles. The tariff could increase to 25 percent if a local producer could prove that they were producing similar textiles. In 1719 the export ban was renewed, which led to a trade war with Saxony. In Austria, the export of raw materials such as potash , raw hides, copper and lead was banned from 1750 .

Influencing the trade balance

On the initiative of the cameraman Johann Joachim Becher , Austria banned the import of French luxury goods such as watches, jewelry, carpets, wigs, etc. in 1673. At the Reichstag in 1675, the memorial created on behalf of the Brandenburg-Prussian Elector Friedrich Wilhelm was “against the introduction and sale of the French Goods ”. At the time, France was pursuing a foreign policy that was based heavily on subsidy payments to friendly states. Therefore, the aim of reducing the French foreign trade surplus was also of a foreign policy and military nature. It was not only about the economic flanking of the Imperial War against France , but also about strengthening the economic base of the German Empire by promoting domestic handicrafts and preventing the outflow of money to France. Because: "in this way several 100,000 people in Germany could be raised more, prevented from the harmful idleness, and consequently also that the people and the people are conserved in Germany." The law was passed at the Reichstag. However, many imperial estates took the peace treaty of 1679 as an opportunity to lift the import ban.

In Austria, too, the establishment of new branches of production was accompanied by import bans. So followed z. B. on the foundation of the first sugar refinery in Fiume (1750) in 1755 a general import ban on sugar. Velvet production began in Vienna in 1751, and the importation of velvet was banned in 1756. A needle factory was founded in Liechtenwörth in 1751, and in 1758 the import of needles and “Nuremberg goods” was prohibited.

In practice, import restrictions or import restrictions often led to undesirable counter-reactions. When the German Reich banned the import of Dutch manufactured goods shortly after the Thirty Years War, the Netherlands responded with an import ban on German goods. As a result, the ambassadors from Brandenburg and Cologne campaigned for retaliatory measures at the Reichstag . In 1711 the Reichstag passed an ordinance on retaliatory measures that could be used to respond to discrimination against German products.

Mercantilists also recommended export premiums and financial aid for exporters to promote exports.


The silver fleet was assembled in the port city of Seville . Painting by Alonso Sánchez Coello (before 1588).

In the age of absolutism, Spain had numerous colonies from which large amounts of gold and silver flowed into the mother country every year. This led to strong inflation ( price revolution ) in Spain and all of Europe , because at that time the currency regime of the gold currency dominated, the monetary value more or less corresponded to the material value of the coin and consequently depended on the gold price. Since gold first came into circulation in Spain, inflation was highest there. As a result, Spanish goods were more expensive than other European goods, which paralyzed export, while there was a great incentive to import goods into Spain. This weakened Spanish industry and agriculture.

“Spain is the living Instance of this Truth, the Mines of Peru and Mexico made the People think themselves above Industry, an Inundation of Gold and Silver swept away all useful Arts, and a total Neglect of Labor and Commerce has made them as it were the receivers only for the rest of the world. "

“Spain is living proof of this truth, the mines of Peru and Mexico made people believe they didn't need any industry, a flood of gold and silver washed away all useful skills, a total neglect of work and trade made it for them whole world to recipients. "

- erasmus philips : 1720

The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the Spanish rulers operated a bullionist poilitk. The export of gold and silver abroad was prohibited on the death penalty. The episode of the European price revolution proves that Spanish gold nevertheless made it abroad on a large scale with the help of bribery and smuggling. But politics has undoubtedly increased the transaction costs, so that the money supply price mechanism could never completely lead to compensation. No other country stuck to a bullionist policy for as long as Spain.

Finance Minister Louis Ortiz recommended in the 1550s that Spain should ban the import of finished goods and the export of raw materials in order to remain on par with other European countries in terms of commercial production. 150 years later, Jerónimo de Uztáriz made similar recommendations to King Philip V of Spain . However, the Spanish kings were too weak to implement the economic policy recommendations. Instead, the Spanish Empire was shaken by the centrifugal forces of the various parts of the country, which led to revolts in Portugal, Catalonia, Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples and ultimately to the secession of the Spanish Netherlands and Portugal.


The Netherlands has also been a leader in cloth production for a long time . Here: painting by Isaac Claesz. van Swanenburg, created between 1594 and 1596.

The Netherlands was the leading economic power in the 16th and 17th centuries and a role model for all of Europe. The Republic of the Seven United Provinces , which had become the financial center of Europe through its commercial hegemony, had no interest in trade restrictions. There was also little state regulation of the economy, so that part of the literature does not assign the economic policy of the Netherlands to mercantilism. The Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company were stronger than the English and far stronger than their French counterparts without government aid and influence. The companies founded colonies a . a. in Indonesia and Suriname and operated there mainly pepper, clove and sugar cane plantations to sell these goods in Europe.

The Dutch merchant fleet was so dominant around 1650 that it not only traded in Dutch goods and with imported goods destined for the Netherlands, but also carried out the transport of foreign goods between European countries as a logistician. At first they even profited from the trade between England and the English colonies. Due to the aggressive mercantilist trade policy of England, Dutch traders were increasingly forced out of the trade with the help of navigation files and a growing English navy.

Rest of Europe

The other nations of Europe also adopted mercantilism to varying degrees. In Central Europe and the Nordic countries, mercantilism became popular after the Thirty Years' War , with Christina I of Sweden and Christian IV of Denmark as notable proponents.


Triangular trade : Schematic representation , example 1 (Africa, America, Europe)
Triangular trade : Schematic representation , example 2 (Africa, South America, North America, Africa)

The mercantilist politics of European states forced the colonies into the way in which they were integrated into the world economy. The colonies served the production of raw materials for the mother country and the export of any surpluses to other European countries. At the same time, colonies served as a sales market for finished goods made in the mother country. Some European countries, especially England, forbade their colonies to manufacture finished goods themselves or to import finished goods from countries other than England. The British colonies in America and the Portuguese Guanabara Bay were particularly closely linked to the motherland . The Portuguese colonies south of Rio de Janeiro, however, had little economic exchange with Portugal.

With the navigation acts, England banned certain goods such as sugar, indigo, cotton, tobacco, tar, pitch and turpentine from being sold to other countries. Trade was only allowed between the English colonies and England. With this, England reduced its dependence on other European states. While England used to import tobacco and sugar from South America as well as tar, pitch and turpentine from Scandinavia and the Baltic countries, these goods were increasingly only obtained from the British colonies. With the increasing expansion and development of the colonies, so did the production of goods. So 85–90% of the tobacco sold to England could be resold by English merchants to other European countries. There was also a strong expansion of the Atlantic triangular trade , which was largely based on the slave trade . Trade with the colonies benefited mainly English traders, shipowners, investors, workers and seamen.

In order to avoid industrial competition from the colonies, England banned the export of woolen clothing from the colonies in 1699. In 1732 the export of hats from the colonies was banned. Iron production was allowed to the North American colonies because England wanted to reduce its dependence on Scandinavian iron. The production of iron goods was forbidden in the colonies, but the ban was ignored. By 1775, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey accounted for 15% of world production. England also tried unsuccessfully to prevent North American traders from trading their own with the Caribbean. This conflict was one of the reasons that led to the American War of Independence .

Portugal tried to impose a similar policy on its Brazilian colony. In 1571, Portuguese ships were given the exclusive right to trade with Brazil. However, the Portuguese Navy was too weak to enforce the ban. In the 16th century, 66% of trade with Brazil was conducted by Dutch merchants. Most of the Brazilian sugar was refined in the Netherlands and then resold. In the 17th century, English merchants ousted the Dutch from trading with Brazil. In 1785, Portugal banned the Brazilians from all types of industry, with the exception of the manufacture of slave clothing and the manufacture of sacks for the export of agricultural products. Due to the Methuen Treaty , it was not Portuguese but English industry that benefited.

Because of slave labor in the colonies , Europe could be inundated with cheap goods. In the colonies, the plantation owners achieved great prosperity, but the rest of the economy was rather subdued. An exception was New England , which knew how to take advantage of English protectionism but knew how to evade the prohibitions that were detrimental to them. The mercantilist policy was not enforced in the colonies through direct coercion by the mother countries, but was based essentially on the cooperation of the elites in the colonies. The economic structures established in the time of colonialism outlived the end of colonialism.


Concept history

The term mercantilism is not a self-designation, but was introduced by the founders of classical economics around Adam Smith and John Ramsay McCulloch . They understood by mercantilism the confusion of wealth with money and the, in their view, pointless undertaking to strive for trade surpluses. They criticized mercantilism as a policy that only serves to support merchants obsessed with privileges and monopoly. In the debates of the early 19th century, mercantilism was understood as the protectionist counterpoint to the free trade idea of classical economics and the laissez-faire of Manchester liberalism. The debate led to an exaggeration of the differences and to a deformed understanding of mercantilism, the protagonists of which did not see protectionism as an end in itself or a desirable permanent state. The free trade theory of Adam Smith was also interpreted much more doctrinally by the Manchester liberals around Richard Cobden than it was originally thought. In the late 19th century, economic historians such as Wilhelm Roscher and Gustav Schmoller gave mercantilism a positive reinterpretation in such a way that mercantilism saw the emergence of the modern, strong state. In 1980 the economic historian Donald Cuthbert Coleman put forward the thesis that mercantilism never existed because theory and practice were completely incoherent. In the scientific discussion, it has been recognized that mercantilist theorists often work unsystematically and inconsistently. At the same time, most historians stick to the term mercantilism because a common modus operandi can be recognized in a system that goes beyond pure pragmatism and at least in some points of practical economic policy . Lars Magnusson, for example, defines mercantilism as a bundle of similar ideas about how foreign trade and manufacturing could increase the power and prosperity of the early modern state.

Contemporary criticism

Contemporary criticism was u. a. voiced by the Physiocrats . They criticized dirigism and, in the case of France, the neglect of agriculture. Vincent de Gournay formulated the countermotto to mercantilism: "  Laissez faire, laissez passer, le monde va de lui-même  " (German: "Let it happen, let it pass, the world moves on by itself").

David Hume criticized the idea of ​​viewing foreign trade as the continuation of a war by other means. Rather, the wealth of other countries leads to an increased demand for imported goods, so that the wealth is also transferred to other countries:

“Were our narrow and malignant politics to meet with success, we should reduce all our neighboring nations to the same state of sloth and ignorance that prevails in MOROCCO and the coast of BARBARY. But what would be the consequence? They could send us no commodities: They could take none from us: Our domestic commerce itself would languish for want of emulation, example, and instruction: And we ourselves should soon fall into the same abject condition, to which we had reduced them. "

“In order to make our small-minded and vicious politics successful, we should reduce all our neighboring nations to the same level of laziness and ignorance that prevails in Morocco and on the barbarian coast. But what would be the result? They could not send us any goods: They could not take any goods from us: Our domestic trade itself would become paralyzed for lack of imitation, example and instruction: and we would soon fall into the same pitiful state ourselves to which we are trying to reduce it. "

- David Hume : Essay OF THE JEALOUSY OF TRADE , 1759/60

David Hume also formulated a long and influential criticism of the mercantilist doctrine that steady foreign trade surpluses should be aimed for. He explained that gold automatism made it impossible to achieve steady foreign trade surpluses. The accumulation of gold from foreign trade surpluses leads to an increase in the money supply and thus to higher inflation. This in turn leads to rising prices (under the conditions of a gold currency in circulation) to a deterioration in export opportunities and an increase in the import incentive. Josiah Tucker contradicted this insofar as an increase in the amount of money could provide the impetus for a deeper division of labor, new needs and improved technologies. He distinguished the case in which the increase in the money supply was caused by the exploitation of colonies or the discovery of new mines and the case in which the inflow of gold is caused by economic activity. In the first case (as in Spain) there would be rising prices and an increase in inactivity, i.e. a real impoverishment of the country. In the latter case, there would be more dynamic economic development and increasing prosperity. Today, the gold mechanism formulated by Hume is generally generally recognized economically. However, economics has developed to the extent that inflation does not depend on the development of the money supply alone, but on the development of the money supply in relation to economic growth. In recent times, Keynesian , New Keynsian and monetarist economists credit mercantilism with the fact that the accumulation of the largest possible gold stocks in a currency regime of the gold currency in circulation was thoroughly rational. Because if the growth of the money supply lags behind economic growth, the economy can fall into deflation and therefore economic growth remains below potential. Another question is whether free trade policy could not have served the goal of gold accumulation better.

Current classification

One of the naval battles in the Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654) . Painting by Willem van Diest (mid 17th century).

It is critically noted that the mercantilist idea of ​​international competition as a zero-sum game contributed to the many cabinet wars. This is countered by the fact that economic policy in the age of absolutism was only a means to the end of power politics and wars were never fought for economic reasons alone. The example of the expulsion of the Huguenots from France shows that power-political considerations were often more important than economic rationality. In 2012, the historians Gijs Rommelse and Roger Downing rejected the thesis that mercantilist economic policy played a role as a reason for the war in the first two Anglo-Dutch wars. The reason was rather the disappointment of the English that the aspiring Dutch at the time rejected a stronger bond with England.

In March 2012, historians discussed the subject of mercantilism in the premises of the German Historical Institute in Paris . Resumption of a debate and the majority found that the mercantilists' recommendations for action were often misunderstood as dogmas in reception. Guillaume Garner pointed out that the approval or rejection of protective tariffs by traders and producers strongly depends on the respective individual market situation and little on abstract considerations. Thomas Simon emphasized the need to differentiate more between commercialism and Colbertism from German cameralism. While commercialism and Colbertism are based on the view that profits can only be realized through trade, according to cameralism, prosperity already arises through production. For the cameralists, the prosperity of nations was not a zero-sum game in which one nation could only achieve prosperity at the expense of another. Jean-Yves Grenier pointed to a strong scholastic tradition of mercantilism. In the internal market, monopolies were frowned upon because a fair price was to be realized. In foreign trade, however, monopolies were useful in order to achieve the highest possible returns. For theological reasons, everyone was no longer obliged to consume in accordance with their class. Moritz Isenmann represented in his essay Was Colbert a mercantilist? the thesis that Colbert was interpreted unilaterally by earlier historians. Colbert's foreign trade policy consisted of offsetting price advantages through import duties. Success in sales should not be based on the cheapest price, but on the quality of production. A trade and power policy at the expense of the neighbors was in reality not the strategy of France, but of Great Britain. Jochen Hook , Burkhard Nolte and Junko Thérèse Takeda worked out that state conducting was of little practical relevance in the 18th century. The absolutist state had far fewer possibilities of control than today's modern states have. From the fact that state regulations were constantly being renewed, it can be concluded that they did not have a lasting effect.

Mercantilism was based on the absolutist state's increasing need for money. It turned out that the expansion and development of the productive forces of the national economy increased tax revenues. This gave rise to an interest in economics. In the practice of mercantilism, the focus of the considerations revolved less around maximizing the benefits for all subjects than around strengthening the economic and financial basis of the state. Some historians conclude from this that mercantilism not only occurred at the same time as political absolutism, but that mercantilism was the economic expression of absolutism. On the other hand it is argued that z. For example, while French and Brandenburg-Prussian mercantilism was permeated with elements of state and planned economy, the ultimate goal was not a state economy, but the privatization of internationally competitive companies. In this sense, Brandenburg-Prussian mercantilism is also interpreted as a pioneer of private capitalism. The scarcity of money in the absolutist state made it necessary to promote only core areas of the respective national economy. In France it was the luxury goods industry, in England trade, in Germany trade and the agricultural sector. That was, as it were, an anticipation of the management sector concept.

Mercantilism was only a means to an end in strengthening a country's financial strength. This explains why a closed, coherent theory did not develop, but theory and practice were dominated by pragmatism. The direct beneficiaries of mercantilism, along with the sovereigns, were entrepreneurs, publishers and wholesalers. Their rise was accompanied by a loss of importance for the guilds and guilds as well as the landed gentry. The economic consequences of mercantilism are difficult to assess because there are no useful statistics from the time. On the one hand, the development of a single market and the establishment of new branches of industry have certainly benefited the economy. On the other hand, business promotion often turned into sheer dirigism, which weakened entrepreneurship. In the case of France, the one-sided focus on the secondary and tertiary sectors has also been criticized, as three out of four workers worked in agriculture.

Comparison with other economic systems

Friedrich List's
National System of Political Economy is one of the most important works of neo-mercantilism.

In contrast to mercantilism, classic economic liberalism regards state intervention as fundamentally harmful. According to the ideal of classical economic liberalism, the state should limit itself to establishing a legal system that is binding on all people without distinction, ensuring military defense against attacks by other states and some public goods that are relevant for social and economic development, such as internal security, justice and infrastructure to provide. Classic economic liberalism also propagates free trade as desirable in every situation. The laissez-faire liberalism or Manchester liberalism shortened the reasoning of classical economic liberalism to the effect is that the state should refrain from any interference of economic processes, even in the case of market failure and social grievances. Any economic policy was also rejected. In contrast, neoliberalism in the sense of ordoliberalism sees the need for state intervention in the event of market failure.

The neo-mercantilism saw free trade as a superior long-term basis. In contrast to classical economic liberalism, however, a temporary trade protectionism ( educational tariff ) and state intervention to support young, not yet competitive branches of industry were advocated. By the mid-19th century, England had a considerable head start in industrialization and therefore had a great head start in production volume and production efficiency. Alexander Hamilton and Friedrich List , the intellectual founders of neo-mercantilism, therefore believed that the United States and Germany could not be industrialized by themselves. At the end of the 19th century and from 1929 to the mid-1930s, there were other phases known as neo-mercantilism, in which many states pursued a pronounced protective tariff policy , beggar-thy-neighbor policy and, in some cases, foreign exchange management in response to economic crises .

The most widespread economic system today is known as market interventionism , one example being the social market economy . The system provides a state regulatory framework within which the economy can develop freely. Temporary state interventions in the economic process are advocated if they serve the better functioning of the market. In this economic system there is also room for social policy .


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This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on November 5, 2016 .