[This article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith.] By the beginning of the 17th century, royal absolutism had emerged victorious all over Europe. But a king (or, in the case of the Italian city-states, some lesser prince or ruler) cannot rule all by himself. He must rule through a hierarchical bureaucracy. And so the rule of absolutism was created through a series of alliances between the king, his nobles (who were mainly large feudal or postfeudal landlords), and various segments of large-scale merchants or traders. “Mercantilism” is the name given by late 19th-century historians to the politicoeconomic system of the absolute state from approximately the 16th to the 18th centuries.
Mercantilism has been called by various historians or observers a “system of Power or State-building” (Eli Heckscher), a system of systematic state privilege, particularly in restricting imports or subsidizing exports (Adam Smith), or a faulty set of economic theories, including protectionism and the alleged necessity for piling up bullion in a country. In fact, mercantilism was all of these things; it was a comprehensive system of state-building, state privilege, and what might be called “state monopoly capitalism.”
As the economic aspect of state absolutism, mercantilism was of necessity a system of state-building, of big government, of heavy royal expenditure, of high taxes, of (especially after the late 17th century) inflation and deficit finance, of war, imperialism, and the aggrandizing of the nation-state. In short, a politicoeconomic system very like that of the present day, with the unimportant exception that now large-scale industry rather than mercantile commerce is the main focus of the economy. But state absolutism means that the state must purchase and maintain allies among powerful groups in the economy, and it also provides a cockpit for lobbying for special privilege among such groups.
Jacob Viner put the case well:
This post was published at Ludwig von Mises Institute on 12/26/2017.