Saturday, July 25, 2009

Did Britain Ever Adopt Free Trade?

John V.C. Nye’s paper, “Political Economy of Anglo-French Trade, 1689-1899: Agricultural Trade Policies, Alcohol Taxes, and War” is published by the American Association of Wine Economists, as AAWE Working Papers, no 38 Economics, HERE:

From the Abstract:

“Britain – contrary to received wisdom – was not a free trader for most of the 1800s and, despite repeal of the Corn Laws, continued to have higher tariffs than the French until the last quarter of the century.

War with Louis XIV from 1689 led to the end of all trade between Britain and France for a quarter of a century. The creation of powerful protected interests both at home and abroad (notably in the form of British merchants, and investors in Portuguese wine) led to the imposition of prohibitively high tariffs on French imports -- notably on wine and spirits -- when trade with France resumed in 1714. Protection of domestic interests from import competition allowed the state to raise domestic excises which provided increased government revenues despite almost no increases in the taxes on land and income in Britain. The state ensured compliance not simply through the threat of lower tariffs on foreign substitutes but also through the encouragement of a trend towards monopoly production in brewing and restricted retail sales of beer (which began around 1700 and continued throughout the eighteenth century).

This history is analyzed in terms of its effects on British fiscal and commercial policy from the early 1700s to the end of the nineteenth century. The result is a fuller, albeit revisionist account of the rise of the modern state that calls into question a variety of theses in economics and political science that draw on the naive view of a liberal Britain unilaterally moving to free trade in the nineteenth century.” (JEL Classification: F13, H20, N40, N43, N53, O13, Q17)

I received this paper this morning and was immediately attracted to it by the abstract.

Regular readers may have noted my occasional comment that Adam Smith’s free-trade reputation is often exaggerated and as often it is associated with claims that Wealth Of Nations ushered in an age of free trade policies in Britain. The mercantile political economy, of which Wealth Of Nations was heavily critical, is supposed to have been replaced by grateful legislators persuaded by Smith’s arguments.

I have long suspected that this picture is not just over done; it is absolutely wrong.

The end of the first British empire following the loss of the British colonies in most of North America (Canada, a prize won from the French, remained under the jurisdiction of Britain – from 1789 France turned in on itself; and the Caribbean island prizes remained slave colonies) did not usher in an era of free trade.

The old mercantile habits continued, and with them the lust for empire was nurtured.
In 1788 the penal colony of New South Wales was founded, to which New Zealand was added and the rest of Australia followed, by which time the disgrace that was India under the East India Company was taken over directly by London and the elements of the second British Empire took shape.

Into this mix, the idea grew that British foreign and domestic policy was one of free trade and the end of mercantile political economy with its regulations, restrictions, special interests, and jealousies of trade. I suspect this picture is untrue and I look forward to reading John Nye’s paper as a contribution to correcting part of the image.

I doubt if mercantile political economy has ever really gone away from Britain despite Adam Smith and the Wealth Of Nations and all the talk of major changes in the 19th century. The so-called industrial revolution – more like slow and gradual partial industrialisation – which produced the illusion of success affording the governments of the day the means to practise ‘business as usual’.

I shall keep you posted.

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