The Impact of Mercantilism and the French Revolution

September 30, 2015

In every part of Europe, personal freedom became more generally respected due to the influence of public sentiment.

  • calling all loans with interest as usury
  • making idleness a quality of nobility

They perceived the decline of such prejudices to be favourable to the advancement of science, or to a more exact knowledge of the immutable laws of nature. This then has been favourable to the progress of industry, and industry to national opulence.

Many modern states became wealthy through taxation and restrictions. But the enlightened people showed how those states became wealthy despite such restraints. Their prosperity would have been been much greater had they been governed by a more liberal and enlightened policy. 6

After the revival of arts and letters, the mercantile system was almost universally adopted throughout Europe. It was based on the opinion that one nation can only gain what another loses.

This system led to a perpetual increase in taxes. In some countries, it rose to an enormous amount. People saw that it made these same countries more opulent, populous, and powerful than they were when trade was free and had low taxes. And so people concluded that national wealth and power were attributable to such:

  • restraints imposed on industry
  • taxes on incomes of individuals

To say whether this is true, we only need the essential facts which have a direct and immediate influence. Above all, we need to:

  • examine them under all their aspects
  • deduce from them just conclusions
  • be assured that the consequences ascribed to them do not in reality proceed from other causes.

Every other fact is like the erudition of an almanac – a mere useless compilation.

The supporters of the opposite opinion embraced a wider circle of facts. During the middle ages, free Italy and the Hanse towns of the north of Europe promoted industry and produced riches in both. They knew that the true causes of their increased opulence were:

  • the shock of the crusades
  • the progress of the arts and sciences
  • the improvement of navigation and consequent discovery of the route to India and America

These led to the decline of the power of the feudal lords and barons. These caused the trade between the provinces and states to grow.

  • Roads became improved
  • Travelling became more secure
  • Laws became less arbitrary

The enfranchised towns becoming immediately dependent on the crown. They found the sovereign interested in their advancement. This freedom had extended to the countryside and secured to every class of producers the fruits of their industry.

In these contests, genuine philosophers are not arrayed against pretenders. Leibnitz and Newton, Linnuaus and Jussieu, Priestley and Lavoisier, Desaussure and Dolomieu, were all men of uncommon genius, who, however, did not agree in their philosophical systems. But have not the sciences they taught an existence, notwithstanding these disagreements? 7

Thus, if from all the phenomena of production, as well as from the experience of the most extensive commerce, you demonstrate that a free intercourse between nations is reciprocally advantageous, and that the mode found to be most beneficial to individuals transacting business with foreigners, must be equally so to nations, men of contracted views and high presumption will accuse you of system. Ask them for their reasons, and they will immediately talk to you of the balance of trade; will tell you, it is clear that a nation must be ruined by exchanging its money for merchandise — in itself a system.

Some will assert that circulation enriches a state, and that a sum of money, by passing through 20 different hands, is equivalent to twenty times its own value; others, that luxury is favourable to industry, and economy ruinous to every branch of commerce — both mere systems; and all will appeal to facts in support of these opinions, like the shep- herd, who upon the faith of his eyes, affirmed that the sun, which he saw rise in the morning and set in the evening, dur- ing the day traversed the whole extent of the heavens, treating as an idle dream the laws of the planetary world. In like manner, the general facts constituting the sciences of politics and morals, exist independently of all controversy.

Hence the advantage enjoyed by every one who, from distinct and accurate observation, can establish the existence of these general facts, demonstrate their connexion, and deduce their consequences. They as certainly proceed from the na- ture of things as the laws of the material world. We do not imagine them; they are results disclosed to us by judicious observation and analysis. Sovereigns, as well as their subjects, must bow to their authority, and never can violate them with impunity. General facts, or, if you please, the general laws which facts follow, are styled principles, whenever it relates to their application; that is to say, the moment we avail ourselves of them in order to ascertain the rule of action of any combination of circumstances presented to us. A knowledge of principles furnishes the only certain means of uniformly conducting any inquiry with success.

Persons, moreover, distinguished by their attainments in other branches of knowledge, but ignorant of the principles of this, are too apt to suppose that absolute truth is confined to the mathematics and to the results of careful observation and experiment in the physical sciences; imagining that the moral and political sciences contain no invariable facts or indisputable truths, and therefore cannot be considered as genuine sciences, but merely hypothetical systems, more or less ingenious, but purely arbitrary.

The opinion of this class of philosophers is founded upon the want of agreement among the writers who have investigated these subjects, and from the wild absurdities taught by some of them. But what science has been free from extravagant hypotheses? How many years have elapsed since those most advanced have been altogether disengaged from system? On the contrary, do we not still see men of perverted understandings attacking the best established positions?


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