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Mercantilism, which includes protectionism, industrial policy, capital controls, and other distortions to trade, is generally viewed by economists today as unsound economic policy. An overwhelming majority of mainstream economists view trade restrictions as a net loss to society. For example, the United States' depression-era Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act is widely viewed as having made the depression longer and deeper. As such, it would seem that most successful countries that have used trade barriers in their history became successful in spite of this policy rather than because of it. Nevertheless, a small cadre of heterodox economists insists that protectionism and industrial policy can work.

Are there examples from history of countries that thrived because of their mercantilist policies? I'm looking for proper historical examples at least 50 years old, which rules out "socialism with Chinese characteristics" and other modern successes for which we do not yet have the proper perspective to judge.

  • Let me dig a few reference materials (colonialism during the renaissance is probably where to look) but overall, I do not think so. – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Oct 19 '11 at 17:47
  • How about Portugal and Spain in the 15th-17th century? – Orion Oct 20 '11 at 4:59
  • You could suggest China prior to the Opium Wars, but then it just didn't really trade with others since it had everything it supposedly needed already. – MichaelF Oct 20 '11 at 12:22
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    Your question seems to be coming from a very American perspective of economics, its particularly evident from the quote "An overwhelming majority of mainstream economists view trade restrictions as a net loss to society", in which you are noting a 2006 study from ONLY American economists. The truth is that this is not the predominant view of ALL economists and is mostly based on the very politicized cold war atmosphere that American economics developed in. I would note that US economists regularly ignore similar US manipulations of trade. I do appreciate that you are questioning this. – BrotherJack Apr 1 '12 at 20:40
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    Seems like a matter of opinion to me. Mercantilism benefits merchants and hurts retail buyers. So, it is always "successful" I guess if you are a merchant. There is no such thing as success in economics, just winners and losers. – Tyler Durden Dec 18 '14 at 17:51
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There were a few successful instances of mercantilism by countries that started behind others, and needed to "catch up."

These include Russia under Peter the Great in the 18th century, and later, under Count Witte early in the 20th century.

Another example was Japan after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and again, right after World War II.

China may be today's example (although the jury is still out on this one).

Such policies typically hurt the most ADVANCED countries such as Britain in the 19th century or the United States in the 20th. Being the most developed, they would logically benefit the most from free trade, and suffer the most from anything that distorts trade.

But it's the "second tier" countries that benefit the most from mercantilism, because it could well be that what it gains from modernizing a backward sector more than offsets the losses suffered by the rest of the country.

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The Mexican economy flourished in the middle 20th century, transforming the country from a primarily agrarian economy to an industrial one. To achieve this, mining, oil, electricity and many other industries were nationalized, stiff taxes on imported goods were set, and tax cuts and other economic incentives were given to national industries. Monopolies were set in all types of industries.

This allowed the industries to narrow the gap compared to the industrialized nations, created a middle class, and created health and education systems in all the country.

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    Nice one! But I guess (I know nothing about the topic) that the advantages were temporary and later the same monopolies prevented Mexico from keeping up with other countries? If that's the case, it wouldn't be a success in the sense of this question. – Wladimir Palant Oct 26 '11 at 5:14
  • Mexico thrived while the policies were in effect. The economic system changed, it did not fail per se. – Wilhelm Oct 28 '11 at 11:47

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