Mercantilism: Six centuries of vilifying the poor


by David Spencer, originally posted here

As far as routes to national economic prosperity are concerned the idea that the majority in society must suffer real hardship to achieve such prosperity would seem harsh and unjust. But that is the way that some policy debate in Britain and elsewhere has come to be framed. The idea that the poor must be subject to direct hardship to get them to work and to contribute to wealth creation underlies much welfare reform policy. And the idea that lower wages for the majority will help reduce the budget deficit as well as improve national competitiveness is part of some macroeconomic policy discourse.

Here I want to trace the historical origins of the idea that the poor must remain poor for the nation to grow rich by considering the contribution of mercantilism that dominated economic debates between the 16th and mid-18th centuries. Mercantilism was…

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