January 25, 2010

The Ideological Origins of the British Empire Part 3

We often think of economics as a matter of tax rates and welfare expenditure: whether you are on the right or the left today, you tend to think of economics as being about the position of an individual citizen visa vis other citizens. Gordon Brown and David Cameron will boast in next year's elections about how they benefit hard working families with their policies and allow people to pursue their ambitions. But it was not ever thus. Economics as a discipline emerged not because of a discussion about the rights and needs of citizens but as a discussion about the rights and needs of states. Political economy meant precisely that- it was geopolitical in the kind of questions it wanted to answer. So John Locke for example looked on trade as an engine of state power, a mechanism to promote the power of the commonwealth. Empire sustained the economy because colonies could be cultivated to support the mother country's trade. Perhaps this was most evident in the Scottish attempt to break loose of English dominion through the founding of the colony of Darien on the Panamian isthmus, but it was the centre of English thinking about its British appendages and about its empire itself.

This created though an interesting adjunct- and exposed a political question that we are not unfamiliar with today. The adjunct was that if the colony was to be run in the interest of its mother country, then it should not neccessarily have the same rights as the mother country. The English from the 1650s for example limited the amount of trade that Irish merchants could do with third parties: Irish goods had to be exported to England and then abroad. The same was true of the Americas. This profited England, according to contemporary theory, but it definitely left Ireland or America out of pocket. England entrenched such advantages over the Irish and the Americans and the Scots (until 1707) with the use of unequal representation- simply put the English Parliament made mercantalist decisions on behalf of the other members of the Empire. This point, the disunion between the economic and political roles of the state, was of course one of the things that led to the American Revolution of 1776. The question of how far economic nationality and political nationality flow together was part of the question of Ireland as well- with the Irish Parliament objecting to English decisions, which by Poynings law took precedence. This kind of question has a contemporary salience today- whether it be in the debates about the European Union or over third world economic specialisation- but its worth recalling where its origins lie.


edmund said...

sorry computer kiled inital point

i was basicaly saying that it stirkme me there's still a lot of this- peole do care about the strengh of country -and economic growth tends to be seen a lot in comprative terms (elg why the UK had "bad" growth in the 50's and 60's) and i think a lot of it is stregth of state.

it also semes to me that a lot is whether you assume there is economic growth or not - in early modern era they didn't (reaosnablye since they barely was any) and so see econoics in distributional terms- and in terms of power rather than helping everyone's standard of livingf go up-since if that is possible it's only by grabbing more resources of other people (thi9s can even be seen well into the 19th century e.g by pre civil war democrats who see mjore land as the way to make america richer)