Friedrich List and the "National System of Political Economy"

Friedrich List (1789-1846) was the German economist known for theory that national development depends on the protection of "infant industries". Having become financially independent after the discovery of coal on some land that he had acquired, he traveled to the United States, where he was influenced by Alexander Hamilton's protectionist views. His book The National System of Political Economy was published in 1841, and was popular through the rest of the 19th century. Today, Lists's views are undergoing something of a revival among "development economists", who hold that less-developed nations must encourage their domestic manufacturing industries in order to achieve competitiveness in the global economy.

From Chapter 11

The popular school [of political economy] has assumed as being actually in existence a state of things which has yet to come into existence. It assumes the existence of a universal union and a state of perpetual peace, and deduces therefrom the great benefits of free trade. In this manner it confounds effects with causes. Among the provinces and states which are already politically united, there exists a state of perpetual peace; from this political union originates their commercial union, and it is in consequence of the perpetual peace thus maintained that the commercial union has become so beneficial to them. All examples which history can show are those in which the political union has led the way, and the commercial union has followed. Not a single instance can be adduced in which the latter has taken the lead, and the former has grown up from it. That, however, under the existing conditions of the world, the result of general free trade would not be a universal republic, but, on the contrary, a universal subjection of the less advanced nations to the supremacy of the predominant manufacturing, commercial, and naval power, is a conclusion for which the reasons are very strong and, according to our views, irrefragable. A universal republic..., i.e. a union of the nations of the earth whereby they recognize the same conditions of right among themselves and renounce self-redress, can only be realised if a large number of nationalities attain to as nearly the same degree as possible of industry and civilisation, political cultivation, and power. Only with the gradual formation of this union can free trade be developed, only as a result of this union can it confer on all nations the same great advantages which are now experienced by those provinces and states which are politically united. The system of protection, inasmuch as it forms the only means of placing those nations which are far behind in civilisation on equal terms with the one predominating nation (which, however, never received at the hands of Nature a perpetual right to a monopoly of manufacture, but which merely gained an advance over others in point of time), the system of protection regarded from this point of view appears to be the most efficient means of furthering the final union of nations, and hence also of promoting true freedom of trade. And national economy appears from this point of view to be that science which, correctly appreciating the existing interests and the individual circumstances of nations, teaches how every separate nation can be raised to that stage of industrial development in which union with other nations equally well developed, and consequently freedom of trade, can become possible and useful to it.

From Chapter 12

If the [free trade] school represents the free competition of all producers as the most effectual means for promoting the prosperity of the human race, it is quite right from the point of view which it assumes. On the hypothesis of a universal union, every restriction on the honest exchange of goods between various countries seems unreasonable and injurious. But so long as other nations subordinate the interests of the human race as a whole to their national interests, it is folly to speak of free competition among the individuals of various nations. The arguments of the school in favour of free competition are thus only applicable to the exchange between those who belong to one and the same nation. Every great nation, therefore, must endeavour to form an aggregate within itself, which will enter into commercial intercourse with other similar aggregates so far only as that intercourse is suitable to the interests of its own special community. These interests of the community are, however, infinitely different from the private interests of all the separate individuals of the nation, if each individual is to be regarded as existing for himself alone and not in the character of a member of the national community, if we regard (as Smith and Say do) individuals as mere producers and consumers, not citizens of states or members of nations; for as such, mere individuals do not concern themselves for the prosperity of future generations they deem it foolish... to make certain and present sacrifices in order to endeavour to obtain a benefit which is as yet uncertain and lying in the vast field of the future (if even it possess any value at all); they care but little for the continuance of the nation they would expose the ships of their merchants to become the prey of every bold pirate they trouble themselves but little about the power, the honour, or the glory of the nation, at the most they can persuade themselves to make some material sacrifices for the education of their children, and to give them the opportunity of learning a trade, provided always that after the lapse of a few years the learners are placed in a position to earn their own Bread.


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