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Was Richard Cantillon a Mercantilist?

  • Mark Thornton (a1)

Richard Cantillon is considered by many to be the first economic theorist. His contributions span such diverse topics as methodology, value and price theory, population, money, international trade, business cycles, the circular-flow model of the economy, and the price-specie-flow mechanism. His only known book, Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en Général (hereafter, the Essai), may represent one of the single largest steps forward in the social sciences. Many attempts have been made to classify Richard Cantillon into a well-defined school of thought and he has been claimed as a forerunner by many schools of economic thought, but for purposes of categorization, he is most often placed with the mercantilists. Cantillon lived and wrote before the Physiocrats. He was involved in John Law's Mississippi Bubble, one of the grandest attempts to actualize the mercantilist dream of increasing the supply of money, and he was involved in the merchant trade and merchant banking business, so it would be natural to consider him a mercantilist writer. Those who have classified him as a mercantilist, however, base their categorization mainly on excerpts from the Essai where Cantillon seems to display sympathy with mercantilist policy objectives in such areas as international trade, monetary policy, and economic development.

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