Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
John Nye is an Associate Professor of Economics and History at Washington University in St Louis. He is a specialist in European economic history, and has written numerous papers on French and British history. He is also a Founding Member of the International Society for the New Institutional Economics and Co‐editor with John Drobak of the book, Frontiers of the New Institutional Economics, Academic Press, 1997. He has been closely involved with the Ronald Coase Institute, with which he has worked to promote the New Institutional Economics in Central and Eastern Europe. Nye is also interesting by how ideas affect economic policy …
Nye's work is often challenging. It can be iconoclastic. It is the case with War, Wine and Taxes. The book is made of eight chapters plus an appendix composing of calculations and models that may baffle non‐economists. The Chapter 1 “Problems of perspective: the myth of free trade Britain and fortress France” announces the main thesis of the book since the fundamental argument of the book is a convincing refutation of the widely‐held assumption that Britain was the world's leading free trade nation after repeal of the Corn laws in 1846. Nye argues that France's tariff regime was more liberal than that of Britain, at least until the final quarter of the nineteenth century, and boldly claims: “This is not quite a story about the past; it is the beginning of a fundamental reassessment of our understanding of commercial policy in economic history” (p. xvi). Nye examined in details what was the overall tariff burden of British policy in the nineteenth century. He used standard measures to compare average tariffs in Britain with those of France (supposedly Britain's opposite number in trade). The result of this approach is that the French were clearly much closer to being free traders than were the British for most of the nineteenth century. Whatever the manners the data can be sliced it appears clearly that the British had higher average tariffs than the French. Nye highlights how the British used tariff as a mercantilist tool to politically weaken France. He shows that Britain did not transform smoothly from a mercantilist state in the eighteenth century to a bastion of free trade in the late nineteenth century. Going back to the seventeenth century and examining the peculiar history of Anglo‐French military and commercial rivalry, Nye helps us to understand why the British drink beer instead of wine, why Portuguese sold liquor almost exclusively to Britain (for other reasons than Ricardo's ones), and how liberal, eighteenth century Britain managed to raise taxes at an unprecedented rate – with government revenues growing five times faster than the gross national product. The book stands stark contrasts to standards interpretations of the role tariffs played in the economic development of Britain and France and sheds valuable light on the joint role of commercial and fiscal policy in the rise of the modern state.
Therefore, one possible question is: how the English liberalism fable has been able to last until now without serious contest? Nye suggests an answer. The Corn law abrogation in 1846 did not abolish the English mercantilist tradition. It was only a first step towards a liberation that will be effective later on in the century. But the intellectual and political mobilisation that reached to the law was so powerful that it marked durably the mentalities and … the further economical policies! What Nye suggests is it that the liberalism was firstly an ideological victory on other economical approaches before to be a reality in the “real” economy. There are at least three lessons for today that can be dawned from that book. One must be aware that there is often a discrepancy between the “debates of the day” and what is really economically significant. The second is that trade tariffs or taxes can inform or transform the way of how people live (“the material culture” to be Braudelian). The third lesson is that it may be the ideas and the rhetoric that lead the economy.
The book is a very scholarly and readable opus, and fairly well‐organized. In challenging contemporary evidence and modern liberal assumptions towards British commercial policy, Nye has produced an interesting and valuable study. Furthermore, this book is an intellectual greed, a reading that one savours peppering by the pleasure to be convinced by a delicious subversive thesis.