Is there “Free Trade Imperialism”? Part I

After reading the famous article “The Imperialism of Free Trade” by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, which was published in The Economic History Review in 1953, I was upset to see that someone would even consider such a thing. This is a summary of their argument:

After the colonial age, most settlements were throwing British rule off. Britain used free trade agreements to continue to have influence upon these countries. The purpose of these agreements was to make the colonies dependent upon the home country. The have two different types of control, formal and informal. Free trade is an example of informal. This is the quote from the paper:

“By slackening the formal political bond at the appropriate time, it was possible to rely on economic dependence and mutual good-feeling to keep the colonies bound to Britain while still using them as agents for further expansion.”

Their over arching thesis that Britain wasn’t anti-imperialist nation at this time may have been true. This is not due to free trade and creating “economic dependence.” This would be due to government coercion that is just more stylized than direct invasion. They used India as an example and how the “laissez-faire” era was full of (British) government lead growth. They admit this and call this the “formal” version of Imperialism.

“Informal” Imperialism, to them, is the Latin America case. They believe this does the same thing by extending trade patterns overseas and migration of both investment and cultural things. I do not see where Britain got that much of an advantage here. They increased their trade and put more investment in the country. I see this as an all around good for both sides. Capital is being invested in Argentina and they are growing and creating jobs, while the investors in Britain are sitting back and receiving dividends.

In conclusion of this first part of the two part series, Britain at this time was still exerting imperial control over some countries. With other countries, it wanted to exert control but could not and took the commercial income instead. This does not discount that they had an incentive to keep the foreign country stable. In “Part II,” we will look at whether this trade and investment can create “economic dependence” and whether or not this is imperialism or not? If it is, then is it a more efficient way? And if it isn’t then what is it?

You can see it on Thursday. This is possibly a working paper for me to try and get published so if you have any comments or suggestions let me know.



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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Imperialsim is understoo a control or dependence of one country over another. It seems plausible that Britain adn other economic ginats of our age are controllign smaller nations. what you seem to imply is tha politics and economy be sharply separated. do you think it is possible? China in 2011 orderd teh South African to veto the Dalai Lama’s visit to Archbishop Tutu’s birthday. bear in mind that China has 20% of its trade ties in Africa with South Africa. What could be more political or Imperialist than that?

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