Ivo Vegter
Ivo Vegter

In defence of colonialism

Prompted by the debate that David Bullard tried — but probably failed — to stir (as I argued on my own blog), I wrote a short opinion on colonialism, which I reckon is worth posting separately. Thanks to Dawn for the comment that prompted this thought.

Global trade routes (source unknown, click for large version)My own view on colonialism is that it was a logical development in a world that had until then been isolationist and mercantilist. At the time, trade with enemies or foreign countries was often embargoed, subject to high tariffs and duties, or simply forbidden. Establishing friendly trading colonies was a necessary step on the way to building global trade.

Though deeply marred by illiberal practices such as corruption, annexation, slavery and war, such practices do not negate the mutual benefits of trade expansion, which was the primary purpose of colonial expansion by the major economic powers. One could argue that some (though far from all) colonial trade was involuntary, and that some colonialists did not respect the property or political rights of indigenous peoples. As much as this was the case, I’d agree that an honest case for “mutual benefit” cannot be made, but then, as much as this was the case, the trade wasn’t free at the time.

Global trade, post-colonial (links to source)These are among the reasons that colonialism would always have to be superseded, and why it couldn’t be anything other than a step towards a freer, more modern world in which the benefits of trade can be enjoyed by all its citizens.

However, that it did expand the world’s horizons and build the world’s institutions to a level at which capital could be more efficiently deployed and resources more efficiently harnessed is hard to dispute. Without the expanded production base created by growing trade, I doubt we could have supported the unprecedented population growth of the 20th century. In fact, I doubt that growth — and the concomitant growth in global prosperity and quality of life indicators — would even have been possible without growing global trade.

That we’re in a better world now than under a colonial trading system is indisputable. The advance of liberty is always an improvement in society, as is the growing sophistication of governments, markets and the institutional structures that support it.

That a colonial trading system was a useful step on the way to today’s increasingly free and prosperous world is perhaps more controversial, and whether its benefits exceeded its obvious costs is less immediately clear. But it’s a debate worth having, if only so that in focusing our efforts on an increasingly free and prosperous future, we can learn valid lessons from our less free and prosperous past.

(First published on my own blog.)