Getting Rich with Government Assistance

[From “The Amazing Career of a Pioneer Capitalist” by Martha Howell, a review of The Richest Man Who Ever Lived by Greg Steinmetz:]

If [16th century Dutch merchant Jacob Fugger] was not the “first capitalist,” the story of his life perfectly exemplifies sixteenth-century capitalism and suggests a fundamental truth about many more forms of capitalism, one that was so monstrously embodied by the Dutch East India Company: wealth is won and preserved with the support of a state that is, in turn, dependent on the riches accumulated by the few who excel in commerce.

In some periods, at some moments of technological history, the riches are typically extracted from ever more efficient production, invariably aided by ruthless exploitation of human labor and natural resources. In others the wealth comes principally from control of supplies, manipulation of demand, and management of distribution networks. But always the merchants grow rich because state power protects them or looks away when the time is right—and does so because in a world where commerce reigns, neither the state nor a powerful merchant class can exist without the other. We have Steinmetz’s book to thank not just for telling Fugger’s story so well but also for showing us how the partnership between state and commerce worked in the earliest days of European capitalism.

[And until this day. The rest is at New York Review of Books.]