Originally Posted by Florian
I think it would be somewhat controversial for an economic historian to say that free trade is the most important factor in the development of capitalism, of "growth," a rather ambiguous concept anyway that is hard to measure before the 19th century. Population, natural resources, investment, education, technological innovation seem to me more important. The main reason France lagged behind Britain in the first half of the 19th century and Germany in the second half, was population stagnation and a relatively large agricultural sector.
By 1810, France had the second largest population in Europe, after Russia. The population was considered stagnant only because of the "large agricultural sector". France had experienced a demographic boom before the rest of Europe, so it was only "stagnant" in growth at its already elevated levels. None the less, by 1900 the population of Britain was about 35 million people, the population of Germany was 56 million, and the population of France was about 40 million. Britain had the fewest people, but was a greater economic power than Germany during the entirety of the 19th century, matched it for the first 20 years of the 20th. For the first half of the 19th century, France had a population 30% larger than Britain's, and I don't think it has been an economic competitor since the 17th century. Until now, of course.
So I don't know if population can be blamed. And I would say the large agricultural sector is directly attributable to protectionism. That France closed markets to foreign goods (Strangely enough, the French rural gentry actively opposed the import of colonial
foodstuffs....kind of defeats the purpose?) kept France from being subject to the modernizing industrial forces of competition.
Take textiles for example. India was a rich source of textile fabric for Britain. Cheap fabric means more volume sold, because products can be sold for a lower price. That means more factories built, better equipment to maximize efficiency, more people employed in textile mills. That is more trained workers in a city, with a greater number of children centrally located for public education.
But in France, textile manufacturers preferred locally (And American) developed fabric because they considered the high prices and current ownership arrangement superior for "stability". They didn't think of competition as being in their interests. So no, you don't have the draw from the country to the city, the way you do in England. You have rent-a-mobs staging demonstrations where they burn Indian cloth.
I actually think that this divergence is why you see the outsized influence of Paris versus the rest of the country, which has usually been problematic.
That's history, as Americans say. It is not obvious to me that a country that today has more Fortune 500 companies than Germany still "lags behind" Germany or what that even means.
Simply a measure of GDP.