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A Nation of Shopkeepers – What’s Wrong with That?

“A nation of shopkeepers” is how Napoleon referred to the United Kingdom in the early 19th century.  Many have cited it as a derogatory description of the British.  However, Napoleon later explained that is was not meant to be derisive but to be a statement of fact – Britain derived its power from commerce and not from land holdings or population as it continental rivals did at the time.

I’ve always found this quote to be interesting for several reasons.  The most fun is the mental image of hundred of thousands of men and women in shopkeeper aprons standing in front of their stores around Britain.  There is something very Monty Python about it.

Another reason is that Napoleon actually was quoting the great Adam Smith, free market capitalist and author of the “Wealth of Nations”, in 1776.  Smith was referring to the shopkeepers as the retail engine that keeps the economy moving.  Without retailers we would not have the movement of goods and capital going to the places where it will be best utilized.  Without shopkeepers, production costs and wages would not be efficiently distributed.

But the main reason is the combination of Napoleon and Smith’s insights – it is commerce that ultimately drives the development and progress of the world.

I think we have had many opportunities to see how military might fails to bring change and democracy.  Throughout history, countries that try to expand or subjugate by using power ultimately fail because they cannot offer a sustainable base for the population.

However, as countries become more developed and economically self-sufficient they stabilize.  Its citizens have the means to improve their lot in life and increased wealth brings better education and living standards.  As the country, and individuals, becomes wealthier they become more closely tied into, and reliant on, the global economy.  Ultimately, this web of global connections create circumstances where the balance of trade becomes more important than the balance of power.

I’m not ruling out conflicts that are caused by rich countries looking for more resources and, therefore, acting militarily to gain them.  This still happens, unfortunately.  But, if you look at the great majority of the conflicts today, they are taking place in countries and regions where commerce has not been able to develop and where the local people have not had the chance to advance.  The only real exception to this are the tensions that exist between the United State, Russia, and China which, in my opinion, is more a war of words trying to establish their spheres of influence to obtain resources and consumer markets for their products.  Commerce at work, yet again.

There are a lot of rough edges to capitalism.  Without a safety net poor people suffer and the only focus is on economics.  A gap develops between the haves and the have-nots.  Environment consequences often result.

But, overall, commerce and the rise of a middle class is one of the most powerful tools for world peace.