List, Georg Friedrich

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LIST, GEORG FRIEDRICH (1789–1846), German economist, journalist, entrepreneur, diplomat.

Friedrich List's life was as turbulent as the times in which he lived. Born in the first year of the French Revolution, he died just two years before the German revolution of 1848. He championed technological innovations such as railroads and telegraphs, provided a voice for the emerging middle class of bankers and industrialists, and tried his hand at academia, journalism, industry, and commerce. Known mostly as "the other notable economist," that is, "other" than Adam Smith (1723–1790) and Karl Marx (1818–1883), List took his own life—out of a sense of physical exhaustion and intellectual and professional rejection.

List began a career as professor of political economy at Tübingen University in 1817, but he left within two years to begin a life as journalist at Frankfurt. He at once made a name for himself by petitioning the German Confederation to abolish all internal tariffs and to protect the nascent German industry with tariffs against the British mass-produced goods then flooding central Europe. He was elected to the Württemberg Diet in 1819, but ran afoul of the Stuttgart government when he published a brochure calling for local self-government and open judicial procedures. He was evicted from the legislature and stripped of his citizenship. After a brief period of exile in France and Switzerland, List returned to Stuttgart and was promptly arrested and sentenced to ten months incarceration. When he promised to migrate to the United States, his sentence was reduced.

List spent several happy years in the more open and dynamic American society. He purchased a farm in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, then an anthracite coal mine in nearby Tamaqua, and in 1829 an interest in the Little Schuylkill Navigation Railroad. In a pamphlet entitled Outlines of American Political Economy, List in 1827 appealed to Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and James Madison (1751–1836) to establish tariffs to fend off British exports. Made a citizen in 1830, two years later List supported Andrew Jackson's (1767–1845) election campaign and was reward by being appointed U.S. consul in Baden (1831–1834), Saxony (1834–1837), and Württemberg (1843–1845).

Having returned to Germany in 1834, List turned his prodigious energy and talent to lobbying for railroad construction. He was delighted when Prussia later that year—without his direct influence, as is often claimed—founded the Zollverein, a customs union of some thirty German states save Austria. For List, railroads and free trade were "symbiotic twins," ones that would eventually lead to national unification. After a three-year sojourn in Paris, he returned to Germany in 1840, where under the patronage of King Louis I of Bavaria (r. 1825–1848) he penned his major treatise, The National System of Political Economy. Six years later, List visited the home of Adam Smith and wrote a political pamphlet entitled Concerning the Importance and Conditions of an Alliance between Germany and England. It was firmly rejected by the Victorian elite.

List's influence rests on three pillars: first, as the leading advocate of railroad building; second, as an unflagging champion of a customs union; and third, as the author of the first German treatise on national economy. He renounced English free-trade theory as being too doctrinaire, too divorced from time and place. Above all, it ill suited an "underdeveloped" economy such as the German, which instead needed "educational" tariffs to protect infant industries and to allow the economy to rise (in a five-stage process) to a more "developed" level, such as that of Britain. Like Marx, List recognized the close link between economic theory and political factors; unlike Marx, he refused to reduce political economy to theoretical mathematical constructions. For List, the nation and/or state was the critical link between the individual and mankind. He cared less for the accumulation of wealth in and of itself, and more for the forces that lay behind that accumulation—public administration, communication and transportation, education, entrepreneurship, law and order, scientific discovery, self-government, and technology. He firmly anchored his theory in historical and cultural contexts.

Sometime after 1841, List, much like Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) that same year, began to turn to geopolitics—well before the term had been invented. He foresaw the eventual division of the world into a few mighty empires in general, and of the rise to great-power status of the United States and Russia in particular. Thus, he called not only for an Anglo-German alliance to counterbalance the perceived American-Russian "threat," but also for a "central European" economic bloc (Mitteleuropa) anchored on the vast contiguous land mass that swept southeast across the Continent from Denmark down to the Danubian basin. The revival of such a notion of dominance over Mitteleuropa in German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg's (1856–1921) infamous 1914 "September program" of war aims unfairly brought List much negative publicity more than six decades after his death.

See alsoLiberalism; Protectionism; Trade and Economic Growth.


Henderson, William Otto. Friedrich List: Economist and Visionary, 1789–1846. London, 1983. The best survey of List and his political economic views by the author of the standard history of the German Zollverein.

Roussakis, Emmanuel N. Friedrich List: The Zollverein and the Uniting of Europe. Bruges, 1968. A terse analysis of List, the customs union and unification—highly laudatory of the economist's role therein.

Szporluk, Roman. Communism and Nationalism: Karl Marx versus Friedrich List. New York, 1988.

Holger H. Herwig