Friedrich List

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Friedrich List



Friedrich List (1789–1846), German economist, was the son of a tanner from the free town of Reutlingen (Württemberg). Early in his life he absorbed the political ideas and doctrines of the Enlightenment, finding in them an excellent weapon against the rule of an arbitrary bureaucracy and the lingering restrictions of the age of the guilds. In the years following the defeat of Napoleon, he was able to give full scope to his liberal political ideas in his capacities as adviser to one of the leading statesmen of Württemberg, as professor of political economy at the University of Tübingen, and as editor of several periodicals.

With the rising tide of German reaction, However, his activity became suspect. When in 1819 he established an association of merchants and industrialists in Frankfurt am Main, the Handelsund Gewerbsverein, and advocated the abolition of internal German customs barriers, the officials of many German-speaking states, and especially Metternich, the Austrian chancellor, began to look upon him as a demagogue. In 1820 he was elected to the legislature of Wurttemberg. When he petitioned for an extension of local self-government and for publicity in judicial procedure, he was sentenced to ten months’ imprisonment for at tempting to undermine the stability of public institutions. He fled abroad in 1822 and led a wandering life for some years. In 1824 he returned to Germany and was promptly arrested. Released on the promise that he would emigrate to America— he had been invited by Lafayette—he sailed for New York in 1825.

In the United States, List engaged in various activities. He lived in Pennsylvania, first as an unsuccessful farmer, near Harrisburg, and then as the editor of a German newspaper, Der Adler, in Reading. He also discovered and successfully developed an anthracite coal mine near Tamaqua, Pennsylvania; the railroad he built to serve it— known as the Little Schuylkill Navigation Railroad and Canal Co.—was opened in November 1831 and was at the time the only railway line carrying both freight and passengers. At the same time he was a keen observer of the economic and political problems which beset the growing country; his entrepreneurial experiences confirmed his earlier doubts about the universal validity of Adam Smith’s doctrines. He concluded that a protective tariff is indispensable for industrially under-developed countries. At the suggestion of Charles Ingersoll, vice-president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Manufactures and the Mechanic Arts—the leading protectionist organization of the time—List wrote his “Outlines of American Political Economy” (1827). This was his first attempt at a systematic formulation of his views, and, indeed, it was the first attempt of any kind to draft a national system of political economy that was valid for early high capitalism. Copies of the “Outlines” were distributed to members of Congress, and the adoption of the Tariff Bill of 1828 was a direct consequence.

List supported the election campaign of Andrew Jackson in 1832 and was rewarded by being appointed American consul in Germany, serving first in Hamburg and then in Leipzig. While still American consul, he embarked on an ambitious plan to organize a German railway system. He contributed greatly to the development of the line between Leipzig and Dresden in 1837; it was one of the first railways on the Continent. The venture, although successful in itself, proved a source of personal and financial disappointment and even induced him to leave Germany for France.

It was in Paris in 1837 that List wrote his second systematic work, “Le systeme naturel de 1’economie politique,” which he submitted to the Academic des Sciences Morales et Politiques. The work was not rediscovered until 1925 and was published for the first time two years later in French and German (see Schriften, vol. 4). In this work, List deepened and expanded the theoretical system sketched in the “Outlines” and gave it, in addition, a historical basis. But the full results of his far-reaching studies and his international experiences were incorporated only in his best-known work on the subject of political economy, The National System of Political Economy (1841), which was written in Paris but appeared after List had finally returned to Germany in 1840. Beginning in 1843 he published Das Zollvereinsblatt, an influential review devoted to the dissemination of his ideas, which were by then both supported and confirmed by the rise of industrialism. He began to exercise an important influence on public opinion in Germany. However, financial worries, combined with the failure of his plan for an alliance between Germany and Great Britain, drove him to despair and led to his suicide.

In the nineteenth century List was the only economist, other than Karl Marx, who strongly emphasized the close interrelation of economic theory and political factors. He believed that economic doctrines have no abstract validity; he always examined accepted economic views and developed his own ideas in terms of concrete political areas at definite levels of economic development. He severely criticized the classical writers for not being aware of the great social and economic significance of the nation. For List, the nation is the most important link between the individual and mankind, whereas the economic principles of the classical school reflect the industrial and commercial supremacy of England in the nineteenth century and are inapplicable to the needs of underdeveloped but rising countries, such as nineteenth-century Germany, France, and the United States. Observing the destructive consequences of cheap British exports to the numerous small German states—consequences of the application of the English free-trade theory —List developed his countertheory of productive forces and of economic stages, related both to historical and cultural contexts. This was the basis of his later efforts to foster, by the development of railway systems, etc., the economic integration and industrial growth of the different German states that had been organized into the Zollverein (Customs Union) in 1834.

List’s theory of protectionism, as presented in The National System, was actually only a small part of a much larger system in which he intended to deal with agrultural theory, the concept of balance between agriculture and industry within any economy, and the significance of the internal market. Unfortunately, his ideas were often not suffi- ciently clear, and his arguments were not always sound—the theoretical element in his basically historical approach was not adequate to the task he set himself. Consequently, his writings were often misunderstood. In the controversy over free trade, for example, some stressed List’s argument that infant industries need protection if the nation’s productive forces are to be developed, while others realized that free trade was List’s ultimate goal. No one seemed to understand, however, that neither argument was central to List’s concern. Rather, he wished to demonstrate that the growth of an economy is an organic process and that it is only because growth is organic that every nation has a temporary need for protection. Thus, List denied that the policy prescriptions of classical economic theory are absolute and asserted that a nation’s best economic and commercial policy depends on its actual stage of development. The advisability of free trade is, therefore, a matter of politics and is not subject to a quasi-religious belief, as it was for the classical economists and as it is even today for many “neoliberals.”

List’s theory of economic stages is related to the pervasive eighteenth-century concept of harmony, for it is harmonic development that he saw realized in the Normalization, the state of national development when productive forces are completely utilized. The fact that evolution proceeds from primitive conditions to the agricultural state, then to the agricultural-and-manufacturing state, and finally to the agricultural-manufacturing-and-commercial state may not only stimulate effort in underdeveloped nations but, if correctly interpreted, may also warn them against the dangers of under-estimating the importance of agriculture and over-estimating that of the most modern type of industry.

List was opposed to the individualistic-cosmopolitan orientation of classical economics, with its focus on value theory. He defended his organic doctrine of productive forces against the classical atomistic-materialistic approach, and he upheld his own concept of the cooperative aspects of the productive process against the classical stress on the division of labor. His dynamic approach and his consequent interest in the development of productive forces led him to his belief in the value of protective tariffs as a method whereby underdeveloped countries may exploit their natural resources and raise their economic level.

List’s “Blicke in die Zukunft” (1846a), his vision of the political future, also manifests his concern for harmonic balance. He believed that the legal system of a developing nation should be preserved as a cultural prerequisite, as an ethical standard, and as a framework for political action both by individuals and by the people as a whole. Thus, the man who pioneered the Zollverein and heralded the politico-economic unity of the German nation had enough insight to anticipate the need to set limits to a possible German rise. Much more far-sighted than other political thinkers of his time, he predicted the inevitable division of the world into a few mighty empires. He foresaw the enormous growth of American population, industry, and power in the twentieth century, and he even anticipated the great impetus that Russia’s “conditions of culture, constitution, law and administration” would need in order for her to become a world power. He therefore consumed his last energies in fighting—without mandate or title—for an Anglo-German alliance. Such an alliance with a united Germany would preserve England’s hegemony and would save Europe from being crushed politically between the two rising world powers, Russia and the United States.

For a hundred years List’s system was generally accepted without really being understood, even in Germany. Free tradqrs, for example, thought he was a reactionary, although he was the founder of the movement that consolidated Germany commercially and that eventually destroyed more custom-houses and more obstacles to trade than were swept away by the political whirlwinds of the American and French revolutions. The efforts to integrate Europe in the years after World War II, however, led to a reappraisal of his statement: “Commercial union and political union are twins; the one cannot come to birth without the other following” ([1846fo] 1931, p. 276). Many passages in The National System can be easily adapted to the post-World War Ii situation by changing only the names of the states. It is even possible to maintain that List foresaw, strove for, and advocated a European common market; the German economic and political union of the nineteenth century was simply a preliminary stage.

Since World War II the Anglo-Saxon world has also become interested in the ideas that concerned List. Streeten (1959), for example, has stated that in The National System List clearly formulated the now widely discussed problem of “balanced growth” in underdeveloped countries. It is also recognized that List was one of the first economists to emphasize the importance of so-called social overhead capital (especially the means of transportation) as a necessary precondition for any economic development, be it in Germany in the nineteenth century or in the many underdeveloped countries of the world in the twentieth. Paul Samuelson (1960) has even placed List among the really important American economists, not only because he began formulating his theory of economic development during his stay in the United States but also because—like the majority of American economists of the past—he can be characterized by a protectionist tendency and a nationalist attitude. Thus, for the practical questions of the integration of Europe and the industrialization of underdeveloped countries, List’s work remains of utmost importance, while as a theorist, he is significant as the originator of the historical theory of economic growth.

Edgar Salin AND RenÈ L. Frey

[ For discussion of the subsequent development of List’s ideas, seeEconomicThought, article on THE Historical school; InternationalIntegration, article OnEconomic unions; InternationalTradeControls.]


(1827) 1931 Outlines of American Political Economy. Volume 2, pages 95-156 in Friedrich List, Schriften, Reden, Briefe Berlin: Robbing.

(1841) 1928 The National System of Political Economy. London: Longmans.→ First published in German.

(1846a) 1931 Blicke in die Zukunft. Volume 7, pages 482–494 in Friedrich List, Schriften, Reden, Briefe. Berlin: Robbing.→ First published as “Politik der Zukunft.”

(1846b) 1931 tiber den Wert und die Bedingungen einer Allianz zwischen Grossbritannien und Deutschland. Volume 7, pages 267–296 in Friedrich List, Schriften, Reden, Briefe. Berlin: Robbing.→ Translation of extract in the text provided by the editors.

Schriften, Reden, Briefe. 10 vols. in 12. Edited by Erwin von Beckerath et al. Berlin: Robbing, 1927–1936. → Volume 1: Der Kampf um die politische und okonomische Reform: 1815–1825, 1932. Volume 2: Grundlinien einer politischen Okonomie und andere Beitrdge der amerikanischen Zeit: 1825–1832, 1931. Volume 3: Schriften zum Verkehrswesen, 1929–1931. Volume 4: Das natiirliche System der politischen Okonomie, written in French in 1837, first published in French and German in 1927. Volume 5: Aufsdtze und Abhandlungen aus den Jahren 1831–1844, 1928. Volume 6: Das nationale System der politischen Okonomie, 1930. Volume 7: Die politisch-okonomische National-einheit der Deutschen: Aufsdtze aus dem Zollvereinsblatt und andere Schriften der Spdtzeit, 1931. Volume 8: Tagebilcher und Briefe: 1812–1846, 1932. Volume 9: Lists Leben in Tag- und Jahresdaten, 1935. Volume 10: Verzeichnisse zur Gesamtausgabe, 1936.


Brinkmann, Carl 1949 Friedrich List. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Eheberg, Karl T. VON 1883 Historische und kritische Einleitung zu Friedrich Lists Nationalem System der politischen Oekonomie. Pages 1-249 in Friedrich List, Das nationale System der politischen Oekonomie. 7th ed. Stuttgart (Germany): Cotta.

Gehring, Paul 1964 Friedrich List: Jugend- und Reifejahre 1789–1825. Tubingen (Germany): Mohr.

Hausser, Ludwig 1850 Friedrich Lists Leben. Volume 1 in Friedrich List, Gesammelte Schriften. Stuttgart and Tubingen (Germany): Cotta.

Hirst, Margaret e. 1909 Life of Friedrich List and Selections From His Writings. With an introduction by F. W. Hirst. London: Smith; New York: Scribner.

Lenz, Friedrich 1930 Friedrich List, “die Vulgdrokonomie” und Karl Marx nebst einer unbekannten Denkschrift Lists zur Zollreform. Jena (Germany) : Fischer.

Lenz, Friedrich 1936 Friedrich List: Der Mann und das Werk. Munich and Berlin: Oldenbourg.

Meusel, Alfred 1928 List und Marx: Fine vergleichende Betrachtung. Jena (Germany): Fischer.

Notz, William (1925)1926 Frederick List in America. American Economic Review 16:249–265. → First published in German in Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv.

Olshausen,Hans p. 1935 Friedrich List und der deutsche Handels- und Gewerbsverein. Jena (Germany) : Fischer.

Ritschl, Hans 1947 Friedrich Lists Leben und Lehre. Tübingen and Stuttgart (Germany): Wunderlich.

Salin, Edgar (1921) 1963 Friedrich Lists Lehre von den Wirtschaftsstufen und die Bedeutung der Typik. Pages 301–309 in Edgar Salin, Lynkeus: Gestalten und Probleme aus Wirtschaft und Politik. Tubingen (Germany): Mohr. → First published in Volume 45 of Schmollers Jahrbuch.

Samuelson, Paul a. 1960 American Economics. Pages 31-50 in Ralph E. Freeman (editor), Postwar Economic Trends in the United States. New York: Harper.

Sommer, Artur 1927 Friedrich Lists System der politischen Ökonomie. Jena (Germany): Fischer.

Streeten, Paul 1959 Unbalanced Growth. Oxford Economic Papers New Series 11:167–190.