NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Trade And Labor Mobility In The 19th Century

May 25, 1999

Some historians contend that the 19th century, not the 20th, was the cradle of globalization. That was the era of free trade and immigration from Europe to America, they point out.

  • In the last century, passports were unnecessary and people could travel freely from one country to the next -- either for work or just a visit -- and some 60 million Europeans moved to other continents.
  • In 1900, some 14 percent of the American population was foreign born -- compared to just 8 percent today.
  • American exports soared to 7 percent of gross national product in the late 1800s -- compared to 8 percent today.
  • Capital movements as a proportion of economic output are still well below levels attained in the 1880s, according to a 1997 International Monetary Fund report.

The 1860s and 1870s were the golden age of free trade, say historians; for instance, as late as 1879, 95 percent of Germany's imports were still duty free.

Back then, England and France were investing in developing countries -- which meant the U.S., Australia and Canada. England invested a larger share of its wealth abroad than it does today.

Foreign capital financed one-third of domestic investment in New Zealand and Canada in the late 19th century and one-quarter in Sweden. By contrast, foreign capital accounted for only about 10 percent of domestic investments in emerging markets in the 1990s, according to the IMF.

Source: Nicholas D. Kristof, "At this Rate, We'll Be Global in Another Hundred Years," New York Times, May 23, 1999.


Browse more articles on Economic Issues