Spain (Too much wealth is a problem)

Too little gold/wealth was always scary. The kingdom with empty coffers were always on the verge of annihilation. They never had money to build defenses, raise armies/navies, build cities/roads/ships/canals, import food (in case of drought) or even pay tribute so that the lives of its citizens would be spared. However people never realized that too much wealth can also be a problem.

Spain and Portugal, by the 1500, has discovered massive sources of gold and silver in the New World (Latin America). It won’t be wrong to say that the half of the world’s gold flowed through Spain. Yet in 1557 and then in 1597 Spanish Government was bankrupt.

The influx of gold from Caesar’s campaign in Gaul caused a plunge in the value of gold by over 25%. Its no wonder that the strongest nation in the world faced a civil war soon afterwards which destroyed the republic for ever.

It was only after 1568, that people realized the problems of too much wealth. Jean Bodin (1530-1596), a French lawyer, writing in 1568, while analyzing the the inflationary effect of the (Latin) American money concluded
there were several reasons for the rising prices in the sixteenth century but that “the principal and almost the only one
(which no one has referred to until now) is the abundance of gold and silver, which is today much greater in this kingdom than it was four hundred years ago”.

However, there was little one could do about it. Take Spain for example. There are tonnes of silver and gold in the New World which was getting mined, and shipped to Europe. Because of this sudden influx of gold, nothing was too expensive. The demand and the prices of goods rose many folds, but in that Pre-Industrial age, the production of goods could not be scaled up. Hence, this demand resulted in increase of wages making production to be commercially inviable in the whole of Spain.

The situation was so bad that by 1590, 80 per cent of all goods shipped from Spain to its new colonies were goods that had already been imported from elsewhere in Europe. (source)
England and rest of the Europe on contrast build manufacturing capabilities. They used their colonies as a source of raw materials and a destination for manufactured goods. Making their economy more robust.

This manufacturing capabilities fueled the industrial revolution and made their economies stronger. Hence, even after the loss of major colonies, other European Counties were not suddenly reduced to poverty. In contrast, Spanish grew weaker because of too much wealth. Their wealth forced them to fight too many costly battles which emptied their coffers. The Britisher Privateers disrupted the supply of gold using Guerrilla tactics and weakened the empire. Finally the Spanish Armada was defeated and Spain lost control of the High seas and the New world reducing them to almost nobody in the arena of Wealth, Power and Influence.



8 thoughts on “Spain (Too much wealth is a problem)

  1. //too much gold and too much greed always comes to a fall//
    i know, but ironically not till the 16th century did anybody realized that too much wealth can be a problem. and even then, they had no solution for that. the entire world was on gold standards and there is nothing that the kings and queens could do about it. only in the modern times with the emergence of central banks and an ability to print currency, has there been any viable solutions.

    //they also say wealth lasts in a family for three generations//
    ya there are several explanations to this observed phenomenon, but i doubt whether someone ever tried extending it to kingdoms (esp ones with democracies, not kings)


  2. I’m not convinced that the problem is as simple as saying that there is “too much wealth.” The phrase “too much wealth” might cause someone to think it is economically unsustainable to have an upper class in society which is not true.

    It seems to me that high amounts of wealth are only problematic when they are disproportionate to the amount of goods/services available. You made the point that production could not keep up with demand because Spain was pre-industrial. In that case, had Spain already industrialized, production could have kept up with demand and the high amounts of wealth would not have been an issue.


  3. Ankur, as french would have said : “Chapeau!”. Great article man ! I never saw it that way … Indeed too much wealth can cause too many problems. Huh!


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