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Contribution to Collected Edition

The League of Nations and Alternative Economic Perspectives


Biltoft,  Carolyn N.
Projekte von Gastwissenschaftlern und Postdoc-Stipendiaten, MPI for the Study of Societies, Max Planck Society;
Institute for International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland;

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Biltoft, C. N. (2016). The League of Nations and Alternative Economic Perspectives. In E. S. Reinert, J. Ghosh, & R. Kattel (Eds.), Handbook of Alternative Theories and Economic Development (pp. 270-280). Cheltenham: Elgar.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002B-ADE5-B
The League of Nations may seem a peculiar entry in a volume dedicated to heterodoxy. The organization emerged from the Paris Peace Conference as a manifestation of, or an international advertisement for, the braided faiths of classical economics and liberalism. The League’s paper trail certainly contains claims that the rule of law and free trade based on comparative advantage could together secure peace by assuring the greatest good and wealth for the greatest number. Yet, even though the League was born within a lineage of orthodoxy, it also provided an arena for discussing alternatives to classical liberalism. As the world’s first permanent intergovernmental forum of its kind, the League gathered and brought into conversation a host of different nations and interest groups. Whatever its initial intentions, it gradually became a zone where the claims of convergence continually and publically ran up against political and economic divergences. Thus, the League piloted the working through of a question that continues to afflict multilateral institutions: should these bodies reflect or actively alter or redress the distribution of power and resources on the global stage? It was in grappling with, though not resolving, this question that the League both reasserted and then slowly came to re-evaluate some of its founding precepts, especially in the economic domain. This chapter claims that beyond the narratives of success and failure, international organizations provide a historical laboratory for studying the ligaments connecting the international division of labor to the international balance of power. Furthermore, they provide a glimpse into the ways in which struggles to either preserve or restructure those ligaments often played out equally in the realm of ideology as in the realm of policy. To those ends, the following pages will first address how the League’s efforts to promote the values of classical liberalism shed light on some of the fault lines of those doctrines. Secondly, the chapter will explore how the League weighed promises of laissez-faire’s long-run prosperity against counterclaims that social and political dissatisfaction with gaps in wealth and power could undermine international stability in the short run. Finally, it will focus on how the League’s open discussions of wealth distribution helped to incubate the seeds of alternative trade and development theory after 1929.