Colonial Empires and Girl Scout Cookies

In today’s edition of the Tulip Teacher, we explore an unlikely pairing with a common thread: The humble American Girl Scout cookie hustle and the world’s largest and most brutal empires throughout history.

The American Girl Scouts are famous for pounding the pavements to raise money by selling s’mores, cookies, thin mints and many others. The name of their game is to maximise cookie sales and get a little competitive by selling more than the other troops. The basic strategies are simple; buy more cookies and send out more girl scouts (but territory is of course vital too). To really maximise your cookie sales, you need to target the territories where cookies sales are usually high. Fortunately, Girl Scout’s do not start turf wars that lead to violence and bloodshed. That being said… they are always prepared.

At the turn of the 18th century the European colonial powers of the world (Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and The Netherlands) were shaped by the predominant view of mercantilism. According to mercantilism wealth creation is a zero-sum game. In other words, the worlds resources are finite and if you gain wealth, it means someone else will have to lose it… and though there were some signs of cooperation between these colonial powers, nobody wanted to be an 18th Century loser.

The main aim of mercantilism is to take control and keep others at arms length. Colonist thinking went something like this: control the resources, the land, the labour and the trade routes so that they all generate wealth for us, because if we don’t take control, someone else will.

Some economists suggest that this view of the world is a significant reason why many European leaders thought it necessary to capture (by any means) more and more territories all over the world, instead of being beholden to the terms of trade of other nations.

In order to accumulate wealth (and avoid losing it) the colonial powers sought to protect their own countries from foreign trade whilst capturing more territory and extracting every drop of profit from their colonies through the exportation and exploitation of valuable resources and people. Examples include gold mined from Latin America, slaves taken from Africa, tobacco and cotton harvested from the Americas and North Asia.

Selling Girl Scout cookies shares a similar trait with colonialism because unlike the mercantilist coloniser’s assumption that wealth is finite, the number of front doors (or customers) in any given area, at any given time is finite. The number of homes in a neighbourhood is limited to the space available and construction of new homes takes time. This means the control of valuable territory is vital.  For Girl Scouts, ‘taking control of territory’ may simply be a postcode lottery because the troops based in resource rich, cookie-loving neighbourhoods may stand to gain the most sales, and there would be little other troops could do to change that. But if troops are competing on the same turf, whoever can make the sales first, is likely to prevent any other troop from making additional cookie sales in that territory. Whilst one troop gains sales, other troops lose out. If you squint really hard you might start to see how this is sounding a little mercantilistic on a smaller and less violent scale. Fortunately for us all, there have never been any tyrannical Girl Scout cookie empires… yet.

1. Girl Scout Cookies Image

1. S. Broadberry, K. H. O’Rourke, The Cambridge Economic History of Cambridge Europe Volume 1: 1700 – 1870, Cambridge University Press, 2010

Published by James Oliver

The Tulip Teacher Discussing all things business, economics and education