Most studies of trade policy, and other economic policy for that matter, emphasize the interplay of contending economic interests such as labor, capital, or particular industries. This book rightly argues that these accounts have overlooked the fiscal problems of the state. While others have discussed state fiscal interests and their implications for internal extraction or external power, Hobson provides the most fully developed theory and rich case studies on the topic.
The first two-thirds of this book consist of case studies of nineteenth-century trade policies in Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and four federal states (US, Canada, Australia, Switzerland). These are valuable, especially the chapter on Germany. This reinterprets the marriage of iron and rye in fiscal terms and debunks many claims in the conventional wisdom about the Junkers. The case study on the federal states, in contrast, largely follows conventional comparative accounts, though not necessarily the country-specific accounts. It would have been helpful to see Hobson reinterpret a few more countries - - it's not clear why France should be left out of this kind of comparative book. An overview of Latin America would not have been out of place, either.
The final third develops a sociological theory of the state around these cases and then situates the theory against sociological theories more generally. This is admirably ambitious, but the theory has far too many moving parts. Variables such as military competition, state-society relations, federalism, authoritarianism, and others all play a role in explaining variation between two (falsely dichotomized) outcomes - - protectionism and free trade. Hobson probably would have been better off expressing as many hypotheses as possible in probabilistic and continuous terms, using the data he painstakingly collected for the case studies. In fact, the case studies provide much more convincing evidence for mid-level comparative claims, which are more persuasive than his later attempts at synthetic grand theory.
All in all, this is an impressive book, and essential to the study of nineteenth century political economy.