« PreviousContinue »
We leave this interesting point in order to inquire of the free-traders upon what they founded the rectitude of their doctrines. Is it the case that, in such a science as that of economy, experience is needed to verify any doctrine or theory which they may construct before it must be put into action ? x Do abstract truths apply to concrete sciences? If so, are there any conditions which limit their application?
But it appears to those who have no great opinion of such abstract truths, that new experiences must modify old doctrines; that what is true of a certain set of conditions can but remain true so long as these conditions continue the same; and that anything which disturbs these conditions must also disturb the doctrine which they support.
Now the manufacturers in calling for the cheap loaf had their own aggrandisement2 in view, as well as the material improvement of their labourers. They had only to tell the working classes that the measures then proposed would not only bring them a cheap loaf and more employment, but also very probably higher wages, and they were supported with a unanimity very rarely attainable. But the reason is clear. They discovered to their workmen the prospect of the promotion of their self-interest.
This movement, however, of itself would scarcely have been sufficient to effect the repeal of the Corn
1 No such experience was forthcoming in the case of free trade. What experience was available was only to be derived from the system of making trade more free under protection.
2 Cobden stated that the increased price of bread came out of the manufacturer's profits. Hence, to lower the price of corn meant to enlarge the manufacturers' profits!
Laws. And it is curious to observe that no great reform has ever yet been achieved without the instrument of the imputations of injustice to certain interests or a certain party. In the instance of the Catholic emancipation it was the Tory party who offended. In the case of the Eeform Bill it was the House of Lords which obstructed the growing liberties of the people. So on the occasion of the Corn Law repeal it was the landed interest which was held up to the public contempt.
And it was Cobden's mission to perform this function of a well-nourished and well-organised agitation. We say "well nourished," because the Free Trade League was handsomely supported by the manufacturers. No less a sum than a quarter of a million was collected during the last year of its existence. He attacked the great landed proprietors of his country, not because he had any personal animosities against a particular section of them, but because he honestly believed that they derived their high rents at the expense of the poor man's table.1 He believed, and we are bound to admit it in all sincerity, otherwise the extraordinary feeling which he infused in his harangues, and the vain boasts he uttered would count for nothing, that it was " high rent" which caused the high price of corn. That any man should have continued to lead so formidable an
1 The bread-tax not levied for the purposes of State, but for the benefit of the richest portion of the community, p. 3. It came out of the manufacturers' profits. On whom did they charge it?
"A band of dishonest confederates leagued together for the purpose of upholding the interests of one body against the general good of the community.
"If this country is to be ground down by an oligarchy, it will be more honest to follow the example of the Venotian nobles." "The landowners ground down the wages of labour."—P. 22.
agitation, under the pretext of such an egregious economical fallacy, would have been astounding enough had the agitator had no ulterior objects to gain. It is certain that Cobden was not influenced by Eicardo's theory of rent, that one which is now followed by all who write, and free-traders are included, on the subject of economy. It is also well known to those who are conversant with his speeches, that he seems never to have been more pleased and energetic than when he exposed the fallacies of those who were arrayed against him. But he must have caught the infection from them. What would Cobden have thought of himself had he been aware of the false nature of his central economical doctrine—the keystone of that arch which he constructed in idea to convey the people (whom he so loved) from a condition of hardship to the state of plenty? But this part of the structure is undeniably unsound, and wanted but the slightest pressure to give way. It falls when the lesion is touched; but the pity is that Cobden's views do not fall alone, for they implicate the wellbeing of the labouring classes. He showed them plenty, but there is the gulf between which he failed to bridge over. And now this gulf is impassable. Is there any other course open to them, but that they shall regain the shelter of protection which they deserted in a frenzy ?1
But he accused others of acting unjustly, and con
1 1. "The Corn Law, if it does anything, raises rents."—P. 29.
2. "If rents have increased and are increasing, then I contend that this law was passed for the landlords, and that it operates for their benefit and their benefit only."
But rents rise because corn rises in price; and corn rises in price when fresh lands are brought under cultivation.
demned them with a vigour perhaps never excelled. His condemnations become empty — they lose that righteous character which has been attributed to them —when the arguments he used to silence his opponents are shown to be false. Was Cobden, then, unjust to the aristocracy of this country? Did he falsely accuse them of being the prime source of the degraded condition of the agricultural labourer, when, in reality, these high rents, which he said operated by plundering the poor, were the effect and not the cause of the high price 'of corn ?1 What might be said to-day of that principle which, in direct opposition to what Cobden conceived would be its action, has by an adverse competition sent more than half of the arable soil of England alone out of cultivation, and turned out of the fields, their original homesteads, those very labourers who, in Cobden's own language, were degraded by the tyranny and injustice of the landlords, who maintained rents at a more than extravagant level, in order to be able to—pay their mortgages out of them?
But it is of no material importance to set Cobden himself in the place of the landowners, and view him from the agricultural labourers' point. Under protection the agricultural labourers did exist in unreduced numbers (though perhaps in no better condition than tens of thousands of the poor at this day), let the price
1 Ricardo's doctrine, followed by J. Stuart Mill and Professor Cairnes. What the Corn Law actually did, was to maintain rents at a certain level. And in this process there were other results regarded than the mere welfare of the landowners. There was the protection of agricultural stock; thero was also the security afforded to agricultural labour. The Corn Law had nothing to do with raising rents as held by Cobden. In this Cobden is opposed by all economists.
of corn and the rent of the landlord be ever so high. But nowadays many of them have been forced by foreign competition to desert the soil. And why? because the tenant-farmers do not find it profitable to cultivate wheat at present prices.
We repeat that, at the present, it is of no use to follow Cobden's example of arousing enthusiasm in the masses, when the origin of that enthusiasm springs from such impure and erroneous sources.
What Cobden effected is impossible to-day. The intelligence of the nation forbids it. Let us explain his remarkable career by alluding to his short-sighted treatment of economical problems, and to the earnestness which he infused into his political aspirations. Undoubtedly he desired and strove for the greater wellbeing of the labouring classes. And in a sense he attained it.1 But it was by means which were not only unsound, but dishonest as well.
§ 2. The analysis of distress.—It is common enough nowadays to admit that not all the prosperity which attended our commerce during the first period of the operation of the free-trade principle was due to it alone. But this admission, we maintain, has only been wrung from the free-traders by the gradual accumulation of superior proof. At any rate, we have Cobden's own authority for asserting that he believed, and believed thoroughly, that the railway extension had but little to
1 But it was an artificial advance. There are several ways of attaining the same end. Some natural, others artificial; the one set acting gradually, the other suddenly and disproportionately. Cobden believed the true source of the regeneration of the people to be in free trade.