« PreviousContinue »
do with conferring prosperity upon the people. He went further than this. He believed that his opponents, by adducing the important consequences which the railway would of itself effect,—with reference to the price of goods, with reference to the consumption of the unemployed labour, and with reference to an increase of wages brought about by an increased demand for labour, —ingloriously attempted to rob his favourite principle of what he considered to be its sole merit. And this may further be remarked, that nowhere throughout the voluminous utterances which he made upon free trade or other subjects, does he ever refer to the important factors of railway extension and the gold discoveries as bearing upon the normal development of trade. But is this surprising, when we also recall that Cobden does not allude to the universal fall in prices which occurred between 1828 and 1848? What influence would this phenomenon have upon the inventions and enterprises which tend to stimulate trade? Does Cobden state that a contracted circulation—one in which the wear and tear of the coin in use had not been sufficiently met by the annual supplies of gold—might account in some degree for the state of commercial affairs during 1837-41? No: and, it appears, for a very good reason; for such an explanation would not have made for his purpose. It would not have strengthened his arguments in favour of a free-trade policy. Could it be possible that Cobden was uninformed of this phenomenon? He could not then have been so extensive a reader as Professor Thorold Rogers avers he was. For Lord Overstone distinctly mentions the fact in a pamphlet published by him in 1841, called ' Further Reflec
tions on the Currency,' and he was no mean authority on financial problems.
The complex character of the causation of prosperity during the early period of free trade, we hold, Cobden did not allow. Besides the free-trade principle as partially applied by us to our commerce with other peoples, including our colonies, there entered into that causation two very important factors. These may be enumerated under the capital heads of (1) railway development, and (2) the gold discoveries. And this is the order in which they began to take effect. Now when two or three causes are in existence at the same time, it is difficult, owing to what is called by logicians the intermixture of effects, to separate that portion which is due to each cause out of the total effect, and thereby be enabled to determine its exact value. It is difficult, if not impossible, in economical phenomena so to vary our results by means of experimental investigations as to lead to accurate conclusions. Thus the chances of error in ascribing any particular degree of prosperity to this or that cause in combination with others are manifold. Of free trade we can only say this—that it caused some prosperity; the precise amount, however, is hidden in obscurity.
But the free-traders to-day are quite willing to allow that free trade was not solely responsible for all the prosperity which attended its early progress. We have this on the authority of Sir T. H. Farrer, and that ought to suffice. On p. 8 of his 'Free Trade v. Fair Trade,' he says "that the ablest free-traders—such as Mr Fawcett and Mr Gladstone—are as decided as Lord Penzance can be in condemning the short - sighted fanaticism which has too often treated our free-trade policy as the sole factor of our commercial prosperity."1 Then it is admitted that there was much darkness hanging over the explanation "why it was our commerce so greatly prospered." Perhaps it has been convenient to continue the error just so long as the freetrade party, which became incorporated into the Eadical section of the great Liberal party, thought it might be prolonged without any harm accruing therefrom. We suppose that even free-traders will not deny that this "short-sighted fanaticism" was the principal factor in maintaining the united Liberal party for so long a period in power. They were upheld in the government of the country on the basis of an "inappreciable" error. But still, with all deference to free - trade knowledge of Cobden and his speeches, included amongst these short-sighted fanatics is Cobden himself. Thus it appears that the master had one explanation of the action of free trade, and that his pupils have come to possess themselves of another. Which is the true one? If the pupils are right, as they seem to think, then the master was wrong. Cobden, therefore, promoted the free-trade principle after the year 1850 under an erroneous impression. He believed that all the effects he witnessed were its products, while only a part of them flowed from its source. The free trade which Cobden projected in idea, cannot possibly be the
1 Some of the free-trade theorists, therefore, were wrong. There seems, too, to be another modification of free-trade doctrine in process of dissemination. Cobden and the late Professor Bonamy Price ruled that imports are "immediately" paid for "by exports." But since them, no less an authority on economics than Mr Gladstone has ruled that " in the long-run " imports and exports are equal.—'Standard,' May 3,1888. free trade which his present followers are endeavouring to bolster up in practice. Just in the same way as Huskisson's free-trade policy was supposed to be Adam Smith's free-trade policy (and as Cobden believed it to be so), so now who is there but does not believe that our present policy of free trade is not that which was framed by Cobden? But just in the same manner as Huskisson's policy was misunderstood (and misunderstood, I believe, for the very simple reason that his comprehensive commercial policy being directed towards an imperial policy made against that cosmopolitan tendency which is one of the ulterior objects of a universal free trade), so are Cobden's arguments and schemes misunderstood at the present day by those who are interested in misunderstanding them. For, if any one can show us where Cobden predicted that our agriculture would be partially destroyed, and that our one-sided free trade would remain "isolated" in the international commercial policy of the world for the period of nearly half a century, then it will be time to step aside and to permit others to portray what Cobden's arguments were and in what his predictions consisted. It does not take a second reading of Cobden's speeches to become aware of the fact that, with regard to the above-mentioned assumed predictions, Cobden's own views were in direct antagonism. Does Cobden anywhere assert that "free imports into this country are to our interest," while surrounding nations place an import on our exported goods ?1 We know of no passage even where he hints at such a state of things as is
1 The reader must be careful not to fall into error on this point. Cobden said, "If free trade is a good thing for us, we will have it." presented in our isolated free-trade policy.1 But if this policy of free trade is to effect the regeneration of the world, some nation must make the start; and Cobden was instrumental in compelling the Government of his country to adopt it. He saw it would be to our interest. And when our free-trade success was witnessed by surrounding nations, then he predicted that success would be the harbinger for these nations to follow in our suit. Such were, in truth, Cobden's anticipations; and upon them were founded his scheme of inducing all nations to become free-traders, for the plain reason that each would be the gainer by it. But if Cobden erred in his principles, in his argument, and in his "commercial speculations," it can scarce be wondered at that the master manufacturers, who placed such implicit trust in him, should have shown so great a want of foresight as they have done. For the increased stimulation of their trades to satisfy an artificial demand, by raising railway rates, would obviously bear against them in time of depression. But suppose that depression to assume a serious aspect, and suppose that there are no immediate prospects of a remedy for that depression. Then the manufacturers have to pay a far higher rate than would have been extracted from them had the rate of their production been regulated by " natural" demands only, and not by natural and artificial demands combined.
This was in opposition to those who argued that we could not practise free trade advantageously unless other nations became free-traders. He referred to the transition period, in which free trade was to have a stimulating influence. When other nations saw our increased prosperity, then, he said, they would become free-traders too, and within a period of five years.—Cobden's Speeches, pp. 185, 201.
1 On the contrary, all his arguments for free trade are based on the assumption that other nations are free-traders.