« PreviousContinue »
causes of the fall in prices, the appearance of this phenomenon is of no moment. If it exists, it merely points to the fact that the cause of the distress is increasing in intensity. But from another point-the welfare of the country—it is all-important.
Now it becomes matter of controversy to ascribe any and what influence to a free intercourse in corn as the cause of the prosperity of the manufacturers. We are inclined to the opinion that the causes leading to that prosperity were already in operation before the Corn Laws were repealed; and the effect of an increased and normal currency, in raising prices and stimulating enterprise, still further tended to magnify the effects of those causes, and to increase the profits of our merchants. Were the beneficial effects of the development of the railway portended? We adduce a passage from Cobden, in which he ignored, or affected to disregard, the enormous benefits to be derived from facilitating the transit of our goods.? There can be no doubt of the troubled state of the times, which, in the judgment of many, and M‘Culloch inclined to this view, arose more from political than economical disabilities. It was that economist's opinion that it was more prudent, under the then existing circumstances, to allow the economical change to be effected, than subject the framework of our constitution to the severe strain which was imminent. But the absorption of the Chartist element into free-trade agitation was the turning-point. Two separate agitations—one purely political, the other free trade-were welded together. But how? By the persuasive eloquence of Cobden. It was he who pointed out to the Chartists the necessity of attending to their material welfare in the first instance. First let them acquire material prosperity, and their political wants would be satisfied in course of time, and by the same instrument, too, which, he said, would ensure their prosperity. But the whole of Cobden's political economy is wrong.1 He started upon a false assumption, and raised a superstructure thereon, well pleasing to the intellectual eye of the people. The more fascinating his invidious illustrations, the more popular he became. And it was essential he should maintain his place in popular favour. That he thoroughly believed in the efficacy of free trade to consummate an everlasting prosperity, and to effect that communion of cosmopolitan interests which was to destroy for ever warlike tendencies, there cannot, we again repeat, be the slightest doubt. A man who occupied so high a position as he did in the estimation of the public
1 Of course, all prices which are more or less under the influence of monopoly are excluded.
2 P. 72, where he states that 10s. 6d. a quarter is the average cost of conveying corn from Danzig to London. This, said he, would be permanent, and act as a sort of natural protection to the British farmer. Also, p. 104, where he asserts that the only obstacle in the way of manufacturing prosperity was “dear bread.” He does not refer to cheaper transit. Now bread did not become appreciably cheaper till after 1860. Cobden's factor, therefore, was not in operation during 1850-1860. And still the nation enjoyed prosperity.
1 It is false to assert that high rents are the cause of high prices. It is false to assert that the Corn Law was a purely selfish law, in favour of the landowners. We are in a false position now. For other nations, according to Cobden, were to become free-traders within five years. But his calculations referred to what would happen “if his assumed events fell out." They have not fallen out. Our present experience of free trade is absolutely opposed to what Cobden anticipated of it.
though popular favour is capricious : he was turned out of the representation of Stockport at the general election of 18571_must needs cast about for all possible evidence to warrant the trust thus shown in him. And in the extraordinary delusions which were entertained as to what was cause and what effect, and how prosperity was brought about, he had ample scope to give his favourite principle a prominent place. The very passion of the man overbore the quiet arguments of those who attempted to take an opposite course. He denounced them as enemies of the people. As for themselves, they were sowing the seeds of their own destruction; and the people would remember their tyranny, and take vengeance on the day of reckoning. And when prosperity happened, as Cobden had predicted—when men were more concerned in the accomplishment of their material wellbeing than in the method by which it was induced—they became deaf to all other but Cobden's voice. He had been first in the field; he had gained the popular ear, and it seemed useless to try to dispossess him of it. But the attempt was made. With what effect is well known.
And thus it came about, from the intermixture of the effects of different causes, that Cobden was enabled to point to free trade as the sole cause of prosperity. Wages rose, just as Cobden had predicted. Our foreign trade extended in a degree beyond what Cobden had anticipated. The Manchester school was for the time
1 Professor Thorold Rogers, 'Cobden and Modern Political Opinion,' p. 112. “It was infinitely more creditable to Cobden,” says this writer, “that he lost his seat at the general election in 1857, than to Lord Palmerston that he was able to secure public support for the affair of the Lorcha.”
to Lord I that he Tomlinitelynas
triumphant. But the price of bread did not suffer any serious fall, though the effect of competition was at once to send poor land out of cultivation. And rather than a drain of gold occurring, the Bank (1850) held more bullion than during the palmiest days of protection. Why? Because capital was withdrawn from agriculture. The circumstances, indeed, were fortuitous. It remains for a subsequent generation to recognise the fact whether Cobden was or was not self-deceived.
If, as we believe, a free intercourse in corn did not at once assist the British manufacturer in extending his markets, then in that period during which the price of corn fluctuated as it did under the sliding - scale, its action must have been superfluous.
If the repeal of the Corn Laws did not at first really 1 benefit the manufacturer, if it came to his assistance afterwards, it is requisite to inquire under what conditions. Now it seems to be the case that it could benefit him only when his profits began to diminish, and when he was therefore compelled to reduce the wages of his labourers. If, then, this was the only assistance it could afford him, and it cannot be regarded as a very substantial assistance, let us see what were the disadvantages ensuing upon the abolition of the Corn Law. It permitted the entry of as much foreign corn as could be sent into our markets. It introduced a dangerous tendency, for the welfare of agriculture was threatened.
Now it was impossible so large a quantity of corn 1 There can be no doubt that the repeal of the Corn Laws benefited the manufacturers from the very first. But this benefit was purely a selfish one. The Corn Laws were ostensibly abolished to enable the manufacturers to compete more successfully with their rivals. This the repeal did not effect till profits began to decline.
could be grown abroad as to disturb the prices of the home markets immediately, though there was a shadowing forth of future events in the excessive importation of corn in 1847 and 1849. The effect of a free trade in corn upon our markets would be gradual. It could not be otherwise. For there were many difficulties to be overcome before any very large quantity could be annually poured into the country. There were the difficulties of the cultivation of new soils; but they were moderate. There were also difficulties imposed by the cost of transit, not only from the interior of corn-growing counties to the seaport towns, but also from these towns to free markets. These were more serious, but they could not be considered as constant: though Cobden argued from a belief in their constancy, and thus arrived at the conclusion that foreign imports of corn would not prevent home-grown corn from being sold. For such was not the object of a free trade in corn (p. 53). But they have become reduced, as improvements have increased. We have M'Culloch's evidence that there was no limit to the production of corn in corn-growing States. There is evidence on record to show that the cost of transit varied indirectly with the demand. Cobden, following M‘Culloch, put the cost at 10s. 6d. a quarter. Opposed to this we adduce an authority which states that, if the demand became constant, 4s., or even 3s. 6d., would be a remunerative price. But the alarm having been raised that our agriculture would be at once destroyed, the fact
i Calvert Holland, M.D. Analysis of Mr Fawke's Address to Landowners of England. Ollivier, Pall Mall, 1841.
2 This, of course, was an exaggeration. But it shows clearly the fears entertained at the time by the protectionists.