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that our oldest industry was enabled to continue in a fairly prosperous state (though, as a comparison of statistics shows, a certain amount of inferior land went out of cultivation), went against the protectionists and strengthened the views which were held by Cobden, and still entertained by his successors.1
But the fact is equally patent that both sides took an erroneous course. The free-traders, on the one side, argued from the data that were before them, that no adverse force was then in operation. But they did not consider that the amount of competition which they put into operation might become so powerful as to exercise an adverse effect. The protectionists, on the other side, took an alarmist view, and predicted the certain ruin of our agriculture. Both the free-traders and protectionists were partly right and partly wrong. The free-traders were right when they asserted that there was no immediate cause for dismay; but they were wrong when they neglected to take into consideration the growth of tendencies which the repeal of the Corn Laws directly created. While the protectionists cut a sorry figure before the public by crying out, "Buin, ruin !" when there was no ruin, nor any immediate prospect of it. In the midst of such conflicting opinions, what was the proper method to pursue? It was to determine all the several tendencies which the abolition of the Corn Laws was prone to bring into action; to estimate in what likely way these tendencies might increase in intensity; and to calculate their
1 Even in 1850 capital was diverted from less (agricultural) to more remunerative (manufacturing) pursuits. In the process the money market became distended.
influence, at each state of their growth, upon our own agriculture.
But Cobden at least never expected that such tendencies would become adverse.1 On the contrary, the competition which a free intercourse in corn set up, would increase, in his opinion, the amount of home produce. We must state, in his justification, the nature of the change which he succeeded in effecting,— uselessly, if the argument we have already adduced be allowed to stand. It was the "surplus " of wheat the foreigner was to supply; not the main bulk of the food of the people. In exchange for this supply we were to give the excess of our manufactured goods. As we had more to give them than they had to give us, on this supposition we may congratulate Cobden on the dexterity which he used, and the persistence which he showed, in making his protectionist opponents understand the real character of his commercial reform. If they would only see the matter in Cobden's bearing, they would very soon be convinced that they had everything to gain and nothing to lose. For the balance of trade would be on our side. We should be, on the whole, the gainers by the transaction, and this, in spite of the free-trade doctrine that "exchanges are of equal value."2
If we compare Cobden's conduct on this occasion with that of William Pitt respecting the treaty with
1 We have already adverted to the places where Cobden states that competition was to (1) increase our corn produce by one-fourth, and (2) make England a corn-exporting country.
2 If exchanges are of equal value, how is it possible that we have been able to invest the purchase-money of our exported goods in foreign investments?
France in 1785, the result is the same in both instances. Both sides were to gain. But England was, in each case, to be the greater gainer. This Pitt acknowledged; but Cobden, so far as we can learn, left the problem in the fascinating position that both parties were to gain. Had he developed that position a little further, he would have perceived that when one party gains more than the other, the increment of gain to the first is the representative of a loss to the second. But the " relative " aspect of the question was carefully avoided by Cobden. Pitt and Cobden worked towards the same end, but by different means. Pitt extended the freedom of trade, under the system of protection. If, contrary to expectation, the balance of exchange came to be against him, it was within his power to regulate the balance at the expiration of the treaty. He did not permanently lose control over the conduct of our trade. But Cobden, under the impulse of ulterior views, attained the same end as Pitt had done by another means. He abandoned the scientific procedure of making trade more free under protection, so ably expounded and put into practice by Huskisson. He ridiculed the very idea of protection.1 He called into operation the principle of free trade; and he thereby abandoned for ever afterwards all control over the course of our trade. How could Cobden divine that the subsequent course of our trade would continue favourable to us? Had he better means of peering into the future than William Pitt or William Huskisson? Was he singly interested in the progress of our trade, as they were? It appears not to be the case. By making trade more free under protection, both Pitt and Huskisson contemplated commercial advantages alone. But Cobden, by introducing the principle of free trade, had not only commercial, but political and social benefits to attain. Herein lies the difference. It explains Cobden's motive for a universal free trade. His reform affected not commerce alone, and therefore, from the very first, the commercial part of it was surrounded with dangers. For suppose these political and social alterations not to take place, as his scheme implied. Suppose other nations not to become infatuated with free trade. Then the higher and better state of things as worked out by Cobden is removed from an uncertain probability to the region of impossibility.
i And he also compared monopoly with protection, and laid the faults of monopoly at the door of the protective system. All protection, however, in his opinion, was bad. Cf. Huskisson, ii. 649. The changes which "have established the principles of free trade, with moderate duties, for that system of prohibition which formerly prevailed. It is for the interest of all classes that we should substitute a system of protection for one of prohibition."
§ 20. Free trade does not induce equality of surrounding conditions.—It becomes incumbent, therefore, to consider what is the total effect of an isolated part of Cobden's policy.
During the first period of free-trade action a free intercourse in corn neither assisted1 the manufacturers nor benefited the labourer. Rather, from the circumstance that the wages of labour were increased, does it appear to us that the labouring classes would have
1 What really did assist the manufacturers and enable them to increase the wages of labour, was the railway system, coupled with an enlarged currency.
been better enabled to meet all the disadvantages which a fluctuation in the price of bread entails.1
During the second period, when a sort of equilibrium was being effected between British and foreign manufacturers, and the former was compelled to sell his goods at a reduced rate, owing to the introduction of the protective system in some countries and an increase of protective duties in others, a fall in the price of bread was of actual service both to the manufacturer and labourer.
But observe the condition of commercial affairs which made such a fall advantageous. Was it to meet a decline in our manufacture that the alteration in our Corn Law was framed? Not according to Cobden. The repeal of the Corn Law was to assist the manufacturer from the very first. That was the intention of the repealers; and they admitted it when they were compelled to acknowledge that the consequent reduction in the price of bread (which Was expected to take place immediately by both parties2) would be associated with a fall in wages. But what is the fact? The fact is, that this freedom of intercourse in corn did not come to the assistance of the manufacturer till he was in difficulties. Those difficulties were not of his own making; but they became exaggerated by the influence
1 On this supposition, that wages in 1850 would have undergone the same increase under protection as they did under free trade, there were the means to counteract the disadvantages of dear bread.
2 And the free-traders further assumed that the reduced price would remain a "steady" one. The sequence of events as portrayed by Cobden is as follows: "We should get more corn from the foreigner. We thus should obtain an abundance, and we should pay for it by our manufactures. Our manufactures would thus be stimulated, while our agriculture was to improve.