Page images
PDF
EPUB

trader points to the blessings of cheap bread. But they ignore, and from political reasons entirely, the collateral consequences of a general free trade in corn and commodities. We have just become acquainted with those consequences. They are an over-distension of the labour-market, on account of (1) the displacement of agricultural labour, (2) the displacement of manufacturing labour—both which lead to reduction of wages. In addition to both these adverse results, directly occasioned by our partial system of free trade, there is another cause in operation producing a depression of our markets. That cause is in the attitude of foreign nations. They have elected to manufacture their own goods; consequently the demand for British commodities has decreased and is decreasing, and hence the contraction of our markets. But this adverse result has nothing to do with our free-trade system directly, though the protectionist sympathies of other nations may have been indirectly strengthened by the endeavour of the British manufacturer to acquire a supreme ascendancy over foreign markets. We should have experienced, at some distant date, this check to the growth of our manufactures, even if we had still remained a protectionist nation. But then we should not have had other causes of depression to magnify the one they induced.1

Thus you cannot but acknowledge that our free trade, or rather our system of free imports, has been, and still continues, the direct cause of depression. This is the evil which it has done and is doing. What

1 And in the meantime more opportunities would have been forthcoming to diminish the consequences of this arrest.

is the good? Cheap bread. But you can now perceive that the good and evil of free trade in this country have appeared almost simultaneously. Is the good which we enjoy by having cheap bread more than counteracted by the evil which the nation suffers from an unequal competition? It does not appear so. It is of little use to appeal to the sympathies of the labouring classes on the subject of cheap bread. They have already learnt that they have obtained cheap bread too late. For their bread has become cheap, while their employment is being taken away from them.

The free-trader may exclaim upon the benefit of cheap bread, but the labourer will reply that his employment is of more consequence than mere cheapness. He will plead that it is to his interest to earn his living first, and to pay the proportionate prices of his foodstuffs afterwards.

We conclude, then, (1) that our system of free trade has directly contributed to increase a depression which was unavoidable; and (2) that this increment of depression is increasing.

We ask the reader, Was this the best means of providing for our future depression at all, and especially that depression of our manufacturers, which was bound to ensue if other nations continued their protective tariffs?

CHAPTER IX.

THE NATURE OF THE CORN LAW, AND THE OPPOSITE CONDITIONS AFFECTING OUR AGRICULTURE AND MANUFACTURE.

"Let me but have a claim, upon Provence, though thin as a single thread of thy Queen Margaret's hair, and let me alone for* twisting it into the tough texture of a quadruple cable."—Sir Walter Scott.1

THE CORN LAW NOT A SELFISH LAW AS DENOUNCED BY COBDEN—SOME RESTRICTIONS WERE REMOVED FROM MANUFACTURE WITH ADVANTAGE—BUT TO ASSERT THAT SAME PROCEDURE APPLIED TO AGRICULTURE WOULD LIKEWISE BE ADVANTAGEOUS IS ILLOGICAL, BECAUSE THEIK SURROUNDINGS ARE DISSIMILAR—THE CORN LAW ONE OF THE FINAL RESULTS OF THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE—IMPORTANT TO NOTICE THE CHARGE BROUGHT BY COBDEN THAT THE CORN LAW ENHANCED THE VALUE OF LAND—IT DID SO ORIGINALLY, BUT THIS NECESSARILY, BECAUSE IT WAS TO THE INTEREST OF THE FARMER, WHICH COBDEN SAID WAS THAT OF THE WHOLE COMMUNITY—THE SUBSEQUENT RISE IN RENTS NOT DUE TO CORN LAW, WHICH MAINTAINED THEM AT A GIVEN LEVEL, BUT TO EXTENSION OF CULTIVATION—THE MORAL INFLUENCE OF FREE TRADE—BUT THE ENERGIES OF THE MANUFACTURER CONSUMED BY OTHER FORCES.

§ 21. The Corn Law necessary to preserve a portion of the fixed capital of the country.—The same effect may be brought about by very different causes. Thus it happened that in order to advance the true interests of agriculture a Corn Law became necessary.1 Will anybody affirm that without this Corn Law the English farmers would have been enabled to supply the whole of the population in the year 1835? Will any abstract free-trader assert that the extension of our wheat cultivation would have been possible without this law? It was by this law, then, that the resources of the soil were developed, and a positive addition made to the wealth of the nation. In the year 1840 we produced close upon 16 million quarters of wheat; in the year 1886 we grew 7 millions only. Take the number of quarters yielded in 1815 and compare with the quantity produced in 1840. Contrast this latter amount with the diminishing produce ever since the Corn Laws were abolished, and you perceive the influence of those laws. They were framed, though it is said that the Houses of Parliament were in danger of being stormed by an irate populace at the time, with this single object in view: to develop the resources of agriculture. In that development the labourer, the farmer, and the landlord each took their proper share, and no more than their proper share.

1 This was said, in the novel, by Duke Charles of Burgundy to the Earl of Oxford, who was pleading the cause of his exiled queen. So, it appears, Cobden proposed to himself the political ruin of the aristocracy on the strength of a single argument, and that an "unsound " one.

Now it is quite possible that one element more than any other conspired to create the Corn Law of 1815. It was the energy of the agricultural interest, strengthened by the introduction of capital from external sources1— and what could prevent this extension from assuming a gambling appearance, when the opportunity for speculating was so favourable ?—which supplied the people with corn during the long Continental struggle ending in Napoleon's defeat. The sentiments of that illustrious general towards England were easily deducible, even had he kept them secret. He endeavoured to isolate the English people; to prevent all communication with the Continent, whence the construction of a French fleet adequate to the purpose; to destroy the progress of our manufacture, and to cripple the resources of our food-supply, if such became, from the state of the seasons, unequal to the demands of the English people. Hence you will discern the sagacity of our Ministers in furthering the cultivation of the soil. All the national attention became concentrated on the advancement of the farming interest. And much of the capital which would, had there been no fear of any interruption of communication with the Continent, have been expended upon the progress of manufacture, was consequently diverted into that channel which at the time presented the greatest prospects of remunerating the speculator. Inferior soil came to be cultivated again, and the price of wheat consequently rose.2

1 During the great war a vast amount of capital had been applied to the soil. It was essential this should be protected. From the fact that there was an excess of capital introduced and inferior soils tilled which did not afford remuneration, a good deal of gambling resulted. This formed the chief difficulty with which Huskisson had to cope.

1 It was Napoleon's object to isolate Great Britain from her relations with surrounding nations. This contingency caused a good deal of disturbance in the state of our trade markets. In such an event, manufactures would decline. The consequence was, that agriculture received an abnormal stimulus. But with regard to the Corn Law and the price of bread, it is essential to observe that between 1801 and 1815, the prices of corn ranged very high. After the Corn Law, prices began to fall.

2 Whence came the additional capital needed to extend the tillage

« PreviousContinue »