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There happened to be in existence during the whole of the time Cobden agitated, and up to 1850, all the evils which ensue upon a contracted currency. They were caused by the scarcity of gold. Too little gold circulating throughout a community is followed by the diminution of exchange; it causes also the paralysis of enterprise. Does Cobden ever refer to this as a special cause in the production of distress? We cannot find any. Will it be doubted that this contraction of the currency would increase existing distress arising from another cause? But this source of distress, originating in the scarcity of gold, is beyond the power of man to remedy. He may devise some scheme by which the currency shall be artificially enlarged, as the bi-metallists propose, by creating a gold and silver standard. The other source of distress, however, arises from overproduction. And the effects of that would be removed in the course of time. It appears, then, that Cobden mistook the nature of the distress which accompanied the early part of the free-trade agitation. He ascribed a complicated result to a single cause.1 As matter of fact, that complicated result was the product of two causes at least. A third one—the distress induced by deficient harvests—we leave aside for a time. There were then in existence the evils of (1) a contracted and abnormal currency,2 (2) of over-production, and (3) high rents, inducing high price of corn. But as Cobden still persevered in his attempt to repeal the Corn Laws, the
1 It is important to notice Cobden's treatment of the nature of distress and the causation of prosperity. All distress was due to one cause. All prosperity was the effect of free trade.
2 The abnormal currency acted most injuriously on agricultural prices.
only cause left to him was "high rent," as he did not recognise the contraction of the currency or its improper state, for the markets had once more assumed a vigorous tone, and the export trade of the country still continued to increase. The revival of trade began in 1841, and Cobden expressed a wish in 1843 that the ensuing prosperity might be real, and not fictitious. He admitted the revival, but qualified it as being partial. He wished he could say it was general. The cause, however, of this partial revival resided, according to him, in the low price of wheat. But how can it be possible that any very serious amount of distress could be prevalent when the export trade of the country was in the ascendant? How, too, could high rents be responsible for all the distress of the nation, when by far the larger part of that distress was removed without rents undergoing any change? Still there was distress. That is undoubted. But it was a peculiar distress, arising from the contraction of the currency. Cobden did not observe this; but attributed the hardships which the poor continued to suffer, but in less degree, to a false cause. He ascribed them to the grinding tyranny of the rich. Under these circumstances, had Cobden been aware of the paralysis of enterprise, and the diminished exchange which a contracted currency inevitably creates, would he have considered that small residuum of distress which remained after all the rest had been accounted for, a sufficient basis on which to continue his agitation? In reality, this it was which supported him in his subsequent career, up to the time when he succeeded at last in convincing, as it is supposed he convinced, Sir Eobert Peel of the paramount necessity
of repealing the Corn Laws in order to remove distress. All the other support he received was given on a false hypothesis. And it was a very considerable support. "Would that support have been as considerable as it was, had the precarious nature of the evidence upon which it was given been recognised?
Thus the situation was a profoundly intricate one; and yet Cobden treated the problem as if it were the simplest in the universe. He assumed the success of free trade as a foregone conclusion. It was but a part of a large scheme which he contemplated, of making government more simple, less expensive, and more efficient. To us it seems that he completely ignored the economical aspect of many problems in his endeavour to attain advanced political positions. But "by his fruits ye shall know him." And it is well for the security and progress of all sections of English society that one part of a gigantic scheme has been tried and found to fail. For if part of the huge fabric which Cobden ideally constructed has broken down, what may be said of the probable success of the rest?
No one, I think, would have deplored more than Cobden would have done the disasters of his error. If he could speak with such emotion against the evils of the Corn Laws, with what vigour he would have railed against a partial free trade we can easily imagine. But he could not foresee all the results of his partial free-trade policy; he could only infer what some would be; and the others—well, they would be left for time to unfold! Did past experience afford him any assistance in deducing what would assuredly be the consequences of an uncontrolled free trade in the case of those of our industries which were not yet mature enough to withstand the onslaughts of a foreign rival 1 Did he recall to mind the unfortunate results of Huskisson's policy in 1824 with regard to our silk markets? Here there was a case which might have allowed him some scope for contemplation, when he was considering the effects of the application of free trade1 to young and growing industries, without a due and proper protection. Huskisson, in reducing the silk-duties from the level of prohibition to what he deemed a due and proper protection, erred not in the object which he had in view, which was a meritorious one, but in the means by which he attempted to effect it. His policy was to stimulate the silk trade by means of foreign competition. But instead of stimulating, he paralysed. The English silk manufacture, though protected by a duty of 30 per cent, could not hold the field against her French rival. And the result was, practically, the destruction of the hopes of our silk market. This was the experience which Cobden might have derived from a past experiment in the direction of free trade. In advocating the principle of free trade, he was only aware of ideal consequences; all the practical results of it he could not know, and did not get to know. But the abstract method, by which free trade came into being, has its uses, and most important ones they are, for without it, we should scarce have any progress in the world. It has its dangers as well. For when we abstract, we assume a certain state of surrounding conditions. Such
1 Practically, Huskisson's measure was free trade, though nominally it was an attempt to make our silk industry more free, but still subject to protection.
conditions may at the time be imaginary: they may come into a future existence, just as Cobden anticipated that free trade would become universal; or they may already exist, and be liable to all kinds and degrees of fluctuation. The method, therefore, it will be universally admitted, must have limits prescribed to it. And these limits in economy are what experience has already brought to light. The question is, " Whether Cobden stepped over these limits?" Had he revolved in his mind all the possible positions his country might be placed in, owing to the varied, and perhaps varying attitudes of surrounding nations? Did he believe that in all these positions the commerce of the United Kingdom would stand triumphant? Or did he quickly dispose of all doubts by vainly assuming that if free trade were carried in his own country, nothing could prevent it from being put into operation by every other people?
Now it is our opinion that the same defect which characterised Cobden's explanation of the cause of distress, likewise disfigures his anticipations respecting the future policies of nations. He was of a confident and emotional turn. He jumped to the conclusion there was only a single cause of distress, and that he placed in high rents. And he likewise jumped to the conclusion that foreign nations would become freetraders.