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It seems, then, that the balance of advantages has turned in favour of the foreigner. He can produce goods of the same quality, and at a cheaper rate. He is not burdened with taxes at our ports ; but our manufacturers have still to bear the burden of foreign duties.
Are the merchants in these fields under equal conditions? If not, in whose favour is the unequal competition ?
With such a condition of commercial affairs as this, there was only wanting one element ere a period of depression would arrive—and that element, time. We have been suffering from a depression of trade for many years. The year 1875 may be taken as the starting-point of an actual general decline; for it is from this period that imports begin to preponderate over exports. But we must not be oblivious of the fact that agricultural decline commenced from the very day when a free intercourse in corn came into operation, and has constantly and steadily been increasing. In short, it is even said by the champion of the free-traders, that “the depression has assumed (since 1880) symptoms of a more chronic character." If by this expression he intends to say that the means of recovering are not obvious, then we agree with him. It is certain that the present depression has no prototype throughout the whole history of protection ; for all paroxysms of depression during that era continued for no greater length of time than from three to five years. Besides, you could, in the majority of instances, certainly predict its termination, as the cause I was understood. But as to the present depression, it has lasted at least twice as long, since the date at which Sir T. H. Farrer first observed serious signs, as the most severe trade depression under protection. And it has a few features which are new to those who have taken the trouble to analyse it. Thus it has struck in turn at every branch of industry throughout the country. Its progress has been gradual, in contradistinction to the sudden paroxysm under protection; and its effects have accumulated and are still accumulating.
1 With the exception of 1854-57, in which period the national agriculture received an unexpected stimulus from the contraction of corn imports. Did the country lose anything by this increased activity ? It is true the price of wheat rose; but did the manufacturing industries suffer in consequence? The export trade points to the conclusion that they did not. Then why cannot "corn imports” be properly reduced to-day?
2 Sir T. H. Farrer, in 1885.
The abstract free-traders allow the depression; but they explain it away by stating that “it is ‘in the ordinary course of affairs,' that just as you had, and were to expect, periods of depression under protection, so you must not be surprised if depression overtakes you in the progress of free trade.”2
But we are not to be imposed upon by these or any such statements, issuing from the mouths of the staunchest free-traders. There are a good many people who have already arrived at a frame of mind which does not suffer them to be any longer amused or astonished at the most wanton, though a few are ideal, assertions of abstract free-traders. Nobody needs to be informed that there are “normal” tendencies towards depression, whether trade progresses under protection or is retarded 1 under free trade. These are inevitably bound up in the transactions of commerce ; they are the outcome of these transactions, and are minor causes operating under the influence of a major principle, whether that principle be protection or free trade.
1 (a) Pressures in the money market, leading to depression of manufacture ; (6) money at low interest, leading to over-speculation.
2 But the reader will remember that Cobden stated free trade was to raise up a permanent prosperity for us. It was to do away with all that fictitious prosperity occurring under protection.
Now the point which the free-trader refrains from discussing is the character of the depression; and this is the very point round which the whole of the dispute revolves. The abstract free-trader claims that the present depression is in all respects comparable to those which occurred during the reign of protection. It is here that the protectionist joins issue with him, and asserts the very contrary, and for these reasons. The conditions now which surround our trade are not the same as they were when under the control of protection. Therefore to draw the same conclusions from the present state of our trade as we were wont to do when those conditions were modified by protection, is obviously illogical, and would not be done unless there were some ulterior purpose to justify it.2 Free trade, as partially practised by this country, has entirely disarranged those surrounding conditions, from the existence of which we could predict' a complete recovery under protection. And the problem to be solved is whether free trade, though it could not stamp out normal causes of distress, has or has not introduced, by the disorder which it has created, a new and a predominant one.
i Our agricultural industries were checked from the very first; our manufactures were primarily stimulated (by the moral influence of free trade amongst other causes): they are now in a state of depression.
2 Of a political nature. A party in the State has become powerful by the diffusion of free-trade doctrines, and it is to their interest to uphold the principle in all its integrity. It will, perhaps, appear to some that “the question” of free trade “is fraught too deeply with ruin to their cause for them to give a fair opinion on it.”
$ 4. British labour displaced by foreign produce, and not otherwise consumed, directly prevents the labouring classes from acquiring that “plenty” which it is the object of free trade to afford.—You cannot deny the change in surrounding circumstances ultimately induced by free trade. With that change there has gradually appeared signs of distress, which have increased, and are increasing. What is the exact amount of distress prevalent is difficult to ascertain. But that it is very great, and of dimensions large enough to form the subject of a parliamentary inquiry, there can be no doubt in the minds of those who closely follow all the collateral forces which free trade has brought in its train.
But there is one point bearing on the association of free trade with cheapness and plenty which we cannot forbear to mention. Everyone who knows what Cobden's opinions are, from a study of his speeches, will recollect that the powerful agitator connected free trade not with cheapness only but “abundance". as well. He is very clear upon this. Free trade
1 P. 105: “We do not seek free trade in corn “primarily ’for the purpose of purchasing at a cheaper money rate; we require it at the natural price of the world's market. Whether it becomes dearer with a free trade, or whether it becomes cheaper, it matters not to us,
tends to produce cheapness, he asserts, and very confidently too; but he does not bind himself to mean that it will cheapen all articles: there may be some disturbing cause which intervenes to raise prices. But the chief, the sole, almost the sublime object of free trade was, as he put it, to produce “abundance." This is the ground which he fell back upon, when charged by his opponents with attempting to effect a general fall in prices. It would not, this free trade of his, cause a reduction of price in all articles. Of that he was well aware. But he must have some specious argument by which to prevail upon the ignorant. And thus it was that Cobden promised the working classes “abundance.” An abundance, it is to be remembered, which was not to interfere in the slightest degree with home production of corn!
Now it is not our object to argue that free trade does not tend to procure “abundance.” For that is the true way of stating Cobden's proposition. What is our purpose is to show
1. That the consequent, “ abundance,” is altogether dependent on the favourable nature of surrounding circumstances for its production by free trade; and, 2. That
provided that the people have it at its natural price, and every source of supply is freely opened, as nature and nature's God intended it to be.” P. 62:“What do free-traders want? Not cheap corn merely, in order to have low money wages, but plenty of corn-the price of which must find its natural level in the markets of the world."
1 The reader will observe that “cheapness" is a political as well as economical element.
2 P. 73. “For assuredly he took the least comprehensive or statesmanlike view of his measures when he proposed to degrade prices, instead of aiming to sustain them by enlarging the circle of exchanges."