Page images
PDF
EPUB

associated. Assuredly there must be some basis for that relationship. What is that basis?

But the vulgar prejudice, you will allow, should not have been permitted to obscure the discernment of the public teachers. It may be all very well, as an election manoeuvre, to call the people to vote for free trade and prosperity. And the fact that prosperity had been predicted as the consequence of free trade, and did actually come about, would suffice to impel the people to place the prophet's mantle upon Cobden's shoulders. But the calm and intelligent man, whom Cobden loved but whom he seems rarely to have found, would concern himself in inquiring how it was that free trade induced prosperity. He would endeavour to learn the basis upon which the association of free trade with prosperity rests. If he had done so, and it is the fact that Cobden's admirers have not performed this task, he would have discovered that the proposition "free trade causes prosperity," like all other universal and ideal propositions, requires to be limited by the actual facts of experience before you can clothe it with any practical meaning. "Free trade causes (some degree of) prosperity." Yes; but only under certain conditions. Now it is the state of these conditions which determines the action of the free-trade principle.

The direct effects of free trade were—1, The tendency to lower prices in the home markets; and 2, Increased circulation, mainly of the foreign markets, owing to increased production of British manufactured goods.1

1 It should be observed that there are other causes which increase the circulation of the markets. Free trade is only one cause, nor is its action a very constant one.

What determines that "increased circulation" shall be the cause of prosperity ?—when prices in foreign markets are maintained. We have just witnessed a period when that increased circulation was not prosperous for the manufacturer, for the simple reason that he did not get the same price for his goods. Therefore this increased circulation is not always associated with prosperity. Did free trade cause prosperity directly? The free-trader says so. How, then, does he prove it? Is it not rather the true statement of the fact to say that free trade caused, under certain conditions, "increased circulation,"1 and that that "increased circulation" was associated with the cause of prosperity ?2 If this is so, then free trade was but the indirect cause of prosperity, and how many disturbing elements there are between free trade and prosperity can easily be imagined.

But the causation of error is ignored when in their train come the opportunities supplied by an enormous increase to our wealth, of indulging in satisfactions. But these satisfactions are in large part denied to the present age. And why? Because Cobden believed that the home industries were depressed owing to wages being high from the dearness of bread. He said, " You must cheapen labour," and then you will stimulate not only the manufacturers but also the farmers to produce more.3 But he did not detect that in the process by

1 I.e., the manufacturers foresaw that if they could get a firm footing in foreign markets by throwing large quantities into them, they would be enabled to maintain their hold the better with the price of wheat reduced in the home corn-markets.

2 Obviously, on this assumption, an artificial one.

3 The assumed beneficial effect of free trade upon agriculture was an afterthought. Cobden mentions this when endeavouring to win the farmers in 1843.

which he cheapened bread there lurked the seeds of those forces which would grow up and retard the progress of that wages-fund of labour which he endeavoured to promote. What did Cobden attempt? Did he strive after the equable progress of the working classes? No one, it is certain, wishes to detract from the magnanimous object which he had in view. For every philanthropist pursues the same object. It is in the means, not in the end, where the fault rests. Now Cobden used means of whose stability and constancy of action he could not be assured, though he was strongly prejudiced in the belief of their stability and constancy. Those means have failed, and have interrupted the progress of labour. Hence the present labour crisis.

But it is difficult to-day to assure the labourer that with a smaller wage he will be any the better off. Will the labourer be able to do more with that reduced wage? If such be possible, it can only be after a transitionary period between high price of corn with high wages and cheap bread with reduced wages. During that period, it is open to the free-traders to claim enormous advantages for the labouring community. But in the opinion of some those advantages have been too suddenly acquired. They rested upon a precarious foundation. They likewise had their corresponding evils. They have taught the working man how to be extravagant, how to be vicious, and how to destroy himself with inferior spirits.

We believe that all improvements should be induced gradually; and that free trade, in consequence of its suddenly conferring an abnormal prosperity upon the labouring mass, has been the prime cause of a vast amount of moral and social evil. For we need go no further back than to Aristotle to be taught that the sudden acquisition of wealth tends to be followed by extravagance and arrogance on the part of those who become its possessors. In the case of those who were so little and so badly prepared for it, was it unlikely that the tendency should, in the generality of cases, become a predominant force? Thus, Cobden did not secure an equable progress to the national labour interests. But whatever the moral and social evils that have accrued from free trade, the question that stands before the working classes is the reduction of wages. And what they will have to determine is whether this reduction retards their progress; and if so, whether their wages shall be rendered more secure by a due and proper protection to their own labour. The issue, it seems, is a simple one. It is certain that wages cannot be maintained at their present rate under our free-trade system. Under protection there will be the tendency, with full employment of labour, towards high wages.1

1 There has been of late an attempt, and in somo cases a successful attempt, on the part of the labourer to acquire an increased wage, notably in the instances of the "puddlcr" and the "coal-miner." The demand was based upon "the revival of trade" (1888).

It is impossible not to observe the influence of force, used in a threatening fashion by labour organisations. But because a small section of labourers have had their wages increased, it is not to be inferred that the great bulk of labourers have become proportionately enriched. It is the fact that wages have generally become reduced, either through "short time" or else from working "by the piece." The question also remains, "How long will the revival continue?"

CHAPTER III.

OVER-SPECULATION AND THE RAPACITY OF MANUFACTURE.

"Welcome, Herr Philipson—welcome, you of a nation whose traders are princes and their merchants the mighty ones of the earth. What new commodity have you brought to gull us with? You merchants, by St George! are a wily generation."—Sir Walter Scott.

THE INFLUENCE OF THE CORN MERCHANTS UPON PRICES COMMENTED UPON BY HUSKISSON AND SIR ROBERT PEEL—THE PREVALENT TREATMENT OF THE AVERAGES—HIGH RENT NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SUDDEN VARIATIONS IN THE PRICE OF CORN—THOSE SUDDEN VARIATIONS THE SOURCE OF THAT DISTRESS FOR WHICH HIGH RENT WAS BLAMED — UNDER THE CORN LAW PRICE OF WnEAT SLOWLY RECEDED, WHILE RENTS INCREASED — COBDEN GAVE THE BRITISH FARMER A "NATURAL" PROTECTION—TIIE DESTRUCTIVE TENDENCIES OF EXCESSIVE CORN IMPORTS—DEPRESSION UNDER PROTECTION AND FREE TRADE NOT COMPARABLE — UNDER PROTECTION DISTRESS WITH INCREASING EXPORTS—UNDER FREE TRADE EXPORTS DECREASE WHILE DISTRESS CONTINUES.

§ 6. The sudden rises in the price of wheat due to speculation.—But there are many other causes besides the ones already adduced, why the soundness of that legislative policy affecting our commerce with other nations —and in its accomplishment Richard Cobden took the chief part—should be reviewed. And amongst these there appears this one—the influence of the corn merchant in raising the price of wheat.

« PreviousContinue »