Page images

is only premised—unjustly used to further the exactions of the landlords, then what becomes of Cobden's law, which has been so altered from its original bearings that it now destroys the farming interest? This, no doubt, is the grand difficulty—to get a principle to work out the end which you design for it, and it is evident such an end cannot be attained all at once. This difficulty it was which prompted Sir Eobert Peel's sliding-scale.

We may allude here to the remarks made by Mr Gladstone at the time, and adduced by Cobden to show some discrepancy between him and Sir Eobert Peel on the effect of the sliding-scale in maintaining price. Mr Gladstone said (1844), " that the last Corn Law [of 1842] had been most successful in its operation, and he took great credit to the Government for the steadiness of price obtained under it."1 Sir Eobert asserted that you could not maintain prices by legislation. Where, then, was the error? In confusing the fundamental support which the Corn Law gave with those sudden variations caused by minor influences. But now the course of time, and changes in those conditions which Cobden regarded as permanent, have minimised the protection which he styled a natural protection; and why natural protection? That natural protection has come to be, from many circumstances, no protection at all. As you approximate the supply to the demand, as the foreign

1 Quoted by Cobden in House of Commons, in speech of 13th March 1845. We draw the attention of the reader to the fact that the price of wheat, which had been greatly disturbed by the war with France, had been slowly but steadily declining since 1815, the year of the first Corn Law; and this took place in spite of the speculations of the corn merchants.

corn-growers extended and improved the cultivation of the soil, price was lowered, when they were sure of a market for their produce. Then, again, competition amongst the foreign exporters entered as another factor to reduce price. But finally, the cost of transit, by the increase of advantages which were gained from the possession of a constant market, became lower, and is now not a twentieth part of what Cobden expected it would always remain. Thus have the home farmers been robbed of the effect of that natural protection which Cobden left to them. Now, if Cobden had been aware of any such adverse working of his principle, would he have taken steps to counteract it? In our opinion the question is beyond doubt. And for this reason—that it was not Cobden's intention that his measure should throw land out of cultivation. If, then, as the case stands, Cobden allowed the efficacy of a natural protection, and if, as his sentiments upon the corn problem fully corroborate, he would have granted the corngrowers of the United Kingdom that just protection to which they are entitled, supposing they are to continue the agricultural industries of the country, then what objection can his successors bring forward against a due and proper protection to the home markets—a duty upon foreign corn, to indemnify them for that natural protection of which they have been robbed? Upon what ground do the free-traders of to-day oppose a duty upon corn in the face of such evidence, drawn entirely from Cobden's treatment of the question? Is it because this step would defer, perhaps throw aside, that free trade in land which still forms a part of the free - trade programme? Or is it because the freetraders would become insignificant with the downfall of their policy?

But prove as we may that the action of free trade has become quite contrary to what its original promoters intended it to be, it is only to be expected, and it follows from the frailty of our constitution, that freetraders will oppose such a duty upon corn to the very last. Introduce it, and their existence is rendered impossible. It must be left, therefore, to the collective judgment of the nation to determine whether free trade in corn is to continue, and the land to go completely out of cultivation, and the manufacturing labour market to be still further embarrassed than it at present is, by reason of the additional competition in it; or whether the land is to be cultivated under a due and proper protection, the manufacturing labour to be relieved of its unnatural distension, and manufacture herself to be stimulated by the demands of the agricultural labourer.1 The nation must decide whether a small section of the community is to continue obtruding its views, to the detriment of society at large, just because their ideal views have not been accomplished, or because they have some more ideal views with which to experiment upon the progress of the people.

§ 8. Cheap bread and the object of the Manchester school.—To assist those who are capable of giving an impartial judgment on this vital question, we have

i This demand for manufactured goods on the part of the agricultural labourer was considered by Cobden to be a most important one. Improve his wages, and he will become a better customer. But free trade has destroyed what little custom he gave.

been impelled, from the certainty of the destructive character of our present system of free imports, carried on under the all-imposing name of free trade, to offer such evidence as we could derive from Cobden's own words. This evidence, though it may be startling to those who read it for the first time, is quite correct, and can be verified by reference to his many harangues upon free trade. It is the business of those who doubt it to detect the flaw. The question, as we understand it, is not whether a section of a party shall continue to exist, or whether a principle shall still reign; it is whether the nation shall recover from a decline in which, by a series of unfortunate phenomena,1 none of which were apparently foreseen by the free-traders themselves, it has already entered.

If Cobden permitted a "natural" protection, what harm can there possibly be done to his practical system by yielding its equivalent now? To the unprejudiced, obviously there can be none, for there is nothing effected contrary to his intention. But the free-traders have their fascinating principle to defend. Admit the justice of the above inference, and they are bound to retreat from the field of discussion, if they cannot advance something other than a due and proper protection, in the place of a natural protection. Are they agreed that agriculture is to be maintained? Then what proposal do they make in order to accomplish their purpose?

1 1. The disappearance of Cobden's natural protection.

2. The capabilities of corn-growing States not only to meet our demands, but to depreciate the value of home-grown wheat.

3. Foreign competition in home manufacturing markets, which Cobden said he did not fear.

We have seen that Cobden destroyed the sources of that over-speculation which made so great havoc in the corn markets. But he never blames the corn merchants; nor does he take into consideration the influence of the season in bringing that excessive speculation about. The high price of corn he laid at the door of the landlords, because high rents cause the price of corn to be high. Do the free-traders of to-day subscribe to this doctrine? Will they continue to do so in the teeth of evidence, supplied by John Stuart Mill, the late Professor Jevons, and the late Professor Cairnes,1 all of them ardent free-traders, but not one of whom, unfortunately for their cause, defined what was the action of their favourite principle?

But if Cobden did not refer to the speculation of the com merchants, neither did he refer to the speculative tendencies of the manufacturers. We mean in the sense of censuring them for being the direct cause of the periodic distresses of the country. Everybody knows how Cobden explained the over-production of the manufacturers and the consequent distension of the markets. If was because the seasons were unfavourable; because bread was high, and therefore ability on the part of the labourers to purchase manufactured goods was diminished. With distended markets, too, labour being dear, there was no inducement on the part of the manufacturer to go on with production. Such is clearly to place manufacturing distress after agricul

1 The doctrine these distinguished economists advanced is that increase in rent follows increase in price. It is necessary to warn the readers of Cobden of the fundamental error he committed in ascribing high price to high rent.

« PreviousContinue »