Page images

would be constant. Cobden strove to make it so. But even that enthusiast could not shake the faith of neighbouring nations in the protective system. To induce so great a disturbance in all our commercial affairs as free trade did,1 without knowing how such changes would subsequently be affected by the course pursued by our rivals, was nothing less than to take " a leap in the dark." Even the main issues of free trade were not placed before the country, chiefly owing to the over-confidence which Cobden displayed in reading the future. "If all other nations became free-traders, we should have nothing to fear." But suppose our policy to become isolated, then what would happen? This was the other issue which, from the small probability of its occurrence, was disregarded. But the public and the labouring classes ought to have been acquainted with all possible results. If our arbitrary measure was not followed by other people, then we should be placed at this disadvantage. The productive sources of the community would stand in danger of being destroyed. This was, at least, one of the issues which a prescient statesman would have placed before the country.

What is the fact now? Our productive sources have already been destroyed; the process of destruction is indeed gradual, but it accumulates. And because of its slow progress the public, who are fascinated by the assumed extravagant action of free trade during a small period of sixteen years, fail to give this insidious tendency its proper place in the causation of distress. They do not analyse how that free-trade prosperity was brought about. They yield to the charms of the free

1 Internal as well as external.

traders, who still allure them by means of cheap bread, cheap tea, and cheap sugar; but they ignore, in some unaccountable fashion, the circumstances of their meat, butter, milk, and cheese being higher in price as bread descends, and of their rent being raised in accordance with strictly economical principles.

The effect, then, of cheap bread upon the productive part of the country is obvious. When the wages-fund of labour has been reduced, and is being reduced by the displacement of British by foreign labour, only one part of the nation suffers—the labouring classes. But you will say that not all, but part only of the labouring classes are affected by this importation of foreign goods; that the larger part of the working classes are still maintained at high wages. Perhaps in those fields of labour which are skilled. But in unskilled labour, the whole body suffers from the competition of one part of it. Wages are lowered, and thus free trade operates injuriously against the labourer.

§ 31. Free trade, as practised by this country, tends to approximate the "market" to the "natural" rate of wages, by increasing the competition of the labourers amongst themselves.—But it is admitted that part of the national labour has been sent out of employment through free trade. It matters not how much. For, if even the smallest part has thus been displaced, some tendency is in existence to displace it. Agree upon the cause. What prevents this cause from growing and assuming more formidable dimensions? But such a cause has been and still is in operation to destroy our agriculture. It has already reduced the cultivation of the soil from four and a half millions of acres to one and a half. It has been the means of reducing the capital of the country by diminishing the value of agricultural stock. It has taken out of the pockets of the landlords, farmers, and agricultural labourers no less a sum than £200,000,000 sterling1 during the ten years ending 1886; all which would have circulated in our own country, and have been the means of employing a vast amount of labour. But because "debts are merely deferred exchanges of labour," 2 according to the school of ideal political economists, our imports must increase forsooth; such increase redounding to our prosperity, because we can afford to employ so much foreign labour in the attainment of luxuries. But to luxuries some necessaries are to be added; how much of these could we produce ourselves? In the meantime, while ideal political economists are disputing over the manner in which the nation is able to meet the large surplus of imports over exports, we observe the influence of the doctrine just quoted on the labour of the present times —" to satisfy the creed of these economists the labourer must starve." Why is such a theoretical proposition

1 This figure was given by Lord Derby in a recent speech of his, and it will be remembered that the noble lord's father was mainly instrumental in framing the protest of the Peers against the free-tradein-corn policy advocated by Sir Robert Peel in 1846. It was his firm attitude that impelled Cobden to issue the following threat: "It cost me some argument, as my friends know, to prevent the League from going into other topics. . . . Let it be seen that a protectionist statesman like Lord Stanley is prepared to get into the saddle, and to spur over the country with his haughty paces, and they will hear this question argued in a very different manner to what it was before. They will have the whole aristocratic system torn to pieces."

2 The late Professor Bonamy Price.

to stand in the way of the material prosperity of the labouring classes? Is it of any use to them to be told that we are paying our debts now with the produce of a past generation's labour? They will reply, " We have no capital; we depend upon our daily work for our daily bread; the labour of a past generation cannot affect us. If you do not employ us, we cannot acquire the means of subsistence."

Thus, if the labouring class had fixed capital, like the majority of the income-tax paying class, no complaint would be made against the unfair action of free trade upon the productive class and consumers of the nation. "You, the consumers, get your commodities cheap by foreign competition. As the immediate consequence, many of your fellow-countrymen are thrown out of occupation." What have the productive classes in return? All the prices of their commodities, except the monopoly price, of butcher's-meat, are cheap. The free-trader says, "I have given you cheap bread." But the labourer retorts, " And the same means which has made our bread cheap has sent us out of employment." Of what use is this cheap bread to the labourer when he has no employment?

§ 32. The partial arguments of the free-traders.—Now it appears that the free-trade experiment was conducted on lines the most dangerous, and by means the most imprudent.

Every alteration in our commercial policy ought to affect not one only, but both of the factors which determine the prosperity of the labouring class. But free trade influenced consumption alone. It left production to take its own course,1 and that course external forces would alone determine. These forces were misjudged by Cobden. The manufacturers of his day miscalculated the result of their manoeuvre.

This species of free trade was entirely opposed to the free-trade measures of Huskisson. He was not, it will readily be allowed, an inconsiderable figure in our commercial history. But never did he, with the single exception of the silk duties—and the reason why he reduced the duties on silk goods was, as he distinctly tells us, to abolish smuggling—influence consumption at the expense of the productive powers of the country.

Now the abstract free-traders are not on good terms with Huskisson, because he advocated an imperial policy with regard to our colonies, and because he nourished colonial interests by keeping the duties on their produce at a lower level than they stood from foreign countries. Such a policy would not, according to the free-trader, effect " international peace "; but it would, according to the protectionist, produce " imperial stability." But none struggled more than Huskisson to achieve a uniform price of corn, always with a due regard to every interest engaged in its cultivation. And the result of his labours, continued by Sir Bobert Peel, is shown in the average of 54s. from 1830-1838.2 Let us compare this with the average price of corn under free trade between 1850-1858. It is 53s. 4d.

1 When it is perceived that the central object of the free-traders of 1837 was to make manufacture predominant in foreign markets, the reason of this procedure is obvious.

2 Sir Robert Peel, in his Memoirs, vol. ii. p. 345, gives the average of 1831-1837 inclusive as 52s. 6d., "the existing Corn Law being in force during the whole of that period."

« PreviousContinue »