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final results of our isolated and arbitrary free-trade policy.1
1 In another volume* there is shown that in the decline of our trade, induced by free trade partially operating, there have been, and will be, rises and falls. There is also pointed out the danger associated with a temporary rise. For it will be said by the free-traders that prosperity has returned. But although trade recovers, yet it cannot reach its former high level of prosperity. And every rise and every fall will be accompanied with a progressive shrinking of our industries. It is important to notice this, when viewing, comprehensively, the course of our trade and commerce.
* Free Trade : An Inquiry into the Nature of its Operation. W. Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London: 1887.
policy—(1) upon our imports and exports; (2) on production and consumption; and (3) upon the relationship which formerly existed between labourer and master, and this the more especially in agricultural districts. It was in this latter affinity that the stronghold of the old Toryism was found to exist. And it was consequently Cobden and the free-traders' chief seat of attack.
Cobden discovered here a resistance difficult to overcome. It was the turning-point of the measure purposely framed to make free trade the principle of the conduct of our commerce. From a strict application to economical doctrines he was compelled to deviate into political problems. In the towns the vision of a constant employment of labour was made to occupy the intelligence of their inhabitants. But in the country the agricultural labourers were informed that they could never hope to loosen the bonds of their degradation unless the political power lodged in, and as it was said usurped by, the landed proprietors, was broken. Cobden felt for this degraded position of a part of the most important national industry. He pitied their ignorance. But he seems at the same time to have made a very practical use of it. To account for their relative degradation he brought forward a false cause. The explanation was this. Their comforts were diminished because their bread was taxed; and their bread was taxed owing to the selfishness of the ruling class. Not self-interest,1 be it observed; it was tyranny, abuse of power, or anything else which tended to inflame the ignorant and malevolent. Hence it was that he appealed to the 40s. franchise as the means of effecting their own emancipation. Such power as he could by this means raise would therefore, in some fashion, neutralise the power of the aristocracy in the Commons, and pave the way more smoothly for the introduction of free trade.
1 It is curious to compare this relative diminution of comforts adduced by Cobden with the absolute reduction of wages proposed at the present time. Cobden's assertion is that the agricultural labourers
The appeal to the ignorant agricultural labourers was not without avail. They were taught that under no conditions would they suffer from the action of the new measure. On the contrary, Cobden convincingly proved to them that they would gain—that all classes would gain—for free trade, if operating, would stimulate not only the manufacture but the agriculture of the country. As the result, the agricultural labourers' wages would rise.
Now the comparatively small rise 1 in these wages which subsequently2 took place and has been maintained, though it is doubtful whether at their highest
were deprived of comforts which they had never enjoyed. The course advocated to-day is to take away from the labouring man part of the enjoyments to which he has been accustomed.
1 In 1850, we have it on Cobden's own word that the wages of agricultural labourers had receded Is. But as the price of bread had gone down 2s. 6d., they gained Is. 6d. on the exchange. But for how long? For six months perhaps—certainly not more than one year; for during 1850-1860 the average price of wheat was but 2s., or 3s. at the most, less than during 1830-1840. The agricultural labourer thus, over a period of years, received the very handsome present of something less than half-a-crown annually, as the result of free-trade cheapening of bread; while, as the effect of free imports upon agriculture, he lost 50s. a-year in wages. But the free-trader claims this as a success!
2 As matter of fact, the wages of the agricultural labourer only began to increase absolutely, when in 1860 and afterwards there occurred a general exodus of labour from the country into the towns.
level or not, is advanced by some as direct proof of the soundness of Cobden's views upon the question. But this, like so much of free-trade opinion upon Cobden's work, is based upon a partial and limited view. Cobden said the wages of agricultural labour would rise. And so they have done,1 relatively for a time at first—absolutely afterwards. But Cobden explained such rise as being the consequence of agricultural stimulation.
Now the free-traders take Cobden's predicted result; but they, conveniently enough for themselves, ignore "the declared means " by which it was to be effected. Wages have, indeed, risen in agricultural districts, not from there being an increased demand to meet a more extended cultivation, as Cobden pointed out would be the case; but from a scarcity of labour. To bring about Cobden's result, just the opposite process happened to what he anticipated. What was that anticipation? More hands employed in the farming interest, and to meet this demand, increase of wages; and therefore abstraction of labour from manufacturing districts: result, agricultural activity and prosperity.
Compare this vision with present facts. We are face to face with agricultural depression instead of an increased occupation of labour upon land; there is a reduction of more than two-thirds of the total number
1 But not from the cause set forth by Cobden, and not at the time he indicated. Wages rose in the agricultural districts, because the high wages in the towns attracted many of the labourers thither. But there was no demand for them, as shown by increasing emigration and increasing pauperism (vide Returns of Pauperism, 1865). Fewer hands were available for the farmer ; and thus with an increase of work wages rose. Now, instead of this artificial desertion, Cobden stated there was to be a real determination of labour to the soil; wages would rise, because the demand fo labour would be greater than the supply.