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British people; to state that if the manufacturer does not prosper, it cannot be expected that his labourer shall; and to inquire, Why, if manufacture has thus been so rudely arrested in her steady growth by free trade, agriculture was sacrificed ?1
It is too frequently asseverated, and without due consideration of the importance of the conclusion, that high prices trespass upon the material wellbeing of the labouring classes. Has this country, then, never been prosperous under high prices? The experience of the older statesmen is to the effect that under protection prosperity increased or diminished with a rise2 or fall in the price of bread. But then it is to be recollected that if some articles increased in price, as wheat, other articles in the same category diminished, such as butcher's-meat. Such variations in prices depended altogether on the ability of the farmer to pay his way with the different produce of agriculture. If he made more by his corn, he could afford to sell his cattle at a less price. So that the sum total of the labourer's expenditure upon farm produce varied but little. At the present time, what that labourer spends upon the restricted produce of the farmer is greater in proportion
1 It cannot be too often iterated that the manufacturers in 1S37 believed that free trade would destroy our agriculture. Cobden's arguments for a free intercourse in corn are well known. He stated that agriculture would be improved by free trade!
2 The sudden rises and falls are not referred to in the text. What is indicated is that gradual rise or fall which embraced a term of years. But it was the sudden rises and falls which formed the butt of all the odium which the free-traders could manufacture for the Corn Laws. There can be little doubt now that these sudden rises and falls in price were due to fraudulent treatment of the averages. The Corn Law was not responsible, but the selfishness of the corn merchants.
to what he spent when the growth of corn was protected. By purchasing his corn from his own countrymen, this part—viz., meat, butter, eggs, &c.—of the farm produce would at once be diminished in price; but, at the same time, he would have to pay more for his bread. As such fluctuations tend in time to neutralise each other, they would eventually leave the labourer's expenditure upon agricultural produce what it was before the alteration was effected. Now, to raise the price of bread would, on these considerations, be attended with no harm to the labouring classes. For just as when bread was made cheap by free trade, all other agricultural produce rose in price, so if bread were made dear by protection, would the prices of the rest of farm produce fall.
But the very allusion to dear bread at once becomes the source of ridicule to those who take a prejudiced view of the question. They make a specious appeal to the ignorant to the effect that " they will have more to pay and less to receive." They descant upon the benefits of cheap bread. As if there are any benefits accruing from a mere cheapness of bread, unless at the same time there is a demand for labour.1 They draw invidious comparisons between high and low prices. But they do not continue the discussion long enough to tell the people that from an "ideal" point of view low prices are well enough; but that, in practice, low prices are significant of stagnation, and that high
1 "Nothing could be more fallacious," said Huskisson, who was well aware of the importance of obtaining cheapness without deranging the relations between production and consumption, "than the notion that cheapness in the price of provisions was always a benefit."
prices, on the contrary, are the surest signs of internal prosperity.1
But the free-traders attempted to disprove to the country that the price of wheat did not regulate the price of wages. They said in 1846 that you might have a low price of corn and a high rate of wages.2 And having thus delivered themselves, they thought the problem ended. But the price of wheat did regulate the price of wages under protection. For, as an addition to the capital of agriculture had to be made before fresh soils could be brought into cultivation, the price of wheat inevitably rose. That price fluctuated about a higher level; and with this increase in prices, wages of labour were raised, because there was a greater demand for it.
Now in 1850, according to the authority of Sir Kobert Peel, bread was relatively low,3 and wages were relatively high.4 Here, then, we reach the state of blessedness conceived by the free-traders.
The point for analysis however, is, whether this altered relation was final—whether it was never to be
1 The reader will observe that even at the present the tendency towards high prices is still in existence. The direction which it took under protection has been diverted under free trade. It is a question whether the "cost of living" has been materially reduced for the labourer by free trade.
2 Such good fortune happened at times under protection. For example, during 1833-1836. Now the free-traders prescribed certain conditions which would be associated with low price of bread and high wages. Those conditions have not been fulfilled.
3 But it was relatively high with reference to the prices of 1833-1836. Indeed, during the periods 1830-1840 and 1850-1860, there is not an appreciably great difference in the averages.— Vide p. 177 (note).
1 The effect of an increased currency to raise wages must be considered.
disturbed again, or whether it was only temporary, occurring during a period of transition from high prices and high wages to low prices and low wages.
We can conceive that this alteration would have kept more or less permanent, if other nations had become free-traders and our manufacture become supreme. These are the conditions. And they are the conditions which Cobden anticipated. But to no purpose. Instead of his predicted results, we have other conditions now to deal with. We have all our markets supplied by, or within reach of the supply of, foreign produce, while our neighbours' markets are closed, more or less, by heavy duties. The importation of foreign corn has gradually increased, and is increasing.1 The charges upon these imports are very great. But we ought, according to the Cobdenite way of arguing, to pay for our food with our manufacture. The question is to-day, " Do we?" The price of wheat has been reduced, and is still receding. The greater bulk of our agricultural labourers have, in consequence, been forced to quit the soil. Some of them were employed, during the early part of socalled free-trade prosperity, in the extension of manufacture. But nowadays our labour is displaced by the produce of foreign labour. Nor do we balance the loss in this direction by an increased exportation to neutral markets; for those neutral markets are being supplied, to our disadvantage, by the produce of our protective rivals.
1 We have already remarked the deficiency of two million quarters in 1887. But this event does not preclude the possibility of our being supplied from external sources with increasing quantities. It merely implies that our ability to pay for more was less than in the preceding year.
It is essential, then, to understand the nature of the forces operating against us. It is by this means only that we can perceive where our weak points lie. We have our own markets invaded by the foreigner. We have an unequal competition in neutral markets. For the foreign manufacturer is assisted, in some branches of industry, by a bounty. The British manufacturer threw off the trammels of State aid. Why did he do so? What does he blame for the present unequal condition surrounding him ?1
But the displacement of our own labour is followed by a fall in the rate of wages. Wages have fallen; and it is the advice of a high authority that the labourer should be content with a lower wage during this period of depression.
Here, then, we have the first indication of the lowering of wages. The tendency towards this lowering is still in operation, and will increase, unless it is checked by perhaps some temporary and collateral occurrence, or by Act of Parliament. We have "reduced wages," tending to become more and more reduced. We have a low price of bread. We are, in consequence, rapidly reaching that condition, foreseen by some of the older protectionists, in which a low price of bread is associated with a low rate of wages. But the result has taken some time to be consummated. Its progress has been imperceptible. And in the transition, we have seen the association of cheap bread with high wages.
1 The means which the foreigner takes to improve his resources are those which properly belong to the system of protection, and pursued by this country at a former time advantageously. The free-traders cannot shut their eyes to the fact that the export trade of great nations is increasing—under protection.