« PreviousContinue »
case of the latter section, a rearrangement of our fiscal system would be beneficial. Two forces therefore appear, whose tendencies are opposite, and whose respective strengths are difficult to estimate.1
But when the question comes to be openly discussed, the direction which the "popular will" inclines to take will be narrowly scrutinised. Leading demagogues have followed the advice of Cobden, and make use of other political weapons besides the 40s. franchise. If the people have come, before they are properly imbued with the sense of responsibility, to exercise the authority which belongs to them in a selfish manner—if they act in haste and ill-advisedly—who is at fault? Not the labouring classes. It is the Eadical party, which, with the help of borrowed spoils, has, for its own ends, forced their growth. Had their material wellbeing been assured, then political advancement would have been added in due course (and it matters not by which party in the State) to their social improvement. But as matters stand at the present, this power of the democracy is likely to be turned towards selfish ends, for the plain reason that discontent prevails amongst them, arising from decline in their material prosperity. And now we can see that the alteration in our policy, or our free-trade policy, as it is called, performs, in the end, only part of its prescribed functions, and does it imperfectly. But do we find the labouring classes of today at the same low intellectual level in which Cobden
1 Free trade in corn and some other commodities prevents the nation from producing as much as it may. But protection to beer makes a single interest grow fat at the expense of the general community, whose productive powers have been and are still becoming further diminished. found them? No; the forces of progress (of which free trade is erroneously considered to be the chief) have elevated their moral, social, and mental surroundings. They are as much in front of their predecessors in 1846 as the latter were in front of the labouring mass in the time of the first Sir Robert Peel. Now it is those inherent forces, we maintain, which have been rudely interfered with by the action of free trade. Cobden appealed to the intelligence of the people; but then any one who agreed with Cobden was regarded by him as an intelligent person. He did not, however, flatter their judgment. And it is upon that judgment that the case of protection will largely rest. The people in Cobden's days were not in a position to advance a reliable opinion on the question of free trade. They trusted the judgment of their leader. It is not a difficult task to discover the many sources of error which pervade the whole of Cobden's work—errors of fact and errors of anticipation.1 These are so important in their nature that they are worthy of a separate treatment. But if in 1846 the labourers suffered under this disability of not being able to discern the false and uncertain bases on which his conclusions were supported, in 1888 they are able to estimate the precise value of this piece of information, " that events have not fallen out according to his expectations." They may with
1 We quote Sir Robert Peel: "To this and many other questions connected with the subject [the Corn Laws] no satisfactory answer can be given. We must legislate on speculation and conjecture, and on assumptions which rest on no satisfactory data."—Memoirs, ii. 349. One of the errors of fact was that "high rents produced high prices." We have seen rents maintained and prices falling. The errors of anticipation are in the main two: (1) that all nations within five years would become free-traders; and (2) that our agriculture would be stimulated by a free intercourse in corn,
facility put themselves in direct communication with those passages in Cobden's speeches, in which he foretells the consummation of his dreams, "that other nations would become free-traders."1
If such, then, be the case, and there can be no doubt of its accuracy, we have to deal now with a set of conditions which Cobden never even hinted at as being possible.
The people, or part of the people, trusted their leader's judgment. That judgment was unsound. But it required time to prove it. The free-traders of to-day reply, that our partial free-trade system is beneficial to the country. The choice, therefore, has to be made between "Cobden's ideas of free trade and present ideas," between "Cobden's universal free trade and his successors' system of free imports." Who can question the fact that out of the so-called free-trade prosperity much political capital was made, and that it was by falsely assumed effects that the Gladstonian party was maintained so long a period in power? And who can doubt but that upon the security of free-trade doctrines depends the vitality of what once was a great party in the State?
The political implication of the problem is thus of large importance. There is reason, therefore, why the Eadical free - traders give political answers to economical questions. The malt-tax is the tax which blots the "fair pages" (so they describe it) of their free-trade work. The free-traders sacrificed in suc
1 The prediction was more than once uttered by Cobden, vide Speeches, pp. 207 and 242. It was not a mere boast, but a " belief," therefore.
cession all those interests which had been, from the paper interest down to the interest of our sugarrefiners, supported by the immediate and powerful assistance of protection. By protecting the interests of the brewers and the licensing system, they succeeded in raising up a vast political force. By its means they diverted popular attention into the channels of political reform. The final effort was one which was intended to make the Liberal party supreme—to destroy Conservatism, and to create a parliamentary dictator. But that effort was neutralised by " redistribution." Now it is quite possible that this final struggle for a new lease of political existence was the result of exhaustion, from past endeavours to pander to the assumed wants of the multitude. And that, being unable to convert any more "fixed" into "floating" capital (which afforded Mr Gladstone the opportunity of reducing the three and a half to three per cents) by the mass of money thrown upon the markets; being unable any further to cause a miserable cheapness of goods, to the detriment of the small trader and to the injury of the national labour,—the free-trade economists left the field of finance, and, to acquire an unworthy power, whereby to support their fiscal revolution, pointed to reform in the constitution of the country. Invested with this power, which might bring them back to the government of the people, or at least arrest any attempt to repair the havoc done to the sources of the national wealth, they occupy at present an uncertain position. And it seems to be their desire to achieve by popular enthusiasm what they cannot gain by the instrument of reason.
The hollowness of such a procedure will be evident to the impartial. The mass of the people, if uninfluenced by false enthusiasm and arguments constructed to inflame their imagination, find themselves in an equivocal position. But let them discern the trick which produced the appearance of prosperity without the substance. Let them learn that all those financial changes were changes which affected solely the principal organs of the distribution of wealth, and that they directly injured the sources of production. Let them decide whether or not a nation can continue prosperous, the sources of whose annual income are constantly diminishing. Let them revolve these matters, and perceive that but one choice is open to them—the choice between " production " and " distribution."
§ 39. It is more important for the labourer to regard himself as a producer than as a consumer.—It was certainly a strange sort of "ideal " policy which excluded the most important element of all from its scope of action. "Protection," whatever else might be assumed concerning it, at least tended to effect a due proportion between the functions of production and distribution. By the protection of industries, even the most insignificant, the results of the circulation of capital were experienced in the narrowest channels of labour. Prices were relatively high, but the employment of labour was ensured!
But as soon as a reimposition of duties is mentioned, the free-trader plunges into a vivid description of the horrors of war. Does the free-trader suppose that our system of free imports tends to keep off war from us?