Nov 5, 2015
A Cobden Digest on Free Trade
In these selections from his speeches and writings, Richard Cobden discusses the benefits of free trade, arguing against tariffs and militarism.
Richard Cobden (1804-1865) is one of history’s ablest proponents of free trade, at the forefront of popular agitation against harmful protectionist policies in his native England during the middle part of the nineteenth century. A successful businessman deeply committed to liberal ideas, Cobden said in a letter to his brother that he did not intend to dedicate the whole of his life merely to “heaping up money,” but hoped to pursue “more rational and worthy exertions.” Still, while he aspired to effect some change in favor of free trade, Cobden was nonetheless reluctant to enter the parliamentary fray, perhaps preferring to continue his advocacy exclusively through his Anti Corn Law League. Cobden’s friends prevailed over this apparent resistance, and he began his career in the House of Commons in 1841. In the following selections from his speeches and writings, Cobden confronts the fallacies that surround free trade even today. He demonstrates that beyond increasing the wealth and prosperity of participating nations, free trade also fosters peace and goodwill among them. Cobden argued that the interests of mutually beneficial commerce and a commitment to “non-intervention in the political affairs of other nations” ought to guide foreign policy, not “schoolboy rhetoric upon the balance of power.” A century and a half after his death, Cobden’s eloquent explanations of the many benefits of trade remain relevant and can help us understand an increasingly globalized economic climate.
… I have been accused of looking too much to material interests. Nevertheless I can say that I have taken as large and great a view of the effects of this mighty principle as ever did any man who dreamt over it in his own study. I believe that the physical gain will be the smallest gain to humanity from the success of this principle. I look farther; I see in the Free-trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe,—drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace. I have looked even farther. I have speculated, and probably dreamt, in the dim future—ay, a thousand years hence—I have speculated on what the effect of the triumph of this principle may be. I believe that the effect will be to change the face of the world, so as to introduce a system of government entirely distinct from that which now prevails. I believe that the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires; for gigantic armies and great navies—for those materials which are used for the destruction of life and the desolation of the rewards of labour—will die away; I believe that such things will cease to be necessary, or to be used, when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother man. I believe that, if we could be allowed to reappear on this sublunary scene, we should see, at a far distant period, the governing system of this world revert to something like the municipal system; and I believe that the speculative philosopher of a thousand years hence will date the greatest revolution that ever happened in the world’s history from the triumph of the principle which we have met here to advocate. I believe these things: but, whatever may have been my dreams and speculations, I have never obtruded them upon others. I have never acted upon personal or interested motives in this question; I seek no alliance with parties or favour from parties, and I will take none—but, having the feeling I have of the sacredness of the principle, I say that I can never agree to tamper with it. I, at least, will never be suspected of doing otherwise than pursuing it disinterestedly, honestly, and resolutely.
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Free trade, in the widest definition of the term, means only the division of labour by which the productive powers of the whole earth are brought into mutual co-operation. If this scheme of universal independence is to be liable to sudden dislocation whenever two Governments choose to go to war, it converts a manufacturing industry such as ours into a lottery, in which the lives and fortunes of multitudes of men are at stake. I do not comprehend how any British statesman who consults the interests of his country and understands the revolution which Free Trade is effecting in the relations of the world, can advocate the maintenance of commercial blockades. If I shared their views I should shrink from promoting the indefinite growth of a population whose means of subsistence would be liable to be cut off at any moment by a belligerent power, against whom we should have no right of resistance, or even of complaint.
It must be in mere irony that the advocates of such a policy as this ask—Of what use would our navy be in case of war if commercial blockades were abolished. Surely, for a nation that has no access to the rest of the world but by sea, and a large part of whose population is dependent for food on foreign countries, the chief use of a navy should be to keep open its communications, not to close them!
I will only add that I regard these changes as the necessary corollary of the repeal of the Navigation Laws, the abolition of the Corn Laws, and the abandonment of our colonial monopoly. We have thrown away the sceptre of force, to confide in the principles of freedom—uncovenanted, unconditional freedom. Under the new régime our national fortunes have prospered beyond all precedent. During the last fourteen years the increase in our commerce has exceeded its entire growth during the previous thousand years of reliance on force, cunning, and monopoly. This should encourage us to go forward in the full faith that every fresh impediment removed from the path of commerce, whether by sea or land, and whether in peace or war, will augment our prosperity, at the same time that it will promote the general interests of humanity.
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It will suffice on this head if we observe, that to enable any one of our manufacturers to conduct the simplest branch of his mechanical and chemical industry, it is requisite that he be duly supplied with materials, the growth of every corner of the globe;—the commonest printed calico, worn by the poorest peasant’s wife, is the united product of the four quarters of the earth; the cotton of America, the indigo of Asia, the gum of Africa, and the madder of Europe, must all be brought from those remote regions, and be made to combine with fifty other as apparently heterogeneous commodities, by ingenious arts and processes, the results of ten thousand philosophical experiments—and all to produce a rustic’s gownpiece! Whilst such are the exigencies of manufacturing industry, binding us in abject dependence upon all the countries of the earth, may we not hope that freedom of commerce, and an exemption from warfare, will be the inevitable fruits of the future growth of that mechanical and chemical improvement, the germ of which has only been planted in our day? Need we add one word to prove that Russia could not—unless she were to discover another chemistry, which should wholly alter the properties of matter—at the same time seclude herself from the trade of the rest of the world, and become a rich and great manufacturing or commercial nation? Wherever a country is found to favour foreign commerce, whether it be the United States, Russia, Holland, China, or Brazil (we speak only of commercial nations, and, of course, do not include France), it may infallibly be assumed, that England partakes more largely of the advantages of that traffic than any other state; and the same rule will continue to apply to the increase of the commerce of the world, in whatever quarter it may be, so long as the British people are distinguished by their industry, energy, and ingenuity; and provided that their rulers shall keep pace in wise reforms and severe economy with the governments of their rivals. It follows, then, that, with reference to trade, there can be no ground of apprehension from Russia. If that people were to attempt to exclude all foreign traffic, they would enter at once upon the high road to barbarism, from which career there is no danger threatened to rich and civilised nations; if, on the other hand, that state continued to pursue a system favourable to foreign trade, then England would be found at Constantinople, as she has already been at St. Petersburg, reaping the greatest harvest of riches and power, from the augmentation of Russian imports. By far the greater proportion of the writers and speakers upon the subject of the power of Russia either do not understand, or lose sight of the all-important question, What is the true source of national a greatness?
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If government desires to serve the interests of our commerce, it has but one way. War, conquest, and standing armaments cannot aid, but only oppress trade; diplomacy will never assist it—commercial treaties can only embarrass it. The only mode by which the Government can protect and extend our commerce, is by retrenchment, and a reduction of the duties and taxes upon the ingredients of our manufactures and the food of our artisans.
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I believe the progress of freedom depends more upon the maintenance of peace, the spread of commerce, and the diffusion of education, than upon the labours of Cabinets or Foreign-offices. And if you can prevent those perturbations which have recently taken place abroad in consequence of your foreign policy, and if you will leave other nations in greater tranquillity, those ideas of freedom will continue to progress, and you need not trouble yourselves about them.