The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 52
Protection in France
Protection in France,
Evidently the labour crisis in France is much more advanced than in this country, and to day our Paris Correspondent gives us particulars of what would have been a bread riot, had the rioters been the really hungry classes, and not the Revolutionists who make capital out of distress.
French Statesmen are alive to the difficulties which confront them, but were it not that we have at home a few preachers of wild economic heresies it would be difficult to believe that the French Government is about to return to a Tax upon Corn as a means of making the nation contented and prosperous. The fact is so, however, and having made up its mind to take this course, M. Ferry's Cabinet is little likely to be turned from its resolution by any arguments or advice tendered to it by Free Traders at home or abroad. Its whole fiscal policy seems, indeed, to be based upon what its members think the best place-insuring expedient of the hour. It bends before the clamours of the great Agricultural interest, in the hope of winning its support, with the same disregard of principle which it displayed in dealing with the demands of the Lyons manufacturers. Had these latter been strong enough, they might have obtained a concession in the matter of the duties on cotton yarns in a Free Trade direction, though the Ministry as a body cares nothing about Free Trade; but the cotton spinners of the North have so far been too powerful for them, and the satin and velvet industries of Lyons may be doomed to languish because the Ministry contents itself with yielding to the strongest, thus playing off interest against interest.
It is upon this ground that the agricultural community may be expected to triumph, for it is larger and more influential in France than any half-dozen other interests combined, and must at all costs be pacified.
Free Traders cannot, in the long run, have anything to fear page 2 from a reactionary policy thus inspired, but those who wish to see France prosperous and happy may well tremble for the future. Her industries are already in a much worse state than ours. So much are they depressed, that the Ministry of the Interior is inundated with demands for State aid. Those who cannot hope to get more taxes put on in their favour agitate for the establishment of relief works, and only last week M. Waldeck-Rousseau had to explain anew that the State and the Municipality of Paris together would continue in future years the lavish outlay on "improvements" already in progess. By reason of these works and of the unprofitable railway extensions, the State-fostered house-building speculations and the outlays on fortifications, &c., France has been for years turned into a great State organisation, wherein one-half of the population may be said to toil for the means to keep the other half alive.
M. Tony-Revillon may have over-estimated the distress existing in the ouvrier quarters of Paris when he declared in the Chamber last Thursday that only two men in three had coats, and that wages had fallen by more than fifteen per cent, in two years; but that the distress is serious no one ventures to deny. The very efforts of the Ministry to find the people employment prove it to be so. In other words, the prolonged over-taxation of France is producing its natural consequences.
This is the time, when exports are declining, when business is bad, and distress increasing amongst the population of the great towns, that the French Government has chosen for increasing the cost of subsistence by an addition to the Tax on Corn.
Already bread is dearer in France than in any great European country—much dearer than in England. This is not altogether because imported grain has continued to be taxed in France, while in England it is free, for the existing tax is scarcely as much as threepence per cwt. In towns the local octrois play a much more important part in raising prices than the Customs duty.
But, whatever the cause, bread is dear, so dear in Paris that the Government has been solicited to revive the dormant but unrepealed law of 1791, which empowers the municipalities to regulate and fix the price of bread. Apparently, the mere rumour that such a step was contemplated made the bakers of the city mend their ways. They lowered their prices, but there can be no doubt that they will raise them again should the duty be put up to three francs per quintal on wheat, and four francs on flour, as is expected. That would mean an advance of about four shillings per quarter in the prime cost of the grain, and the rise would, of course, in default of compulsion on the other side, be more than double that to the ultimate consumer.
Surely this is the strangest possible method of restoring prosperity to the people, and a very dangerous method as well.
Granting that it gives a passing gleam of prosperity to the page 3 agricultural interest, it can only do so at the expense of every other interest within the realm.
A Correspondent, for example, whose letter is printed in another column, points out the disastrous effects which a Corn Duty will have on the prosperous and advancing semolina and macaroni manufactures of Marseilles; but that is only one striking example among hundreds.
Can it be expected that the velveteen weavers of Lyons will fare better against the competition of less burdened producers in other countries, if twenty-five or thirty per cent, be added to the cost of their daily bread?
And if the spinners of Lille or Amiens have enough to do to make ends meet now, sheltered behind high Customs duties as they are, will they be better off when the agricultural interest prospers at their expense?
Such questions have but to be asked to enable all men of sense to answer them.
Economically speaking, nothing could well be more depressing than the spectacle now presented by France. There is no enlightened purpose of any kind visible in the measures adopted to tide over or mitigate the crisis which a long period of trade languor, indifferent harvests, and burdensome taxation has created. All is confusion, ignorance, quackery.
The intelligence displayed in the adoption of these expedients is of the sort employed by the proverbial Irishman who, in order to lengthen his blanket, cut a piece from the bottom and sewed it to the top.
It is odd, that after all these years people still need to be told that wealth is nowhere produced by the imposition of a tax.
A few may become rich by its means, but the masses are of necessity poorer, because the tax means money taken from their pockets to be wasted, or, at all events, to be spent by the State.
In the case of this Corn Tax, which is to render the French Farmers happy, the result must be larger expenditure upon relief works in the towns—amongst the poor everywhere.
The money taken from the consumers must in great part go to help to feed the poor at the expense of the State—of those, that is, still able to pay taxes and live.
The lesson of such a situation should be too clear to need exposition.
Yet there are men amongst us foolish enough to raise the cry that a tax on bread is the remedy for trade depression here also.
According to them, dearer bread would mean a greater ability on the part of the consumers to face the ups and downs of industrial progress.
More childish nonsense it would be impossible to imagine; and we do not suppose that there is the least danger of many giving heed to it.page 4
Some of the farmers, indeed, appear to be inclined to do so, because the idea of State assistance for their benefit seems to be more to their taste than recommendations to energetic efforts to raise themselves.
In considering the case of France, however, we must remember that when things have gone so far as they seem to have done in Paris, it is very hard to apply any remedy which shall satisfy all the laws of political economy. Generally speaking, the most obvious remedy lies in a still further departure from the right path.
In our own country we are probably destined to solve this question by co-operation, but in France they have neither the time nor the patience for our slower methods. The two thousand people who met yesterday at the Salle Levis to proclaim death to the bourgeoisie and to declare that they would not starve in the presence of full granaries, nor sleep in streets while houses were empty, nor shiver in rags while shops were full of warm clothing, were a mob of the miserable creatures always at the call of the agitator; but although we also have amongst us those to whom the prospect of plunder would be sweet enough, we have also in a modified form the commune which they claim, and can put down with a clear conscience those who might turn away from the food and shelter which the law offers them to sack a baker's shop.
Still, after making all allowance for different circumstances, there is a lesson in the French situation for some of us here.
We can at least see how vain is the recourse to Protection to save a nation.
Of all industries on the face of the earth none are more miserable, helpless, and paralysed than those which have the support of Protection.
It must ever be so, because the constant effect of Protection is to drive away all that is solid and enduring in any great industry to countries where labour is unshackled.
Because that is always the case England is a steady gainer by Protectionism abroad, and the more its false and delusive stimulus is applied by Foreign Statesmen to their tottering, weak-kneed industries, the more surely docs the best part of the trade gravitate to the countries where it is most untrammelled.
We shall, perhaps, have a difficult Winter to face in England this year, because of the reaction after a time of over-speculation—there is distress in many places now—but we may be confident of this, that the worst which befalls us will come far short of what those nations are destined to suffer whose Rulers think that the only certain guarantee of prosperity is to put fetters on the hands and feet of their workmen, and make them the slaves of the State.
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