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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 52


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1. The object of this Pamphlet is to put forward an aspect of Free Trade which is not generally regarded, viz., Its effect upon the the Distribution of Wealth as distinguished from its effect upon the Production of Wealth. The reason for thus changing the point of view is the alteration which has been made of recent years in the centre of political power. In the days of Cobden and the anti-Corn Law League, when the middle classes formed the bulk of English voters, it was most politic to dwell upon the influence of Free Trade in cheapening the price of goods; but an electorate of Working Men prefer to see the influence of that policy in raising wages. Accordingly, although the old arguments remain perfectly true, it is desirable now, if we wish to arrest general attention, to lay them aside for a time, and bring out others which are more particularly attractive to Working Men.

But Free Traders have been slow to recognise that under the altered circumstances of an extended suffrage they must change the popular presentment of their views. As a rule, they still deal only with the figures of Production. They tell us, for example, that the trade of England has advanced by leaps and bounds: that since Free Trade was introduced, the income tax returns are ten times what they were: that the quantity of funded wealth is daily growing larger, and the population is increasing with an unsurpassed rapidity. They point to the tables of exports, to the growing cities, to the decline of pauperism, to the many signs of English industry and enterprise in every quarter of the globe, and, rolling out their columns of magnificent statistics, they expect the world to be convinced. But Working Men, at least, know well that this is not the last word upon the subject. The matter of concern to them is not so much that goods should be produced in plenty as that they themselves should have more money. A man, who has but sixpence in his pocket, is not likely to be greatly moved on hearing that the price of silk has been reduced to half a crown.

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Accordingly, Free Trade must be justified to poor men in quite another way than by a catalogue of its effects upon Production. They must be shown that Free Trade has also some effect in raising wages, and that, while suggesting new desires, it also gives the means of satisfying them by cheapening most articles of common use, and by bringing about the conditions, which are most favourable to a fairer distribution of wealth and most conducive in any community to a lasting rise in the average standard of comfort.

2. There is also another point to which Free Traders must direct their arguments. They must endeavour to remove the popular idea that Free Trade is hostile to attempts to secure the interests of the Working Classes by the means of Legislation.

Working Men need other things besides high wages—such as regular employment, opportunities for investment, means of amusement, and many others, which would tend to give them more security and independence.

Many Free Traders, however, not only ignore these wants of the wage-receivers, but some of them have even gone so far as to denounce, in the name of Free Trade, almost all the measures which the Working Classes have had most at heart in order to secure them. Rightly or wrongly, Working Men have believed that their condition could never be permanently bettered until the Government should interfere actively on their behalf, and they have accordingly demanded and obtained a long series of Acts of Parliament to regulate and protect labour, of which the Factory Acts are the best-known example.

All these measures have been opposed in the name of Free Trade, although, as will be shown later in this Pamphlet, Free Trade is a mere expedient of commerce, working in the field of Production, and affords no argument for or against the interference of Government within the field of Distribution.

Most of those, however, whom the public regard as the champions of Free Trade, from Ricardo to Professor Fawcett (with the two notable but often unobserved exceptions of Richard Cobden and John Stuart Mill), have been pedantically attached to that declining school of political thought, which would restrict the action of the State within the narrowest bounds. In consequence of this, Free Trade has come to be identified with the general principle of "Laissez-faire," or "Let Alone;" and so deeply rooted is this confusion of ideas that it is not uncommon, even in Radical journals, to find Trade Unions mentioned as a violation of Free Trade Principles, and a system of unregulated competition between masters and men justified by the same authority.

Later in these pages an attempt will be made to define the limits of State action, and to show the true relation of Free Trade to the general scheme of government. At present, the misconception which exists upon this point is only mentioned as one reason page vii for the prevalent mistrust of Free Trade doctrines, and as a special reason for their discredit among Working Men. What wonder that Working Men, when they have found Free Trade confronting them at every effort to alleviate their lot by legal interference, have ceased to take an interest in its promised benefits, and have regarded it as a Middle Class doctrine, comforting enough to the well-to-do, but offering no help to them in their especial needs.

3. If, therefore, we would justify Free Trade to Working Men, we must break away a little from the ancient line of argument. We must, first of all, do justice to the honesty and intelligence of our opponents, and then we must define precisely the scope and operation of a Free Trade policy. We must cease from that vague talk about Prosperity, which sounds like an unseemly gibe to men who spend their lives in insecurity and want; and we must bring the doctrine home to those whom we address by tracing its particular relation to each of their especial needs.

But while Free Traders must endeavour to look at things more from the standpoint of Working Men, they must be careful not to raise excessive hopes in the minds of those whom they address.

Much of the present antagonism towards Free Trade arises from a profound discontent with our existing social conditions. Forgetting or not knowing that these conditions prevail even more in the protected country of America, a Workman often turns against the system under which he feels their irksomeness, and seeks the wished-for blessing in another policy.

But, in truth, the remedy for the social evils, of which both Free Traders and Protectionists complain, lies altogether outside the influence either of Protection or Free Trade. Their causes are too deeply rooted to be removed by alterations in a fiscal policy. Free Trade, as this Pamphlet is designed to show, has largely helped the Working Classes, even although the bulk of its advantage has apparently gone to the consumers—the profit of the wage-receivers being profit of another kind, and one more difficult to trace. But the main grievances of Working Men continue under any fiscal policy in their low wages and irregular employment, their monotonous existence, and their insecure old age.

Free Traders do not glose these facts, nor are they indifferent to the higher interests of the Working Classes. Because a Free Trader advocates the remission of a tax on imports, it does not therefore follow that he regards this measure as a panacea for every industrial evil; nor, because he urges the advantages of Free Exchange, must he be supposed to hold that the highest social ideal is reached merely by buying in the cheapest and selling in the dearest market. Some few Free Traders may also be advocators of "Laissez-faire;" but others, on the contrary, regard Free Trade simply as an instrument, which clears the ground tor more effective action by the State in other quarters.

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A Free Trader can recognise as evils everything of which Protectionists complain. He can join with a Protectionist in his protest against labour being huckstered like a bale of goods. He, too, may refuse to believe that masters and men can never be secured against the cruel misery of fluctuating trade, and can prefer that the evils of dependence should be lessened, rather than that the number of millionaires should be increased with an un-paralled rapidity. In short, the final aim of a Free Trader differs but little from that of a Protectionist, however much they may dispute about means. The ideal of both is the same—to prevent the labourer sinking into the mere drudge of a machine, and to make him once again a handicraftsman, with an artistic love and knowledge of his work.

But while thus fully recognising the evils of our present industrial system, a Free Trader would desire it to be understood by those who suffer that, if Free Trade has proved an imperfect remedy, Protection is a poison. The grievances of the Protectionists are real enough, but their hostility is misdirected. The remedy, as this Pamphlet will endeavour to point out, is independent either of Protection or Free Trade. But Protection aggravates these evils, while Free Trade does much to mitigate them. Free Trade, moreover, also brings about the only conditions under which these evils can be finally removed.

This will be the contention of the following pages.