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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 56

[Free Trade and Fair Trade. What do the Words Mean?]

Cobden Club Motto

Free Trade is the right which a man has to lay out his wages or income at the best advantage to himself, to buy at the shop which gives him best quality at the easiest rate.

It would seem that so natural a right could hardly be disputed. But it took years of labour to secure the right, and to defeat the claims of those who insisted that the English people should be forced to deal at those shops only which Protectionists chose to name—i.e., their own shops—and who had turned these claims into law.

The expression "one-sided Free Trade" has no meaning. If every Englishman has, as he has at present, the right to buy from whom he pleases, there cannot be any one-sidedness in the situation. If his freedom is to be shortened, Free Trade is at an end.

Fair Trade, as far as it is explained, is an attempt to force a man to deal with that person only who has dealings with some other person. John Brown sells bread, and William Smith sells shoes. Fair Trade tells me that I must not buy bread of John Brown, because he does not buy his shoes of William Smith, and that I must not buy shoes of William Smith, because he does not buy bread of John Brown. I am, forsooth, to be made worse page break off because these two people cannot agree to trade together.

The best illustration of such a Fair Trade is the old tally shop. The employer used to say, "I find you wages, therefore you must lay out your money at my shop, where I will let you have what sort of goods I like, of the quality which I find suits me, and at such prices as I please to fix." The Parliament saw that this process meant cheating and plunder, and put it down with a heavy hand But, according to the Fair Traders, the system must have been just and wise. It was thorough Reciprocity. But for all it was one-sided.

Fair Traders want to make everything dearer—i.e., to prevent every man's money going so far as it does now. If everything is dearer, there must be stint. If every one is stinted, he has less to spend. If he has less to spend, he can buy less. If he buys less, he causes less employment to be given, and, if times are bad, the supposed remedy makes them worse.

When we say that times are bad, we mean that there are three men seeking for two men's work, and of course there are less wages earned. Does any person out of Bedlam believe, if the Fair Traders got their way, and thereupon three men are seeking for one man's work, that wages would be better. Does a master pay higher wages because he gets more profit? Not a bit of it. He pays higher wages when hands are scarce, lower wages when hands are numerous and are seeking work. Working men who listen to the Fair Traders, and are taken in by them, are deliberately lessening, or trying to lessen, their own wages.

James E. Thorold Rogers.