The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 12
Twenty years ago we were all thoroughly "posted up," as the Americans say, in every detail of the great Free-trade controversy. Protection could not show its nose above water for one moment without being made the mark for a hundred harpoons, discharged from vigorous and unerring hands. We had the chapter and verse of Mill, of Smith, and of Ricardo, and the requisite illustration ready at the shortest notice. With infinite ability and eloquence Mr. Cobden and Mr. Bright, in a long succession of brilliant and convincing speeches, persecuted through all its Protean changes the theory which makes the assistance of kings and laws a necessary element in the success of commercial, manufacturing, or agricultural enterprise. The "poor-spirited Protectionist." the "cowardly Protectionist," the "whining Protectionist," the "lazy Protectionist," was gibbeted on every platform, and made the butt of every newspaper and of every meeting. A country gentleman could not express the fervent yearnings of his heart for a rise in the price of wheat, or even of barley; Mr. Miles could not give utterance to page 13 his jealousy of foreign grease, or a country member congratulate his constituents on still retaining protection on cheese without being exposed to such a volley of abuse and ridicule as left him little disposition to indulge in the British luxury of speaking his mind for the future.
The cause of Free-trade triumphed, and the victors have laid aside the arms which they wielded with so much success. They look with astonishment on the massive weapons with which they fought the battles of their youth, and candidly comparing their present with their former selves they greatly marvel where they found that earnestness, that singlemindedness, that childlike simplicity, that unhesitating confidence in the overpowering efficacy of truth and the supremacy of abstract principles which carried them with such signal success through the stormy period of Anti-Corn Law agitation. The love of many has grown cold, the knowledge of many has grown rusty, the faith of many languishes for want of exercise. The manufacturing interest has emancipated itself from the fetters against which it chafed, and if it still adheres to sound doctrine, does so with that languid assent which men yield to truths in which they no longer believe themselves to have a practical or pecuniary interest. Yet certainly if there were to be found anywhere firm and uncompromising supporters of the right of every man to invest his labour and employ his capital as seemed good in his own eyes, without the interference of Kings and Ministers, might fairly have expected Mr. Cobden and Mr. Bright, Mr. Bazley and Mr. J. B. Smith to be among the last to compromise or palter with the doctrines of Free-trade. Come what might they at least were too deeply pledged to recede. They had made a reputation out of those opinions and could not afford to destroy a foundation which must inevitably bring down with it the superstructure. Yet the same week that has seen Mr Bright advocating the cause of an aggressive war in the American Republic has witnessed his efforts, and those of his old associates, to introduce into India a system of Government interference quite as indefensible in principle and as noxious in practice as the Corn or Navigation Laws themselves. In different forms, seasoned with a good deal of personal vituperation, these gentlemen insist that the Secretary of State for India should bring the pressure of an absolute Government to bear upon the ryots, with a view to induce or compel them to grow a larger amount of cotton than they are at present disposed to produce. That, in general terms, is the modest request of the purest and most orthodox Free-traders. They have outlived the antiquated delusion that Government has nothing to do with the business of private persons, and that any interference on its part is, in the first place, an invasion of the rights of the individual, and, in the second place, more likely to do mischief than good. These doctrines are adapted, it should seem, to Europe, but are quite out of place when applied to Asia. In Europe we may be content to trust the demand to produce the supply; in Asia the power of demand is wholly insufficient, and compulsion must be called in to create an industry which the ordinary motives of private interest have signally failed to call forth. Thus, Mr. Bazley says, "our Government has been neglecting to stimulate the cultivation of cotton in our own colonies and dependencies." How long has it been the doctrine of Free-traders that it is the business of the Government to "stimulate" the production of anything—that is, to use the power which it possesses to induce a man to do that which, in his own view of his own private interest, it is not expedient for him to do? If Government is acting in the interest of the producer, whence did it learn to see what is his interest better than he sees it himself? If in the interest of the consumer, by what right does it sacrifice one class of the community to another? Mr. Bazley wishes he could say that our Government was offering inducements at all comparable to those held out by the French Government. An "inducement" is only another name for a bounty in some shape or another, and we should like to know how long the stimulating production by bounties has formed a part of the economical creed of Manchester. "For thirty years," says Mr. Bazley, "Manchester has been forcing on the Government the necessity of doing something which would diminish our dependence on the Southern States of America for the supply of cotton." What means has Government at its disposal except bribery or compulsion, bounties or forced cultivation, and which is it that the metropolis of Free-trade recommends for our adoption? "All we want," he says, "is energetic action on the part of the Government." Not quite so. We want that the action of the Government should not only be energetic, but founded on sound principles.page 14
Mr. Cobden, however, goes far beyond Mr. Bazley, and admits the truth of the taunt that on this Indian question he flings the principle of Free-trade to the winds. The Government is, he says, an absentee landlord—no very good reason, we should think, for interfering with the proceedings of its tenants in a manner no resident English landlord would think of doing. The ryot, he says, is ignorant—ignorant, we must suppose, to an extent which prevents him knowing what crop will pay him best. Even if this be so—which it is not—that is no reason for depriving him of the disposition of his own labour and capital, and reducing him virtually to the condition of a slave. Is it not just as probable that a man who has spent all his life in cultivating the soil and observing the climate of India, and who has no other interest except to turn his labour to the best account, should form a better judgment as to what it is expedient he should cultivate than the Manchester manufacturer, who has a direct interest that he should cultivate a particular crop? Why may not the ryot be permitted to judge for himself whether the price he can obtain is adequate, and, if adequate, whether it is likely to be permanent? Suppose he is forced or cajoled into the cultivation of cotton, and suppose that from any one of many causes prices should fall; what compensation is the Government prepared to make to the victims of its interference, and, if none, what right has it to interfere? Mr. Cobden thinks that Sir Charles Wood would, if we really had an opposition, be impeached for neglect of duty because he refused to make the evil precedent of exempting thirty acres of land in Madras from land tax in order to try the experiment of cotton cultivation. The amount of money at stake was a trifle, but the concession of the principle that the manufacturing interest of England had a right to obtain benefits for itself out of the Indian revenue which it ought to provide out of its own funds is a matter of most serious import, and one which no minister having the interests of the people of India really at heart ought to concede for a moment.
We have given sufficient samples of the ground taken up by the representatives of the manufacturing interests to show how flagrantly inconsistent, how utterly unreasonable, how narrow, how unsound, and how selfish are the principles on which the apostles of Free-trade advocate bounties, and the friends of India the oppression of her people. We rejoice to think there is no chance that these evil counsels will prevail, and we do not regret that so flagrant and manifest a dereliction of principle will recoil on the heads of those who are guilty of it. For many years after the victory of Free-trade it was impossible to persuade foreign nations—and the conviction was a source of enormous evil—that the men who were conspicuous in working out this vast revolution did not possess an overpowering influence in this country. It is now quite clear, not only that they do not possess such an influence, but why it is impossible they should possess it? The advocates of peace have become the supporters of war, and the apostles of Free-trade the supporters of bounties and forced labour. They have Already Answered their own Argument, and Overruled their Own authority.