Free Trade, the Corn Laws and The Economist

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 8th, 2013

Week in Review

Today the political left attacks capitalism as being unfair.  And mean.  Whereas they laud government intervention into the free market.  To level the playing field.  And to redistribute income.  To help those who can’t be as successful as others.  They support unions.  And oppose free trade.  Because free trade lowers prices for consumers.  By breaking up monopolies.  And giving them choice.  Free trade is an essential element of capitalism.  But the fight to make people’s lives better with free trade wasn’t easy.  As people who got rich with government-protected high prices opposed free trade (see Why did The Economist favour free trade? by C.R. posted 9/6/2013 on The Economist).

IN NINETEENTH century Europe and America, debates over whether tariffs or free trade produced the most economic growth dominated the political scene. Up until the early 1840s, protection appeared to be winning the argument. In Britain, high tariffs were imposed on agricultural imports in 1819, by legislation known as the Corn Laws. The ideas of Friedrich List, a German economist who argued that tariffs boosted industrial development through the protection of infant industries, were gaining ground, particularly in the United States. One Pennsylvanian legislator even joked in 1833 that the dictionary definition of man should be changed to “an animal that makes tariff speeches” so frequently were they heard.

Against this atmosphere, James Wilson founded The Economist in 1843 to campaign for free trade. His first target was to repeal the Corns Laws in Britain. He argued:

They are, in fact, laws passed by the seller to compel the buyer to give him more for his article than it is worth. They are laws enacted by the noble shopkeepers who rule us, to compel the nation to deal at their shop alone.”

The UAW got very generous contracts with the Big Three during the Fifties and the Sixties.  Raising the price of cars.  Which wasn’t a problem when they were the only ones making cars.  But then came the imports.  Which told the people how much more they were paying than these articles were worth.  And started buying the imports.  As they did those generous pay and benefit packages became more difficult to pay.  So the Big Three lobbied for tariffs on those less costly imports.  And got them.  Raising the price of the imports.  Forcing Americans to deal with the Big Three alone.  And buy their more costly cars.

More people bought cars than made them, though.  And the people who made the cars were better paid than most Americans.  So these tariffs forced poorer people to spend more on a car leaving them less for their families.  So richer people could have more.  This is what tariffs do.  They allow fewer people to have more.  While more people have to do with less.  So fewer buy more.  While more buy less.  Because there are more people who buy cars than make them these tariffs, then, reduce economic activity.  And because the Big Three didn’t have to figure out how to give more for less to their customers they didn’t.  Giving their customers ‘rust buckets’ in the Seventies.  Something else that tariffs do.  Lead to inferior goods.  Because if the government forces people to buy from you then the quality of what you sell doesn’t matter.

Wilson believed that protectionism caused “war among the material interests of the world”, in other words, war between nations and classes. A high tariff regime was no longer economically “productive”; Britain was stuck in an economic depression in the early 1840s. In contrast, free trade produced “abundance and employment”. It was appropriate for Britain’s economy where “a large proportion of the population and property depended on commerce and industry alone”. On the other hand, List’s ideas about protection were dismissed as unnecessary “swaddling clothes” for a mature economy, such as Britain’s.

The Economist’s early views on free trade were strongly influenced by the classical economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo, as Ruth Dudley Edwards, a historian, has pointed out. Wilson, like Smith, realised that trade was a two way exchange. Countries needed to “increase imports to increase exports” to boost economic growth. Consumers, Smith argued in the Wealth of Nations, should buy products from where they were cheapest. All protection did was create monopolies, which were “a great enemy to good management”. Ricardo took Smith’s ideas further, arguing that all countries benefit from free trade by producing what they were best at relative to other countries.

That’s what the Big Three wanted.  A monopoly on cars sold in America.  And there is only one way to get one.  The government has to create them.  Hence the Big Three’s request for tariff protection.

David Ricardo’s comparative advantage said nations should make what they can make best and trade for those things they can’t.  For example, if two countries can both make one thing but one can do so at lower costs they can make more of them for the same costs.  Giving them a larger surplus to trade for other things.  While the other nation will consume more resources to build the same quantity leaving less to make the other things they need.  While having fewer things available for export.  So if you try to make things you can’t make efficiently you end up consuming more resources to have less.  Whereas the nation that makes only what it can make best ends up consuming fewer resources that are then available to make other things.  And they have more things to trade.  Leading to a higher standard of living.  And if their trading partners do likewise they, too, experience a higher standard of living.

Free trade leads to greater economic activity.  Which made Britain wealthy.  Allowing them to extend their empire for another 70 years or so.  Despite the warnings of the rich landowners who said repealing the Corn Laws would cause harm.  Instead, repealing the Corn Laws led to greater economic activity.  And less costly food. Allowing people to feed their families more easily.  The only harm suffered was to the profits of the big landowners.  Who lost their monopoly.  And could no longer charge more than their food was worth.

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