Richard Cobden: Activist for Peace
On June 3, 1804, Richard Cobden was born. Nicknamed the "Apostle of Free Trade," he spearheaded the campaign against the protectionist English Corn Laws, leading to their repeal in 1846, which then spread to the liberalization of trade throughout much of Europe. His role was so great that it has been said the free market owes its existence to him.
Cobden saw that free trade was the key to material prosperity, as evidenced by England's economic growth and rise to world leadership in virtually all aspects of trade—finance, insurance, shipping, etc.—after the Corn Law repeal. But more than prosperity, Cobden emphasized the injustice of protectionism, by which one group used government power to harm all other groups, which, in contrast, showed the moral superiority of free trade.
Further, Cobden saw free trade as the basis of peace, rather than government controlled trade, which often led to war, and to the moral and economic harm of people. And, indeed, the period of liberalized trade coincided with one of the most peaceful periods in history.
Author Jim Powell describes the reasons for free trade leading to peace in that era:
"Peace prevailed, in large part, because nonintervention became the hallmark of foreign policy. Nations seldom tried to bully one another, and economic policy was a major reason why. There was unprecedented freedom of movement for people, goods, and capital. By reducing intervention in economic affairs, governments reduced the risk that economic disputes would escalate into political disputes. There wasn't much economic incentive for military conquest, because people on one side of a border could tap resources about as easily as people on the other side of a border. Trade expanded, strengthening the stake that nations had in the continued prosperity of one another as customers and suppliers. While free trade was never a guarantee of peace, it reduced the danger of war more than any public policy ever had."
In an era of occasional trade liberalization, seasoned with a great deal of protectionism for politically powerful groups, we can benefit from Richard Cobden's insights today as much as was true a century and a half ago.
Consider some of what he said:
- The progress of freedom depends more upon the maintenance of peace, the spread of trade, and the diffusion of education, than upon the labors of cabinets and foreign offices.
- Look not to the politicians; look to yourselves.
- You who shall liberate the land will do more for your country than we have done in the liberation of its trade.
- England, by calmly directing her undivided energies to the purifying of her own internal institutions, to the emancipation of her commerce...would, by thus serving as it were for the beacon for other nations, aid more effectually the cause of political progression all over the continent, than she could possibly do by plunging herself into the strife of European wars...
- The foreign customers who visit our markets are not brought hither through fears of the power of influence of British diplomats...It is solely from the promptings of self-interest...
- The people of the two nations [France and England] must be brought into mutual dependence by the supply of each others' wants. There is no other way of counteracting the antagonism of language and race. It is God's own method of producing an entente cordiale, and no other plan is worth a farthing.
- ...protection...takes from one man's pocket, and allows him to compensate himself by taking an equivalent from another man's pocket, and if that goes on in a circle through the whole community, it is only a clumsy process of robbing all to enrich none, and simply has this effect, that it ties up the hands of industry in all directions.
- Holding one of the principles of eternal justice to be the inalienable right of every man freely to exchange the result of his labor for the productions of other people, and maintaining the practice of protecting one part of the community at the expense of all other classes to be unsound and unjustifiable, your petitioners earnestly implore...carry out to the fullest extent...the true and peaceful principles of Free Trade, by removing all existing obstacles to the unrestricted employment of industry and capital.
- It is labor improvements and discoveries that confer the greatest strength upon a people. By these alone and not by the sword of the conqueror, can nations in modern and all future times hope to rise to power and grandeur.
- Warriors and despots are generally bad economists and they instinctively carry their ideas of force and violence into the civil politics of their governments. Free trade is a principle which recognizes the paramount importance of individual action.
- Peace will come to earth when the people have more to do with each other and governments less.
- The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is—in extending our commercial relations—to have with them as little political connection as possible.
- I yield to no one in sympathy for those who are struggling for freedom in any part of the world; but I will never sanction an interference which shall go to establish this or that nationality by force of arms, because that invades a principal which I wish to carry out in the other direction—the prevention of all foreign interference with nationalities for the sake of putting them down...
- It appears to me, that a moral and even a religious spirit may be infused into that topic [free trade], and if agitated in the same manner that the question of slavery has been, it will be irresistible.
- ...throughout the long agitation for Free Trade, the most earnest men co-operated with us were those who constantly advocated Free Trade, not merely on account of the material which it would bring to the community, but for the far loftier motive of securing permanent peace between nations.
- I have been accused of looking too much to material interests...I believe that the physical gain will be the smallest gain to humanity from the success of this principle. I look farther; I see in the Free-Trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe, drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace...I believe that the effect will be to change the face of the world, so as to introduce a system of government entirely distinct from that which now prevails. I believe that the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires; for gigantic armies and great navies...will die away; I believe that such things will cease to be necessary, or to be used when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of one's labor with his brother man. I believe that...the speculative philosopher of a thousand years hence will date the greatest revolution that ever happened in the world's history from the triumph of the principle which we have met here to advocate.
- I would not step across the street just now to increase our trade for the mere sake of commercial gain...But to improve moral and political relations of France and England, by bringing them into greater intercourse and greater dependence, I would walk barefoot from Calais to Paris.
- ...our principle, which if carried out, the Free-Traders believe would bring peace and harmony among the nations.
- ...whilst we are in a state of profound peace, it is for you, the taxpayers, to decide whether you will run the risk of war, and keep your money in your pockets, or allow an additional number of men in red coats to live in idleness under the pretense of protecting you.
Richard Cobden knew that at the center of free trade was freedom; freedom that required sharply limiting government, and which produced justice by preventing government sponsored theft by one group from others.
He knew that free trade broke down the powers of privilege and barriers against people's progress, and replaced them with a system of mutually beneficial relations among all those who participated. In a world still far from that ideal, we should remember that wisdom from the "Apostle of Free Trade."