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John Bright's Birthday


The just-completed midterm elections giving Democrats control of both houses of Congress are being interpreted as a referendum on Iraq. Yet once the results were in, the same party that opposed the use of American force in Iraq immediately proposed to use more force on Americans. After all, the only way to impose higher tax rates, higher minimum wages, added regulations and more trade restrictions is to threaten force against those who disagree.

It is unfortunate that the anti-war party is also the more anti-market party. It is also logically inconsistent, as the interests of a country's citizens are advanced by being both anti-war and pro-market. But the party of "war is not the answer" bumper stickers has not realized that the use of force—i.e., war—is not the answer domestically either.

It makes one wish there had been some anti-war and pro-market —i.e., pro-citizen--candidates; people like John Bright, whose 1811 birthday is today. Bright recognized that connection and advocated those positions consistently and persuasively. Along with Richard Cobden, he is most famous for leading to the defeat of England's corn laws and inaugurating one of the freest trade, most peaceful eras in history, but his principled opposition to war, especially to England's participation in the Crimean War, was equally strong.

As we pass John Bright's birthday, it is worth remembering his arguments against war and for free trade, and how they go together.

"...I do most devoutly believe, that the moral law was not written for men alone in their individual character, but that it was written as well for nations...If nations reject and deride that moral law, there is a penalty which will inevitably follow."

"If we may presume to ask ourselves what, in the eyes of the Supreme Ruler, is the greatest crime which His creatures commit, I think we may almost with certainty conclude that it is the crime of War. Somebody has described it as 'the sum of all villainies,' and it has been the cause of sufferings, misery, and slaughter, which neither tongue nor pen can describe."

"...there is no permanent greatness to a nation except it be based upon morality...I care for the condition of the people among whom I live...unless the beauty of your legislation and the excellence of your statesmanship are impressed there on the feelings and condition of the people, rely upon it, you have yet to learn the duties of government."

"[War is] an unholy participation in the fruits of the industry of the people, which have been wrested from them by every device of taxation and squandered in every conceivable crime of which a government could possibly be guilty."

"I behold in its full proportions the hideous error of your governments, whose fatal policy consumes...the results of that industry which God intended should fertilize and bless every home...but the fruits of which are squandered in every part of the surface of the globe, without producing the smallest good to the people..." 

"Force is not a remedy."

"Peace is the best security."

"If this phrase of the 'balance of power' is to be always an argument for war, the pretext for war will never be wanting and peace can never be secure."

"...wishing to live peaceably among my fellow countrymen, and wishing to see my countrymen free, and able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, I protest against a system which binds us in all these networks and complications from which it is impossible that one can gain one single atom of advantage for this country."

"[War] has been at an enormous cost; but I think it is by no means doubtful that your trade would have been no less in amount and no less profitable, had peace and justice been inscribed on your flag instead of conquest and the love of military renown."

"...trade should be as free as the winds..."

"[The Corn law]is of the most ingeniously malignant character...The most demoniacal ingenuity could not have invented a scheme more calculated to bring millions of the working classes of this country to a state of pauperism, suffering, discontent, and insubordination..."

"To sell freely would be a great advantage, as to buy freely is a great advantage; but neither to buy freely nor to sell freely, as the Fair Traders recommend, would...enormously increase the injury to our trade..." 

"[We] shall reap even greater gain from our policy of Free Trade in the future than we have reaped in the past."

"When England and America shall have braced the policy of free industry the whole fabric of monopoly the world over will totter to its fall."

According to Nicholas Elliott, "John Bright did more than anyone else to bring about the great advances for liberty in nineteenth-century Britain." He did so because as "a consistent and principled defender of individual liberty, he opposed both war and government restrictions on voluntary arrangements, because both were applications of government coercion that harmed the citizens involved. In his own words, "I am for peace, retrenchment and reform, the watchword of the great Liberal Party [in the past]." Because of his uniformly principled stands as the "Voice of Victorian Liberalism," A.G. Porritt called him "probably the best loved and most widely respected of Victorian statesmen." Unfortunately, Americans are given no one like that to vote for today.

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