Manchester Liberalism is the Answer to Terrorism

Many in Manchester are still reeling from the May 22nd suicide bombing that killed 23 people and left dozens more injured. Since then, thousands have come to visit a memorial in St. Ann’s square, a short distance from the site of the attack, to place flowers or to offer prayers for the victims and their loved ones. Such a peaceful response is inspiring, but the St. Ann’s memorial carries a deeper significance as well: many visitors likely do not realize they are placing their flowers at the foot of a statue of Richard Cobden (1804-1865), the great 19th-century liberal and Manchester political economist.

Although the location of the memorial is unintentional, it is entirely appropriate. Cobden was a tireless advocate of peace and free trade, and his philosophy, now known as “Manchester liberalism” or “Manchesterism,” deeply influenced many liberals, including Mises, who considered himself a member of the tradition. Today, Cobden’s work continues to inspire the advocates of a free society, and more importantly, it also provides an antidote to the violence and war that plague the world.

The Manchester liberals argued vigorously that peace and free trade are the two mutually-reinforcing pillars of a free society, and in fact, that one cannot exist for long without the other. Mises developed their ideas in his own writings, in which he explains more clearly the process by which economic intervention leads to domestic strife, nationalism, and war, and through all these, to further intervention and social decline. When governments regulate economies at home, they create conflict between the winners and losers from their policies. In order to distract from these conflicts, governments turn the public’s attention to external “threats,” usually weak and distant nations. Eliminating these threats requires the use of military force, which can only be supported by diverting part of the domestic economy from productive commerce to unproductive war making. The result is a growing military-industrial complex and the erosion of peace and prosperity.

Seen in this light, it becomes clear that the pro-war and (nominally) pro-trade goals of conservatives and the (nominally) anti-war and anti-trade views of progressives are both doomed to failure: in reality, each produces more war, and less trade. The liberals realized that the only way to avoid the cycle of war is to oppose imperialism while staunchly advocating peaceful commerce between nations. Cobden and his French counterpart Michel Chevalier, for instance, worked toward both goals through the Anglo-French treaty of 1860 that they helped to negotiate.

Yet tragically, although the classical liberals won some victories for the cause of free trade, their greater philosophy of global liberalism has been mostly ignored. The result is the continued creep of the warfare state and of domestic and international interventionism. Bombs and economic sanctions wreak havoc on foreign peoples and foster both retaliatory violence and sympathy for it among the victims of economic and military warfare. Retaliation also works to the advantages of states, which use it as justification for further encroachments on civil liberties at home, for example, through domestic surveillance programs and controls over movement within and across their borders.

This story is by now all too familiar, and the only true solution is a difficult one: to substitute peaceful exchange for war and imperialism. Ultimately, peace and prosperity can only return when the ideas of Cobden, Mises, and liberalism prevail over the ideology of war and statism.

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