Richard Cobden: Exemplar of Liberty, Property, and Peace

For years, I have had a Mises coffee mug that endorses liberty, property, and peace. And it gets a fair amount of use, which keeps reminding me of those essential building blocks of a good society. But the last time I used it, I happened to be reading about Richard Cobden, whose June 3 birthday is coming up. What I was reading made me think, “He probably would have been a leading member of the Mises Institute, if he hadn’t been born too early.”

Instead, Cobden was the spearhead of the nineteenth-century political campaign to end England’s protectionist Corn Law, which he called “legislative murder which denies to the people of the land food in exchange for the produce of their industry.” He became known as “the Apostle of Free Trade,” whose efforts finally overturned the law in 1846 and triggered liberalized trade through much of Europe. His role was so great that some have said that free markets owe him their existence.

Cobden recognized free trade as integrally connected to liberty, property, and peace. It does not require coercion, unlike trade restrictions that try to stop people from using their property and productive efforts as they think will benefit them most. Free trade only requires liberty. And increasing the mutual benefits from voluntary arrangements makes that approach increasingly attractive compared to war. As Jim Powell described it:

Peace prevailed, in large part, because non-intervention became the hallmark of foreign policy.…There was unprecedented freedom of movement for people, goods, and capital.…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.

It is worth remembering Cobden’s words for liberty, property, and peace as we pass his 216th birthday, because he would qualify as a grandfathered-in Mises Institute member. Consider just some of those insights:

  • 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.
  • Protection…takes from one man’s pocket, and allows him to compensate himself by taking an equivalent from another man’s pocket…a clumsy process of robbing all to enrich none, and ties up the hands of industry in all directions.
  • How can protection…add to the wealth of a country?…You may, by legislation, in one evening, destroy the fruits and accumulation of a century of labor; but I defy you to show me how, by the legislation of this House, you can add one farthing to the wealth of the country.…If you attempt by legislation to give any direction to trade or industry, it is a thousand to one that you are doing wrong; and if you happen to be right…the parties for whom you legislate would go right without you, and better than with you.
  • Free Trade! What is it? Why, breaking down the barriers that separate nations…behind which nestle the feelings of pride, revenge, hatred, and jealousy, which every now and then burst their bounds, and deluge whole countries with blood; those feelings which nourish the poison of war and conquest.
  • We are going to set the example of making industry free…giving the whole world every advantage of clime, and latitude, and situation, relying ourselves on the freedom of our industry…carrying out to the fullest extent the Christian doctrine of “Doing to all men as ye would they should do unto you.”
  • Eternal justice…[includes] the inalienable right of every man freely to exchange the result of his labor for the productions of other people.
  • The practice of protecting one part of the community at the expense of all other classes [is] unsound and unjustifiable.
  • 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.
  • Look not to the politicians; look to yourselves.
  • Free trade…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.
  • [We] advocated Free Trade, not merely on account of the material wealth which it would bring to the community, but for the far loftier motive of securing permanent peace between nations.
  • Our principle…would bring peace and harmony among the nations.
  • People…must be brought into mutual dependence by the supply of each others’ wants. It is God’s own method of producing an entente cordiale, and no other plan is worth a farthing.
  • The Free-Trade principle…shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe, drawing men together…and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace.…[T]he effect will be to change the face of the world…to introduce a system of government entirely distinct from that which now prevails.
  • Man…freely exchanges the fruits of one’s labor with his brother man.…[T]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.

Richard Cobden knew that free trade was the natural result of self-ownership and voluntary arrangements, which produce justice by preventing government-sponsored robbery of some by others. He recognized that it broke down privilege and barriers hindering economic progress and replaced them with mutual benefits. In a world far too distant from that ideal, we should remember his wisdom that “the emancipation of commerce” would be “a beacon for other nations” that would expand liberty, better protect property, and lead to peace, the trifecta that best enables economic and moral progress. As Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman said, celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of Cobden’s birth:

Cobden spent his life in pulling down those artificial restrictions and obstructions…not merely to commerce, but also to peace and good will, and mutual understanding; yes, and obstructions to liberty and good government at home.…[H]e exploded the economic basis of class government and class subjection.

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