Chapter 16 — Inadequacy of the Free Trade Argument

We have seen 
the absurdity of protection as a general principle and the fallacy of the special pleas that are made for it. We have seen that protective duties cannot increase the aggregate wealth of the country that enforces them, and have no tendency to give a greater proportion of that wealth to the working class. We have seen that their tendencies, on the contrary, are to lessen aggregate wealth, and to foster monopolies at the expense of the masses of the people.

But although we have directly or inferentially disproved every argument that is made for protection, although we have seen conclusively that protection is in its nature inimical to general interests, and that free trade is in its nature promotive of general interests, yet if our inquiry were to stop here we should not have accomplished the purpose with which we set out.

The very conclusiveness with which our examination has disproved the claims of protection will suggest that there must be something more to be said, and may well prompt the question, "If the protective theory is really so incongruous with the nature of things and so inconsistent with itself, how is it that after so many years of discussion it still obtains such wide and strong support? "

In our examination we have gone as far, and in certain respects somewhat farther than free traders usually go. But what have we proved as to the main issue? Merely that it is the tendency of free trade to increase the production of wealth, and thus to permit of the increase of wages, and that it is the tendency of protection to decrease the production of wealth and foster certain monopolies. But from this it does not follow that the abolition of protection would be of any benefit to the working class. The tendency of a brick pushed off a chimney-top is to fall to the surface of the ground. But it will not fall to the surface of the ground if its fall is intercepted by the roof of a house. The tendency of anything that increases the productive power of labor is to augment wages. But it will not augment wages under conditions in which laborers are forced by competition to offer their services for a mere living.

The free trader can only answer: "It will increase wealth and reduce the cost of commodities."

But in our own time the working man has seen wealth enormously increased without feeling himself a sharer in the gain. He has seen the cost of commodities greatly reduced without finding it any easier to live.

And seeing this, the working man, even though he may realize with more or less clearness the hypocrisy of the rings and combinations which demand tariff duties for "the protection of labor," accepts the fallacies of protection, or at least makes no effort to throw them off, not because of their strength so much as of the weakness of the appeal which free trade makes to him. A considerable proportion, at least, of the most intelligent and influential of working men are fully conscious that "protection" does nothing for labor, but neither do they see what free trade could do. And so they regard the tariff question as one of no practical concern to working men — an attitude hardly less satisfactory to the protected interests than a thorough belief in protection. For when an interest is already entrenched in law and habit of thought, those who are not against it are for it.

Without question the most important social phenomena of our time arise from that partial paralysis of industry which in all highly civilized countries is in some degree chronic, and which at recurring periods becomes intensified in widespread and long-continued industrial depressions. What is the current explanation of these phenomena? Is it not that which attributes them to over-production?

In this great fact, that increase in wealth and in the power of producing wealth does not bring any general benefit in which all classes share, does not for the great masses lessen the intensity of the struggle to live, lies the explanation of the popular weakness of free trade. It is owing to the increasing appreciation of this fact, and not to accidental causes, that all over the civilized world the free trade movement has for some time been losing energy.

It is true that the British free traders were enabled to arouse the popular enthusiasm necessary to overthrow protection. But not only did the fact that the British tariff made food dear enable them to appeal to sympathy and imagination with a directness and force impossible where the commodities affected by a tariff are not of such prime importance, but the feeling of that time in regard to such reforms was far more hopeful. The great social problems which today loom so dark on the horizon of the civilized world were then hardly perceived.

In the destruction of political tyranny and the removal of trade restrictions ardent and generous spirits saw the emancipation of labor and the eradication of chronic poverty, and there was a confident belief that the industrial inventions and discoveries of the new era which the world had entered would elevate society from its very foundations. The natural assumption that increase in the general wealth must mean a general improvement in the condition of the people was then confidently made.

But disappointment after disappointment has chilled these hopes, and, just as faith in mere republicanism has weakened, so the power of the appeal that free traders make to the masses has weakened with the decline of the belief that mere increase in the power of production will increase the rewards of labor. Instead of the abolition of protection in Great Britain being followed, as was expected, by the overthrow of protection everywhere, it is not only stronger throughout the civilized world than it was then, but is again raising its head in Great Britain.

It is useless to tell working men that increase in the general wealth means improvement in their condition. They know by experience that this is not true.

It is true that statistics may be arrayed in such way as to prove to the satisfaction of those who wish to believe it, that the condition of the working classes is steadily improving. But that this is not the fact working men well know. It is true that the average consumption has increased, and that the cheapening of commodities has brought into common use things that were once considered luxuries. It is also true that in many trades wages have been somewhat raised and hours reduced by combinations among workmen. But although the prizes that are to be gained in the lottery of life — or, if anyone prefers so to call them, the prizes that are to be gained by superior skill, energy, and foresight — are constantly becoming greater and more glittering, the blanks grow more numerous. The man of superior powers and opportunities may hope to count his millions where a generation ago he could have hoped to count his tens of thousands; but to the ordinary man the chances of failure are greater, the fear of want more pressing. It is harder for the average man to become his own employer, to provide for a family and to guard against contingencies. The anxieties attendant on the fear of losing employment are becoming greater and greater, and the fate of him who falls from his place more direful. To prove this it is not necessary to cite the statistics that show how pauperism, crime, insanity, and suicide are increasing faster than our increase in population. Who that reads our daily papers needs any proof that the increase in the aggregate of wealth does not mean increased ease of gaining a living by labor?

And when we take into account longer periods of time than are usually considered in discussions as to whether the condition of the working man has or has not improved with improvement in productive agencies and increase in wealth, here is a great broad fact:

Five centuries ago the wealth-producing power of England, man for man, was small indeed compared with what it is now. Not merely were all the great inventions and discoveries which since the introduction of steam have revolutionized mechanical industry then undreamed of, but even agriculture was far ruder and less productive. Artificial grasses had not been discovered. The potato, the carrot, the turnip, the beet, and many other plants and vegetables which the farmer now finds most prolific, had not been introduced. The advantages which ensue from rotation of crops were unknown. Agricultural improvements consisted of the spade, the sickle, the flail, the rude plow, and the harrow. Cattle had not been bred to more than one-half the size they average now, and sheep did not yield half the fleece. Roads, where there were roads, were extremely bad, wheeled vehicles scarce and rude, and places a hundred miles from each other were, in difficulties of transportation, practically as far apart as London and Hong Kong, or San Francisco and New York, are now.

Yet patient students of those times — such men as Professor Thorold Rogers, who devoted himself to the history of prices, and deciphered the records of colleges, manors, and public offices-tell us that the condition of the English laborer was not only relatively, but absolutely better in those rude times than it is in England today, after five centuries of advance in the productive arts. They tell us that the working man did not work so hard as he does now, and lived better; that he was exempt from the harassing dread of being forced by loss of employment to want and beggary, or of leaving a family that must apply to charity to avoid starvation. Pauperism as it prevails in the rich England of today was in the far poorer England of the fourteenth century absolutely unknown. Medicine was empirical and superstitious, sanitary regulations and precautions were all but unknown. There was frequently plague and occasionally famine, for, owing to the difficulties of transportation, the scarcity of one district could not be relieved by the plenty of another. But men did not, as they do now, starve in the midst of abundance.

If this be the result of five centuries of such increase in productive power as has never before been known in the world, what ground is there for hoping that the mere abolition of protective tariffs would permanently benefit working men?