Sunday, August 14, 2016

Forgotten Hero: Richard Cobden

Hardly anyone in the early 21st Century, even among those who spend a lot of time studying history, has a clue who Richard Cobden was. Yet I would argue that this virtually unknown, unassuming Englishman ranks as one of the great heroes of the 19th Century and that the ideals by which he lived can serve as an example for our time. I wanted to take some time this week to talk about why I admire him so much.

Cobden was a Sussex boy, born in 1804 to a large farming family. His father lost his farm when Cobden was a young man and he was packed away to boarding school. His uncle, a calico merchant who saw the potential of the intelligent young man, took him under his wing and made him a clerk in his shop. Eventually, Cobden and his brother started their own textile business in Manchester and Cobden began travelling throughout Europe and United States seeking markets for his products. As his business experience grew, it combined with an intense program of reading and self-education to develop a mind that had an intuitive grasp of economics and international relations.

Although Cobden's business prospered, he found himself increasingly focusing on political and intellectual pursuits rather than building his own wealth. He became deeply involved in local Manchester politics and gradually developed a remarkably simple yet profound view of the world, one so grounded in common sense that can't really be labeled an ideology. He believed that it was in the interest of all nations to be at peace with one another and to reduce their expensive military establishments. He believed that nations should not intervene in one another's affairs and should act the part of decent neighbors. Above all, he believed that nations should not be economically protectionist and should instead embrace free trade.

In 1838, Cobden assumed leadership of Anti-Corn Law League. As its name suggests, this was an organization dedicated to the repeal of the notorious Corn Laws, which put up steep tariffs against grains imported from overseas, particularly from the United States. This suited the interests of the wealthy landowners, who did not want to have to compete with cheaper foreign grain, but it was terrible for Britain's poor, who had to pay artificially high prices for their bread. Cobden and his allies wanted the Corn Laws repealed, not only to help relieve the plight of the poor, but to help strengthen the British economy. After all, if people did not have to spend so much money on bread, they would have money to spend on other things, which would be to the obvious benefit of British manufacturers. This, in turn, would increase wages and create jobs, contributing to the well-being of the entire nation.

It was a long and hard political battle. The landowning aristocracy fought the Anti-Corn Law League tooth and nail every step of the way. The League used all the tactics that would come to characterize modern political advocacy: mass mailings, the dispatch of speakers to audiences all over the country, lawsuits, and aggressive lobbying of elected officials. Cobden had by now been elected to Parliament and engaged in the debates directly on the floor of the House of Commons. The Whig Party supported repeal, but the Conservative Party staunchly opposed it. Finally, after years of struggle, Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel dropped his opposition to repeal and brought about a third of the Conservative MPs with him. Combined with the Whig MPs, the House of Commons voted on May 15, 1846, to repeal the Corn Laws by a margin of 327 to 229. The cheap grain from the New World and elsewhere flowed into Britain, reducing the plight of the poor and stimulating a sharp increase in British industry, just as Cobden had predicted. More than any other single individual, Richard Cobden was responsible for the repeal of the Corn Laws, thus contributing mightily to the happiness of his country.

(Incidentally, one could easily apply to lessons of the fight over the Corn Laws to modern debates over farm subsidies and other protectionists policies of the United States government. But that's a subject for another blog post.)

Having achieved a great victory on behalf of free trade, Cobden increasingly turned his attention to foreign policy. He denounced the Opium Wars as immoral acts of aggression and spoke out against war hysteria directed first towards France and then towards Russia. In Cobden's mind, war was not only evil in and of itself, in that it led to the useless loss of thousands of lives, but it made nations vastly poorer by forcing them to spend obscene amounts of money on armies and navies. He also saw it as misguided and counterproductive for powerful nations like Britain to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. He began to work for international agreements on reducing military establishments and the various peace congresses that took place in Europe in the 1840s and 1850s.

Cobden had a utopian view, shared by many in his time and ours, that war could be abolished altogether if only a proper system of international cooperation could be put into place. I personally don't believe this and sadly have long ago concluded that, as long as there are humans, there will be war. But I also believe that the vast majority of wars are unnecessary and are fought out of misguided fear among policy-makers in the opposing nations. The vast expenditure involved in building up a national military establishment often becomes, as Cobden saw, a contributing cause of the very wars it is ostensibly intended to protect against. Why build such powerful armies and navies, so this thinking goes, if we aren't planning on using them? The First World War, whose centennial we are in the midst of commemorating, is the prime historical example of this.

What better way to ensure peace between nations, Cobden thought, than to bind them together through trade? To that end, he began work on crafting a free trade treaty with Britain's old enemy, France. Few of the many Anglo-French wars over the centuries had been fought over economic issues, but that wasn't the point. Cobden believed that nations which trade more freely and more extensively are simply less likely to go to war. Even if one can point out some glaring exceptions (in 1939, France's largest trading partner was Germany), the logic of Cobden's argument is so obvious that it's hard to take the oft-repeated arguments against free trade seriously.

With the unofficial blessing of the British government, Cobden went to France and began to lobby Emperor Napoleon III and members of his government to agree to a free trade treaty. In this, he was assisted by Michel Chevalier, a French journalist and politician who shared his enthusiasm for free trade. On both sides of the Channel, Cobden and Chevalier faced fierce opposition from threatened special interests, who controlled newspapers and had many politicians in their pockets. The British government and Napoleon III's ministers made the statesmanlike decision that the economic well-being of their respective nations and the increased likelihood of a permanent peace between them was important enough for them to pay the political price of outraging the protectionists. The agreement, known to history as the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty, was concluded in November of 1860.

With the reduction of tariffs between Britain and France, trade between the two nations sharply increased. Exports of French wine and brandy doubled during the 1860s, while British manufactured goods enjoyed full access to French markets. As is always the case, some segments of the respective economies lost market share to the newly empowered foreign competition, but overall the economies of both countries greatly benefited. The Cobden-Chevalier Treaty has been a model of free trade agreements ever since.

Setting aside all economic arguments, though, I think it's worth pointing out that Britain and France, which had been mortal enemies since the 14th Century and fought wars of a global scale against one another for as long as anyone could remember, have not fired a shot in anger at one another since the conclusion of the treaty. Indeed, since 1860, France and Britain have fought side-by-side repeatedly as allies. The Cobden-Chevalier Treaty was a significant factor in transforming these old enemies into good neighbors and friends.

Cobden died in 1865, having, as his last major public campaign, argued against British support for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Again, he combined common sense with morality, asserting that war with the United States would not benefit Britain and that, in any event, supporting the Confederacy would be akin to supporting slavery. His speeches in the House of Commons played a considerable role in keeping Britain neutral in the American conflict.

The abolition of the Corn Laws and the enactment of the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty were both due primarily to the brilliance and hard work of Richard Cobden. Both of these achievements vastly improved the lives of millions of people and served as examples to policy-makers to come of how the abolition of protectionist policies and the pursuit of free trade can make the world a better place. Cobden was no a national leader, military hero, or religious prophet. He was an intelligent man who simply used common sense to determine the political policy that would be most beneficial and than worked hard to get that policy enacted.

For all this, the whole world is in Richard Cobden's debt.

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