Issues & Insights

Richard Cobden And The Moral Superiority Of Free Trade

Statue of Richard Cobden. Photo: Lonpicma, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en).

June 3 marks the 1804 birth of Richard Cobden, “The Apostle of Peace,” who recognized free trade as the key to creating material prosperity. But far more, he emphasized the moral superiority of free trade, which only required liberty, over protectionism, which is both coercive and harmful to society. Further, markets’ voluntary arrangements created the basis of peace rather than war.

Cobden earned his nickname spearheading the 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.” In fact, some have said free markets owe Cobden their existence, because the 1846 Corn Law repeal triggered liberalized trade through much of Europe. Jim Powell described the powerful results:

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 not just Cobden’s influence, but his goals of liberty and peace, on his birthday:

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.

If you attempt by legislation to give any direction to trade or industry, it is a thousand to one that you are doing wrong.

Make…industry free…giving the whole world every advantage of clime, and latitude, and situation, relying ourselves on the freedom of our industry…“Doing to all men as ye would they should do unto you.”

Justice …[includes] the inalienable right of every man freely to exchange the result of his labor for the productions of other people.

Protecting one part of the community at the expense of all other classes [is] unsound and unjustifiable.

Free trade…recognizes the paramount importance of individual action.

Carry out…the true and peaceful principles of Free Trade, by removing all existing obstacles to the unrestricted employment of industry and capital.

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.

People…must be brought into mutual dependence by the supply of each others’ wants…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…uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace…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. It produced justice by preventing government-sponsored robbery. It broke down privilege and barriers hindering economic progress, replacing them with mutually beneficial relations. In a world far from that Cobden’s ideal, we should remember his wisdom that “the emancipation of commerce” increases liberty, progress and peace.

As Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman said honoring Cobden’s 100th birthday:

“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…and obstructions to liberty and good government at home.”

Gary M. Galles is professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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