Macaulay on Free Trade

by Don Boudreaux on September 3, 2006

in History, Trade, Wal-Mart

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) was a great champion of free markets and free trade.  He is the author of my favorite essay of all time: "Southey’s Colloquies on Society."  Although written in 1830, this stunningly insightful essay’s lessons remain relevant today.

In another essay ("Corn Laws") — this one a speech delivered in Edinburgh in December 1845 as debate raged throughout Great Britain on whether or not to free that country’s citizens of the tariffs that burdened their purchases of grain — Macaulay spoke forcefully for free trade:

Two parties are ranged in battle array against each other.  There is the standard of monopoly.  Here is the standard of free trade; and by the standard of free trade I pledge myself to stand firmly.

(Here’s a link to a site containing this essay; you have to scroll down about two-thirds of the way to find the essay.)

One of the most interesting passages from this essay is the one I paste below; it’s almost as if Macaulay had seen ahead 154 years to the ignoramuses and greedy interest groups who coalesced in Seattle in December 1999 to riot against free trade.

They [the opponents of free trade] constantly tell us that the cry against the corn laws [protectionist tariffs that the British government put on grain in order artificially to increase the wealth of British landowners]
has been raised by capitalists; that the capitalist wishes to enrich himself at
the expense both of the landed gentry and of the working people; that every
reduction of the price of food must be followed by a reduction of the wages of
labour; and that, if bread should cost only half what it now costs, the peasant
and the artisan would be sunk in wretchedness and degradation, and the only
gainers would be the millowners and the money changers. It is not only by
landowners, it is not only by Tories, that this nonsense has been talked. We
have heard it from men of a very different class, from demagogues who wish to
keep up the corn laws, merely in order that the corn laws may make the people
miserable, and that misery may make the people turbulent. You know how
assiduously those enemies of all order and all property have laboured to
deceive the working man into a belief that cheap bread would be a curse to him.
Nor have they always laboured in vain. You remember that once, even in this
great and enlightened city, a public meeting called to consider the corn laws
was disturbed by a deluded populace. Now, for my own part, whenever I hear
bigots who are opposed to all reform, and anarchists who are bent on universal
destruction, join in the same cry, I feel certain that it is an absurd and
mischievous cry; and surely never was there a cry so absurd and mischievous as
this cry against cheap loaves 
[emphasis added].

Change "cheap loaves" to "cheap goods and services," and Macaulay’s argument applies in full against both those who disparage the right of consumers freely to purchase imports and those who today hyperventilate in anger against Wal-Mart.

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thebizofknowledge September 3, 2006 at 10:15 pm

I found your comments on Thomas Macauley and his ideas on free trade very interesting in that he seemed almost to be looking into a mirror of the future. Thank you for an insightful article.

Larry Knerr September 3, 2006 at 11:55 pm

Yes indeed.

"We have said that we do not very well know what Mr. Southey's opinion about toleration is. But, on the whole, we take it to be this, that everybody is to tolerate him, and that he is to tolerate nobody."

Larry Knerr September 3, 2006 at 11:58 pm

For anyone who's gotten to the comments without clicking the link: RTWT.

"The first twenty years of the sixteenth century would have exactly suited him. They furnished just the quantity of intellectual excitement which he requires. The learned few read and wrote largely. A scholar was held in high estimation. But the rabble did not presume to think; and even the most inquiring and independent of the educated classes paid more reverence to authority, and less to reason, than is usual in our time. This is a state of things in which Mr. Southey would have found himself quite comfortable; and, accordingly, he pronounces it the happiest state of things ever known in the world."

Jesrad September 4, 2006 at 5:12 am

As an anarchist, I resent being described as "bent on universal destruction" when all I want is that universal rights be respected everywhere and state disbanded.

But then, I don't feel at all connected to deludites who prefer living with half as much everything (including freedoms) as long as whoever has more of it than themselves will have three times less. Men are only truly equal when they're digested wormfood.

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