Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on September 25, 2011

in Civil Society, Complexity & Emergence, Cooperation, Trade, War

… is from a January 1846 (O blessed year!) speech by the great champion of free trade Richard Cobden of the Anti-Corn Law League (HT David Hart):

But I have been accused of looking too much to material interests. Nevertheless I can say that I have taken as large and great a view of the effects of this mighty principle as ever did any man who dreamt over it in his own study. I believe that the physical gain will be the smallest gain to humanity from the success of this principle. I look farther; I see in the Free-trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe,—drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace. I have looked even farther. I have speculated, and probably dreamt, in the dim future—ay, a thousand years hence—I have speculated on what the effect of the triumph of this principle may be. I believe that the effect will be to change the face of the world, so as to introduce a system of government entirely distinct from that which now prevails. I believe that the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires; for gigantic armies and great navies—for those materials which are used for the destruction of life and the desolation of the rewards of labour—will die away; I believe that such things will cease to be necessary, or to be used, when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother man. I believe that, if we could be allowed to reappear on this sublunary scene, we should see, at a far distant period, the governing system of this world revert to something like the municipal system; and I believe that 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 which we have met here to advocate. I believe these things: but, whatever may have been my dreams and speculations, I have never obtruded them upon others. I have never acted upon personal or interested motives in this question; I seek no alliance with parties or favour from parties, and I will take none—but, having the feeling I have of the sacredness of the principle, I say that I can never agree to tamper with it. I, at least, will never be suspected of doing otherwise than pursuing it disinterestedly, honestly, and resolutely.

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{ 8 comments }

W.E.Heasley September 25, 2011 at 8:18 am

“Even if the economic forces are not predominant enough in human behavior to allow predictions to be made, the formal theory remains of some value in explaining one aspect of that behavior and in allowing the theorist to develop hypotheses that may be subjected to conceptual, if not actual, testing. Reduced to its barest essentials, the economic assumption is simply that the representative or the average individual, when confronted with real choice in exchange, will choose “more” rather than “less.” The only important question concerns the strength of this acknowledged force. An equally logical theory could be constructed from the opposite assumption that the average individual will choose “less” rather than “more.” However, to our knowledge, no one has proposed such a theory as being even remotely descriptive of reality”. – James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, 1958

JS September 25, 2011 at 9:30 am

‘The only important question concerns the strength of this acknowledged force.”

Every action is the maximization of one’s capacity to experience pleasure or to remove feelings of displeasure. Social theorists can do much with this, but the tendency is to over reach. They err by thinking their scientists.

I think Buchanan and Tullock stayed in bounds.

HaywoodU September 25, 2011 at 11:35 am

That’s powerful stuff.

SheetWise September 25, 2011 at 1:51 pm

“I believe that, if we could be allowed to reappear on this sublunary scene, we should see, at a far distant period, the governing system of this world revert to something like the municipal system …”

This can only happen if the ideas and misguided plans of local people and their governments have the right to fail. As long as the federal government props up the losers with the wealth of the winners — and mandates that misguided plans are applied universally — there’s not a chance we’ll see what it can accomplish. The principle Cobden is calling sacred, our own president is calling corrupt and selfish.

Hank Mencken September 25, 2011 at 9:59 pm

During the Spring of 1846, Bastiat and friends who had organized around him wrote this Declaration:

Declaration of War against the Professors of Political Economy

We know how bitterly the men who restrict the trade of others for their own advantage complain that political economists obstinately refuses to sing the praises of these restrictions. If unable to suppress these professors, they at least seek the dismissal of those who profess this heresy through an Inquisition of sorts where they attempt to win an argument by shutting their dissenters mouths.

Hence, we were not all surprised to learn that, on the occasion of the draft of a law for the organization of the university faculties, they addressed a very lengthy memorandum to the Minister of Public Education, from which we reproduce a few extracts.

Do you realize what you are doing, sir? You want to introduce the teaching of political economy into the university curriculum! But then it is a foregone conclusion that our privileges are to be brought into disrepute!

If any maxim is venerable, it is certainly this: In all countries education must be in harmony with the system of government. Do you think that at Sparta or Rome the public treasury would have paid professors to declaim against the loot taken in war or against slavery? And in France you would permit them to discredit restrictions on trade!

Do you know how political economy has been defined? The science that teaches workers to keep what belongs to them. Obviously a good fourth of the human race would be lost if this fatal science were to be widely propagated.

Nature, sir, has willed that nations can exist only by the products of their labor, and at the same time it has made labor painful. That is why we observe among men in all ages and in all countries an incurable disposition to plunder one another. It is best and most agreeable to place the burden of pain on one’s neighbor and to keep the remuneration for oneself!

JS September 26, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Middle initial “L”?

kyle8 September 26, 2011 at 6:45 pm

there you have it, the MORAL argument for freedom and free markets, on the macro level, not just the individual level.

SheetWise September 26, 2011 at 10:53 pm

How could an argument that distinguished between the two be moral?

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