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Peace and Free Trade

I learned a great deal this past weekend about Richard Cobden (1804-1865) – one of history’s most tireless, principled, and successful champions of complete and unconditional free trade.

The Liberty Fund colloquium was held in Free Trade Hall, in Manchester, England. This hall was built with the proceeds that the Anti-Corn-Law League had remaining after its success in persuading Parliament in 1846 to repeal tariffs on imported grains. (It’s worth noting that this success owed much to the League’s strategy to disseminate widely, throughout the British population, information and arguments on the evils of protectionism and the benefits of free trade.)

Appropriately enough, Free Trade Hall is now a hotel operated by Radisson, a U.S. company with hotels around the world.

Richard Cobden’s chief principles were these:

– absolute hatred of any privilege unearned by merit;

– loathing of war and martial virtues; although not quite a pacifist, Cobden came close to holding that position;

– deep antagonism toward Imperialism;

– a enthusiasm and affection for commercial culture, not so much because of the material abundance that such culture brings, but because of the fact that commerce dissolves irrational hatreds and suspicions that people otherwise too often harbor for each other;

– an enthusiasm for universal, free, state-supported education.

Cobden fits almost none of the stereotypes that today’s “anti-globalist” crusaders have of free-trade’s advocates. Indeed, on most counts he’s quite the opposite.

Here’s just one typical quotation from Cobden. It’s from a speech he gave in London in 1843:

Free Trade! What is it? Why, breaking down the barriers that separate nations; those barriers, behind which nestle the feelings of pride, revenge, hatred, and jealousy, which every now and then burst their bounds, and deluge whole countries with blood; those feelings which nourish the poison of war and conquest, which assert that without conquest we can have no trade, which foster that lust for conquest and dominion which sends forth your warrior chiefs to scatter devastation through other lands, and then calls them back that they may be enthroned securely in your passions, but only to harass and oppress you at home.

Cobden was a wise man (even though he didn’t foresee the problems with government-supplied education). He was a great man – a man worthy of our attention today.


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