MR. GOOCH’S MOTION FOR A COMMITTEE ON AGRICULTURAL DISTRESS
7 March 1821
Mr. Gooch moved for the appointment of a committee to inquire into the distress of the agricultural interest. He trusted ‘that the gentlemen who usually opposed the agricultural interest—and especially that individual amongst them who was so highly distinguished for his knowledge of political economy (Mr. Ricardo), would permit the committee to see what good they could effect by their deliberations. Trade and agriculture were so interwoven with each other, that they appeared to him as but one interest; and he had always deemed it wicked to consider them as jarring with each other.’ He considered the agricultural interest as the basis of all the others, and therefore he asked the House to give to it ‘that protection which its value to the state demanded.’ Sir E. Knatchbull seconded the motion. Mr. Robinson (President of the Board of Trade) said that although the grounds on which he had objected to a similar motion the year before were applicable to all times, yet as a matter of feeling rather than one of expediency he would now consent to the inquiry. After some further debate,
Mr. Ricardo rose to defend his conduct and opinions, which had been repeatedly attacked in the course of the discussion. When he heard that all the interests of the country were equally consulted, he could not help saying, because he felt it, that the interests of landlords were chiefly considered. He had been represented as a mercantile man, having a particular interest which he consulted. He denied that he was interested either as a mercantile man or as a fundholder. He was a landed proprietor, and his interests were bound up with that of the House. He agreed with the Member for Essex, that high or low price in corn was nothing in itself. But he maintained the principle of a free trade in corn; not altogether a free trade in practice, but the general right should be allowed to every man, and every class of men, to apply their labour and resources in the most profitable way for themselves, which would be also the most profitable for the country. The effects of a free trade would be to get corn at the most advantageous rate. He wanted a countervailing duty to the home grower, to recompence all the additional charges which he had to pay in taxes above the charges borne by the foreign grower; but the protecting duty should not exceed the difference of those charges. The attention of the House had been called to the terrible effects which would be produced upon native agriculture, by allowing a free importation of cheap corn from the Continent. He would endeavour to shew what would be the real effect. The prices of corn would be reduced immediately, and agriculture might be distressed more than at present. But the labour of this country would be immediately applied to the production of other and more profitable commodities, which might be exchanged for cheap foreign corn if the lands were thrown out of cultivation, through too great a reduction of prices to compensate the production of grain at home. He had a great objection to a permanent duty on importations of corn; he still more strongly objected to a graduated duty, to rise in proportion as corn fell, and to fall as corn rose. Suppose the case of a bad crop; the grower would naturally look for the remedy for the loss of quantity in the superior price, from which he would be cut off by the adoption of a graduated protecting price. The Honourable Member for Oxford had asked for the solution of what might be called a riddle, uttered by him (Mr. Ricardo), that the immediate opening of the ports to importations of foreign corn, would be so far from disabling the country to pay the present nominal amount of taxes, that the country would be enabled from that very circumstance to pay a larger nominal amount of taxes. The Hon. Member should immediately have a solution. Suppose the country, instead of the present system of agriculture, could find out one which with far more ease of execution and with much less expense, would produce the same or a greater quantity of corn than was at present grown by the existing system, a great deal of labour would be thrown out of employment in agriculture; but let the House keep their eyes on the effects of the capital which would be liberated. Would not this capital be employed in the production of other commodities? and would all the commodities so produced be an addition of capital and gain to the whole country? Hon. Gentlemen asked how there could be any gain to the country when the price of corn would fall to one-half? His answer was, that the new commodities produced would contain a positive value, besides the value which would exist on the corn. In like manner would free importation of corn lead to a release of capital, which would be employed in producing commodities, bringing so much additional gain; for though the commodities as well as the grain would be at a lower rate of prices, they would contain a value sufficient, from their quantity, not only to remunerate their production, but to pay all the charges required by Government. He agreed with an observation of a Noble Person in another place, that part of the distress was owing to too much corn being produced, and agriculture must lessen its produce so as to suit the demand. He knew that taxation was an evil; but it could not be truly said that the taxation on agriculture prevented corn from remunerating the expense of its production. If the charges for growing or producing any thing were great, the price demanded for the article would correspond. If his hat or any thing else were taxed, he had, as the consumer, to pay an additional price for it; and where taxation went too far, it would diminish the consumption of the commodity so taxed. In other words, taxation tended to reduce the demand for the taxed commodity, but it did not prevent the remuneration of all the expenses of production for so much of the commodity as was in demand. It was wrong to say that corn could not be produced on account of the taxes on agriculture. The Member for Wareham had given a most convincing instance of the truth of this position, by explaining the duty on salt, which he stated to amount to 3,000l. upon the value of every 190l. Three thousand pounds duty were paid on salt, and yet salt yielded a sufficient profit to the producer. He did not mean to say that there was no hardship suffered by the consumer; but this proved that taxation alone did not prevent an adequate remuneration to the corn-grower. It had been said that importation would throw the whole of the lands out of cultivation. But this was assuming that the remunerating price was for every grower the same; whereas, corn was raised in some lands at 40s. and in others at not less than 70s. He had been asked how the cheap corn, when imported, could be paid for? By selling commodities? If that were not practicable, it must be because it would be more advantageous to grow corn than to part with commodities for it. A great deal had been said about the ware-housing system. He had been asked, who would speculate in corn with the prospect of large quantities being let out upon the market at a very diminished price? He would, if he were inclined to speculate, do it in corn. Having the market to himself while corn was under 80s. he would deal, and when it was 79s. without any dread or jealousy of a commodity which was not allowed to enter the market. The Member for Cumberland had put a question to him categorically. Could we grow corn at the same rate as on the Continent?—No; and for that reason he would have it imported: that was precisely the argument he went upon. The Member for Winchelsea, not then in his place, had asked, “Where has the Honourable Member (Mr. Ricardo) been? Has he just descended from some other planet? Does he know that a great deal of capital is engaged in agriculture, which would be then (in case of a free trade) thrown out of that employment?” This was considering the means without reference to the end sought. The end proposed in the employment of all capital was to obtain abundant production. He would say that if he could get corn so much cheaper than it could be grown, he deemed the capital employed in growing corn, to the exclusion of corn more cheaply to be acquired, a nuisance. Better such capital were altogether annihilated. But it would not be annihilated. The greater part of it would be turned into profitable channels. Something had been said about the national debt, and he had been represented as holding the landed property pledged to the payment of the debt. In his opinion not only landed, but funded, and every other kind of property, was pledged to the payment. It was unfair to leave the whole expense of the war on the shoulders of some of their fellow-citizens. After some further arguments to shew the advantages of a free trade, and after expressing his hopes that the country would recover from the unnatural depression under which it laboured, he stated that he had some fears lest the Committee, when appointed, should attempt to raise the protecting prices, from a vague hope of deriving relief there from for the present difficulties of agriculture. He concluded by saying, that he had a great objection to a permanent duty, but he had still greater to a graduated one. He hoped that if any were adopted, it would be the lowest countervailing duty which could be calculated to repay the additional charges of taxation suffered by the home-grower.
The motion was agreed to, and the committee was appointed. Among the members were: Mr. Gooch (Chairman), Lord Castle-reagh, Mr. F. Robinson, Mr. Huskisson, Mr. Brougham, Mr. Wodehouse, Mr. Baring, Sir E. Knatchbull, Mr. H. Sumner, Mr. Western, Mr. S. Wortley, Lord Althorp, Sir H. Parnell, Mr. Sturges Bourne.
Mr. Dickinson moved, that Mr. Ricardo should be added to the committee.
Mr. Gooch had no objection.
Mr. Ricardo, Mr. Curwen, and Mr. Denis Browne, were added to the committee.
[The following is Hansard’s report. Cp. above, p. 81, footnote.]
Mr. Ricardo disclaimed any intention of imputing unworthy motives to any of the various parties whose interests were concerned in the question; but he would say, as he had said before, that the interest of the landholders must necessarily be opposed to that of the consumers in the present case. Some hon. gentlemen had been pleased to address him as a mercantile man, as if he had a particular interest to serve. He would answer, that he was not a mercantile man—that he was not a man of funded property, but that he was a landed proprietor, and, as such, had the same interest in the question with many of those who had opposed him. He did not look to the interest of any one party in the state, but to that of the whole country. He agreed in one opinion which had fallen from the hon. member for Essex, that it was not the money price of corn they were discussing, but the labour price; and it was on that very ground that he contended for the policy of a free trade. And what did a free trade mean?—that they should devote the capital which they possessed to the more extensive production of any commodity; corn, for instance. It would result, that the greater the capital which they could so devote, the more of the article would they be able to procure. While he said this, he begged that he might not be understood as advocating an unlimited free trade in corn; for there were circumstances attending that question which rendered it imperative upon the legislature to impose some shackles upon a trade, which, more than any other, being once without restraint, speedily required them. And this led him to consider what had been urged by many gentlemen upon the subject of countervailing duties. If the agriculturists would show that they had any particular taxes to cope with, which other producers had not, then, undoubtedly, they ought to have a countervailing duty to that amount: and not only so, but there ought to be a drawback allowed upon exportation to that amount. The great principle upon which they should go was this—to make the price of their corn approximate, as nearly as possible, to the price it bore in other countries. He was more sanguine, undoubtedly, than many; but he was not such an enthusiast as to suppose that, under present circumstances, they could reach at one step this great and true principle of all corn trade. Much had been said, affirming and denying the direct interest of landholders in monopolizing the market. He would say, without hesitation, that gentlemen of landed property had an interest in getting the monopoly of the market for their own corn. In the mode in which they had gone about it, however, they had not been very dexterous or successful. The hon. member for Cumberland [Mr. Curwen] had said, with great propriety and truth, that for many years past a glut of corn had always come into the country whenever the price had risen above 80s. This fact confirmed the objections which had been raised to protecting duties upon that commodity. Although a duty on the importation of corn would not be so wise a measure as the approach to that system which he had suggested as constituting the true principle of a corn trade; yet he did think that a permanent duty upon importation would be a much wiser measure than that which had been proposed and advocated. Let them rather have a certain moderate duty which should have a tendency to produce a price of corn that should not be very variable. The last desideratum was of the very highest importance, as much of the evil arose from the fluctuation of prices. The system which had been proposed by the hon. member for Bridgenorth [Mr. Whitmore], of duties that should rise as the price of corn fell, and fall as the price of corn rose, he could not consider a very wise one. What would be the situation of the grower, if such a system were put in practice? Supposing he had to contend with the deficiencies of a short crop in one season, he naturally expected to make up for them in the next season. But the adoption of these duties would leave him no such remedy for his misfortunes. The hon. member for Oxford had the other evening appeared surprised at one or two positions which he had ventured to advance. The hon. gentleman had called upon him to solve this riddle, as he called it, namely, “if you open your ports, and import the immense quantities of corn which then will inundate the country, how can it be said the country will be better able to sustain a money taxation? —so far from it, the means she now possesses, now applicable to that purpose, will be withdrawn from her.” But it was not difficult to give the required solution. Suppose the case of a country which was cultivating its own lands, and received no supply from abroad;—a country that had a much better mode and practice of agriculture than others; and which, in consequence of that circumstance, could, with less trouble and expense than they could do, grow all that was necessary for her purpose. It was clear that, under such circumstances, the price of corn would be much lowered there. But, let gentlemen keep their eyes upon the capital that would be thus liberated from the land. Would that be idle? Would that be employed in no way? Would it not be employed for the purchase and obtaining of other commodities? Would not those commodities be of value in the country, and by their value afford to pay that additional taxation which he had alluded to, in the position that had so much startled the hon. member for Oxford? “But,” said that hon. gentleman again, “do you mean to say, that if the price of corn be lessened one half, the country can afford to pay the same money taxation?” He answered confidently, “Yes,” these commodities of which he had spoken would enable her to pay it. An opinion had been given in another place, which he thought had been treated with too much levity. It did appear to him, that that opinion was well founded; for he also was one who thought that the low price of corn, under which we were at present labouring, was occasioned by too great a supply. He did not think it to be the consequence of taxation. Whether that abundance was the effect of too great an importation, or arose from a diminution of the demand, still the depression was in every case, if the price did not repay the producer, to be attributed to no other cause but the too great supply. Taxation, undoubtedly, was a very great evil; no man was more ready to deprecate the present system and extent of the taxation than he was; but how did it operate? Take the commonest article of trade; a hat, for instance. If the hat were taxed, the price of the hat rose of course. Enemy as he was to all taxation, he must say that it was not to taxation only that he attributed the distresses of the farmer; and they who did so, attributed the evil, he thought, to a wrong cause. The hon. member for Ware-ham had said a great deal, to show that those distresses were principally to be imputed to the heavy duties upon salt. Every person who used salt was injured to a certain degree by that tax: no doubt it was a very grievous burthen, but it was certainly not an adequate reason to be assigned for the present distressed state of agriculture. It had been said that such large quantities of corn had been imported, and at so low a rate, that all the poor lands would go out of cultivation. This he took to be a fallacy: and to proceed from hon. members erroneously supposing that all corn was grown at the same remunerating price. But nothing was more clear than that price was as 30s. in some instances, and 40s., 50s., 60s., and 70s. in others. The hon. member for Essex had told the House what small quantities of corn, after all, had been imported within the last ten or twelve years, from foreign countries. Another hon. gentleman, however, was for prohibiting the importation of foreign corn altogether, and asked them how they were to pay for it? Why, as for that matter, they ought not to contract the debt, if they could not pay for it; and if the fact was that they could not pay for foreign corn, that was pretty good security, he should conceive, that they would grow it themselves. Then there was the warehousing system. It had been said, “who will speculate in corn, when he knows what a tremendous quantity of it is hanging over him?” He would for one; for, if he had bought his corn at 79s., and it was now selling for 70s. he would keep it on hand; and take care not to sell it till it had got above 79s. Then if it rose only to 80s., he evidently had the market in his own hands. The hon. member for Cumberland had asked, “Can we grow corn in England on the same terms as the foreign grower.” To this he would answer “No:” and for that very reason he would import it. But, what was the proposed end of all capital, if it was not this—that the possessor should procure a great abundance of produce with it? Now if he could prove that by getting rid of all that capital which is employed in land, he could make more profitable use of it, then he contended, that that was in effect so much capital gained by him. But here again an erroneous idea prevailed. The House was told of the capital which was employed in land, and told in a manner as if it was absolutely and entirely vested in it. Let them just consider, however, the wages of labour, the price of improvements, the charges of manure, and they would find that the total cost of all these items would be a capital saved. The hon. member for Kent [Sir E. Knatchbull] had spoken in a very disparaging manner of thrashing machines. Now, in his opinion, every thing which tended to lessen human labour was an advantage to mankind. Something also had been said on the subject of the national debt. He had no particular individual interest in it, because he derived no revenue from it; but he would say, that the landed interest, the agricultural interest, the trading and every other public interest, were pledged to the public debt. What could be more dishonourable than for a state to carry on the expenses of war by the money advanced upon her good credit by her own subjects, and then to turn round upon those from whom she had borrowed it, and say—“We are insolvent, and we will not pay you.” It was totally unworthy of an enlightened and honourable assembly to entertain a proposition so monstrous. The hon. member for Cumberland appeared to entertain a very strange idea of the nature of countervailing duties. He had said, that the countervailing duties should amount to all the difference between the price for which the foreigner could grow corn, and that for which we could afford to grow it. But the fact was by no means so. The House might remember the large capital employed in France during the continental system of exclusion, in obtaining a species of sugar from beet. Now, the question was, when that exclusion was abolished, and sugars could be imported, what were they to do with the capital employed in the beet process? The hon. member, on his proposition, would have required a countervailing duty to the amount of the difference between the price at which sugar could be so imported, and that at which it could be extracted from beet. Another argument was, that rent and capital would be annihilated if the land was thrown out of cultivation. He did not mean to deny that the House ought to deal tenderly with all the interests concerned; but though opening the ports would throw a good many labourers out of employment in land, it would open other sources of labour. The hon. member for Bridgenorth [Mr. Whitmore] had taken an unfavourable view of the state of the country. For his own part, he had better hopes. He could not help feeling that the difficulties of the country were nearly at an end, and that the present unnatural state of depression must soon cease to be felt. He thought we were now reviving; and nothing could so much contribute to that revival as the relief of the people from taxation by every possible means. He had great apprehension from the appointment of this committee, because he feared that it would look for relief to restrictions upon importation. If restrictions were to be imposed, he would rather have a fixed duty than a graduated one, as being most likely to produce permanent benefit to the country.