TIMBER DUTIES15 April 1821 - David Ricardo, The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, Vol. 5 Speeches and Evidence 
The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. Piero Sraffa with the Collaboration of M.H. Dobb (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 5 Speeches and Evidence 1815-1823.
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First published by Cambridge University Press in 1951. Copyright 1951, 1952, 1955, 1973 by the Royal Economic Society. This edition of The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo is published by Liberty Fund, Inc., under license from the Royal Economic Society.
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5 April 1821
Mr. Wallace, the Vice-President of the Board of Trade, moved a resolution for reducing the duty on timber from the Baltic and increasing that on timber from the British colonies of North America, thus diminishing the protection of the latter. Sir H. Parnell moved an amendment to equalize all duties at the end of five years. Mr. Sykes, opposing the amendment, pointed out that ‘the American timber trade was carried on by British shipping, but three-fourths of the Norway timber trade was carried on by foreign ships’. Mr. Baring remarked that ‘the general principle of political economy which ought to regulate the conduct of a great country ... would lead us to purchase an article wherever it could be had of the best quality and at the cheapest price’. But in this particular case ‘some sacrifice of the several interests of the public to those of the ship-owners was necessary’.
Mr. Ricardo said, he was anxious to deliver his opinion on the present proposition, as it involved a principle of infinitely greater importance than the question immediately under consideration. They had been told that they ought to go to the best, and cheapest market, and also that the timber of Norway and Russia was better and cheaper than that of America; and yet they were recommended as a practical measure, to take the worst timber at the dearest rate! His hon. friend (Mr. Bennet), in a speech full of the soundest argument, and as yet totally unanswered by the gentlemen opposite, had shown, in the most convincing manner, that by buying our timber from the northern powers of Europe, we should save 400,000l. annually on the purchase of that article, and consequently that we were yearly incurring a debt to that amount, in order to put this money into the pockets of the ship-owners. If a bill were introduced for the specific and avowed purpose of granting a sum to that amount to the ship-owners, he would much rather agree to it than to the resolutions now before the committee, for in that case the capital thus given to them might be more usefully employed. At present it was a total sacrifice of 400,000l. a year, as much so as if the ships engaged in the coasting trade should be obliged to sail round the island in order to give employment to a greater number. He was of opinion that, according to the true principles of commerce, it ought to form no part of the consumer’s consideration to enter into the distribution by the seller, of the money or labour which he (the consumer) exchanged for any commodity which he wanted. All the consumer had to consider was, where he could get the article he wanted cheapest; whether the payments were to be made in money or in manufactures was matter quite of minor importance. In this, as in all other branches of commercial policy, it was useless to urge partial views in behalf of one set of men or another. That House ought not to look to the right or the left, but consider merely how the people of England, as a body, could best employ their capital and labour. Wrong notions of commercial policy had too long prevailed; and now that the country had begun to recognize sounder principles, the sooner they acted upon them the better. There were exceptions to be made in cases of very old established arrangements; but this American trade was not one of them; was of new date, and mainly sprung out of a quarrel between England and the Baltic powers : it was then said that the latter would withhold their timber, and that the colonial trade must necessarily be encouraged in Canada. What once occurred, might again happen it was said. Well, then, his reply was—if ever it should happen, it would be time enough to pay the high price: at present let more economical arrangements be attempted. It was strange that inconsistency always marked the progress of monopolists. One set of men now called out for this colonial trade in behalf of the shipping interest, and the very same set of men, if they were spoken to about the West India Dock system, would call it partial and oppressive. So, respecting the Irish linen monopoly, it was said, why not be allowed to go to Germany, where the same manufacture might be had cheaper? He certainly concurred in the hon. baronet’s view of this question.
Sir Henry Parnell’s amendment was lost by 15 votes to 54. Ricardo voted for the amendment.
[See further p. 110 below.]