Front Page Titles (by Subject) BOOK X: MÉLINE'S CONFESSION - The Comedy of Protection
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BOOK X: MÉLINE’S CONFESSION - Yves Guyot, The Comedy of Protection 
The Comedy of Protection, trans. M.A. Hamilton (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1906).
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CONCEPTION—DRAMATISING BY M. MÉLINE
In the summer of 1905 a book appeared called “Back to the Land, and Industrial Over-production,” by M. Jules Méline; in it, assuming Colbertism to be a new invention, he indulges in some very astonishing statements of a pseudo-historical sort, to the effect that the United States, by suddenly renouncing their former policy of free imports, closed what had been a huge market for European goods, while their exports to Europe continued to increase; and worse than that, having lost America, we are now threatened from Asia: the Yellow Peril is decked out in all its horrible unreality. Indeed, M. Méline’s interpretation of the “civilising mission” of Europe in general and France in particular seems to consist in the suppression or holding back of all less civilised nations, and more especially of the Asiatic races. M. Méline is a melodramatist: that is why he is so successful in France. Regardless of realities he plays upon the people’s appetite for terror, hatred, and fear: he weeps tears over those two poor orphans, national industry and national agriculture, and works himself into a fury of denunciation of the traitors who plot against them, first England, then America, and then Japan.
After this imaginative exercise he expounds his “new idea.” Charity, he says, begins at home, and every nation ought to be self-sufficing. This does not seem very new, but the new idea is as old as the hills: it is only the Balance of Commerce—the Protection which consists in building tariff walls to prevent foreign goods from coming into the country and to allow the home producer to sell things dear which could have been bought cheap abroad. Encouraged by high profits, they produce more than they can sell, and have to get rid of their surplus abroad, where Protection cannot follow them, and where the poor quality of artificially produced goods puts them at a disadvantage in competition. Protection organises crises and leads to that over-production which M. Méline bewails. Real over-production cannot exist; what is meant by the word is that more things of a particular sort are produced than people have money or desire to buy: and Protection, by destroying the division of labour which assigns to different nations the production of different goods, leads directly to over-production of this sort. The market for any commodity depends on three factors—intensity of demand, absence of equivalent substitutes, and abundance of exchangeable articles. Méline and the other followers of Colbert, neglecting the economic law, bend all their energies to the diminution of demand, the multiplication of equivalent substitutes, and the reduction of articles of exchange. Instead of reducing the tariffs which have provoked over-production, he proposes to limit it by Cartels, which are the outcome of Protection: an enthusiastic admirer of the 290 German Cartels, he longs to see them reproduced in France. After getting rid of foreign competition he would like to get rid of competition at home. It is logical enough, but not progress. Méline speaks with horror of crises, the same horror with which he speaks of over-production; but the protective policy of which he is the exponent leads directly to both.
His remedy for all the evils that he sees is not the abandonment of the system which causes them, but something much more idyllic. “Back to the Land,” that is it. He is full of admiration for the scheme of Van der Velde, the Belgian Socialist, of removing factories into the country. M. Méline is not good at producing evidence for his views: he cites two English factories, one of soap and the other of chocolate, which have been set down in the country. He did not need to go so far: three-quarters of a century ago Menier planted in a country district of France the largest chocolate factory in the world. This is all very well, but all industries cannot be ruralised. People talk about the marvellous results of the employment of “white coal,” but they forget these industrial enterprises have to be in reach of their raw materials, of an abundant supply of skilled labour, and of consumers. M. Méline’s lively imagination pictures the workman returning from the factory to work in his garden with his children; but if he would go and see the mining villages in the country he would see that to have a garden and to be a gardener is not the same thing. The tired miner is little attracted by the charms of horticulture. And to put down factories in the country would not mean that the miner returned to the land, but that the agricultural labourer left it to go to the mine. There is not much good in suggesting a return to the land to the people in the clothing trades, who suffer from the Protection given to the textile industries: agricultural labour, like every other sort, requires exertion and a certain training and physique which do not come all at once. This is a fact which Robert Owen and M. Méline alike overlook. Méline declares that agriculture has been ruined by taxes: it has been long ago demonstrated that there are no specific taxes on agriculture, and his further statement that all taxes fall upon landed property, and not on income, has also been refuted by Mr. Neymarck.
His own ideal is to fasten the labourer to the land. He declares that peasant proprietors are diminishing, though statistics prove that such is not the case. There were 2,150,000 in 1882, and 2,199,000 in 1892. Peasant proprietorship is the ideal of all reformers who believe that the well-being of a nation consists in a state of somnolence. Peasant proprietors are a good sort of people, easily governed, very respectful to authority; but as a matter of fact neither they nor the great landowners are the real representatives of agriculture; it is in the hands of the farmers. The farmer is not an owner: he has to spend all his capital on his implements, his cattle, and his expenses: most farmers, finding it easy to rent land, take more than they can really cultivate, and go in for extensive rather than intensive cultivation. In spite of agrarian alarmists the number of farmers has not diminished: there were 968,000 in 1882, 1,061,000 in 1892.
Méline confuses living in the country with agriculture: agricultural life is not an idyll or a bucolic: its aim, like that of every other industry, is profit, and by profit everything relating to it must be judged.
Neither Méline nor Chamberlain will draw people away from the towns by praising the charms of the country: when such a return does take place it will mean the decay of the nation. A nation’s progress has always been measured by the importance of its towns.
One way of depopulating the towns, indeed, has been discovered by Méline and the other followers of Colbert. Méline himself has expressed it: “In the great towns where people live crowded together and workers require a very high standard of diet, their food very often leaves much to be desired.” They certainly return to the soil of the cemetery. Who are responsible for the ravages of tuberculosis and anæmia but those agrarians who have taxed bread and meat for the profit of the capitalist landowners?
M. Méline’s strength lies in “going blindly ahead.” But when the great majority sees how it has been deceived and duped; when it realises that only 5 per cent. of the population stands to gain by Protection, by imposing a private tax on 95 per cent. of their countrymen, then M. Méline will have to cease his palinodes on the “triumph of Protection.” The attempt to abolish foreign competition has led to over-production: we are told that agriculture is ruined, and therefore the workmen and capitalists who have been ruined by over-production are to go “back to the land.” It is Colbert’s system, and two centuries and a half of experience have condemned it.