Front Page Titles (by Subject) 295.: TORRENS'S LETTER TO SIR ROBERT PEEL SPECTATOR, 28 JAN., 1843, PP. 85-6 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
Return to Title Page for The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
295.: TORRENS’S LETTER TO SIR ROBERT PEEL SPECTATOR, 28 JAN., 1843, PP. 85-6 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The online edition of the Collected Works is published under licence from the copyright holder, The University of Toronto Press. ©2006 The University of Toronto Press. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of The University of Toronto Press.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
TORRENS’S LETTER TO SIR ROBERT PEEL
Mill’s comment on the economic and social life of Britain continues in this notice of Robert Torrens’s A Letter to the Right Honourable Robert Peel, Bart., M.P. &c. &c. on the Condition of England, and on the Means of Removing the Causes of Distress (London: Smith Elder, 1843). The review, in the Spectator’s “Library” section, is headed as title. It is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A review of Col. Torrens’ Letter to Sir Robert Peel ‘on the Condition of the country’ in the Spectator of 28th January 1843”
(MacMinn, p. 55).
colonel torrens has done good service both to political science and to the exigencies of the moment by this pamphlet. It is long since temporary events have given birth to a publication more full of matter for permanent thought. It takes a comprehensive and far-sighted view of the circumstances on which the industrial prosperity of Britain and the condition of all classes of our population will ultimately depend: and although the author, as is not unusual with him, seems to us to overstate the importance and urgency of a portion of his doctrines in their application to the immediate circumstances of the country, this exaggeration is venial if it tends to fix the earlier attention of statesmen upon perils which every day brings nearer, and upon precautions which cannot without imminent mischief be much longer neglected.
From the time when the mechanical inventions of the era of Watt and Arkwright1 made England the principal manufacturing nation of the globe, an ever larger and at length a preponderant part of her population have gained their subsistence by the production of manufactured articles for foreign markets. The condition of this great and growing mass of human beings has, during the whole period, been on the average considerably superior, as to the quantity of the produce of labour which they could command, to the condition of the corresponding classes in other countries: but it has been subject to great vicissitudes, and chequered by occasional intervals of severe distress. We are now in one of the severest of these; one which has already surpassed the usual duration of such periods, and, long after most people expected it to terminate, shows no signs of termination. Is this, then, a passing crisis like the rest, or the indication of a permanent change? Is the sun of our manufacturing superiority momentarily eclipsed, or is it sinking below the horizon?
Colonel Torrens is of the latter opinion. He deems the time to be approaching when England will be unable to continue manufacturing for foreign markets, unless by submitting to a fall of the wages of our artisans, down to, or even below, the foreign level. Our peculiar position, as a people selling our goods in foreign markets and yet making greater gains than our foreign competitors, depends, in his view, upon circumstances essentially temporary. It depends upon our being able to produce manufactured goods with a smaller quantity of labour than other countries. This is owing to “mechanical inventions, manual dexterity, and productive coal-mines.” [P. 10.] To whatever extent these advantages enable us to produce the same quantity of manufactured goods with fewer hands than our neighbours, to the same extent those hands may be better paid. But if these advantages ceased, we could not continue to sell in the same markets with foreigners and yet pay higher wages than they. And if the power of cheaper production were not only lost by us but transferred to foreigners, (by reason, for instance, of their easier access to the raw material,) we could only maintain a competition with them by a fall of wages even below their level.
Now, our advantages in cost of production during the war,2 when we had the full benefit of the inventions of Watt and Arkwright while other nations had not yet acquired them, were immense: but since the peace, all other nations have been rapidly making up their lee-way. American labour, even as applied to manufactures, is as efficient as our own; that of the principal Continental nations is rapidly approaching to ours. They now obtain all mechanical inventions almost as early as ourselves; and the skill of their operatives cannot long continue inferior. It is in cheapness of coal only, and that to a very moderate extent, that we can hope to retain any superiority; amply compensated, in the case of several of our competitors, by their cheaper command over the raw materials of our manufactures. We cannot, therefore, expect much longer to retain the greater part of our foreign trade, and at the same time uphold a rate of money-wages exceeding that of the Continent.
The same conclusions may be deduced still more directly from the most universal truths of political economy. A nation cannot maintain higher wages than other countries, except in the proportion in which the general productiveness of her industry is superior. For if she could, those higher wages must be at the expense of profits. But profits cannot, in the present state of civilization, be depressed in any country much below the general level of the commercial world, since otherwise capital would emigrate, and restore the balance. Wages, therefore, in England, must cease to be higher than on the Continent, when the productiveness of English ceases to surpass that of Continental labour.
These are the abstract doctrines of our author; which, as abstract doctrines, we cannot gainsay; but as truths applicable to the present circumstances of England, they do not appear to us of very serious moment. Doubtless, the industrial progress of foreign nations does and must progressively diminish the inferiority in the productiveness of their labour as compared with ours. But there is still a large margin, on which it will take them many years, if not generations, seriously to encroach. Our advantages are stated by Colonel Torrens to be, besides cheap coal, “mechanical inventions” and “manual dexterity.” We should rather say, not the mere dexterity, but the efficiency in all respects, moral and physical, of British labourers. This is not the mere effect of practice and training; it is a feature of national character. An Englishman is a more hard-working animal than a Frenchman or a German: he throws more of his energy, more (we may say) of his life, into his work. Competent witnesses, who have compared English with Continental labour, generally deem English labour the cheaper of the two at a much higher price. Before a Continental operative can be as steady a workman as an Englishman, his whole nature must be changed: he must acquire both the virtues and the defects of the English labourer; he must become as patient, as conscientious, but also as careworn, as anxious, as joyless, as dull, as exclusively intent upon the main chance, as his British compeer. He will long be of inferior value as a mere machine, because, happily for him, he cares for pleasure as well as gain. In America, indeed, labour is as efficient as with us; but in America wages are already higher than in England.
And even in mechanical inventions, we shall probably maintain our superiority somewhat longer than Colonel Torrens expects. It is true, inventions spread rapidly from country to country, but not so the power of bringing them into profitable use. In that respect, the advantage of having large masses of capital already accumulated is immense. There are as many inventions made on the other side of the Channel as on this; but it is to England that the inventors bring their inventions when they desire to make money by them.
We have on the whole, then, no expectation that the superiority of England, as a manufacturing nation, will be very seriously undermined in our own time. And if it were, the evil with which we are menaced is not, when closely examined, so very frightful as the terms in which it is announced might lead one to imagine. The threat is, not that wages will be low, but that they will be no higher than the wages of the same description of labourers in some other countries. And as the process by which this result is to be brought about consists of a great improvement in the productive resources of those countries, we may reasonably hope that it will be accomplished fully as much by a rise in the remuneration of their labour as by a fall in our own.
But how if all other nations adopt restrictive tariffs? How if, by imposing duties on English manufactures, fully equivalent to their superior cheapness, foreign governments should prematurely force our goods to meet theirs on terms of mere equality, or positive inferiority? Here, undoubtedly, is the real source of alarm; and here it is that the principles of this pamphlet become of immediate practical application. If foreign nations generally adopt this policy and persevere in it, our manufactures will either be excluded from their markets, or will find admittance only by a great reduction of money-wages; and the train of consequences described and characterized by Colonel Torrens will then be inevitable, unless remedial measures adequate to so critical a state of things can be devised and adopted.
Here, then, is the really vital question of practical statesmanship for England, so far as material interests are concerned. With universal free trade, England might not indeed remain for ever, but would be tolerably secure of remaining for generations to come, the workshop of the world. Not how to retain her natural superiority, but how to make herself independent of the attempts of foreign governments to counteract it artificially by restrictive tariffs, is the problem for English politicians.
Three different remedies have been suggested; and these are fully and elaborately discussed by Colonel Torrens.
The first is the repeal of the Corn-laws. Of this our author is an earnest advocate. But he does not anticipate from it all the benefits which sanguine persons have prophesied. [Pp. 29-32.] If by abolishing the Corn-laws we could induce foreign governments to repeal their restrictions, we should indeed arrest the evil. But if not, we should only succeed in slightly alleviating its pressure. With money-wages reduced to the level of France, it would be some relief to our labourers if the money were made to go further in the purchase of corn. But as corn would still be dearer than in France by the charges of importation, while money-wages were the same, real wages would be lower than in France, though not quite so much lower as they would be if the Corn-laws were maintained.
The second remedy which has been thought of is the improvement of our own agriculture. [Pp. 32-7.] This would relieve our labourers in the same manner, by making their diminished money-wages go further in the purchase of the main necessaries of life. But it is quite problematical whether any practicable agricultural improvement would render food permanently cheaper here than on the Continent; while such improvements, (however salutary their ultimate effect,) if introduced on a great scale, would in the first instance diminish greatly the employment of labour on the land, and aggravate instead of relieving the immediate distress of the population. The introduction, for example, of Scotch agriculture into Ireland, would scatter the Irish labouring population as paupers and beggars over the Three Kingdoms, and “wheat-fed, decent-clad, cottage-lodged England, would disappear under the avalanche of potato-and-weed-fed, half-naked, mud-lodged Ireland.” [P. 37.]
One remedy remains; and that is, to supply the loss of our foreign customers, by raising up new, young, prosperous agricultural communities beyond the sea. [Pp. 76-94.] This is the great resource which Mr. Wakefield first pointed out the means of turning to useful account;3 and almost from the first promulgation of Mr. Wakefield’s views, Colonel Torrens has been their earnest and intelligent apostle.4 He has urged these views in season and out of season, never wearying, and never dreading the reproach of repetition; and nowhere has he done this good service more effectually than in the present pamphlet. Nowhere will the reader find more completely demonstrated than here, the reviving effect which would be produced upon the industrial state of a country in which both labour and capital are every year more and more redundant, by the transfer of large masses of both to her outlying possessions, there to raise raw produce for exchange against the manufactures of the parent nation. And this, as our author clearly shows, could be accomplished without taxation—by the mere guaranteeing of loans, on which, if the colonizing scheme were sufficiently comprehensive, a large interest would be securely paid from the proceeds of the industry which those very advances would set in motion.
It is really time that our statesmen should consent to occupy themselves in sober earnest with such suggestions as these, and not continue to reject them as “projects” and “theories”: expressions never applied, we observe, to any proposition which is pressed upon Government by a dozen monied persons who fancy they have a private interest in it; but there is a prejudice against all views which appear to be taken up disinterestedly and from public motives—as if nobody who is worth listening to could have any intellect to spare from the pursuit of his own emolument for so trifling a matter as the public good. We predict, nevertheless, that in no long period Systematic Colonization will force itself upon our rulers, as an indispensable measure, not only of industrial policy, but of national safety. While the Corn-laws last, little will probably be done towards what would be deemed by a large portion of the community a mere trick to save the “landlord’s monopoly.” But that great moral barrier to a right understanding of the causes of national calamity once swept away, the Minister, whoever he be, that has the wisdom and the courage to originate a great system of colonization, on the only principles on which it can be any thing but a miserable abortion, will find, we believe, in the intelligent of all parties, a completeness of preparation and a strength of support of which few yet dream.
[1 ]James Watt (1736-1819), engineer and inventor, known especially for his work in the development of the steam engine; and Richard Arkwright (1732-92), noted inventor of textile machinery.
[2 ]I.e., the Napoleonic Wars.
[3 ]For Wakefield’s writings, see No. 194, n3.
[4 ]The advocacy of Torrens, an original member of the South Australian Land Company (1831), and Chairman of the Crown Commissioners to establish provinces in South Australia (1835), may be seen in his Colonization of South Australia (London: Longman, et al., 1835). A lake and a river in Australia received his name in recognition of his part in the colonization.