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Cobden on the folly of using government force to “protect commerce” (1836)

The English manufacturer and defender of free trade Ricard Cobden (1804-1865) argued that the very nature of trade would be changed if it were “touched by the hand of violence”:

How shall a profession which withdraws from productive industry the ablest of the human race, and teaches them systematically the best modes of destroying mankind, which awards honours only in proportion to the number of victims offered at its sanguinary altar, which overturns cities, ravages farms and vineyards, uproots forests, burns the ripened harvest, which, in a word, exists but in the absence of law, order, and security — how can such a profession be favourable to commerce, which increases only with the increase of human life, whose parent is agriculture, and which perishes or flies at the approach of lawless rapine? Besides, they who propose to influence by force the traffic of the world, forget that affairs of trade, like matters of conscience, change their very nature if touched by the hand of violence; for as faith, if forced, would no longer be religion, but hypocrisy, so commerce becomes robbery if coerced by warlike armaments.

Enough has been said to prove that even if armaments for the protection of commerce could effect the object for which they are maintained (although we have shown the false pretensions of the plea of defending our trade), still the cost of supporting these safeguards may often be greater than the amount of profit gained. This argument applies more immediately to Turkey and the East, upon which countries a share of public attention has lately been bestowed far beyond the importance of their commerce. It would be difficult to apportion the precise quota of our ships of war, which may be said to be at this moment maintained with a view to support [244] our influence or carry into effect the views of our Foreign Secretary in the affairs of Constantinople. The late augmentation of the navy—the most exceptionable vote which has passed a reformed House of Commons—although accomplished by the Ministry without explanation of its designs, further than the century-old pretence of protecting our commerce, was generally believed to have been aimed at Russia in the Black Sea. Our naval force in the East was considerable previously; but taking only the increase into calculation, it will cost more than three times the amount of the current profits of our trade with Turkey, whilst it can show no prospective benefits, since, even if we possessed Constantinople ourselves, we should only be able to command its trade by selling, as at Gibraltar, cheaper than other people. Our nautical establishments devoted to the (pretended) guardianship of British commercial interests (for we can have no other description of interests a thousand miles off) in Turkey are, the present year, costing the tax-payers of this country, upon the lowest computation, more than three times the amount of the annual profit of our trade with that country. Not content with this state of things, which leaves very little chance of future gain, some writers and speakers [245] would plunge us into a war with Russia, in defence of Turkey, for the purpose of protecting this commerce, the result of which would inevitably be, as in former examples of wars undertaken to defend Spain or Portugal, that such an accumulation of expenses would ensue as to prevent the possibility of the future profit upon our exports to the Ottoman empire even amounting to so much as should discharge the yearly interest of the debt contracted in its behalf.

We had intended and were prepared to give a summary of the wars, their causes and commercial consequences, in which Great Britain has been during the last century and a half from time to time engaged; but we are admonished that our limited space will not allow us to follow out this design. It must suffice to offer as the moral of the subject, that although the conflicts in which this country has during the last 150 years involved itself have, as Sir Henry Parnell has justly remarked, in almost every instance been undertaken in behalf of our commerce, yet we hesitate not to declare that there is no instance recorded in which a favourable tariff or a beneficial commercial treaty has been extorted from an unwilling enemy at the point of the sword. On the contrary, every restriction that embarrasses the trade of the whole world, all existing commercial jealousies between nations, the debts that oppress the countries of Europe, the incalculable waste owing to the misdirected labour and capital of communities, these and a thousand other evils that are now actively thwarting and oppressing commerce are all the consequences of wars. How shall a profession which withdraws from productive industry the ablest of the human race, and teaches them systematically the best modes of destroying mankind, which awards honours only in proportion to the number of victims offered at its sanguinary altar, which overturns cities, ravages farms and vineyards, uproots forests, burns the ripened harvest, which, in a word, exists but in the absence of law, order, and security — how can such a profession be favourable to commerce, which increases only with the increase of human life, whose parent is agriculture, and which perishes or flies at the approach of lawless rapine? Besides, they who propose to influence by force the traffic of the world, forget that affairs of trade, like matters of conscience, change their very nature if touched by the hand of violence; for as faith, if forced, would no longer be religion, but hypocrisy, so commerce becomes robbery if coerced by warlike armaments. If, then, war has in past times in no instance served the just interests of commerce, whilst it has been the sole cause of all its embarrassments; if for the future, when trade and manufactures are brought under the empire of “cheapness,” it can still less protect, whilst its cost will yet more heavily oppress it; and having seen that if war could confer a golden harvest of gain upon us instead of this unmixed catalogue of evils it would still be not profit, but plunder; having demonstrated these truths, surely we may hope to be spared a repetition of the mockery offered to this commercial empire at the hands of its government and legislature in the proposal to protect our commerce by an increase of the Royal navy! On behalf of the trading world an indissoluble alliance is proclaimed with the cause of peace, and if the unnatural union be again attempted of that daughter of Peace, Commerce, whose path has ever been strewed with the choicest gifts of religion, civilisation, and the arts, with the demon of carnage, War, loaded with the maledictions of widows and orphans, reeking with the blood of thousands of millions† of victims, with feet fresh from the smoking ruins of cities, whose [247] ears delight in the groans of the dying, and whose eyes love to gloat upon the dead, if such an unholy union be hereafter proposed, as the humblest of the votaries of that commerce which is destined to regenerate and unite the whole world, we will forbid the banns.

About this Quotation:

Many English businessmen thought it was the proper function of government to use the power of the British Navy to “protect British commerce”. By this they mean both the use of naval power to protect the safety of trading vessels at taxpayer expence and to forcibly open foreign ports which denied British ships entry for trading purposes. As a staunch free trader Cobden believed that ship owners and merchants should pay for the defence of their own vessels and not to “socialize” their costs of doing business by placing burdens on the taxpayers. He also found it horrifying to think that trade, which was the peaceful and voluntary exchange of goods and services for mutual benefit, might be corrupted by the use use of force “to influence the traffic of the world”. In the hope of appealing to his religious-minded fellow businessmen, Cobden concluded that “affairs of trade, like matters of conscience, change their very nature if touched by the hand of violence; for as faith, if forced, would no longer be religion, but hypocrisy, so commerce becomes robbery if coerced by warlike armaments.”

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