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

Richard Cobden

The English manufacturer and defender of free trade Richard 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.

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.”