June 3rd marks the 1804 birth of “the Apostle of Free Trade,” Richard Cobden. He earned that name spearheading the campaign against England’s protectionist Corn Laws, whose repeal in 1846 spread liberalized trade through much of Europe. Some have said free markets owe him their existence.
Cobden recognized free trade as the key to creating material prosperity. But far more, he emphasized the moral superiority of free trade over the injustice of protectionism, in which government uses its power to help one group by unjustifiably harming others. Further, he saw that markets’ exclusively voluntary arrangements formed the basis of peace. As Jim Powell described the ensuing period of liberalized trade:
"Peace prevailed, in large part, because non-intervention became the hallmark of foreign policy...There was unprecedented freedom of movement for people, goods, and capital...Trade expanded, strengthening the stake that nations had in the continued prosperity of one another as customers and suppliers. While free trade was never a guarantee of peace, it reduced the danger of war more than any public policy ever had."
In an era of occasional trade liberalization, but a great deal of protectionism for government favorites, along with too little reliable peace, Cobden still has much to teach us.
"The progress of freedom depends more upon the maintenance of peace, the spread of trade, and the diffusion of education, than upon the labors of cabinets and foreign offices."
"Protection...takes from one man’s pocket, and allows him to compensate himself by taking an equivalent from another man’s pocket…a clumsy process of robbing all to enrich none, and ties up the hands of industry in all directions."
"Holding…eternal justice to [include] the inalienable right of every man freely to exchange the result of his labor for the productions of other people, and maintaining the practice of protecting one part of the community at the expense of all other classes to be unsound and unjustifiable...carry out to the fullest extent...the true and peaceful principles of Free Trade, by removing all existing obstacles to the unrestricted employment of industry and capital."
"Look not to the politicians; look to yourselves."
"Free trade is a principle which recognizes the paramount importance of individual action."
"Peace will come to earth when the people have more to do with each other and governments less."
"[We] advocated Free Trade, not merely on account of the material wealth which it would bring to the community, but for the far loftier motive of securing permanent peace between nations."
"Our principle...would bring peace and harmony among the nations."
"People…must be brought into mutual dependence by the supply of each others’ wants. There is no other way of counteracting the antagonism of language and race…no other plan is worth a farthing."
"I see in the Free-Trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe, drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism…and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace...man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of one’s labor with his brother man...the speculative philosopher of a thousand years hence will date the greatest revolution that ever happened in the world’s history from the triumph of the principle."
Richard Cobden knew that free trade was the natural result of self-ownership and voluntary arrangements, which produced justice by preventing government-sponsored robbery by some from others. He knew that it broke down privilege and barriers hindering economic progress and replaced them with mutually beneficial relations among participants. In a world far from that ideal, we should remember Cobden’s wisdom that emancipating commerce would expand both economic progress and peace.