The Reciprocity Craze/Chapter 4
"RECIPROCITY OR RETALIATION."
This is now the battle-cry of our Neo-Protectionists. They maintain that if foreigners keep out our products by hostile tariffs, we should threaten to do the same with theirs.
One of two things must happen: they will either open their ports, and we shall then have Reciprocity, or we shall close ours, and we shall then have Retaliation.
I have already discussed what might be the outcome of Reciprocity, that is free trade, to ourselves as a nation.
As regards the world at large, all are agreed upon the benefits that would ensue from an adoption of Free Trade. But, we might be driven to Retaliation, and that involves many important considerations which our Neo-Protectionists steadily keep out of view.
Let us look at some of these.
Let us assume that all the difficulties which might arise from "the most favoured nation" clause in existing treaties are obviated, and Retaliation pure and simple set up.
We should find ourselves in a most absurd and anomalous position.
Pray observe that when I use the terms "we," "us," "our," I mean the nation, the community, and not any particular class composing it. The distinction is an important one, but our Neo-Protectionists steadily ignore it. In discussing these questions it is found convenient by them, according to the exigencies of their argument, to use ambiguously the terms "we," and "us," and "our." When they use these terms, what is in their minds is, some class and its supposed particular interests; which they would have you identify with the nation and its general interests—two things which may be diametrically opposed.
For this purpose "we" and "our" are convenient ambiguities.
The absurd and anomalous position in which we—that is the nation—should find ourselves is this:—The facts and figures I have adduced prove to demonstration that under the existing system of what our Neo-Protectionists are pleased to call one-sided Free Trade, and by means of it we, as manufacturers, and traders, have attained a position in the world which is at once the admiration, the envy, and, commercially speaking, the terror of competing nations; yet, because some of our interests suffer from time to time in the fierce competition which has been engendered; and without pausing for a moment to estimate what benefits this same competition may in other respects have conferred on these very interests, they call in question our Free Trade policy; they deny or ignore the results which it has attained for us; and the nation is counselled to reverse that policy.
Each suffering interest has its noisy organs, its irresponsible chatterers. The agriculturist organs suggest duties on grain, but never hint at duties on other products. The manufacturing organs clamour for protective duties on the foreign products which compete with their own, but scout the notion of taxes on the food of the people, or on the raw material they use. Each one wants his own industry protected, while anxious that freedom shall rule in every other department.
It never seems to strike them that if Protection be once started, it must be extended to all commodities, and embrace all interests. It never seems to strike them that to protect one interest to the exclusion of the rest, is to commit a gross injustice. It never seems to occur to them that the interests, or supposed interests, of a class may be incompatible with, or opposed to, the interests of the community; and that when this is the case, it is just and politic that the latter should prevail. They never seem to truly estimate such an elementary proposition as this: that however large and numerous a class may be, it forms only a part, and is not the whole of a nation.
Tried by these tests, what becomes of the cries which occasionally arise from some interest which may from time to time suffer from the universal competition, while the general progress of the nation is one onward march in the path of wealth and prosperity?
The largest, the most important interest among us is agriculture. If any interest could claim protection as a matter of justice or policy, it is this. But, it was seen that to protect agriculture would be injurious to the general interest, and on this ground the Corn Laws were abolished.
The reasons which hold against Protection to agriculture apply with tenfold force to other and minor interests. If these interests clash with those of the community they must give way. There is no other possible method of attaining to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. And on no other ground can a Free Trader argue the question as regards Retaliation, or whatever form Protection may take; whatever net gain it might bring to a class, the loss to the community would be much larger.
It must be contrary to the general interest that the price of any commodity should be artificially raised. To raise prices is, on the one hand, injurious to producers by checking consumption, and thus diminishing the demand for the article produced, and for the labour which produces it; while on the other hand, it is injurious to the consumer, in forcing him either to pay more for, or to consume less of, the article of which he stands in need.
To diminish production is to diminish our industry, our trade, and our commerce, and thus to impoverish ourselves and the rest of the world.
It is the interest of the community that the keenest competition should reign, so that energy, enterprise, and invention shall have full play, and shall work for the benefit of ourselves and the rest of mankind. Protection dulls and stifles these beneficent forces, and its inevitable tendency is to bring about theof production at the maximum of cost. And on this ground it stands utterly condemned.