Between 1860 and 1914 Britain operated the best approximation to “free-trade” the world has seen. In the period 1840-1870 not only did she by degrees open her markets to all regardless of whether other countries reciprocated, but the size of the British state was so tiny that the distortions of government expenditure and taxation were minuscule compared with the present day. But achieving the best approximation to “free trade” was not difficult to achieve because no other country of any size has ever seriously attempted it for any length of time.
For a quarter or a century or so, Britain got away with the ill-effects of being a reckless “free trader” whilst other major countries remained protectionist to varying degrees. She escaped the consequences for three prime reasons: Britain’s industrial dominance, long distance transport of bulk goods remained cumbersome and expensive and the fact that America and Europe were strangely slow to follow Britain’s example and industrialise.
That all changed in the 1870s. Bulk transport was becoming much easier and cheaper. Railways – ironically more often than not built with British capital and technical expertise – had begun to have a considerable influence on the continent and in America and were beginning to snake across Australia and South America. Perhaps most importantly the age of the practical steamship and refrigeration arrived. Manufactured goods, food and raw materials could now move around the world in volumes which dwarfed anything which had gone before. British farmers were especially badly hit when the Americas and Australasia flooded the British market with food and wool. To these developments, and arguably in part as a consequence of them, there was a widespread retreat into a deep protectionism in the 1870s, most notably by the USA and Germany. Britain failed to respond to these developments by guarding her own markets.
The period of 1870-1914 saw the predictable results of Britain’s quixotic refusal to guard her markets when all about her were assiduously doing so: she lost her general industrial predominance, well nigh destroyed her farmers and failed to dominate vital new industries, such as the chemical, which at one time she had led – Britain produced the first synthetic dye (Perkin 1856) and the first synthetic plastic (Parkes 1855). Two of the most enthusiastic protectionists, the USA and Germany, became the first to exceed Britain’s GDP.
Bismarck summed up what had happened in a speech in 1882 when he said:”I believe the whole theory of free trade to be wrong…England abolished protection after she had benefited from it to the fullest extent. That country used to have the strongest protective tariffs until it became so powerful under their protection that it could step out of those barriers like a gigantic athlete and challenge the world. Free trade is the weapon of the strongest nation, and England has become the strongest nation in the world owing to her capital, her iron, her coal, and her harbours and owing to her favourable geographically position. Nevertheless, she protected herself against foreign competition with her exorbitant protective tariffs until her industries became so powerful.”
But even the “free-trade” Britain practised was far from complete. Government contracts were generally given to British companies. Ditto municipal contracts. Moreover, there was a strong sense of patriotism in the country which, as with the present day Japanese, mitigated the effects of free-trade. Nor, of course, was there a WTO, EU or any other body to question and interfere with the internal economic workings of Britain such as taxation, interest rates or working conditions.
British “free trade” was further complicated by the existence of the Empire and a widespread imperial sentiment which created the opportunity and the desire to trade with members of the Empire rather than the rest of the world. It does not do to over-egg the effects of this because British trade with the world outside the Empire, especially the USA, always remained strong, but it undoubtedly significantly distorted British trade.
“Free trade” today
If “free trade” was a gigantic gamble for an industrially, commercially and politically dominant Britain in 1850, it is vastly riskier for any country now. Transport even after the arrival of railways and the steamship was still expensive, slow and cumbersome compared with now. The electric telegraph was the height of sophistication. Most parts of the world could not engage in international trade on their own terms because they were colonies, under the practical control of foreign powers or unindustrialised.
Today physical transport is fast and cheap. In place of the telegraph, we have the internet. Many countries have industrialised. The age of formal empires is over.
But there is more than political and technological change which makes a difference between our own time and the last outbreak of “free trade” mania. The “free trade” being advocated now is doctrinaire to the point of idiocy, namely the god of comparative advantage (the idea that each nation should concentrate on those products which are most profitable and forget the rest) is to be applied to everything, even (in the EU) to all public contracts, including those for weaponry. Childishly doctrinaire as they were as they played with their untried intellectual toy, even the most extreme “free traders” in the 1830s and 1840s saw that some parts of the economy could not be reasonably opened to competition for strategic reasons, military supplies being the prime case.
Let us suppose that we had a perfect “free trade” world now, a world in which there were no tariffs or quotas or embargoes or “standards” to meet; that all the artificial restraints on trade were removed; that no government subsidized productive employment in any way and all that remained to differentiate countries were market decided labour rates, carriage costs and the cost of nonproductive public works such as justice and the army. What then?
The consequences would be extremely dangerous for the West. Farmers in the First World would be on their knees and mass production of virtually anything in general demand would quickly become impossible because whatever a company’s efficiency, it simply would not be able tocompete with labour which was a tenth or less of the cost of its own native workforce. All such countries could do is try to make high-value goods. Moreover, even if the redundant working populations of the First World could find alternative employment, which is dubious, their countries would be left utterly at the mercy of those who now produced their food and most of the manufactured goods they consumed.