LibertyMatters, another of LibertyFund’s valuable projects, is now hosting a most interesting and thoughtful online conversation on Richard Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League. I think this is a particularly fascinating subject for all classical liberals, for at least a couple of reasons.

First, the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was a victory for the cause of free trade, achieved in the realm of politics: a cause that doesn’t appear to be extremely well tuned with ideas that tend to dominate in politics. And yet at the time, free trade succeeded in coalescing around itself a vast coalition made of very different social group and economic interests.

Second, that victory was unmistakably traceable to a classical liberal movement and a great classical liberal organizer, Richard Cobden himself. It was a victory won by classical liberal means: by persuading the public of the fact freer trade would benefit everyone (except the landed aristocracy). True, the Irish famine forced the British government to act. True, surely the most eminent convert of the Anti-Corn Law preachers was no less than the then-prime minister Sir Robert Peel. Peel originally wanted to uphold the protectionist system but, after multiple verbal duels with Cobden in the Commons, he changed his mind. Famously, after a Cobden speech, he turned to his political ally Sidney Herbert and said: “You must answer this for I cannot”. But Peel’s conversion (which led to a split in the Tory Party) doesn’t make the argument of the “power of ideas” at work in the anti-protectionist agitation less cogent: rather, the opposite.

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So, the story of the Anti Corn Law protest as a radical idea permeating the political establishment and eventually succeeding in repealing a bad law, is something that can’t be but very close to the heart of libertarians.

In the last LibertyMatters discussion, Steve Davies, the–at least to my knowledge–infallible Education Director of the IEA in London, does a great job in explaining, with beautiful prose, what the Anti Corn Law league was about, and Cobden’s political thinking. Cobden wasn’t a political philosopher, but he had a very sophisticated and consistent world-view, from which he could derive, Davies explains, some very practical principles to reach a “tipping point” in his political battle.

Writes Davies:

The key insight was that government power was also the creator of special interest and privilege. The key terms in the Torrens quote are “industrious” and “idle” as the defining features of two kinds of social entity. On the one side were the “industrious classes,” those who created wealth and gained income by work and exchange. On the other were the “idle classes,” which acquired wealth and income through force and the use of political power. The problem for Cobden and his allies was not a particular policy per se but rather the nature of government and the way it created a privileged class that then used it to support itself, both directly through things such as state pensions and employment, and indirectly by effective income transfers such as those brought about by the Corn Laws. In other words the real problem was aristocratic government, and agricultural protectionism was one part of that system.
This insight also explained the connections between trade policy and other areas. Free trade was seen as promoting peace, and protectionism war, for a number of reasons and not just because greater trade relations would lead to mutual dependency and greater personal contact between the inhabitants of rival states, important as those arguments were. War, the organized use of violence, was seen as both the ultimate source of aristocratic power and an important source of support.

Of course, the 1840s were a very different world than the mass democracies we know now. Of course, the 20th century (as Davies himself points out) saw the cost of political organizing skyrocket, and the rules of that game changed fundamentally. But indeed, one may also reason that after Cobden, classical liberalism never had another shrewd political strategist like him. He had both a vision of the “what” and a vision of the “how,” mixing talents that are quite difficult to find in the same individual.

I think it’d be easy to develop a consensus on the fact that Cobden’s experience is unrepeatable. Victorian England was a particular blend of values, hopes, and political symbols indeed. And in that context? Cobden’s battle could “resonate” like it certainly won’t today, among most electorates.
But, in a most interesting comment on Davies’ lead essay, Gordon Bannerman points out that:

Contemporary political cynicism and a more diffuse political culture appear to militate against mobilizing public opinion on the scale and nature of the anti-Corn Law campaign. Yet the Tea Party in the United States, the UK Independence Party in Britain, and the pro-independence “Yes” campaign in Scotland have made significant progress, and all contain elements strikingly similar to the Anti-Corn Law League in terms of their attack on entrenched vested interests, a shared populist rhetoric, and the mobilization of public opinion on single issues, albeit issues highlighting a deeper and wider malaise in the body politic.

I found this a very intriguing comment. Can we really compare the Tea Party or UKIP to what Cobden did? In a way, I suppose the Tea Party may resemble the Anti Corn Law League in the sense that they both represent attempts to influence politics, by being both in and out. The League was not a partisan effort, but Cobden entered Parliament and free traders within Parliament organized somehow: not unlike how I understand more Tea Party-leaning Republicans are doing today. The UKIP is a bit of a different animal, not just because it chooses issues that are quite far from Cobden’s cosmopolitanism, but also because it is indeed a political party, an animal we are more accustomed to than we would be with a contemporary equivalent of the Anti-Corn Law League, but is another example of a very successful organization that owes a lot to a handful of men, perhaps only to Nigel Farage.

I do really look forward to new contributions to the discussion (historian Anthony Howe and Sara Richardson are also participating). I hope the participants may also illuminate the role of economists in the anti-protectionist fight that led to the abolition of the corn laws (how much people really read and used, as political salvos, the Wealth of Nations?).