Traditionalism and Free Trade: An Exercise in Libertarian Outreach


Traditionalism and Free Trade: 
An Exercise in Libertarian Outreach
By Sean Gabb

Of the issues that divide libertarians and traditionalists, free trade may be the most important. It is central to nearly all our debates. Do we tend to a contractual or an organic view of human relationships? Do we embrace or do we fear a technological and economic progress that is carrying us into a world we cannot predict? Do we regard mankind as a single race, capable, despite its present separations, of a single future history? Or do we regard these present separations as inevitable, and perhaps worth maintaining? Where do we stand in the debate over England that took place between about 1830 and 1850? In all these and more, how we view free trade will usually correlate with, and may determine, the side that we take.

Since the end of the Cold War, libertarians and traditionalists have been drawn increasingly together. We face a ruling class that is equally at war with liberty and with tradition. On many practical issues – our endless wars, the police state, the shift of power to unaccountable global institutions – we are in agreement. Therefore, while some of us continue the old disputes and mutual condemnations, others have chosen to set aside the condemnations, and to explore in what degree the disputes can be reconciled.

For the past eight years, I have been attending the meetings in Turkey of Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Property and Freedom Society. These bring leading libertarians and traditionalists together on neutral ground. More recently, and largely by accident, the Libertarian Alliance, of which I am the Director, has entered into a close dialogue with the Traditional Britain Group. It would be absurd to hope for a full reconciliation. We enter our various dialogues from different sets of assumptions and with different visions of the good society. But, so far as we now face a common enemy, and so far as it is our interest and our duty to cooperate against that enemy, it is useful to see how far apart we really are on the main issues. This will be a brief essay. But I hope it will be seen on both sides as an honest attempt to find common ground on free trade.

The basic libertarian case is that consenting adults have – or should have – the right to associate in any peaceful manner of their choosing. Freedom to exchange goods and services comes within this right, and it makes no difference whether the exchange takes place within a single country or across a border. So long as they anticipate rightly, free association increases both the happiness and the wealth of individuals, and often of mankind at large.

The Law of Comparative advantage is no more than a demonstration of how the increase occurs when exchanges take place across a border. It is, nevertheless, a useful demonstration. It clears aside various misconceptions that would otherwise allow cross-border exchanges to be seen in themselves as harmful. Without going into the sort of arithmetical example that can be found in any textbook of Economics, I will say that free trade enables each participating nation to specialise in those branches of commerce in which it has an advantage. This increases output generally, and therefore wealth. It checks many local tendencies to monopoly. The resulting integration of national economies reduces the chance of war, by raising its costs in terms of economic dislocation.

There are traditionalists who deny the logic of comparative advantage. But these are people who are ignorant of Economics, or who claim access to a higher wisdom than comes from ordinary reasoning. I will, if for different reasons, ignore both these kinds of objection. I will instead discuss the claim that the benefits of free trade are more than offset by the circumstances of the world as it is.

Briefly stated, this claim is that, since about 1970, shifts in comparative advantage have brought about a swift and fundamental deindustrialisation of Britain; and that this has impoverished millions of working class people.

There is the separate claim that the globalisation of which free trade has been made a part has subjected us to a New World Order that is openly working for our destruction as a free people, or as any people at all. However, since I and many other libertarians accept this claim in full, there is no point in discussing it. I will only add that free trade has existed without a supranational government, and that opposition to the latter has no bearing on the desirability of the former. Free trade is the uncontrolled movement of goods and services across borders. It does not need treaties to harmonise the sale of Vitamin C, or armies of bureaucrats to enforce the treaties. I will move, then, to the primary claim, which is mostly in dispute – though for which there is an arguable case.

Until the 1970s, almost every manufactured good sold in this country was made in this country. In terms of price and quality, these goods were often inferior to those made abroad, and had a market only because of the trade barriers that had grown up since the 1930s. On the other hand, British manufacturing firms gave jobs, directly or indirectly, to millions. These jobs were reasonably well-paid and reasonably secure. They gave those holding them the confidence to speak their minds, and to combine in defence of their collective interests as they perceived them. No doubt, these perceived collective interests were often false, and often defended with an absence of forethought. If there was also bad management, strikes and restrictive practices had their part in the ruin of British manufacturing. But I am old enough to remember when doctors and architects did not earn incomparably more than working class people, and when it was common to believe that we were all part of one nation.

Freer trade since the late 1970s has given us manufactured goods about as good and cheap as they can presently be. Most of these are made abroad. If the extent of British deindustrialisation can be overstated – we remain one of the main manufacturing countries; and some of our manufacturing exports have no competition – mass-employment in manufacturing is a thing of the past. Unless they have the skills to make it as sole traders, working class people nowadays have three options. In the private sector, they can take jobs in which the main qualities required seem to be obedience and a pretence of enthusiasm for employers whose own sense of obligation is limited to the contractual. They can become petty functionaries in state and quasi-state bureaucracies that should not exist. They can sink into an underclass that is kept alive by a combination of welfare handouts and crime.

The progress of the past forty years has been so great, that everyone benefits to some extent. Holidays in the sun can be had for the price of a thousand cigarettes, as can 50 inch television sets. Property, though, is increasingly difficult to buy; and rents can take up half the average income after tax. Working class people are insecure in their jobs. They are usually in debt. They are easily tyrannised over. They know they cannot speak freely on a range of subjects they think important. Unless on welfare, they have fewer children than their grandparents had. They are credulous. They are superstitious. They are feared by those above them, but easily managed, and therefore despised.

The main beneficiaries of what has happened since the 1970s are those in the professions or the senior reaches of an expanded financial sector. Our incomes have risen most impressively. And far above us floats the new elite of the super rich. Men like Richard Branson and the Mittal Brothers and the hedge fund managers, and the Russian billionaires who have settled here, have been raised up by the growing importance of London as a financial centre. Whether or not they share our nationality, they live among us, but are in no sense with us. The policies they are able to buy from our rulers will have only an accidental congruence with our interests. They find Britain convenient as a trading platform and shopping centre. Unlike the rest of us, who may have little else, these rich have no country.

In part, these changes are an effect of mass-immigration. You need to be a ruling class intellectual to deny the laws of demand and supply in labour markets. But the main cause has been a shift in the pattern of comparative advantage. Even without the twenty or thirty million immigrants of the past half century, mass-employment in manufacturing would have declined. Without the newcomers, the fall in working class living standards would have been greatly moderated. But there would still be no cotton mills in Lancashire, and no computer factories to take their place. The centre of London would still be packed with rich aliens of every nationality, including our own. Free trade necessarily expands output. It does not necessarily produce benefits that are equally shared.

The depression of our working classes is a legitimate concern. These are our people. Any libertarian who rolls his eyes at the phrase “our people” is a fool. Any who starts parroting the self-righteous cant of our rulers is a villain. All else aside, free institutions are unworkable in a society where large numbers of people are going visibly down the toilet. Does this mean that free trade is no longer in our national interest? Does it mean that, if still undeniable as an abstract proposition, the Law of Comparative Advantage no longer applies in the interests of our nation as a whole?

The answer to the question may be yes. If so, I as a libertarian must choose to stand up as a wooden ideologue or as a man of sense. I have always tried to be the latter. I believe in a world where everyone has the right to do with himself and his own as he pleases – a right bounded only by the equal right of everyone else to do the same. I look forward to a world without governments, and therefore without national borders and border controls. This does not mean, however, that I believe in the immediate and unordered throwing off of the present restraints. I see no value in arguing for specific freedoms, the exercise of which would undermine the existence of liberty in general. A sensible libertarian should argue for the present enjoyment only of those liberties that can be sustained.

I give the example of a restraint that I have already gone out of my way to support. There are good reasons for letting people settle anywhere on this planet where they can, by free bargaining, find jobs and accommodation. And there are better reasons why most people should not be allowed to settle in Britain. To be blunt, I accept the need for strict immigration control, and for even stricter controls on citizenship and its resulting membership of the political nation. I am not impressed by any of the apologetics by which some libertarians claim that this acceptance is other than it is. It is a clear breach of the non-aggression principle, and should be seen as such. But not to breach it in this case strikes me as lunacy. Unlimited immigration would lead to the erasure of one of the few nations and political orders in which the non-aggression principle has been even partially accepted.

This being so, free trade cannot be immune from reconsideration. It suited us very well in the nineteenth century. We emerged as the first industrial nation in a world where we controlled the seas and much territory outside Europe. Despite claims that it did not, it continued to suit us down to the Great War; and it would have continued to suit us right into the 1980s. But times may now have altered. If they have, we must consider some form of protection. I repeat that I am not rejecting the Law of Comparative Advantage. Protection always involves costs. Even assuming better management and less obstructive trade unions, prices of manufactured good would be higher – sometimes much higher. The compensation must be higher median living standards in both the material and the immaterial sense.

Nevertheless, before throwing up the case for free trade, there are three further considerations to discuss. The first is a harder look at the costs of protection. For as long as I have known him, Robert Henderson has been arguing for a “judicious” home preference. The assumption behind this is a belief that trade policy can easily be set in the national interest. But politics is at best a dirty business. Politicians and officials are always for sale; and the acceptance of trade protection would bring a cataract of bribes from every manufacturing company with money to spend. Robert believes that protection should cover things like steel and aeroplanes and electronics – things in which we have no present comparative advantage, but which are otherwise suited to our national abilities. The reality might be the equivalent of growing grapes in Scotland. Protection might give us a trade policy not in any national interest, but in the interest of a cartel of skilled bribe-givers and experts in public relations. We may differ in regarding Imperial Germany with admiration or distaste. But the men who built up those great cartels in steel and machinery and chemicals before 1914 were broadly pro-German. In present circumstances, and for the foreseeable future, protection would add to the number of the powerful and unaccountable interest groups that are busily enslaving us.

Nor in a protected economy need there be the same incentives as under free trade to innovation and product development and the control of costs. Whatever we think of their industrial achievement, the Germans did lose the Great War; and they lost in part because their industry was less responsive and less innovative than our own. Or, for the main current example of what can happen under protection, there is India before the liberalisations of the 1990s. There is also our own example. British manufacturing suffered from the opening of trade in the late 1970s compelled by the EEC and the GATT treaties. One of the reasons it was so damaged was that it had enjoyed nearly half a century of protection in its home markets, and this had enabled the growth of bad management and bad union practices. Before it could be nearly destroyed, British manufacturing was already nearly ruined. Can we really be sure that the same would not happen again? Do we want to go to all the trouble of uncoupling ourselves from a system that brings some benefits to some people, and end up with a repeat of the British Leyland fiasco?

The second consideration is that comparative advantage is not something beyond our control. It is not like the climate, which heats and cools in time with changes inside the Sun, or with variations in our orbit about it. I have mentioned the unions and the quality of management. Luckier in both, the Germans have kept more of their manufacturing despite broad similarities of trading environment. Traditionalists and libertarians usually agree that business in this country is both over-taxed and over-regulated. Well, the health and safety laws alone may have cost us half a million jobs. Our environmental laws and energy policy may have done the same. When it was introduced in the 1960s, capital gains tax is said to have ended most non-institutional investment – that is, much investment into small manufacturing. The overall burden of tax, plus inflation, has diverted most saving and investment into the City casino banks.

Looking at opposite tendencies, comparatively free prospecting for oil and gas in the United States has brought down energy prices there; and this is bringing back manufacturing industry previously lost to China. If we were to cut taxes and regulations at least to American levels, we might have more factories and jobs in the north of England. We could do this without losing the benefits of free trade. It might mean breaking a few treaties, but would not require a siege economy.

The third consideration follows from the second, but takes a more radical path. I have argued so far on the assumption that the economic structure of this country as it emerged a couple of centuries ago is worth defending or restoring. I do not share the view taken by many traditionalists that this structure was an abusive breach with immemorial and better ways of life. The enclosures had already worked a destructive revolution in the countryside. Most people there, by about 1815, had been reduced to a rural proletariat. Industrial society, as it emerged during the nineteenth century, enabled a quadrupling of population by 1914 with a strong upward movement in living standards. But, though better than most of the alternatives, I do not think our country, as it came into the twentieth century, was living in the best of possible worlds. I believe that we, and every other country that has followed our path, took a wrong approach to the Industrial Revolution.

In every industrial country, there has been a tendency for large organisations to outcompete smaller on price, and for goods to emerge at competitive prices from supply chains that may begin on the far side of the world. For example, I live in Kent, which is one of the main apple growing areas in England. My local Sainsbury sells apples from China for less than the local farm shops can sell their own apples. Is this a triumph of free market capitalism, for libertarians to celebrate and traditionalists to deplore? Or is it the outcome of a thoroughly interventionist order, from which the big and the distant gain illegitimate advantages over the small and local?

I think the latter is the case. There are still many libertarians – and these determine how the movement as a whole is seen – for whom utopia is Tesco minus the State. They believe that doing away with taxes and regulations and privilege for the well-connected would bring into being a world recognisably similar to our own. It would be richer and more peaceful and more just. But it would have much the same structures of centralised production and widespread distribution, and of wage labour. There are other libertarians – Kevin Carson, for example – who take a fundamentally different view of what might emerge in the absence of distortions by the State. And, for all they denounce traditionalism, and see themselves as on the “left,” they are elaborating a version of libertarianism that few traditionalists might see as hostile to their own concerns.

During the past few hundred years, the British State, among others, has been subsidising road and rail and, more recently, air transport. These subsidies take the form of direct building, or of financial underwriting or other assistance, or of compulsory purchase and incorporation laws that externalise many of the private costs of construction and use and maintenance. Without subsidy, roads and railways would still have been built. But there would have been fewer of them, and full-cost charging for use would have directed a higher proportion of investment into local networks.

The subsidised infrastructure that we have is biased towards transport over long distances. It raises the maximum scale of production. Internal economies of scale in a factory are worthless if distribution costs make the price of output uncompetitive in all but very local markets. Centralised production for a national market may be worthwhile in a country where distribution costs must be reflected in price. It will be far more worthwhile in a country where distribution costs are partly met by the taxpayers.

What is true of national distribution networks is also true at the level of international trade. British and then American control of the seas has made shipping safe from piracy. British and American control of the Middle East has externalised many of the costs of oil drilling and movement. British and American armed interventions stabilised less powerful countries for the sale of our industrial output, and then for the development of manufacturing industry in places where the local ruling classes could be bribed and assisted into making labour both cheap and docile.

These facts go far to explaining why Chinese apples undercut Kentish apples in Kent, and why it is worth concentrating the manufacture of virtually all electronic goods in a few coastal regions of China, and why most of the clothes we buy are put together in Turkish and Bangladeshi sweatshops. It goes far to explaining why, when I drive home every summer from the family trip to Slovakia, I share fabulously expensive motorways with lorries that pay a pittance per mile, and burn diesel at prices – even allowing for taxes – far below the real cost of extraction and transport, and that are carrying goods to places like Manchester and Leeds where once whole armies were employed in their manufacture.

In short, the manufacturing side of the globalisation that traditionalists denounce proceeds from a pattern of comparative advantage that makes sense only on the basis of systematic externalisations of cost. This is not a natural order. It is not free market capitalism. It is instead a global mercantilism in which a cartel of ruling classes has decided that certain regions should specialise in certain activities. If notebook computers are not made in Basingstoke, it may be less because firms in Canton are better at making them than because their final prices all over the world do not take fully into account their costs of manufacture and distribution.

It may be that these interventions lead to positive externalities that outweigh the externalised costs. But this is to put a faith in the wisdom of politicians and bureaucrats that is not supported by our everyday experience. More likely, costs are not merely shifted from those incurring them, but also magnified before they are dispersed, if in ways that none of us can fully understand.

Let us try to imagine the shape of a world in which these interventions had not begun. It might now be a place of largely independent communities, with much production of food and energy and manufactured goods close to market. There would have been an industrial revolution. But it would have taken a different path. There would be advanced technology. But it would be different in its objects. There would be some centralised production, but only where its full distribution costs were reflected in price. There would be some international specialisation and trade on the basis of comparative advantage. But this would not be so omnipresent, nor so able to produce vast and sudden dislocations. There would be neither corrupt, free-floating elites nor an alienated proletariat. But there would be much freedom and much regard for tradition.

In the world as it is, the British working classes have been smashed not by free trade, but by systematic state interventions so longstanding that we are liable to take them as inevitable. The answer is not to call for the State to make up sliding scale tariffs or to set quotas on South Korean washing machines. Rather, it is for the initial interventions to be swept away. Two centuries of the world as it is cannot be undone at once. But we can hope that a root and branch attack on the enabler of that world will allow something more natural to take its place.

I have said that there are differences between libertarians and traditionalists over what constitutes the substance of the good society. Rightly considered, I increasingly wonder where the real differences need to be about the form of that society, and over how to get there.

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71 responses to “Traditionalism and Free Trade: An Exercise in Libertarian Outreach

  1. I assert that the “how to get there” question is extremely premature when I see no coherent consensus about what fundamental ethical principles the debate is based on, either in the articles posted here or in the epistles appended to same by commentators.

    As an anarchist, I don’t have any care about the form of any society another person chooses to live in – so long as there is genuine choice or, at the very least, nobody is acknowledged to have the moral right to assert that I must perforce conduct my affairs in a particular fashion. I want to live in a world where people understand they don’t have the moral right to tell me how to I should live my life, “for the greater good,” nor delegate some kind of “authority” to decide that for me. I wish people would grow the hell up and stop acting like children in search of parental approval – if you can figure out how to make that happen I’m all ears.

  2. “I will say that free trade enables each participating nation to specialise in those branches of commerce in which it has an advantage.”

    The other benefit of free trade is that it stops nations and peoples going stagnant. Imagine what kind of societies will form if ruling class intellectuals manage to remove all elements of competition and risk? The technological innovations already lost due to demotivation, lack of incentives and bureaucracy must be staggering.

  3. Sean, I hate to be picky but this is pretty fundamental-

    The Law of Comparative advantage is no more than a demonstration of how the increase occurs when exchanges take place across a border. It is, nevertheless, a useful demonstration. It clears aside various misconceptions that would otherwise allow cross-border exchanges to be seen in themselves as harmful. Without going into the sort of arithmetical example that can be found in any textbook of Economics, I will say that free trade enables each participating nation to specialise in those branches of commerce in which it has an advantage.

    That’s not what the law of comparative advantage says, and failure to grasp what it does say causes all kinds of spurious and fallacious beliefs about international trade. It doesn’t say that countries specialise in ” in those branches of commerce in which [they have] an advantage.” It says that countries specialise in those things which they are best at. This is fundamentally different.

    Say there are two commodities; carrots and potatoes. Country A is more efficient at growing both carrots and potatoes than Country B. But Country A is better at growing potatoes than carrots, and Country B is better at growing carrots than potatoes. The LoCA tells us that everyone will do better if Country A focusses on potatoes, and country B focusses on carrots even though Country A can produce cheaper carrots than Country B.

    This is what makes global free trade work; everyone can always produce something, because everyone will benefit so long as everyone concentrates on producing whatever they are best at producing, regardless of the productive efficiencies of competitors. Nobody is ever “locked out” of trade. This isn’t just some minority libertarian/Austrain view, it is basic economics that everyone in economics agrees on and has since Ricardo, except for some nutty Marxists. Failure to understand it causes people to fallaciously believe that all the production will end up in one “best producer” country and thus they start demanding trade barriers to prevent that imaginary catastrophe happening.

    • Ian, your objection is verbal. Indeed, I think “in which they have an advantage” expresses the Law better than “which they are best at.”

      • No, it’s entirely different. “Has an advantage” implies that B is better than A at producing carrots. “Is best at” simply means that B is better at producing carrots than potatoes, even if A is better still than B at producing both carrots and potatoes.

        It really is fundamentally and crucially different.

  4. Messed up my HTML italics :'(

    • Ian, I read it the opposite of how you are writing it.

      When you say B “is best at” producing carrots, that implies that B is better than anyone else at producing carrots.

      On the other hand, when you say that B “has an advantage” from producing carrots, that would in fact reflect the situation you posit (where A is actually better than B at producing carrots, but so MUCH better than B at producing potatoes that it will choose to produce potatoes, leaving B at an advantage in producing carrots).

      Of course, my different reading may be due to being an American.

      • My impression from reading the article was that Sean was using the term – however it reads to anyone – to imply the usage which I argued is fallacious. I agree that the matter of language may read differently to different people.

        I think it’s an interesting and important principle because it doesn’t just apply to international trade, but to individuals and other collectives (companies or communes for instance) too. So if there are two skills in the economy- fishing and gardening- and Alice is more productive at both than Bob, it still is most beneficial to both if Alice does the fishing if that is her most productive skill and Bob does the gardening if that is his (if they are both best at fishing, they should both fish, which sort of breaks down with so few skills and persons, since nobody gardens but works on the larger scale). Which is one of the things that tells us that there should not be persistent unemployment and the fact that there is indicates how badly the elites have fucked everything up in their pursuit of owning everything and having all the money.

        • I’ve spent so much of my life teaching Economics, that my eyes glaze over at the thought of all the numbers you put against typewriters and bicycles, or whatever. For what it may be worth, I use my authorial privilege to say that Thomas is correct in his understanding of what I said. His English is rather good for a foreigner.

  5. Free trade versus taxes on imports or government regulations on imports has got nothing to do with “smashing the British working class” or other such drivel talk – it is a matter of reason.

    Such people as Chief Justice Fortescue (the 15th century writer who supported creating a Council of Experts to advice the King on how to minimise imports and maximise exports) were just wrong – flat wrong.

    As such writers as Sir Dudley North (long before Adam Smith) an Dean Tucker explained – free trade is proved from logical first principles. One can go to more modern writers (such as Ludwig Von Mises) if one wants to – but there is no strict need to do so (as this matter was well understood centuries ago).

    It is not just a matter of libertarianism (although it is true that no one can be a libertarian without supporting free trade) – it is also a matter of basic economics (basic reasoning). It is wrong (fundamentally wrong) to claim that taxing imports (or keeping them out with regulations) will protect wages or conditions of work. People in a specific industry may benefit – but overall people in this country will be harmed by such a policy.

    The only way to save British manufacturing is a policy of radical deregulation(which means coming out of the E.U. – but not just this) and a policy of radically rolling back taxes – which must depend on greatly reducing government spending, which must (in turn) depend on greatly reducing the Welfare State (because that is where most money is spent).

    Step by step this country has implemented the ideas of the Fabian “Minority Report” (in principle if not in the exact details) – in spite of the clearly malevolent intent shown by the “Fabian Window” (look at it, study it, the evil is obvious).

    The critics (those who wrote the “Majority Report” – in the tradition of Octavia Hill and C.S. Locke) have been proved to have been telling the truth.

    This country must return to the principles of those men and women who spent their lives helping the poor – with their own hands.

  6. My broad economic strategy is this. First decide that which should be publicly owned and run and that which can be safely left to private enterprise. Second, ensure through public ownership or protectionist barriers that the country can be self-sufficient in all vital goods and services such as as food, energy, water, defence equipment. Third, the government to create stocks of raw materials which cannot be produced in this country. Fourth, to ensure that the country has the capacity to manufacture all necessary things , not to the point of self-sufficiency but simply to be able to have the ability to expand such manufacturing capacity in times of need.

    As for Sean’s interesting essay, I would disagree with some of the detail. I am old enough to remember, like Winston Smith, “before”, the before in this instance being Thatcherism and its aftermath. I will give a few examples.

    My memory of British goods is that they were not generally inferior to those made abroad before the protectionist barriers came down. Indeed, they were generally of a better and longer lasting quality than the cheap goods sent to us from Asia. These are all too often shoddy and ephemeral in their durability.

    Service was generally better before the influx of immigrants with poor English who we now find so often employed in retail businesses.

    Most importantly the British had a degree of self-respect simply because they saw businesses and state enterprises in Britain owned and run by the British. Today the mere fact that so much of economic activity is controlled by foreigners and so much of what we buy is from either abroad or foreign owned companies operating in Britain, while state enterprises are increasingly headed by foreigners, creates a sense of dependency within many Britons, a feeling that we are a subject people which cannot control its own destiny. .

    For those wanting to go into my ideas on this more deeply, they can be found at http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/free-markets-and-free-trade-elite-propaganda/

    It is a long piece. I will give the sectional headings so people can get a flavour of it

    “Free markets and “free trade” = elite propaganda”

    Robert Henderson

    1. Unquestioned ideas

    2. The “Free Market” is a state regulated market

    3. The “free market” as its proponents conceive it

    4. How effective is anti-monopoly legislation?

    5. Microsoft and Windows – a natural monopoly

    6. The historical trend towards contraction of competition

    7. “Free trade”

    8. Has “free trade” ever been practised?

    9. “Free trade” today

    10. Does “free trade” deliver? The lessons of economic history

    11. Is society materially enriched by “free markets” and “free trade?

    12. What is meant by material enrichment?

    13. How the market fails to provide what the customer wants

    14. Relative poverty and wealth and happiness

    15. Man does not live by bread alone

    16. Geopolitics

    17. The democratic deficit

    18. Does “free trade” increase competition and choice in the long run?

    19. The reality of our economic circumstances

    20. Why elites are so keen on “free markets” and “free trade”

    21. A sane alternative to globalism

    22. Free trade as a religion

    23. An elite ideology

    • That Golden Age in full-

    • I think the economic and material benefits are secondary. Free Trade (or voluntary interactions) that free people from coercion can lead to a better society, encouraging more ethical behaviour and stronger personal relationships in the long run. Just see how the state has destroyed communities and family life turning us into a nation of freeloaders and free-floaters — like the elite themselves…

      Microsoft and Windows – a natural monopoly? Not without all those government contracts and there is also the issue of ‘intellectual property’ to explore.

      • Windows isn’t and never was a monopoly. It is just a highly successful product that dominated the market at a particular stage of technological development. That dominance is now fading, as technology moves on.

        The hatred of MS developed among the middle class left-wing types who dominated the early days of microcomputers and, as part of their generally socialist philosophy, thought everything should be free; and thus ideologically hated Microsoft for selling software commercially, particularly after Gates wrote that famous letter to the Homebrew Computer Club asking them to stop passing free (“pirated”) copies around. The hatred of MS was and is basically a hatred of capitalism in favour of a kind of cybercommunism. And hence, there is orders of magnitude less complaint about the far more hegemonic current status of Google, because of Google’s arch “liberal” stance and their giving away free stuff.

  7. Support for taxes on imports (or regulations keeping out goods and services simply because they are from people from other nations) is absurd. It is absurd even for a nation such as the United States or Russia (which have vast natural resources relative to their population) – it would be suicidal insanity for a nation the size of the United Kingdom (especially if densely populated England ever found itself alone – without the rest of the United Kingdom). Protectionism under present circumstances would certainly lead to a massive depression – it might also very well lead to mass starvation.

    Free trade is one of the most basic principles in Political Economy – someone who rejects this principle, might as well accept the (insane) idea of “public” (i.e. STATE) ownership of industry and/or transport as well. And Robert Henderson appears to accept this also.

    I do not know Mr Henderson – as far as I know I have never met him.

    However, I do know that Sean Gabb well enough to know that he understands that Protectionism (a general policy of high taxes on imports or regulations keeping them out – inevitably leading to an international “trade war”) would. at best, lead to a terrible depression in this country.

    As so often the question is – why is Sean Gabb writing things he knows to be false? Why pretend that a policy would be of benefit when he knows it would cause terrible harm? I used to try and come up with theories to explain why Sean does this (write things as true when he knows them to be false) – however, I now believe he does this simply out of a sense of naughtiness.

    It is much the same with the attacks on Winston Churchill and the pretence that the United Kingdom could (in the long term) have lived in peace with Nazi Germany. Or the publishing of the (at best) lunatic collectivist Kevin Carson (all basic stuff should be from “the same source” collectively locally, economies of scale an “illusion”, machine tools only used for ideological reasons – and on and on…….), or the pushing of Mr Webb (with his obsession with “Anglo Saxons” as super men, even if they do not bother to work and live off welfare, and his belief in new taxes and restricting full citizenship to those who could prove ancestry back to the Middle Ages), and on and on.

    I do not accept that Sean Gabb believes any of this stuff – and nor do I any longer believe that there is deep plot behind all this. It is naughtiness, just naughtiness.

  8. My basic objection to all this Sean naughtyness is that it is a vast distraction – a vast waste of time.

    What the United Kingdom desperately needs to survive is the same as what other nations need to survive.

    A proper financial and monetary system – all lending to be from real savings (not credit expansion), an end to the policy of “cheap money” – “low interest rates”.

    Radical deregulation – which, in the British case, must involve getting out of the European Union (but that is not sufficient on its own – getting out of the E.U. just allows us to deregulate, the deregulation must then actually be done).

    And a dramatic reduction in taxation – which can only be achieved by a dramatic reduction in government spending. And this must involve a roll back of the growth of he Welfare State because that is what most tax money is spent upon.

  9. Paul Marks – I am afraid that you run up against the awkward facts of modern economic history. These are:

    1. No country has ever industrialised successfully except beyond protectionist barriers.

    2. The first industrial revolution occurred in a Britain which practised one of the most restrictive and brilliantly successful protectionist regimens ever, this being one based on primarily on the Navigation Acts and the Old Colonial System.

    3. When this system of protection was recklessly dismantled in the first half of the 19th century Britain entered into a period (1860-1914) where she came the nearest any country has come to true free trade. The problem was – and hear I disagree fundamentally with Sean – no one else forswore their protectionist methods and indeed strengthened them. The results was that by the end of the 19th century the USA, France and Germany had whittled away much of the economic advantage that Britain had enjoyed in 1850.

    Sean and I are not in complete agreement by any means, but we do share a good deal of common ground, especially on the subjects of immigration and the value of nations.

    • Robert – I’m sure we shall continue to disagree. However, the relative decline of Britain after about 1870 was arithmetically inevitable. Germany and America were larger countries. The moment they began to industrialise, the British share of coal and steel production was bound to fall in percentage terms. Bearing in mind their greater interest in that branch of science, the Germans were very likely to become big in chemicals. Generalising from these relative declines has as much validity as assuming an American decline since 1990 on the basis of the American percentage of e-mails sent and received.

      Also, I’m not convinced by the Corelli Barnet claims of a real British economic failure after 1870. He refers to antiquated methods and machinery in certain industries, relative to America and Germany. But these are not so much causes of decline, as rational responses to a loss of comparative advantage. Machine tools, electricals, cars, shipbuilding, etc, etc – these were conspicuous success stories before 1914.

      There are further claims that, regardless of trade policy, our industrial leaders were of inferior quality. These claims fall when you look at the position of the Jews in British industry. Since there was little effective anti-Semitism, there was nothing to stop Jewish entrepreneurs from buying up underperforming industrial firms, and using their general sharpness and tendency to ethnic nepotism to make a great deal of money from them. This mostly didn’t happen, except in some of the sweated trades. This indicates that most of British industry was run about as well as it could be.

      Indeed, one of the definitions of our alleged underachievement was the limited tendency of British industry to amalgamation and the use of American and German working practices – ie, flow manufacturing as opposed to jobbing or batch manufacturing. Well, outside of wartime, almost every effort to copy foreign methods has been a failure. That seems to be because of differences in national and business culture. Also, I am not sure that mass-manufacturing does well without systematic state subsidy – see my main essay above. Manufacturing seems to do best here when largely craft-based. It may be that the love affair with imported Taylorism did more harm than good to our manufacturing. Compare, for example, the Morgan Car Company with British Leyland.

      Our decline since about 1980 is a different matter, and I deal with that in the original essay.

      • Sean – Obviously there would be an adjustment to the relative strength and size of economies if other countries industrialised. The question is how far and how fast would others catch up.

        In the first 100-150 years of the British industrialisation (for convenience I date the industrial revolution from the time Savory invented his steam engine in the 1690s) the rest of the world did remarkably poorly in terms of industralising even with Britain;s example before them.

        The prime question to ask is how the likes of Germany and the USA managed to industrialise so rapidly in the second half of the 19th century when they were so tardy before. What changed? Well, two conditions altered around 1850 – Britain ceased to be protectionist while the likes of Germany and the USA became ever more protectionist through protectionist barriers and state intervention, for example, Prussia and Barvaria nationalised their railways early on.

        It is reasonable to assume that British openness to other countries and their lack of openness were prime drivers of the industrialisation of Germany and the USA. At the same time Britain’s economy became distorted as products from the industrialising countries displaced British industry, for example, the dominance of the German chemical industry left Britain struggling when war broke out in 1914.

  10. Stephen Moriarty

    Didn’t Ricardo put strict conditions on his law, such as no factor mobility between the countries concerned?
    Free trade between sovereign states makes taxes on negative externalities impossible and is thus causing the “great extinction”.
    Nothing can bring back the England of Philip Larkin. It has, like the poet and the Norwegian Blue, “gone to the inevitable.” It is too late for this debate. The main thing is to protect freedom of speech and print so that there is at least some sanity and probity in the world.

    i

  11. Mr Henderson – even if your history was correct (it is not – as such countries as Holland and Singapore show) you would still be confusing history and economics, they are different subjects.

    If you wish to study economics then please do so ( if you have not already done so you can start with “Economics in One Lesson” by Henry Hazlitt) – then I am quite prepared to discuss this matter with you.

    Sadly this is not just a theoretical matter – for example the history of most of Latin American has been blighted by government efforts at “import substitution” and government support of “national industry”.

    Such ignorance has caused terrible harm in the world – and I am in no mood to humour it.

    By the way, this site often hosts attacks on “crony capitalists” – including absurdly over-the-top (indeed lunatic) attacks on “capitalists” and their supposed dependence on government intervention, written by Kevin Carson. But underneath all the lies and absurdities there is a small element of truth. This small element of truth is that some government interventions do indeed favour “crony capitalists” at the expense of the general public.

    And historically (to get back to your favoured subject Mr Henderson) the principle way that governments have favoured crony capitalists at the expense of the general public is by PROTECTIONISM.

  12. By the way – the idea that the economic growth of Prussia-Germany was better under a high tax on imports policy (which Bismark switched to after 1878) than it had been in the early 19th century is false.

    Prussia became economically stronger than Hapsburg Empire when Prussia was still following the free market reforms of the early 19th century. Although Bismark (as someone who honoured the memory of the statist Frederick the Great) did not like to admit that.

    Nor is it true that American economic growth was better during periods of high taxes on imports than it was during periods of low taxes on imports.

    A.L. Perry (the main American free trade writer) fully accepted that economics and history were different subjects. But he did not allow the false historical claims of the Protectionists go unanswered.

  13. Mr Marks – you are missing the point: that point is cold fact that the USA and Germany industrialised under protectionist regimes.

  14. Mr Henderson having a (in the case of Prussia-Germany in the early 19th century) a rather low tax on imports (Prussia had no Progressive income tax till 1891) is not the same as having a Protectionist regime.

    And American economic growth was actually better when taxes on imports were low than when they were high. Such things as the tariff of 1828 were not good for the economy and were soon reduced.

    There is also the cold hard fact that history and economics are not the same subject – they are quite different subjects.

    Unless you are prepared to study economic law (which, it appears, you are not) you can not usefully comment on economic matters. You will tend to fall into gross errors – such as the belief that a nation can not industrialise without having taxes on imports.

  15. Mr Marks – you are arguing against the facts. Those facts are that the U SA and Germany industrialised in the latter half of the 19th century behind strong protectionist barriers and behaviours. Do you deny that their industrialisation really took hold from around 1860 onwards?

  16. Stephen Moriarty

    Apologies for my half-baked comment the other day.
    I used to know something about all this when I was a postgraduate student at the LSE but I have forgotten it all, so I ought to shut up I hear you say.
    However, it is quite obvious that a state might decide to build up one industry at the expense of others for strategic reasons by the use of tariffs or subsidies. Economic growth and income distribution might go one way or another, but if you have the domestic power to do so you could certainly favour corn producers over weavers or arms manufacturers over dairy farmers. Surely what is striking about this discussion here is that the British state completely lacks such power. It lacks it legally, institutionally and politically. As part of the European Union it cannot use tariffs or subsidies; as a part of a globalised economy it cannot build firms that will be in a real sense “British”; as a democratic multi-identity society it has insufficient social-cohesion to persuade one group to subsidise another.
    So we are in the realm of fantasy. Within that realm autarchy has a lot to be said for it. The usual line about “global problems requiring global solutions” ignores the fact that often the problem is globalisation. For instance, trade puts relentless pressure on costs as there is always someone willing to live in a more smog-bound city than yours in order to have a job. Within a state laws might be passed to cut pollution or improve working conditions that have the same effect on all producers, but since that would price you out of foreign markets you can’t do it.
    Free-traders are also fond of talking about the horrors of trade wars, but surely they should draw the conclusion that it is foolish ever to place oneself in the hands of a foreign government in such a way. We do not spend our time regretting that we do not trade with Mars; it is, leaving greed aside, only the disruption of trade that is a catastrophe, not its absence.
    Trade-induced specialisation makes the world economy more vulnerable to environmental and political shocks.
    Nearly all trade today is inter-regional (within an anarchy) since international labour and capital mobility mean that it is impossible to say whether trade is “good” for one nation or another. We are alienated factors of production scattered to the winds. If libertarianism is about freedom, then the freedoms that come from trade are trivial, indeed they are almost slavery.

    • For instance, trade puts relentless pressure on costs as there is always someone willing to live in a more smog-bound city than yours in order to have a job.

      There was a time when I would have sat here and patiently typed out an explanation of the economics of what is wrong with this statement, and the entire comment, for the thousandth time, but I’ve lost that level of patience. In simple terms, anyone who, despite the wealth of information a click away on the internet, cannot grasp why this is a feature not a bug is a lost cause to libertarianism.

      Bastiat must be spinning in his grave.

      • Stephen Moriarty

        Sincerely, please enlighten me.

        • We are all both consumers and producers. As consumers, we put relentless pressure on each other as producers via the price system. This is how economic growth happens. The whole benefit of the free market is that it puts relentless pressures on costs; everybody’s costs. That is what makes us more efficient year on year.

          If you protect the producer half of the person against the consumer half, that pressure is diminished or eliminated, and you get no growth or negative growth.

          I draw cartoons. As a producer, I want to charge the highest price per cartoon possible. But the consumers want the lowest price possible and do everything they can to force me to work harder for less money. The more competitors I have, the more the consumers can oppress me economically by playing us off against each other.

          Autarchy would protect me from competition from other internet cartoonists all over the world. Cartoon consumers in Britain would be forced to pay a higher price. Good for me, bad for them. Whose side should we take then? The consumers’. Because the more they force down my costs, the more cartoons there are in Britain. There has been economic growth.

          And I, of course, do the same to all the other producers I purchase from. We all conspire to force each other to produce as much as possible for as little money as possible.

          It’s a feature, not a bug.

          • Stephen Moriarty

            Thank you very much for taking the time to reply. Let me just say that you make a good argument for competition, but that is not the same as an argument for international trade. Second, you are seeing everything through the eyes of an economist. I know how tempting this can be, but it is simply not a trump argument to say “more growth = good”; you have to consider both the political and ecological sustainability of policy. As Burke said: “A man’s interests trump his undertakings and his passions trump both.” Thank you again.

            • I was responding to your complaint that “trade puts pressure on costs…” so it was an intrinsically economic reply. The arguments for free trade and competition are the same thing. The person who is oppressed by protectionism and its extreme, autarky, is the consumer, who is denied the freedom to trade with those they would prefer to trade with, and suffers from the lack of competition among those they trade with.

              Autarky does not improve political relations or environmental sustainability. In the first case, consider Nazi Germany, whose economic policy was predicated on autarky. Once a nation must produce everything internally, it is faced with the problem of goods and services not available in its internal market. The only solution- as Hitler made clear from the start- is to expand the internal market’s boundaries by conquest.

              It’s a choice. You can trade your own production for oil produced by foreigners, or you can send your panzers East to capture the Caucasian oil fields. This is often overlooked in our fascination with Nazi atrocities; the purpose of war, to the autarkic regime, was to capture resources in the East. In that sense, the Reich was the last of the old great empires, who were all predicated on the same strategy of geographic expansion to extend the resource base. Libertarianism is predicated on the trade option, which tends to cause rather less death. One might add that other recent attempts at autarky- Albania, North Korea, Cambodia, do not have a very good record either.

              And, growth is always good. Genuine economic growth is the increase in productive efficiency. The more efficient you are, the more you produce with the same resources available. It is vastly more efficient to trade with other regions and nations for their coal, oil and uranium than to try to run industry on charcoal which, here in Northampton, is the only fuel available. We would soon run out of trees. Whether that trade is across a national, county or parish boundary makes no difference, because political boundaries are irrelevant to trade.

    • Stephen Moriarty – “Free-traders are also fond of talking about the horrors of trade wars, but surely they should draw the conclusion that it is foolish ever to place oneself in the hands of a foreign government in such a way. We do not spend our time regretting that we do not trade with Mars; it is, leaving greed aside, only the disruption of trade that is a catastrophe, not its absence.
      Trade-induced specialisation makes the world economy more vulnerable to environmental and political shocks.”

      This is correct. Left to it own devices a society will find its own economic level. You are also right to stress that globalism = destabilisation. What is most valuable to a society is stability. Without that the ordinary person cannot [play for the future because they are constantly assailed with fears about what will happen.

      The other major point in this context is that humans are innately tribal. The primary objection to mass immigration is that it changes a society utterly, bring inevitable racial and ethnic conflict.

      When Darwin was on the Beagle the ship pulled into a port town which had hit by an earthquake which had levelled most of it. Rich and poor were suddenly equal in their material circumstances. Darwin notes that there was a general sense of happiness. Ergo, man does not live by bread alone.

      • I hope you like turnips Robert, because the natural economic level of a British autarky- scratch that, English autarky, we don’t want that foreign Scottish and Welsh stuff either- is going to involve eating an awful lot of them, and not much else.

        • To be fair, Ian, Robert isn’t an autarky man. He’s a strategic industry protectionist, and he wants to keep up the capacity for self-sufficiency in food.

          I don’t actually think the direct opportunity costs of this kind of industrial protection would be that great. What makes me dubious is the increased cartelisation of an economy already dominated by the ruling class, and the loss of longer term dynamic efficiencies.

          As for agriculture, we live in the world as it is. Twice in the past hundred years, we’ve come weeks away from eating boiled grass. Who knows what will happen in the next hundred years? It would be just a nuisance if we were cut off from our suppliers of cheap clothes and Sky boxes. Food is another matter. For reasons of security, I’d favour untaxed and unlimited import of food from anywhere in the world, but with subsidies to British farmers so they could keep in business – something like the deficiency payment scheme we had before we entered within the baroque glories of the CAP. Unlike with tariffs and quotas, you could do a cost-benefit analysis of this on the inside of a fag packet.

      • I’ll just add this from Wikipedia (not the fount of all knowledge, but good enough for now)-

        “In 1877 the price of British-grown corn averaged 56 shillings and 9 pence a quarter and for the rest of the nineteenth century it never reached within 10 shillings of that figure. In 1878 the price fell to 46 shillings and 5 pence. By 1885 corn-growing land declined by a million acres (4,000 km²) (28½%) and in 1886 the corn price decreased to 31 shillings a quarter. Britain’s dependence on imported grain during the 1830s was 2%; during the 1860s it was 24%; during the 1880s it was 45%, for corn it was 65%. The 1881 census showed a decline of 92,250 in agricultural labourers since 1871, with an increase of 53,496 urban labourers. Many of these had previously been farm workers who migrated to the cities to find employment, despite agricultural labourers’ wages being higher than those of Europe.”

        I will guess that you see this as a Bad Thing; British production had been displaced and self-sufficiency reduced. But looking at the prices, you can see what a Good Thing it was. The price of corn (and thus bread) fell dramatically and British labour shifted from something it wasn’t very good at (growing corn) to other trades it was better at (manufacturing). Perhaps most significantly, offloading the burden of producing food to foreign peasants enabled the development of an urban working class producing other “high tech” (for the time) goods.

        And this is important. One of the key economic developments necessary for the development of a modern society is getting the people off the land. This is what holds back much of the Third World. When most of your population are wading around in muck growing food, there are not many people available to make new goods like steam engines, televisions and iPads. There are various ways to make that transition, but the least interventionist way is to let the free market work its magic and evict those inefficient small farmers from their plots, and force them to go do something more productive. The abolition of the Corn Laws clearly helped in that transition in England.

        The statistics thus tell us it was good in every way. Food got cheaper, and economic development occurred. Agricultural work was offloaded to foreigners. What’s not to like?

        • This reply is in the wrong place, sorry. It should be appended to the Corn Laws discussion lower down. :(

  17. Yes Mr Henderson – both Prussia and the United States were already great economic powers in 1860. And their development in the late 19th century was not faster than it had been in the early 19th century.

    If your view was correct – Vienna (the home of Protectionism) not Berlin, would have been the centre of power in the German speaking lands.

    Bismark may have detested liberalism – but he used the economic strength that liberalism gave Prussia.

    Against Denmark, then against Austria (and most of the rest of the German lands), then against France.

    • Mr Marks – “Yes Mr Henderson – both Prussia and the United States were already great economic powers in 1860. And their development in the late 19th century was not faster than it had been in the early 19th century.”

      This is simply objectively untrue. There was of course some industrialisation but it formed a very minor part of the economy. Britain became a predominantly urban society in the 1850s, other countries, including the US and Germany, remained primarily agricultural for decades after Britain.

      “If your view was correct – Vienna (the home of Protectionism) not Berlin, would have been the centre of power in the German speaking lands.”

      That does not follow at all. Protectionism does not guarantee anything beyond a society finding its own economic level and stability. The Austro-German Empire lost out to Germany because it became too ethnically fissile.

      • The key point being that societies which do not trade “find a level” well below the level they would find if they did trade because, as already said above, blocking cheaper imports reduces the quantity of goods avaialable in the protectionist nation.

        If Kettering can bake cheaper bread than Northampton, and Northampton blocks imports from Kettering, the people who suffer are the Northamptonians who have less bread to eat.

        Admittedly it would allow us to avoid having to deal with Kettering folk, who are a bit strange and have a funny smell. But the economic case is entirely clear, and very simple to understand.

  18. Ian B. – that was a nice reply, very English.

    I can be too Germanic “first you must understand the following methodological principles, then……”

    • Maybe I’d have got the point across if I’d started with “first you must understand the following methodological principles…”
      :(

  19. S.M.

    Edmund Burke was a free trader – so much so that he was prepared to lose his seat in Bristol over the matter (and did so), and his first disputes with Fox (before the French Revolution) came over the same principle.

    The Edmund Burke one reads about in books about him (especially recent books) has very little to do with the man himself.

    • Stephen Moriarty

      Edmund Burke, “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity”:
      “A little place like Geneva… which has no territory… which depends for its existence on the good-will of three neighbouring powers, and is of course continually in a state of something like a siege, or in the speculation of it, might find some resource in state granaries… This is the policy of a state too small for agriculture.” (The Portable Edmund Burke, Penguin, 1999, p209)
      Here we see Burke keenly aware of the realpolitik of economic policy. The essay is a defence of market forces, but he does not suffer from ideological capture to the point where he forgets the lessons of experience.
      “The Death of Economics” by Paul Ormerod (Faber) is a good critique of conventional economics.
      I was paraphrasing Burke before. Here is the original:
      “The operation of dangerous and delusive first principles obliges us to have recourse to the true ones… We lay too much weight upon the formality of treaties and compacts. We do not act much more wisely when we trust to the interests of men as guarantees of their engagements. The interests frequently tear to pieces the engagements; and the passions trample upon both. Entirely to trust to either, is to disregard our own safety, or not to know mankind.”
      Op. cit. p524
      I haven’t read the book on Burke that came out recently but I would like to. Keep the arguments coming please.

  20. Ian – you can not expect a lot of free market supporters here, The words “free market” certainly – but. in practice, a lot of people here will jump on some imperfection (and there always will be a lot imperfections – after all “perfect competition” is a artificial device of neo classical texts, nothing more) to demand intervention (supposedly to make things better – in fact to make them worse).

    I know the place is still called “The Libertarian Alliance” – but that does not mean very much. I used to rage and storm about this (throw my toys out the pram and so on), but I am used to it now.

    • I just sold a website subscription to somebody in the USA. Most of my readers are in foreign lands. I find it frustrating and baffling that anyone would think this a bad idea.

      Come to think of it Paul, you being in a foreign town- faraway Kettering- I daresay we shouldn’t be talking to each other. We might accidentally decide to trade something, and thus betray our fellow townsmen.

    • Actually, come to mention it, earlier today I went outside and there were some men digging up the road. Fancying a chat, I wandered over and asked, “are you from the Council? The road was only resurfaced last year.”

      And the fellow said, “Oh no, we’re Carsonites. We’re just digging up the road. You’ll be much better off without it. It’s to make sure you aren’t oppressed by Sainsburys from now on”.

      I daresay I’d better get gardening.

  21. Gardening? Strange Northampton idea. Keep your outlander ideas to yourself – ALIEN!

  22. Sean – Ian understands the difference between Mr Henderson and the lunatic Kevin Carson, quite well.

    However, for a small densely populated island such as Britain to dream of such things as “self sufficiency in food” is not practical. And if the United Kingdom were ever to become just “England” (a term you sometimes use) it would be even more impractical. Unless biotechnology (or nanotechnology) replaced conventional farming at some point.

    Both Great Britain and the United Kingdom (the latter including Northern Ireland) depend on relatively open world trade – “strategic protectionism” would lead to a trade war and would be economic suicide for this country.

    • Mr Marks – It is not that I seek to have nothing but British food but rather to have sufficient capacity to feed ourselves in an emergency such as a blockade or even just a general global food shortage. That would be easily within our capacity, especially if GM foods were adopted. As it is we still produce around 60% of the food we consume plus there is the food we export which could be kept back for home consumption.

      There is also a good deal of food which is wasted both through the rejection of fruit and vegetables by the big supermarkets which insist only on perfect and regular looking and through the wastefulness of people in their homes. The waste cause by supermarkets could be ended by legal restraints on what shops can insist and in any case in an emergency no one would be worrying about the look of fruit and veg. Equally, in times of shortage people will value food and cease to waste it.

      We could not engage in the large scale production of tropical fruit and vegetables and the fruit and veg we can produce might mean seasonal foods rather than year-long-availability, but that is no great loss. Moreover, there are some commercial enterprises already running very large greenhouses, often utilising media other than soil, for example, hydroponics, to grow a good deal of food. It could be that even tropical and sub-tropical food could be grown on some scale in the UK in the future. GM could also allow such crops to be grown in the more temperate parts of the UK in bulk.

      For further info see my
      http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/could-britain-be-self-sufficient-in-food/

      • The only nation with the capacity to mount a naval blockade is the Americans, and if Britain and France have somehow lost control of the Channel to the American navy, I think that would mean we were in much deeper trouble than being short of tomatoes.

        • Ian B – at present but what of twenty years hence when China and India may be a threat or a USE has been established with its own armed forces? Or what a trade war between the USA and the EU?

  23. Protectionism and “self suffiency” are degrees of autarky and all based on the same disastrous fallacy. Feel free to bring back the Corn Laws, Sean and Robert. But don’t expect it to benefit anybody.

    • Ian B – the Corn Laws were an eminently sensible regulatory means, preventing corn being imported until the domestic price rose above a set level after which corn could be imported until the domestic price reduced to below the set level.

      As a mechanism that strikes me as a simple self-regulating mechanism which could be applied to a wide variety of goods.

      The only problem with such a mechanism is the level of the set price . The Corn Laws were represented by the free traders after the reform of the Commons in the 1830s as a levy on the poor to subsidise landowners. In fact there is little statistical evidence to support the claim which was essentially a bit of propaganda,.

      • But then you get back to the problem that there is no sensible reason to prevent corn from being imported, if it is cheaper than native corn. You are simply forcing consumers to pay more for bread than they otherwise would. Which is the basic problem with protectionism. It makes people poorer than they otherwise would be. It is doing the exact opposite of what any sensible person would want, which would be more bread supply, not less.

  24. You, the Brits, are the problem. You are one of the most degenerated and arrogant countries in the world. But it’s not your people, it’s the intellectual superstructure. This structure is meanwhile aware in each and every country of the western world. The so-called intellecual elite rules the world and not the people with their real abilities, that run the human world.
    Ask yourself why this is.
    When and by whom was the Bank of England installed? How many people on earth have been killed by the British Empire and are still being killed? Who installed the “modern” demo(n)cracy? Who financed Marx? Why are there still 3 classes in britain?
    Why had there never been a prosecution against any of the British crimes against humanity?
    Why does nobody in your country notice these crimes during the last at least 300 years?
    Why are there no accusations against the Brits because of their genocide of the natives in Canada and the USA? Why does anyone notice, that the civil war in the united States 1776 was against the British and their East India Company? Why is nobody of you british people recognizing, that the worst wars and the destroying of naturally grown parts of the world are on your account? And why don’t you recognize, that all this evil could have a connection with your banking system?
    Why don’t you realise that this sentence is fundamentally wrong: “Whatever we think of their industrial achievement, the Germans did lose the Great War; and they lost in part because their industry was less responsive and less innovative than our own.” What a f….g b…..t! The Germans killed your supply chaines with their innovative submarines. They were just before killing your empire. And then your secretary of state (Balfour) decided to stage a false flag with the Lusitania in order to pull the United States into this war.
    He was only able to do that, because the government of the United States had been occupied by the bankers, the same bankers who are actually ruling the world. Why is this not an issue in all of these discussions about free trade?
    On the other hand this man named Balfour gave the bankers a promise: To make Palestine a Jewish nation.
    I am a stupid little people living on this planet. But I know one thing. In life you always meet a second time. This is the the battle of reality and truth against fiction and lie!
    What had one of your famous members of your society, John Maynard Keynes, once said: In the end we are all dead. But what did he mean with WE? The liars?
    Set yourself free of your cage and the cube you are living in. Only the truth will set you free. And there will be no new beginning until the real evil and its lies are beging exposed. And until you are not willing to destroy YOUR lies and your cage, you will defnitely never be a libartarian nor a good man.

  25. I haven’t had time to take part in the debate on this. I fully support Sean’s argument on this. And another thing that could be brought into the mix is countries with huge trade surpluses that intervene to hold their currencies down. It’s all very well saying free trade is OK – but China has created financial distortions throughout the world that are the real cause of the recent slump. In any case, freedom within the bounds of the nation is more important to me than freedom across transnational borders.

  26. I agree with Mr Webb that currency exchange rates should not be rigged (“fixed”) and China is indeed guilty of exchange rate rigging. However, two wrongs do not make a right – and the correct response to the action of the Chinese government is not taxes on Chinese imports.

    Nor does exchange rate fixing explain the German trade surplus with the United Kingdom – as the exchange rate between the Pound and the Euro is up to supply and demand.

    Nor is any of this to do with food imports – which do not tend to come from China or Germany.

  27. Ian – as you may know British farming adapted to free trade (by going into different areas and so on) and by the early years of the 20th century British farming was fine.

    Then the First World War came along – and messed everything up.

  28. S.M.

    Do not play the Kevin Carson game of quoting a free market thinker out-of-context to pretend they held the OPPOSITE of the opinions they actually did hold.

    The lines you quote from Edmund Burke are taken from the middle of an argument he is making AGAINST state granaries.

    But should one expect honestly from a person, yourself, who writes under a fake name?

  29. Robert Henderson – the principle of the Corn Laws (that imports should be taxed to keep up domestic prices) was “sensible” and should be applied to a “wide range of goods” (as if high priced food was not enough).

    Well you are not a lunatic as Mr Carson (at best) is, Sir – but you are no student of Political Economy either.

    However, I will make this concession to your position….

    All regulations should be removed from British farming – the vile web of death that is denounced in the works of Christopher Booker and Richard North denounce.

    Also government pressure to sell farm land (such as the vile strong arm tactics that are being used against friends of mine near Bicester) should end.

    No more government backed “Eco Towns” (what is an “Eco Town” – it is a town with the letters “ECO” tacked on the front) or HS2.

    However, I repeat – that unless there is some breakthrough in either biotechnology or nanotechnology “feeding ourselves in an emergency” is not a practical possibility for this country – not any more.

    Should international free trade collapse (and I AGREE with you – it may) this country will starve – “period” (as the Americans say).

    You may consider urging your children or grandchildren to move to Australia or New Zealand.

    No I am not being “sarcastic” or “ironic” – as always I mean what I say.

  30. To turn back from economics to history.

    Everything I said about Prussia-Germany and the United States was objectively true – indeed some people pointed it out at the time.

    The economic ideology of Henry Clay in the United States was false – false in every part. As was pointed out by his opponents – such as Martin Van Buren and Salmon P. Chase.

    And Bismark – was a parasite.

    He used the economic strength that liberalism provided (for his own vile ends) – even while despising liberalism itself.

  31. Free trade by all means

    Food storage at an individual level as well as a national level seems a good idea. Call it survivalism (now known as “prepping” by the Yanks).

    Given the economic mess coming down the pike we should all be doing so.

    • Preparationism is all very well in America and much of Europe. In a country as disarmed and densely populated as England, you are simply turning your house into some as yet unknown gang’s larder. I wrote a novel about this last year.

      • No harm in storing away a few tins of baked beans for a rainy day…

      • A friend of mine has a sideline in alternative energy installations. Some he has done are deliberately disguised; solar panels disguised as roof slates, hidden rooms, hidden generators, etc. The primary concern for such people is not so much gangs as, in the event of a civil breakdown, government looting. Inevitably the collapsing State would turn to confiscating anything stored or useful, start shooting “hoarders” etc, and that is a primary concern.

  32. Yes Mr Ecks – individual (and voluntary organisation) food storage – Glenn Beck (for example) has been urging this for years, and rightly so.

    As for national food storage It has been tried in India – and it has led to vast dumps of food rotting away or being eaten by rats and insects.

    Anyone who thinks Britain would be different – does not know the British government very well.

  33. That is a good point Dr Gabb (silent typing at this time of course) and I had not thought of it.

    For many friends and neighbours to store food in (say) South Dakota – or even in the suburbs or Dallas (where Mr Beck lives – and not by chance) is a different thing from people doing it in London.

    They (the Americans who are likely to do this sort of thing) often have firearms and experience in using them (just having a weapon is useless – unless you are willing and able to kill people with it) and they have access to vast amounts of farm land (and untapped farmland if the restrictions of the Federal government collapsed).

    It is different – very different, here.

    As for Europe – yes places such as Switzerland or Bavaria are rather different to this land.

    I would also say that Ulster is different to England.

    Not just a matter of less densely populated – it just “feels” different, the culture is different.

    Unpleasant in some ways – but, perhaps, better for the grim times ahead.

  34. Food prep on large and small scale is useful in times of potential shortage but not an outright collapse. I was assuming a large emergency but not TEOTWAWKI. In a full-on Kurt Saxon scenario I agree you would need guns.

  35. Well my own view is that anything longer than a couple of days is probably TEOTWAWKI. It’s hard to think of a plausible intermediate scenario. When we had an outbreak of cryptosporidium in the water here a while ago, Sainsburys was full of rapidly shipped in bottled water within 24 hours.

    I have paraffin lamps, a little stove, and a few tins. Anything that they won’t get me through is the Zombie Apocalypse or equivalent. In which case, my first priority is to loot every newsagent I can find for the tobacco.