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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Laissez faire casualties

LI, in pursuance of an editing job for a client, was reading Mill’s Principles of Political Economy the other day, looking for a certain quote. We found the quote, but we also found Mill’s rather startling defense of the export of food stuffs from countries that were in the midst of famine as dictated by the logic of free trade. Or so it appeared to us. The passage, in the PPE, reads:

“On the subject, however, of subsistence, there is one point which deserves
more especial consideration. In cases of actual or apprehended scarcity, many countries of Europe are accustomed to stop the exportation of food. Is this, or not, sound policy? There can be no doubt that in the present state of international morality, a people cannot, any more than an individual, be blamed for not starving itself to feed others. But if the greatest amount of good to mankind on the whole, were the end aimed at in the maxims of international conduct, such collective churlishness would certainly be condemned by them. Suppose that in ordinary circumstances the trade in food were perfectly free, so that the price in one country could not habitually exceed that in any other by more than the cost of carriage, together with a moderate profit to the importer. A general scarcity ensues, affecting all countries, but in unequal degrees. If the price rose in one country more than in others, it would be a proof that in that country the scarcity was severest, and that by permitting food to go freely thither from any other country, it would be spared from a less urgent necessity to relieve a greater. When the interests, therefore, of all countries are considered, free exportation is desirable. To the exporting country considered separately, it may, at least on the particular occasion, be an inconvenience: but taking into account that the country which is now the giver will in some future season be the receiver, and the one that is benefited by the freedom, I cannot but think that even to the apprehension of food rioters it might be made apparent, that in such cases they should do to others what they would wish done to themselves.”

This, to my eye, seems to be heartless tripe. Now, I know Mill is not in the business of doling out heartless tripe. I also know that the case he is considering was contemporary with the writing of the Political Economy. This is from Mill’s autobiography:

“The Political Economy was far more rapidly executed than the Logic, or indeed than anything of importance which I had previously written. It was commenced in the autumn of 1845, and was ready for the press before the end of 1847. In this period of little more than two years there was an interval of six months during which the work was laid aside, while I was writing articles in the Morning Chronicle (which unexpectedly entered warmly into my purpose) urging the formation of peasant properties on the waste lands of Ireland. This was during the period of the Famine, the winter of 1846-47, when the stern necessities of the time seemed to afford a chance of gaining attention for what appeared to me the only mode of combining relief to immediate destitution with permanent improvement of the social and economical condition of the Irish people. But the idea was new and strange; there was no English precedent for such a proceeding: and the profound ignorance of English politicians and the English public concerning all social phenomena not generally met with in England (however common elsewhere), made my endeavours an entire failure. Instead of a great operation on the waste lands, and the conversion of cottiers into proprietors, Parliament passed a Poor Law for maintaining them as paupers: and if the nation has not since found itself in inextricable difficulties from the joint operation of the old evils and the quack remedy it is indebted for its deliverance to that most unexpected and surprising fact, the depopulation of ireland, commenced by famine, and continued by emigration.”

In both the PPE and the Autobiography, there is an odd coolness of tone – especially as it contrasts with the lively heat generated by contending against the principles of Protectionism. It is as if the dead of Ireland could be considered with one’s riding boots on, in contrast to the Ur-English proposers of raising the tariff on flax. It is always a little hurtful when one’s intellectual heroes fall for their age’s most vulgar prejudices.

However, on re-reading the PPE passage, one is struck by its lack of Mill’s habitual clarity: this is a defense of free trade that is so full of conditionals as to be a sort of economic fiction. In particular, we feel there is a touch of willful blindness in a lifelong employee of the India House writing ” If the price rose in one country more than in others, it would be a proof that in that country the scarcity was severest, and that by permitting food to go freely thither from any other country, it would be spared from a less urgent necessity to relieve a greater. When the interests, therefore, of all countries are considered, free exportation is desirable.” That equality among the interests of all countries would, of course, be the ruin of colonialism – that is, if it were taken to a political level. And if it is not taken to a political level, one wonder how the prices rising in the afflicted country are going to be paid. The paradox of famine is that the demand for food that rises the prices stems from the condition that has visited, with catastrophic effect, the agricultural sector in the country. Demand, in other words, is way out of kilter with income.

Mill knew this. In fact, while he was writing the mammoth PPE, he was also (as an ever energetic Victorian) writing a series of articles for the Morning Chronicle about the situation in Ireland. Mill’s articles could be boiled down to a negative and a positive component. The negative component was his concern about how the Government was going about dispensing money. First, he did not like the idea of public works projects in order to maintain the poorest Irish, since, in Mill’s view, the public works were inefficient – simply adding useless capacity to transport and such – and had the vicious effect of attracting agricultural laborers off the land. Second, he did not like the Government’s choice of landlords as the preferred vehicle for putting money in Ireland. He thought that loaning money to a class that had evidently made a mess of their business in Ireland was expanding a problem, rather than solving one. The positive component in Mill’s articles was the advocacy of a program similar, in nature, to the FHA – loaning money, on easy terms, to peasants in order for them to buy ‘wasteland’. Mill thought the tenant farmer system was at the bottom of Ireland’s ills.


Mill’s negative view of Government expenditure was echoed in the Great Depression by the right, which certainly saw no use in Roosevelt’s many public work projects. Of course, in Japan and Germany, at the same time, the massive outlay for public works projects, plus ending the gold standard, plus a policy of controlled reflating, was ending the Depression much quicker than it ended here. The same was true for Britain, which was even making a success of protectionist policies that formed its Commonwealth into a super-regional trading bloc – one of the reasons that England, in the late thirties, experienced a housing boom. Plus, of course, Conservatives and Labor had already provided a minimum social insurance plan. The conservative complaint is really a class complaint, anyway – conservative anxiety is always aroused when the instruments of power seemed to be used to help the powerless. It has nothing to do with the size of the government. The scale of government really has as little to do with the particulars of the alternatives between sides in the hegemonic ideology of post industrial capitalism as the scale of employment does – the size of government seeks its level as a share of the GDP independently of the opinions of lawmakers about big or small government.

Still, one gets back, with Mill, to this moment in which the imagination turns to stone. Wordsworth might have awoken him to life, but it was a very English life. The life of the Irish, and their deaths, was not a spirit easily roused from the mere data. There are a few passionate outbursts in the articles about the condition of Ireland. But the marmoreal utopianism of the Free Trade passage in PPE rests, like a gravestone, not only on the million slain by the Potato famine, but on the millions to come who will die in India due to Britain’s use of terror famine tactics there – free trade, one should always remember, has as many notches in its belt for as many bodies as Soviet style collectivization.

1 comment:

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