Free Trade Prevents the Growth of Civilization

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Fitzhugh finds the standard arguments for free trade as false as they are specious:

The usual and familiar arguments in favor of this policy are, that it is cheaper to buy abroad good manufactured articles in exchange for agricultural products, than to buy them at home, where more indifferent articles would be obtained for a larger amount of agricultural products.

And again, that we, having no skill or spare moneyed capital, but possessing a rich soil, fine climate, and suitable labor for farming, should follow farming, whilst other nations, without these advantages, but having a large moneyed capital, and great artistic and mechanical skill, should produce manufactured articles, and exchange them for our grain and other products, that thus both we and they would be benefited. The argument is specious, but as false as it is specious.

If an agricultural people were found without any manufactures, by a manufacturing one, the effect of free trade would be to prevent the invention and practice of all the mechanic arts, for “necessity is the mother of invention,” and trade would remove the necessity of home manufactures. But, in truth, there never was a people, however savage, without some knowledge of manufactures and the mechanic arts. When that knowledge, as in the instances of Africans and Indians, is very slight, and the processes of course very tedious, laborious, and inefficient, the immediate effect of contact with a civilized nation by trade, is to extinguish the little knowledge they have, and to divert them to fishing, hunting, searching for gold and similar pursuits, which savages can practice almost as well as civilized men. The African ceases to smelt iron when he finds a day’s work in hunting for slaves, iron or gold, will purchase more and better instruments than he could make in a week, and the Indian pursues trapping, and hunting, and fishing, exclusively, when he can exchange his game, his furs and fish, for blankets, guns, powder and whiskey, with the American. Thus does free trade prevent the growth of civilization and depress and destroy it, by removing the necessity that alone can beget it. Its effects on agricultural countries, however civilized, are precisely similar in character to those on savages. Necessity compels people in poor regions, to cultivate commerce and the mechanic arts, and for that purpose to build ships and cities. They soon acquire skill in manufactures, and all the advantages necessary to produce them with cheapness and facility. The agricultural people with whom they trade, have been bred to exclusive farming, by the simplicity of its operations, its independence of life, and the fertility of their soil. If cut off like China was, and Japan yet is, from the rest of the civilized world, they would have to practise at home all the arts, trades and professions of civilized life, in order to supply the wants of civilized beings. But trade will supply everything they need, except the products of the soil. As they are unskilled in mechanic arts, have few towns, little accumulated capital, and a sparse population, they produce, with great labor and expense, all manufactured articles. To them it is cheaper, at present, to exchange their crops for manufactures than to make them. They begin the exchange, and each day the necessity increases for continuing it, for each day they learn to rely more and more on others to produce articles, some of which they formerly manufactured, — and their ignorance of all, save agriculture, is thus daily increasing. It is cheaper for a man, little skilled in mechanics, to buy his plough and wagon by the exchange of agricultural products, than awkwardly, clumsily and tediously to manufacture them of bad quality with his own hands. Yet, if this same man will become a skilful mechanic, he will be able to procure four times as much agricultural products for his labor, as he can now secure with his own hands. His labor too, will be of a lighter, less exposed, more social character, and far more improving to his mind. What is true of the individual, is true as to a nation, the people who buy their manufactures abroad, labor four times as hard, and as long, to produce them, as if they made them at home. In the case of the nation, this exclusive agriculture begets a sparse and poor population; sparse, because no more people can be employed, than are sufficient to cultivate the land, — poor, because their labor, though harder and more exposed, produces in the aggregate about one-fourth what the same amount of lighter labor would, in a purely mechanical and manufacturing country. Density of population doubles and quadruples the value of labor and of property, because it furnishes the opportunity for association and division of labor, and the division of charges and expenses. When one man has to bear the expense of a school, a church, a mill, a store, a smith’s shop, &c., he is very apt to let his family go without religion and education, and his farm without many of the necessaries and conveniences that properly appertain to it. Where a few have to bear these expenses, the burden on each is very heavy, but where, as in manufacturing countries, with a dense population and many villages, these expenses are sub-divided among many, the burden is light to each, — so that their property and their labor is vastly more available and valuable.

The sparsely settled agricultural country makes by its pursuits, one-fourth what the manufacturing country does, and the money that it makes is probably, in general, if spent at home, capable of purchasing one-half only of the pleasures, comforts and luxuries of life that the same amount of money would in countries engaged in other pursuits. The pleasures of society are seldom indulged in, or if indulged in, at much expense of time and inconvenience, in merely farming countries, where people live at considerable distance from each other. There is no occasion for towns or cities, and not enough of the rich to support places of recreation and amusement. The rich are, therefore, all absentees. Some go off for pleasure, some to religious conventions and associations, some for education, and those who remain at home, do so not to spend money and improve the country, but to save it, in order that they too may hereafter visit other regions. The latter class are no less absentees, in effect, than the former classes.

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