Tariffs, Trade, and the British Corn Laws

David Foster over at Chicagoboyz has some good thoughts on tariffs and such.

Stuart Schneiderman linked an article by Robert Samuelson on the 1846 British repeal of the tariffs on food imports, which further linked an Economist article arguing that:

With the repeal of the tariffs, instituted to protect British corn farmers, liberal economic policies ascended. Free trade, free enterprise, free markets and limited government became the rule. And the world has not been the same since.  (Schneiderman’s summary)

To me, it is highly questionable how much the elimination of tariffs had to do with limited government and internal free enterprise. The view that the British 1846 action was economically a very good thing for almost everybody is, however, generally accepted.  From the Economist article:

The case for getting rid of British tariffs on imported grain was not a dry argument about economic efficiency. It was a mass movement, one in which well-to-do liberal thinkers and progressive businessmen fought alongside the poor against the landowners who, by supporting tariffs on imports, kept up the price of grain…When liberals set up the Anti-Corn Law League to organise protests, petitions and public lectures they did so in the spirit of the Anti-Slavery League, and in the same noble name: freedom. The barriers the league sought to remove did not merely keep people from their cake—bad though such barriers were, and strongly though they were resented. They were barriers that held them back, and which set people against each other. Tearing them down would not just increase the wealth of all. It would bring to an end, James Wilson believed, the “jealousies, animosities and heartburnings between individuals and classes…and…between this country and all others.”

Again, this is all mostly generally-accepted thinking.  But Stuart’s post and the links reminded me of something I read–oddly enough, in a 1910 book on railroad history.  The author (Angus Sinclair) describes the transition to steel rails (from cast iron) and the heavier trains they enabled, and then discusses the political-economic impact of this transition:

The invention of cheap methods of making steel rails has exerted a tremendous effect upon railroad transportation, and has created social revolutions in certain part of the world…It threw many farms in New England and along the Atlantic seaboard out of cultivation; it caused a semi-revolution in farming business in the British Isles, and strongly affected the condition and fortunes of millions of people in other countries.  Irish peasants used to go in thousands to England and Scotland to work in the harvesting of grain crops and thereby earned enough money to pay the rent of their small holdings.  Steel rails and Consolidation locomotives stopped the cultivation of so many wheat fields in the British Isles that the help of the Irish worker was no longer needed…

The woes of Ireland were merely the preliminary manifestations of hardships inflicted through the grim ordeal of competition worked out by our cheapened  methods of land transportation.  (The heavier locomotive enabled by steel rails) is steadily forcing more grain raising farms of Europe out of cultivation and is raising a demand for protection against cheap land, just as our politicians have so long urged the necessity for protection against the cheap labor of Europe.

About 60 years ago Great Britain abolished all duties on grain…By curious reasoning the statesmen believed that this policy would not only make the British Isles the manufacturers of the world, but that it would increase the prosperity of the agricultural communities as well.  The first thirty years’ experience of free corn did not seriously  challenge the correctness of the free trade theory, for more of the American wheat lands were yet unbroken prairie or virgin forests, and our steel rail makers and locomotive builders were merely getting ready…In 1858 the rate per bushel of wheat from Chicago to New York was 38.61 cents.  The rate today is 11.4 cents…

The effect of that cheapening of transportation in the United States has been very disastrous to Great Britain, for during the last thirty years there had been a shrinkage of 3,000,000 acres in wheat and another of 750,000 acres in green crops; an enormous amount of land had reverted to pasturage…and the number of cultivators of the soil  had declined 600,000 in thirty years–1,000,000 in fifty years.

That is a high price to pay for the devotion to a theory which fails to work out as expected.

Keep reading, it’s well out my knowledge area, so I don’t know either. But it makes sense to me. The Great Plains could not be farmed until a way to get the crop to market could be devised – that was the railroad, and by 1900, it went almost everywhere.

The point I took here is this. Free trade is great, for those it helps, sometimes it doesn’t help some, sometimes it actively hurts people, like those Irish migrant workers in England.

The other point is that it’s not obvious who gets helped and who doesn’t. If you’re a farmer in the EU, it’s protectionist policies on food probably help, but if you eat, they probably hurt. Where exactly is the balance point, and how often does it change?

Questions without answers, mostly, I suspect. But things we should think about.



William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill

Buffalo Bill Cody Image via Wikipedia

Out here in Nebraska, we’re pretty proud of our land. We’ll readily grant that it is not overly pretty, like  Pennsylvania hills with all the trees and winding roads and such.

This is a land for strong, independent people, men and women alike. Our forefathers settled here, smart people that they were, only after they had figured out how to get crop (and cattle) to market. If you didn’t know, the Ogallala trail from Texas to Montana went through Ogallala.

It can be tough out here, yes, and lonely too, but it’s by no means ugly. If you think so, you don’t understand the miracle of nature and man; how this state can raise corn to feed a considerable portion of the world while simultaneously feeding some of Earth’s best cattle, and as an afterthought making fuel for your car, too.

In truth, most of us find I-80 boring, too. Iowans won’t admit it in public but, they feel the same way. Corn in the mass, just isn’t that interesting, I find myself patrolling power lines and identifying center pivots by brand and model, to keep it somewhat interesting. Parenthetically, did you know that center pivots are a Nebraska invention, shortly after World War Two, and are all made in Nebraska.

But if you get out of the Platte Valley, you can find the wondrously pretty Sandhills to the north, go in the spring or after a thunderstorm, they do get somewhat brown in high summer.

South of the Platte, there are also hills, lots of trees, there’s great hunting all over, even some land that we’d guess a white man has never seen. You can even find the spot where Buffalo Bill Cody took Grand Duke Alexis of Russia hunting, It’s west of Maywood where the road crosses Frenchmen’s Creek.

But to me the coolest thing about Nebraska is the sky, huge and ever-changing, you’ll find yourself taking a longer outlook on life because the horizon is so far. The prairie, even when planted as cropland, is ever-changing and distant views are common out here.

If you stay a while, you’ll understand our obsession with the weather: blizzards, ice storms, spring floods and desperate drought, throw in a few tornadoes and it’s never boring. As we say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 30 minutes”. And you’ll never forget our wind. What we call a breeze, the effete residents of the eastern states call a gale.

This is the real Nebraska: Strong men and women struggling with a strong stubborn land to wrest good things from it for ourselves and others.

Oh, yes, and college football. Although ‘Go Big Red’ isn’t quite as satisfying as ‘Boiler Up’.

Anyway, this came up because I ran across an Article from Matthew Miller at The Curator”, who also has some feelings on this:

Recently Tim Siedell, otherwise known as @badbanana, otherwise known as Nebraska’s most successful Twitter comedian, initiated the hashtag #NewNebraskaSlogan. (If you’re not of the Twitterati: a hashtag is a way of linking topics across the site, frequently used for memes.) I found the jokes both amusing and annoying, having learned to be wary of my home state coming into the public eye. Too many knee-jerk assessments of the Midwest run to “corn and cattle,” “flyover country,” or “purgatory”—all of which showed up under the marker #NewNebraskaSlogan. I enjoyed Siedell’s tweets (“Keep Driving to Colorado, Hippie”), but the many contributions from his fans quickly became irritating. If I could learn to consistently adopt the wry, self-deprecatory attitude that Siedell and other notable Midwesterners like Ted Kooser and Michael Perry have attained, I could laugh along with everyone else—but I’m afraid I’m not that sanguine. Like any good loyalist, I’m perfectly willing to laugh when we’re making fun of ourselves, but I can’t stand to hear mockery from outside.

I’m particularly irritated by dismissive remarks directed at the landscape of the Great Plains. I really think the Great Plains are beautiful, and I’m surprised how few people share my views, even other Midwesterners. Many non-Midwesterners seem to feel it’s socially acceptable to remark to my face how ugly, flat and boring they find my home state. Complain about our lack of high culture or our obsession with college football, and I’ll let it slide and even sympathize (although: Go Big Red). Call my state ugly or boring, though—the more common complaints—and you begin to make me angry. Kansans and Iowans know this phenomenon as well: it’s aggravating to say the least to make chit-chat about how boring one’s home state is to drive across, and yet we do it all the time.

Continue reading.

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