Free Trade

   The doctrine that international trade should be neither discouraged nor distorted by government policy. It normally refers to the idea that tariff barriers to the entry of foreign products into a domestic market should be abjured; in more sophisticated forms, it also holds that government policy should avoid bounties and other policies designed to enhance exports. The canonical authority to which free traders looked throughout the nineteenth century for intellectual and moral support was Adam Smith, although the vast majority of classical political economists were hostile to protection except in select circumstances. Arguments for free trade generally rested on the theory of comparative advantage, which held that each nation should focus on those products that it could make most cheaply and efficiently, a system of free trade ensuring that the benefits were distributed. Some, such as the free trade campaigner Richard Cobden, hoped that peaceful trade would bind nations together by ties of common interest, thereby leading to international peace. Free trade was one of the most emotive causes in nineteenth-century British politics. The abandonment of agricultural protection - the so-called Corn Laws - in 1846 caused the Tory or Conservative Party of Sir Robert Peel to split, many of the free traders going at length into the Liberal Party. Free trade exerted a powerful hold on the Liberal Party until the 1940s. Britain abandoned free trade for revenue reasons during World War I. Between the mid-nineteenth century and that war, opposition to free trade was limited to the Tariff Reform wing of the Conservative or Unionist Party, and even there it was a minority position. Supporters of free trade urged a “free breakfast table” - in other words they opposed tariffs on sugar and tea. Although free trade had its supporters in other countries, Britain’s policy of unilateral free trade, not emulated by other powers, was unique. From an imperial point of view, arguments for free trade cut both ways: in a free trading world, empires would be irrelevant to the economics of trade, but in a world in which many major colonial powers - France and Germany chief among them - practiced protection, there was an argument for other powers to expand their empires so as to retain access to colonial markets. The cause of free trade could serve as a motive for war, often by interimperial forces, in the name of opening markets, as it did in China and Japan. In practice, in British politics dogmatic free traders were often radicals and anti-imperialists, whereas protectionist policies were associated with such enthusiastic imperialists as Joseph Chamberlain.
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    Forster, Jakob. Business, Politics, and Tariffs, 1825-1879. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986;
    Hinde, Wendy. Richard Cobden: A Victorian Outsider. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987;
    McCord, Norman. The Anti-Corn Law League, 1838-1846. London: Allen & Unwin, 1968;
    Muller, Jerry. Adam Smith in His Time and Ours. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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