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Rethinking Nineteenth-Century Liberalism: Richard Cobden Bicentenary Essays

Author(s):Howe, Anthony
Morgan, Simon
Reviewer(s):Liggio, Leonard P.

Published by EH.NET (July 2007)

Anthony Howe and Simon Morgan, editors, Rethinking Nineteenth-Century Liberalism: Richard Cobden Bicentenary Essays. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. xii + 302 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7546-5572-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Leonard P. Liggio, George Mason University Law School.

In 1981 Ronald Reagan responded to the question of Evans and Novak, what “philosophical thinkers or writers most influenced your conduct as a leader?” Reagan responded von Mises, Hayek, Bastiat, Cobden and Bright “and the elimination of the Corn Laws and so forth, the great burst of economy or prosperity for England that followed.” Margaret Thatcher referred to Cobden in warning of the dangers to the economy of protectionism. The French minister of industry, Alain Madelin, at Chatham House in 1988, referred to Cobden as an inspiration for European free trade. In Germany former economics minister, Graf Otto von Lambsdorf, recalled the current need for the economic vision of Cobden and Bright speaking at the Liberal Institute of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in May, 2004. In May 2004 IMF Managing Director Anne Krueger praised Cobden for mobilization of consumers for free trade when she lectured at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. Its director, William Rappard, had delivered the eighth Cobden lecture, The Common Menace of Economic and Military Armaments (London, 1936). During the 1930s Rappard had brought together a faculty of economists which included Ludwig von Mises, Wilhelm Roepke and Luigi Einaudi.

This book represents the scholarly papers presented at the Cobden Bicentenary Conference, July 14-16, 2004 at Dunford House in West Sussex, his birthplace and residence of Cobden’s later years.

The contemporary world is focused on the issues Cobden raised. According to co-editor, Anthony Howe’s “Introduction”: “For the modern preoccupations with globalization, free markets, the retreat of the state, the importance of civil society are all ideas which took political shape in the ‘age of Cobden.’ While post-modernists may find in Cobden’s liberalism too many of the emblems of the ‘modernity’ project from which they are keen to distance themselves, historians and the public may still have much to learn from one of the first practical attempts to implant the ‘Enlightenment project’ within the fabric of the world order.” Cobden’s affinity with European Liberals reflected their shared heritage of the Enlightenment in the works of Vattel, Grotius, Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, Jefferson, Bentham and James Mill.

Richard Cobden, The International Man (by John A. Hobson (London, 1918)) captured the cosmopolitanism associated with Cobden. Howe refers to the central thinking of Cobden: “the belief in the progress of industrial society, opposition to militarism, to colonial expansion, and to the extension of the state.” Thus, seven of the fifteen chapters are devoted to the international aspects of Cobden’s efforts, particularly, the struggle for peace and against foreign interventions.

In ‘La Ligue Francaise’ Alex Tyrrell examines the impact of Cobden on the expansion of Economic Liberalism in the last days of the July Monarchy. (Cf, Alex Tyrrell and Paul A. Pickering, The People’s Bread: A History of the Anti-Corn Law League (London, 2000)). The Ligue was the creation of one of the major anglophile schools in France: the heirs of Jean-Baptiste Say. Their progressive values were summed up in the concept Industrialisme: “politics, above all revolutionary politics, had no positive role to play in this vision of the future; state intervention in the economy would produce economic stagnation and social demoralization. As the economist Charles Dunoyer put it, ‘the height of perfection would be attained if all the world worked and no one governed’.”

The French formed a free trade committee consisting of Horace Say, Charles Dunoyer, Leon Faucher, Jerome-Adolphe Blanqui, Joseph Garnier (editor of the Journal des Economistes and author of Richard Cobden, Les Liguers et la Ligue) and Frederic Bastiat (editor of Le Libre Echange and author of Cobden et la Ligue). Cobden was acclaimed during his extensive travels in France and Italy. Through the writings of Bastiat his ideas spread to Italy, Spain and Scandinavia. In 1860 he negotiated with Michel Chevalier the famous free trade treaty between England and France which bears their names.

Donald Winch’s essay notes the mutual influences of the Manchester School and the French economists. He notes the reservations of the Manchester School towards the Ricardian case for free trade. As with the French economists, exchange value depended on utility and not on labor inputs or costs of production. They found confirmation in praise of the French economists by William Stanley Jevons (Cf: William D. Grampp, The Manchester School of Economics (London, 1960)).

One interesting aspect was Cobden’s and Liberalism’s relationship to the American Civil War covered in Stephen Meardon’s “Richard Cobden’s American Quandary.” Cobden visited America in 1835 and again in 1859 when his fame was at its height. In both countries the Liberals’ platform was peace, free trade, and abolition of slavery. English Liberals shared with their American abolitionist friends opposition to the use of force to end the independence of the Confederacy. In the final phase they acquiesced in the violence. Cobden had “counselled that the North should achieve its victory without war, by containing the Confederacy rather than recapturing it: “In a word, all that the North wants is time to ensure its triumph over the South. With time, Slavery, if shut up within itself, will be its own destroyer.”

Cobden’s Anti-Corn Law League was a major foundation for the Liberal Party. It pioneered in registration of voters, drawing often on the Dissenting Protestant chapels. It freed the press from ‘taxes on knowledge’ and established widely read newspapers. Particularly important was the Leeds Mercury, edited by three generations of Baines, which spearheaded the opposition to government intervention into education.

This book of excellent essays is well worth the attention of historians of economic and political thought as well as of English Liberalism.

Leonard P. Liggio, who teaches at George Mason University Law School, is Distinguished Senior Scholar of the Institute for Humane Studies, Executive Vice-President of Atlas Economic Research Foundation and recent past president of the Mont Pelerin Society. He is co-author (with Alex A Chafuen) of “Cultural and Religious Foundations of Private Property,” in Enrico Colombatto, editor, The Elgar Companion to the Economics of Property Rights (2004).

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century