Then came the war, which went far to undermine the great underlying assumption on which the free interchange of capital among nations and the consequent specialization that proceeded from it, was taken to be a safe and sound policy. This assumption was in effect, that the world was civilized to a point at which there was no need to fear that its whole economic arrangements would be upset by war. We now know that the world was not civilized to this point, and is a very long way from being so, that the ultimate appeal is still to "arms and the man," and that we have still to be careful to see that our trade and industry are carried on in such a way as to be least likely to be hurt if ploughshares have suddenly to be beaten into swords. At first sight, this is a somewhat tragical discovery, but it carries with it certain consolations. If the apparent civilization evolved by the nineteenth century had been good and wholesome, it might have been really sad to find that it was only a thin veneer laid over a structure that man's primitive passions might at any moment overturn. In fact, the apparently achieved civilization was so grossly material in its successes, so forcibly feeble in its failures, so beset with vulgarity at its summit and undermined by destitution at its base, that even the horrors of the present war, with its appalling loss of the best lives of the chief nations of the earth, may be a blessing to mankind in the long run if they purge its notions about the things that are worth trying for.
At least the war is teaching us that the wealth of a nation is not a pile of commodities to be frittered away in vulgar ostentation and stupid self-indulgence, but the number of its citizens who are able and ready to play the man as workers or fighters when a time of trial comes. "National prosperity," says Cobbett, "shows itself ... in the plentiful meal, the comfortable dwelling, the decent furniture and dress, the healthy and happy countenances, and the good morals of the labouring classes of the people." So he wrote, in Newgate gaol, in 1810. Since then many reformers have preached the same sound doctrine, but its application has made poor progress, in relation to the growth of our riches in the same period. If we now decide to put it into practice, we shall not long tolerate the existence in our midst of disease and destitution, and a system of distribution of the world's goods which gives millions of our population no chance of full development.
"Paper against Gold," Letter III.
We need not, then, stay to shed tears over the civilization, such as it was, which we thought we had and had not. Its good points will endure, for evil has a comfortable habit of killing itself and those who work it. All that we are concerned with at this moment is the fact that its downfall has shaken an article in our economic faith which taught us that specialization was a cause of so much more good than evil, that its development by the free spreading of our capital all over the world, wherever the demand for it gave most profit to the owner, was a tendency to be encouraged, or at least to be left free to work out its will. This was true enough to be a platitude as long as we could rely on peace. Our capital went forth and fertilized the world, and out of its growing produce the world enriched us. As the world developed its productive power, its goods poured into us, as the great free mart where all men were welcome to sell their wares. These goods came in exchange for our goods and services, and the more we bought the more we sold. When other nations took to dealing direct with one another, they wanted our capital to finance the business, and our ships to carry the goods. The world as a whole could not grow in wealth without enriching the people that was the greatest buyer and seller, the greatest moneylender and the greatest carrier. It was all quite sound, apart from the danger depicted by Dr. Bowley, as long as we had peace, or as long as the wars that happened were sufficiently restricted in their area and effect. But now we have seen that war may happen on such a scale as to make the interchange of products between nations a source of grave weakness to those who practise it, if it means that they are thereby in danger of finding themselves at war with the providers of things that they need for subsistence or for defence.
Another lesson that the war has taught us is that modern warfare enormously increases the cost of carriage by sea, because it shuts up in neutral harbours the merchant ships of the powers that are weaker on the sea, and makes huge calls, for transport purposes, on those of the powers which are in the ascendant on the water. This increase in the cost of sea carriage adds to the cost of all goods that come by sea, and is a particularly important item in the bill that we, as an island people, have to pay for the luxury of war. It is true that much of the high price of freight goes into the pockets of our shipowners, but they, being busy with transport work for the Government, cannot take nearly so much advantage of it as the shipmasters of neutral countries.
The economic argument, then, that it pays best to make and grow things where they can best be made and grown remains just as true as ever it was, but it has been complicated by a political objection that if one happens to go to war with a nation that has supplied raw material, or half-raw material, for industries that are essential to our commercial if not to our actual existence, the good profits made in time of peace are likely to be wiped out, or worse, by the extent of the inconvenience and paralysis that this dependence brings with it in time of war. And even if we are not at war with our providers, the greater danger and cost of carriage by sea, when war is afoot, makes us question the advantage of the process, for example, by which we have developed a foreign dairying industry with our capital, and learnt to depend on it for a large part of our supply of eggs and butter, while at home we have seen a great magnate lay waste farms in order to make fruitful land into a wilderness for himself and his deer. It may have paid us to let this be done if we were sure of peace, but now that we have seen what modern warfare means, when it breaks out on a big scale, we may surely begin to think that people who make bracken grow in place of wheat, in order to improve what auctioneers call the amenities of their rural residences, are putting their personal gratification first in a question which is of national importance.