Referring to the words "Free Trade," the speaker in question begins by asking, "What is the essential nature of that which we call trade?" And answers himself as follows:
"The grim, ugly fact is that trade is a fight, the markets are battle fields, the traders are gladiators, carrying on a true war around questions of values, with no care whether the opposing party or the community at large can afford that the trade is made. This contest is always going on, whether a lady buys a pair of gloves, or a syndicate corners Erie. Antagonism is so fixed an element of trade, and so often defeats the object it blindly follows, as to make laws which seek to mitigate the ferocity of the struggle as welcome to the far-sighted man of business as they are to the foredoomed victims of this relentless warfare."
On the other hand, competition is said to be a -
"Wonder worker in developing energy in the strongest individuals, and massing wealth in masterful states; but, since competitive trading can never be wholly beneficent, it should be strictly controlled, in the interests of the toiling millions, who are too weak successfully to oppose its attacks. The results of forcing on the naturally weak, by means of competition, hard and unequal bargains which are evaded by the strong, are appalling in their magnitude, dividing whole peoples permanently into castes, rich and poor, injuring the former by excess, and the latter by deprivation, making a nation strong in the trading instinct, and rich in accumulated wealth, but weak and poor in all its other parts. This abuse is saddest of all when, failing to be recognized as an evil, the doctrines of free trade are wrought into the policy and social life of a people."
Protective remedies for this state of things are introduced as follows:
"Wherever the value of competition has been fully recognized, but supplemented by wise control of its energies, the results are excellent. This fact forms the foundation of our protective laws, whose very name 'protective' implies assailants; those hard bargains, to wit, driven on the fighting side of trade, under the motto of 'let the fittest survive.' When a small army is attacked by a large one, it covers itself by earthworks. Similarly, where there are sheep, and wolves abound, the farmer puts up fences which effectually protect his flock; and, in the same way, tariffs are 'forts,' whence the artisan may hope successfully to defend himself against the attacks of his powerful and unscrupulous enemy, capital; or they may even be considered as a pistol, which a little fellow points at a big bully who threatens him with a thrashing."
Such are the arguments which are urged with great fervor, and immense effect, upon the American artisan, who fully and firmly believes that protection is the only agent capable of lifting his lot above those, dreaded levels at which the "pauper labor of Europe" is universally believed to live.
The simple answer to all this rhetoric appears to be that, while it might be valid as an indictment of the competitive system as a whole, it is valueless when directed against a part of that system only. Advocates who are not prepared to say that every bargain shall be controlled by beneficence, and who distinctly admire the chief results of competition, cannot logically demand that labor, alone of all salable commodities, shall be bought and sold on altruistic principles.
In what immediately precedes, I have endeavored to indicate the character of the pleadings which make American artisans universally supporters of the tariff, and we must now return to the question, What, after all, is really the effect of protection on wages in America? I answer that no legislative schemes can add to, although they may injure, the material resources of a state. Capital can only support the labor for which the annual harvest of such resources pays, and all that legislation can do is artificially to divert labor and capital from directions which they would take under the influence of natural laws.
America is selling, at the present time, about £160,000,000 worth of food and other raw products in Europe. These, together, represent her chief branch of business, in which nearly fifty per cent. of her population is engaged, and all this merchandise is sold in the free trade markets of the world. Wages in America, therefore, cannot possibly be regulated by the tariff, because, whatever wages can be earned by men engaged in the production of agricultural products - the prices of which are fixed in Liverpool - must be the rate of wages which will substantially be paid in other branches of business. Wages, like water, seek a level; if manufacture pays best, labor will quit agriculture; if agriculture pays best, manufactures will decline, and agriculture progress.
A glance at the condition of industrial society in America vividly illustrates this conclusion. Any man, with a few dollars and a strong pair of arms, can win far greater rewards from the soil than he could possibly obtain by the same effort in Europe. His wages are high, because the grade of comfort to be obtained from the land by means of a little labor is high, and the artisans' wages must follow suit, if men are to be tempted from the field into the workshop. American politicians, however, would have us believe that American labor owes its prosperity to taxation; in other words, that what the immigrant seeks is not the rich prizes offered him by a free and fertile soil, but the blessings which flow from a tariff that adds an average 40 per cent. to the cost of everything he needs except food.
One more illustration, and I have done. Upon the wall hangs a diagram which shows the movements of American wages, of English wages, and of the tariff from 1860 to 1883. I have already argued that a tariff cannot determine wages, and the diagram affords positive proof that it has not determined them in America, as between 1860 and the present time. On the contrary, their movements are evidently due to the same causes as have influenced wages here during this period, while it is certainly remarkable that they have fallen sooner, fallen lower, and recovered less completely in America, where industry is "protected," than in Great Britain, were it is "unprotected."