« VorigeDoorgaan »
In 1814, however, the current of agricultural improvement was suddenly stopped, and soon began to run in an opposite direction with alarming rapidity. The return of peace, great as its blessings always are to humanity, must certainly be admitted to have, in this instance, been attended with a great diminution in the internal prosperity and happiness of this country: And the great and leading cause of this unhappy effect was the sudden fall in the price of agricultural produce. This depreciation, indeed, took place before hostilities had actually terminated; but it was not till after the battle of Leipsic, in autumn 1813, that the fall became great and rapid; and by that time it was confidently expected, that the contest would very soon be at an end.
The fall in the price of grain arose from the concurrence of several causes. The sudden cessation of the great war-expenditure of government, by diminishing the demand for produce, must have diminished its price. The unrestrained freedom of importation from the continent, which took place on the return of peace, must have had a similar effect. Although the crop 1813 was one of the most abundant ever known, this did not prevent an immense importation from taking place in 1814; for, great and rapid as the fall in the price of corn had been, it never fell so low as 63s, the importation price by the then existing laws. An attempt was made to restrain this importation, by a new law, but the bill brought into parliament for this purpose in 1814 having been thrown out, the importation went on still more extensively than before; and this importation, by filling our markets with foreign corn, reduced the prices in a very great degree.
For a short time before the conclusion of the war, Buonaparte, by his continental system, though he had not been able to exclude our manufactures
from the foreign markets, yet had succeeded in throwing great difficulties and obstructions in the way of our commerce; the consequence of which was, that our commodities not having the same vent as formerly, had begun to accumulate in the hands of our merchants and manufacturers. Of this irksome situation they were, of course, sufficiently impatient; and when they found the whole markets of Europe suddenly opened to them in 1814, they threw their commodities into these markets with the utmost eagerness. A hasty competition took place, by which, each endeavouring to be first into a market which was not likely to afford a large demand, the course of trade degenerated into a mere struggle for priority,-all being conscious that those who came late into the field would lose the sale. Thus the distresses of the manufacturers, like those of men suffering in a crowd, were greatly aggravated by the desperate and violent exertions which each made for his own safety in the moment of general alarm. The total failure of these speculations, and their consequences, are fresh in the recollection of every body. The commercial distress was extreme and universal: multitudes of manufacturers were thrown out of employment, and the demand for agricultural produce was still further diminished. To add to the accumulation, of evils, the bankers, in consequence of the failure of public confidence, suddenly withdrew their ac commodations, to the utter ruin of thousands who had been going on by means of their advances, and to the great inconvenience and loss of al most every individual engaged either in trade or agriculture.
While these causes combined to bring down the prices of grain, the expenses of its production were very little diminished; and it seems to b the case that these expenses could no have been diminished to any consider
able extent certainly not to such an extent as would enable the agriculturist to grow corn at the reduced prices. The opponents of the corn bill maintain an opposite opinion; but, after what has been said, it will require few words to shew that the opinion now stated is correct.
of two things of having speculated too rashly, and of having lived too expensively. In vindicating them from the first of these charges, we shall take the assistance of Mr Malthus. “We have certainly no right," says he, "to accuse our farmers of rash speculation for employing so large a capital in agriculture. The peace, it must be allowed, was most unexpected; and if the war had continued, the actual quantity of capital applied to the land might have been as necessary to save the country from extreme want in future, as it obviously was in 1812, when, with the price of corn at above six guineas a quarter, we could only import a little more than 100,000 quarters. If, from the very great extension of cultivation, during the four or five preceding years, we had not obtained a very great increase of average produce, the distresses of that year would have assumed a most serious aspect." To this remark we may add, that if, previous to the bad crop of 1816, our cultivation had been diminished to such an extent as to make us rely to a considerable extent on foreign corn, and if in consequence of the general scarcity over Europe we had been unable to supply the deficiency, the distress of the present year would have been more deplorable than it is. As to the other charge against the farmers, the change of their mode of life, they only did what has been invariably done by every class of men, while the species of industry in which they are engaged is in a flourishing state. It will not be denied that their mental improvement has kept pace with their other comforts, and that if their families have been expensively brought up and educated, the state has had the advantage by having men of enlightened minds, capable both of understanding and arguing upon their
Grounds of an Opinion on the Policy of restricting the Importation of Foreign Corn,
The opponents of the corn bill insisted loudly on a réduction of the rents of land, which, they maintained, would be sufficient to relieve the farmer when joined to a reduction of his own profits, which, they said, he could very well afford. But if the principles, which, according to Mr Malthus, regulate the progress of rent (of which we have already given a view), are correct, they must be decisive of this question. If he has established that the high rents of land are a necessary consequence of the great riches and extensive agriculture of this country, it follows, that rents cannot fall in any considerable degree without a corresponding diminution of our national prosperity; and that such a fall of rents, therefore, is most earnestly to be deprecated. The liberality of many landholders, in allowing their tenants temporary abatements of rent, is certainly most praise-worthy; but it has been demonstrated, that no reduction of rent which the landholders could possibly afford to give, could effectually relieve the tenants; and that, in a considerable proportion of cases, the tenant could not go on to cultivate his ground without a rise of prices, even although his rent were taken off entirely. The expence of cultivation, therefore, could not have been diminished, except in a very trifling degree, by a reduction of rents.
Neither could the expense of cultivation have been lessened by a reduction on the profits of agricultural capital. The farmers have been accused
own interest, substituted for the unhewn and ignorant boors, whom poverty and obstinacy rendered incapable of adopting any change or improvement in their system. In some respects, indeed, the families of the wealthier farmers may be said to supply the order of the middling class of country gentlemen, the loss of which has been so often regretted. Their situation and profession lead them to exercise a salutary and patriarchal influence over the labouring classes; and their families have supplied not only their own, but all other professions, with a race of well-educated candidates for success, who are taught to seek it in their own patient exertions, instead of looking up to family interest or patronage. We do not mean to say that the farmer should ape the gentleman of fortune; but it would be a heavy calamity for the country which should compel this useful and honourable class to retrograde into that of a rude and ig norant peasantry. But, be that as it may, the profits of the farmer were in the same situation with the rent of the landlord, in this respect, that, even were they reduced to the most miserable subsistence, this reduction, in a great variety of cases, would be insufficient to enable the farmer to cultivate his land. In fact, it is perfectly well known, not only that a great proportion of farmers ceased to derive any profit whatever from their capital, but that the capital itself was swallowed up in their vain attempts to go on with the cultivation of their farms.
the price of corn falls, supposing this event to take place without any great stagnation or distress, such as the present, the price of labour will not fall in proportion to the price of corn, till the other articles necessary for the subsistence and comfort of the labourer have fallen in that proportion. The effect of the rise or fall of grain upon wages is, at first, diametrically opposite to that which it ought to produce, and does produce in the long run. Economists reckon too much, as if all the springs and counterpoises of the political machine wrought mechanically and without human volition. The moral effects are left out of view entirely; and because it is reasonable that plenty of subsistence should produce cheap labour, it is held to have that in stant effect. But it is not so. At the first burst of plenty, the labourer becomes indifferent about labour (as all men do,) on finding he can for a time subsist without it; and the farmer is obliged to bribe him by a continuance of his high wages, for a time at least, though his own means of affording them are diminished. On the other hand, an increase of the price of grain alarms the labourer with the prospect of want, and he becomes eager to work even at low rates, to avoid it. In the dear years, labour might have been had very cheap indeed. It is also to be considered, that in such seasons villagers and manufacturers are drawn to take spade work, and compete for employment with the ordinary and professional labourer. But these contradictory appearances ultimately give way to the influence of the more powerful causes which regulate the price of labour by that of subsistence. The fall in the price of labour did not take place till the low price of corn had given an unexampled check to culti vation; and it was the sudden stagnation of agricultural employment that produced the fall of wages. This fall,
Another branch of the expense of cultivation, the wages of labour, could not have been reduced so soon, or to such an extent, as to give any material relief to the cultivator. That the price of labour is regulated, to a certain extent, by the price of corn, is certain; but it is as certain, that the effect upon wages, produced by a fall in the price of corn, is slow and gradual. Where
therefore, could not have taken place before the distresses of the country commenced, and consequently could not have prevented them.
must be ruined, and the nation left to depend for subsistence on foreign supplies. With this view, the corn bill of 1814 was proposed, but not carried; and in 1815, the corn bill which forms the subject of this discussion, was passed.
The last branch of the expense of cultivation which we shall notice, the public burdens on the cultivator, could not at that time have been diminished to any considerable extent. Though our war expenditure had ceased, yet there remained the enormous interest of the national debt, and the expences of our peace establishment, which could not at that time have been reduced so low as to admit of any considerable remission of taxes. Those who are eager at all times to censure the measures of government, of course availed themselves of the opportunity of cavilling at the extent of the establishment that was still kept up, and at tempted to persuade the people, that our expenses ought to be as low as if we had been in a state of profound tranquillity of ten years. But the people were, happily, not misled by such representations, but continued to pay the taxes, which they saw were still necessary, with the same admirable equanimity with which they had all along borne them. The nation, how ever, now has the satisfaction to see that the government is taking every measure to reduce their burdens; and we may hope, that the restoration of permanent tranquillity will render it practicable to diminish very greatly the national expenditure.
As it was impossible, therefore, to reduce the expense of cultivation to such an extent as to enable our agriculturists to raise corn at the reduced prices, it became the alternative, either that they must be enabled by some measure of government to obtain such a price as would remunerate them, or that the agriculture of the country
We shall not repeat any of the arguments which were advanced in the debates of which we have given an outline. The supporters of the bill painted in such powerful colours the general misery that must infallibly take place, not merely among the agricultural, but the manufacturing classes, from a great part of our land being thrown out of cultivation, that it is impossible not to deprecate this as the greatest evil that can befall us. Their views of the advantages of preserving this country independent of foreign nations for the means of subsistence, and of the consequences of an opposite line of policy, appear to be correct and conclusive. Some of the advocates of the bill, however, seem to have fallen into an error in supposing that its effects ever could be to make corn cheap; and this attempt, joined to the obvious intention of the measure, to prevent the ruin of the agricultural interest, by keeping up the price of corn, gave an air of inconsistency to their argu ments, of which their opponents did not fail to take advantage. Mr Malthus has demonstrated that prices can never be low so long as we continue rich and prosperous; and that "a nation which very greatly gets the start of its neighbours in riches, without any peculiar natural facilities for growing corn, must necessarily submit to one of these alternatives either a very high comparative price of grain, or a very great dependence upon other countries for it."*
It is objected to the corn bill, that
* Grounds of an Opinion on the Policy of restricting the Importation of Foreign Corn, p. 46.
mers continues, because their grain, besides being excessively deficient in quantity, is in general of such bad quality, that it will hardly sell at any price. It cannot reasonably be doubted, that, had the importation been stopped in 1814, before it had time to glut our markets, prices would not have fallen nearly so low as they did; that an immense amount of agricultural capital would have been saved, which is now irrecoverably lost, and that much of the distress of the country would have been averted. Nor can it be reasonably doubted, that, had the crop of 1816 been tolerably good and abundant, our farmers would have been much benefitted by the sale of this crop, without any competition from foreign growers; and there is good ground to hope, that we shall soon be aware of the salutary effects of this protection from foreign competition.
it has been found, by the experience of two years, to have failed in its object, for it has not relieved the distresses of the farmers; but the salutary effects which it ought to have had have been counteracted by several circumstances. It was, in the first place, too late in being passed. We do not blame the legislature for the caution which they shewed in 1814, when they would not take this measure without further enquiry into its necessity; but we are persuaded, that, had it been adopted at that time, it would have prevented much of the distress that has taken place. When it was proposed in 1814, immense importations of corn were taking place, though the price was so low as 67s.; and upon its rejection, the importation went on even more rapidly than before. The consequence was, that an enormous accumulation of foreign corn took place, which would not have happened had the ports been shut by the operation of a law prohibiting importation at prices under 80s. Though, therefore, the ports were shut in March 1815, when the corn-bill was passed, this measure was rendered ineffectual; for the markets were so glutted with foreign corn, that prices still continued to fall. In December 1815, the price of wheat was only 55s. 9d. per quarter. In January 1816, it was still lower, being only 52s. 6d. In April following, it began to rise, but this was occasioned by the extremely bad appearance of the season, and the prospect of a deficient crop. Prices continued to rise, and the harvest being very bad, the average, in November, was above 80s. and the ports were opened. Since that time to the present, though the price of the best corn has been very high, yet the only gainers by it have been the importers of foreign corn. The distress of our own far
Those who make it a system to disturb, as far as they can, the peace of the country, by inflaming the people against the government, have found our national distresses a fruitful theme. They have endeavoured, and do so still, to persuade the nation, that these distresses, which are plainly the result of causes which no human wisdom could have foreseen, nor human power prevented, have been brought upon the country by the folly and wickedness of our ministers. They attribute them, in the first place, to an unnecessary war, carried on for the hopeless purpose of delivering Europe from the sway of Buonaparte; and when they were compelled, by the accomplishment of this object, to admit that it was no longer hopeless, they were obliged to hazard the wild assertion, that it was not beneficial. They attribute them, in the next place, to the depreciation of our
*The period at which we write-March, 1817.