Brave New World (The Star)
16 October 2013
With the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement looming, I thought it might be good to look back a bit at the history of free trade and the laissez faire system.
In the 19th century, Britain was firmly in the grips of the free trade ideology.
It had been a source of great wealth in the 18th century and by the Victorian age it was thought that the future of growth and development following this dogma was endless, especially with the advent of the industrial revolution.
To a large extent, this optimistic vision of the world was proven to be correct. Britain flourished like never before and became a true world power.
There was of course a dark side to this development. Colonialism which initially started with the philosophical foundations of raising foreign and backward countries to the point that they were “civilised” enough to govern themselves and be part of a global trade system (as paternalistic and condescending as it was) was replaced by an even more damaging philosophy which saw colonialism as little more than an economic endeavour.
Imperialism, whether grounded in lofty (if misguided) ideals or economic pragmatism, left deep scars borne of subjugation, the loss of dignity and dangerously false scientific premise justifying the necessity to rule over “lesser” races. Scars which are still sore in some parts of the world today.
Closer to home, industrial Britain in Victorian times saw great misery and exploitation suffered in the name of progress.
Poverty, disease, child labour and social inequality reached staggering levels.
However, what I wish to discuss here are not the effects of colonialism or unhindered capitalism. Instead, I wish to point out the dangers of being too enamoured with the idea of free trade to the point that basic human values of compassion are forgotten.
And there are two examples of 19th century social tragedy of tremendous scale with which to illustrate this.
I use the word tragedy here in its true literary sense, for both these events could have been avoided if not for stupendously poor decision making.
In the mid-19th century there was a famine in Ireland. Peasants grew potatoes and little else. It was monoculture on a grand scale. So when a disease struck the potato crop, effectively destroying everything, there was a nationwide famine.
People suffering from starvation was a given, but the other effects of the failed crop was homelessness due to evictions, disease from malnutrition and abject living conditions, and mass emigration.
It is estimated that a million people died due to the famine.
Approximately the same number of people died in India in 1896/1897. This was also due to a famine. This time the cause of the crop failure was not disease but the monsoon rains which failed to come.
It would be inaccurate to say that nothing was done to help the starving. There were governmental measures taken and charity drives, in both these places.
However, they were sorely lacking and in some cases poorly planned and implemented. However, one of the things that struck me the most was the fact that in both Ireland and India at the time of the famines, there was a food surplus.
Unfortunately, the grain was earmarked for export.
The reason why this surplus was not directed to the starving was ideological. It was thought that the free market would correct the imbalance of food distribution by itself.
And the all-prevailing philosophy of free trade was of such importance that exports must not in any circumstances be stopped.
It seems unthinkable that the Victorian leaders of Britain could think in that way let alone make their decisions at the cost of millions of lives based on the belief that trade was more important than people, but that is what happened.
Could such a thing happen today? Well, perhaps famine of such a scale is unlikely in this country.
But it is possible that free trade could lead to other social tragedies. It is imperative then that the promise of wealth which the free trade proponents espouse with such convincing rhetoric not blind decision makers to the necessity to think of all possible outcomes from such a philosophy.
It is necessary for them to not forget their humanity.