23 FEBRUARY 1895, Page 8


MR. CHAMBERLAIN said truly enough, on Tuesday night, that there are no questions on which the democracy is more deeply interested than those which show how the wage-earners at home are injured by the competition of foreign industry which does not compete with them on equal terms, but is assisted by some inter- ference of another Government. But it is, we think, a question whether he was right in spurring on the jealousy with which that interference is regarded ; for democracies which seldom take sufficient interest in great constitutional issues of which the consequences are more or less remote, often take a great deal too much interest in small grievances of which the smart is real enough, though it may be exceedingly difficult, if not quite impossible, to remedy them without doing much more harm than good. Colonel -Howard Vincent's resolution requiring the Government to prevent the importation of convict-made products from Germany or France to undersell goods made in England by free labour alone, setms, we think, to be pointed at one of these grievances which it is very easy to resent too keenly, and very difficult to remove without doing much more mischief than you prevent. Of course it is a grievance. When artificially cheap labour, like the compulsory labour of convicts, is brought into the field to compete with the labour of men who have to maintain themselves and their families, a disturbance of the natural labour market,—small or great,—certainly takes place. Convict-labour is paid, so far as it is paid, by an employer who finds his resources in the pockets of the taxpayer, and that works just as a bounty on particular kinds of exports works, to the detriment of free competi- tion. It is obvious enough that this is an evil, and that if there were any way of avoiding it without doing more harm than gocd, it should be avoided in that way. But is there any such way? Something, of course, may be done by calm representation of the evil involved in under- selling free and therefore more costly labour by the artificially cheap labour of State prisoners. It is easy to show that however useful it may be to employ convicts on work which interests and promises to benefit them as soon as their sentence expires, it is very unfair to secure them that benefit at the cost of those who are keeping themselves and their families by their own industry and without any help from the State. But mild remonstrances of this kind are not what Colonel Howard Vincent asks for. He asks for peremptory financial interference that shall put an end to such a system ; and it is by no means easy to conceive how this can be secured without doing much more harm than good. In the first place it would seem to require an army of technically trained Customs officers who should know bow to distinguish between the foreign goods which convict labour produces and the foreign goods which free labour produces, and that would certainly be far too costly and laborious a remedy. It would generally involve throwing good money after bad. In the next place, it is very likely that when this great expense has been incurred it will only end in driving away free competition, by which both our own working men and the working men of foreign countries gain, and failing to drive away the assisted competition which constitutes the grievance. If once you attempt to discriminate at the Custom House between products of the same kind but of different origin, you attempt what certainly interferes very gravely with free competition, and what is by no means certain to attain its end of obstructing the free import of the bounty-fed goods, while it is almost certain to put great obstacles in the way of the free import of those goods which are not b )untv-fed. And the moment you restrict the free import of the products of free labour from abroad, you inflict as great an injustice on the English consumer, as any from which you protect, or inteed to protect., the English producer.

In fact, nothing is more difficult than to persuade a gri at democracy that there are small evils which it is much better to bear than to try to remove, because the cost and mischievous consequences of the methods necessary for ssmcving them are far greater than the cost and mis- chievous consequences of bearing them in silence. Mr. Chamberlain maintained in his speech that by artificially increasing the number of competitors in the manufacture of (say) brushes, by only one, you may force down their market-price not 1 percent. but 50 per cent. Possibly ; but not at all probably. And you may produce a very different result. If you artificially cheapen brushes, or anything else, you may bring a new and much larger demand into the field which so stimulates the productive industry as ultimately to benefit it greatly. The immediate consequence of artificially cheapening auy class of products is a very uncertain one. It often produces pure harm, but by no means always. It may result in almost pure good. It is certainly a thing to discourage. But it is by no means certain that it is wise to incur any considerable cost in discouraging it. The interest of the consumer may not be quite so important as the interest of the producer, for it affects only a minute fraction of his expenditure, while it affects the interest of the producer vitally. But though even the true interest of the producers may be the more important of the two, we must remember that the con- sumers are a vastly larger class, and that if you once begin the habit of seriously prejudicing them, you strike at the very sources of commercial prosperity. We feel the greatest fear that if the State be urged to begin a practice of discriminating between the origins of imports of the same class with the object of keeping out all the products of convict-labour, we shall strike a blow at Free- trade that in all probability will do English consumers a. far greater injustice than any from which it can possibly S we English producers. Yet it is very difficult to make great democracies realise this. The whole of that most disastrous Protective policy adopted by the United States in recent years has been due to the clearness with which producers have seen how much they may, and often do, suffer from foreign competition, and the impossibility of making the consumers see equally clearly how very much more fatally they suffer from exclud- ing foreign competition. The one result is writ large, and therefore is easily seen. The other result is writ very small, but when it is multiplied by the great multiplier which re- presents the number of the nation, it yields far the more important total of the two. Yet the democracy sees the one and ignores the other. It is a very hard thing to make the multitude aware that it is often far wiser to endure an un- questionable injustice than to move heaven and earth to prevent it, simply because the process essential in order to prevent it, is so often one which inflicts twice as many new injustices for every one which it removes. A democracy should not forget that it sees the injustices which affect Vie labour market with a powerful microscope, while it sees injustices which affect only the consumer (though the nation is made up of consumers) with an inverted telescope.