Chapter 15 — The Abolition of Protection

Our Inquiry 
has sufficiently shown the futility and absurdity of protection. It only remains to consider the plea that is always set up for protection — the plea that since capital has been invested and industry organized upon the basis of protection it would be unjust and injurious to abolish protective duties at once, and that their reduction must be gradual and slow. This plea for delay, though accepted and even urged by many who have been the conspicuous opponents of protection, will not bear examination. No one can acquire a vested right in a wrong; no one can claim property in a privilege. To admit that privileges which have no other basis than a legislative Act cannot at any time be taken away by legislative Act, is to commit ourselves to the absurd doctrine that has been carried to such a length in Great Britain, where it is held that a sinecure cannot be abolished without buying out the incumbent, and that because a man's ancestors have enjoyed the privilege of living on other people, he and his descendants, to the remotest time, have acquired a sacred right to live upon other people. The true doctrine — of which we ought never, on any pretence, to yield one iota — is that enunciated in the American Declaration of Independence, the self-evident doctrine that men are endowed by their Creator with equal and inalienable rights, and that any law or institution that denies or impairs this natural equality may at any time be altered or abolished. And no more salutary lesson could today be taught to capitalists throughout the world than that justice is an element in the safety of investments, and that the man who trades upon the ignorance or the enslavement of a people does so at his own risk.

If there is to be a certain loss to any community, whether by flood, by fire, by invasion, by pestilence, or by commercial convulsion, that loss will fall more lightly on the poor and more heavily on the rich the shorter the time in which it is concentrated. If the currency of a country slowly depreciates, the depreciating currency will be forced into the hands of those least able to protect themselves, the price of commodities will advance in anticipation of the depreciation, while the price of labor will lag along after it; capitalists will have opportunity to make secure their loans and to speculate in advancing prices, and the loss will thus fall with far greater relative severity upon the poor than upon the rich.

So it is with the imposition of public burdens. It is manifestly to the advantage of the poorer class that any great public expense be met at once rather than spread over years by means of public debts. Thus, if the expenses of the American Civil War had been met by taxation levied at the time, such taxation must have fallen heavily upon the rich. But by the device of a public debt — a twin invention to that of indirect taxation — the cost of the war was not, as was pretended, shifted from present time to future time (for that would only have been possible to the extent that the means to carry on the war had been borrowed from abroad), but taxation, which otherwise must have fallen upon individuals in proportion to their wealth, was changed into taxation spread over a long series of years and falling upon individuals in proportion, not to their means, but to their consumption, thus imposing upon the poor far greater relative burdens than upon the rich. Whether the rich would have had the patriotism to support a war which thus called upon them for sacrifices more commensurate with those of the poor, who in all wars furnish the far greater portion of "the food for powder," is another matter; but it is certain that the spreading of the war taxation over years has not only made the cost of the war many times greater, but has been to the advantage of the rich and to the disadvantage of the working classes.

If the abolition of protection is, as protectionists predict, certain to disorganize trade and industry, then it is better for all, and especially is it better for the working classes, that the change should be sharp and short. If the return to a natural condition of trade and production must temporarily throw men out of employment, then it is better that they should be thrown out at once and have done with it, than that the same loss of employment should be spread over a series of years with a constant depressing effect upon the labor market. In a sharp but short period of depression the public purse could, without serious consequences, be drawn upon to relieve distress, but any attempt to relieve in that way the less general but more protracted distress incident to a long period of depression, would tend to create an army of habitual paupers.

The notion that our manufactures would be suspended and our ironworks closed and our coal mines shut down by the abolition of protection is a notion akin to that of "the tail wagging the dog." Where are the goods to come from which are thus to deluge our markets, and how are they to be paid for? Since other countries are not going to deluge us with the products of their labor without demanding the products of our own labor in payment, any increase in our imports from the abolition of protection would involve a corresponding increase in exports.

The increased power which the removal of restrictions upon trade would give in the production of wealth would be felt in all directions. Rings would be broken up, and where profits are now excessive they would come down; but production would go on under healthier conditions and with greater energy, while legislation and administration would be relieved of a great cause of corruption, and all governmental reforms would be made easier.