Assuming that the mission of the legislator is to ensure that people have work, or failing that, have bread, I ask “Why start by taxing the bread itself?”

Richard Cobden, translated by Frédéric Bastiat
Complete Works, Volume 3, pages 91 to 96 (in French)
Drury Lane, March 16th 1843

Here is yet another speech for which I could not find the original English version. I link the French translation but if anybody knows where to find the original, please let me know. The first part of the speech is an attack against lord Brougham who had launched a diatribe against the League and reverend Bailey from Sheffield in particular. The second part is a summary of the consequences of the Corn Law against which the League is fighting.

Today’s quote presents two major ideas that I find particularly interesting. The first one is a criticism of the absence of clear definition as to what the missions of government are. The assumption is rhetorical and when considering the sovereign functions of the state, ensuring that people are working or that they have bread is not part of it. In a liberal society, the role of government is to implement an institutional framework allowing everybody to work freely in order to meet their needs according to their abilities, without suffering injustice. The second part shows why the role should be restricted. The government cannot do everything and anything (notably because of the knowledge problem) and, since it benefits from the violence monopoly allowing it to impose its views, its mistakes are not corrected. In the particular case, we can see that the Corn Law have a counterproductive effect whereby under the pretence of helping the people (at least for those of its supporters who are not cynical), it increases suffering at the very place where the people is supposed to be protected.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *