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The Redress of Wrongs I page 4

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The sugar produced in our West India colonies was admitted at rates of duty very much lower than those levied upon the sugar which foreign countries offered to us. The reasons urged for continuing this protection were, that labour in the colonies had been made scarce and dear by the abolition of slavery, and that the reduction of duties on foreign sugar would tend to the encouragement of the slave-trade with those countries which still maintained that loathsome traffic. But these pleas were not accepted. It was believed that labour was neither scarce nor dear in the colonies, and that the growing of colonial sugar suffered from no other disadvantage than the rude and wasteful methods on which it was conducted. And further, it no longer appeared to the British people that their custom house should be made a vehicle for conveying to the foreign shave-owner a knowledge of moral truth. The duties on sugar were equalized, without reference to the place of production or the kind of labour employed; but the process was spread over five years, to give the colonial growers time to adapt themselves to the change.

It had been confidently foretold that the abolition of slavery must accomplish the ruin of the West India islands. Predictions of universal ruin are the habitual defence of endangered monopolies, and the growers of sugar continued to fight their battle on the old lines. Although the islands had survived the emancipation of their negroes, it was vehemently asserted that they must now be utterly overthrown by the law which with drew the special advantages they had hitherto enjoyed.

Jamaica, the most important of our West India islands, was scarcely in a condition to undergo grave changes. Her soil was largely owned by gentlemen who lived pleasant lives in England, leaving their incomes to be earned for them by overseers. Their estates were heavily mortgaged (In 1854 it was stated that nine-tenths of the estates in Jamaica were mortgaged for sums in excess of their value), and their management careless and wasteful. They could exist in comfort only while the people of England continued willing to support them by special taxation. When this could no longer be enjoyed, most of them sank into ruin. The fears which had been entertained were found to be just. The supply of labour was now, beyond question, inadequate. The negroes were able without trouble to acquire each his little patch of ground, the almost spontaneous production of which maintained him in such comfort as he desired. They were without motive to labour, and they chose to be idle. The exports of Jamaica, which had once amounted to three million sterling, fell to one million. The production of sugar fell to one-fifth of what it had been under slavery. The only crop which increased was pimento; for the pimento tree grows wild in Jamaica, and it quickly overspread the lands which it was now found impossible to cultivate. Jamaica, with every advantage which soil and climate could bestow, proved herself unequal to an open competition with rival producers. Her defeat was regretted by the people of Great Britain, but no shade of doubt was ever cast upon the justice and necessity of the reforms by which her fall had been hastened.

With the other islands it fared very differently. They were more happily circumstanced than Jamaica, in respect that their management had been more careful, and their soil was less heavily burdened by debt; and they passed through the trial which now fell upon them without serious or lasting injury. A few years after the slaves were set free, it was seen that the production of the islands was increasing; that the negroes were purchasing land and prospering; that education was making some progress; that crime was diminishing. This beneficent course of affairs was not impeded by the discontinuance of a protective policy. The welfare of the population continued to increase, and no pecuniary disadvantages revealed themselves to qualify the satisfaction which this consideration was fitted to impart.

The producing and trading classes gained largely by the changes which had now been accomplished. But no gain was comparable with that of the working-classes, who have passed during the reign of Victoria from oppression to power, and from being the victims of undue taxation into a position where the payment of taxation is in large measure optional.

It was estimated, about the close of the war, that a workman paid nearly eleven pounds annually to sustain the government and to protect native industry. In the case of a workman paid as the handloom weaver was, this absorbed nearly one-half of his income.

Thirty years later, when their condition had begun to improve, Mr. Cobden reckoned that the working-classes paid to the government from 4s. up to 16s. of every pound which they expended on certain great staple articles of their consumption. "For every 20s. which the working-classes expend on tea, they pay 10s. of duty; for every 20s. they expend on sugar, they pay 6s. of duty; for every 20s. they expend on coffee, they pay 8s. of duty; on soap, 5s.; on beer, 4s.; on tobacco, 16s.; on spirits, 14s." They were now relieved from the tax - impossible to be estimated - which they paid on bread and beef in order to support British agriculture; but still their contribution to the national revenue was unduly large.

Other forty years and more have passed, and our method of taxation no longer presents any feature of injustice. The net expenditure of the nation is about ninety million. ^Of this huge sum forty-two million is levied on intoxicating drinks and on tobacco; four and a half million is levied on tea; the balance is contributed by the wealthier class in the form of income-tax, stamp-duties, and otherwise. The working-man can at pleasure exempt himself from bearing any share of the taxation which is laid upon drinks and tobacco. There remains his tea, the only article indispensable to his welfare on which taxation can. be demanded of him. The tax levied on this article averages less than three shillings annually for each of the population. For this surely moderate exaction of less than one penny per week, any working-man who chooses, can enjoy the advantages of British citizenship. The injustice of ages has been cancelled. The Hampdens of the future must be contented to occupy themselves mainly with the correction of small and uninteresting evils.

Note. - There are a few problems which we have, thus far, failed to solve. Of these the following are perhaps the most notable:

  1. The Land Question. - In this country the people are wholly dissociated from a proprietary interest in the soil. So completely is this the case that one-half of our land is owned by about a thousand persons, and four-fifths by five or six thousand persons. In all other countries land is, to a very large extent, owned by the people. In France, for example, there are nearly eight million landed proprietors. Had the enormous concentration of British land been brought about by natural causes, it must have been accepted as just and reasonable, or, at all events, inevitable. But it is, in very large measure, artificial. The law of entail withdraws from the market the greater portion of our land; at the same time reducing its nominal owner to the position of holding a mere life-rent interest, and thus weakening his motive for developing its resources. The influence of the powerful legal guild has attached to the transfer of land enormous charges, which go far to prevent small purchases. It results from thus binding up the land into a small number of huge properties that the mass of the people are deprived of one of the most powerful motives for economy, and that one of the most desirable methods of obtaining subsistence is closed against them. It is said, in defence of the system, that under it the soil is made to produce more largely than in the hands of peasant proprietors. Scotland, where the system is seen at its worst, is the most highly productive country in the world. In Scotland the average production of wheat is thirty-four bushels per acre; in England it is twenty-nine bushels; in France it is only sixteen bushels. But this superiority is traceable to other causes than the land laws; for in Wurtemberg, where land is excessively subdivided, the production is larger than it is in England. Our artificial restrictions on the sale of land are, beyond question, prejudicial to the interests of the British people, and probably cannot be much longer endured. The circumstances of the time put the stamp of urgency upon the land question. In Canada and the United States are enormous tracts of fertile land which will compete year by year more keenly with our own soil in supplying the food of the British people. Our natural disadvantage is sufficiently great; if artificial disadvantage is not removed, the future of British land is gloomy indeed.
  2. The Liquor Question. - It is estimated that the people of Great Britain and Ireland expend annually one hundred to one hundred and twenty million on intoxicating liquors. Two-thirds of this sum are received by government in the form of duties, and by manufacturers and distributors in the form of profit. Of the balance a considerable proportion may be fairly set down as yielding legitimate enjoyment to the consumer, and is not therefore to be regarded as a wasteful expenditure. But, after all these deductions, there remains a large sum which is not merely unproductive of good, but which procures by its expenditure the degradation and ruin of multitudes. For upwards of a generation nobly persistent and self-denying efforts have been put forth by associations of men, impressed with the magnitude of those evils, to direct adequate attention to the subject. After many years of discouraging toil they are now being rewarded with a measure of success. But the work is still very far from completion. The public mind has still to be educated to a just appreciation of the enormous evils which flow from the undue use of intoxicants; and the distribution of the agencies by which results so deplorable are produced has to be more effectively regulated and restrained.
  3. The Labour question. - Since the emancipation of the workman, his relations with his employer have been troubled, and very often openly hostile. Amicable adjustment of differences has not yet been found practicable. When working-men desire increase of wages, and cannot obtain it by asking, they cease to labour in order to force from their employers the concession which they seek. The employer on his part enforces his views by closing his works, hoping that starvation will subdue his obdurate servants. Some departments of industry have suffered severely, perhaps irreparably, by the adoption of those barbaric expedients. There is probably little which legislation can do to cure this serious evil. Industrial war, like the wars of nations, can be averted no otherwise than by progress of civilization and increase of good sense among the combatants.
  4. Extravagant Cost of Government. - The British people spend annu ally upwards of seventy million sterling of their earnings in conducting the national business. So imperfectly has the science of government yet been mastered even by the most highly civilized nations, that we have thus far found it impossible to protect ourselves against each other and against our unfriends abroad for a smaller sum than this. A portion of this expense is the penalty we pay for the errors of our ancestors; but the larger portion is incurred by errors which are our own. The whole subject is in an eminently unsatisfactory position. Expenditure continues to increase: to-day our government costs us annually ten million sterling more than it did eight years ago. So little instructed is the public mind that this most unwholesome growth awakens no interest, attracts almost no attention. The tax-payer carries in silence and with apparent unconcern the burden laid upon him. No strong or growing sentiment demands the correction of a monstrous waste which is constantly, although imperceptibly, sapping our strength and preparing our decay.
  5. The political rights enjoyed by men who live in cities are still withheld from their neighbours who live in small towns or villages. This inequality is absolutely indefensible, and it is virtually undefended. The people know that it must cease so soon as they resolve that it shall. Their knowledge of this power has made them apathetic, and so allows the prolongation of the evil.

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