The Apostle of Free Trade: Richard Cobden

I just finished Gowing’s 1885 biography of Richard Cobden, whose doctrine was that free trade would lead to world peace through interdependence and mutual cooperation.

Cobden was a leader of the Anti-Corn-Law League — a substantial feat of political agitation — which was established to oppose protectionist measures on corn and decrease the price of basic food products. Cobden viewed the task of the League as “instructing the nation.” We learn in the biography:

Only seven years before the total repeal of the Corn Laws the men who agitated for the Repeal were looked upon, by many of the most experienced statesmen of the country, as wild and reckless theorists — as, in fact, little better than madmen!

Cobden’s life was remarkable. For example, after Repeal and losing his former seat, Rochdale returned him to Parliament without a contest and in his absence. Fortunes were twice raised by subscription to assist Cobden out of difficulties arising from the sacrifice of his own business in the national interest.

Today, we do indeed need more Cobdens in politics.


The EU announced on 17 Oct 2008 that it would restore import customs duties on cereals on 30 Jun 2009. There are quotas too.

The TARIC database allows you to query duty rates. For example:

  • Roasted coffee from Brazil: 7.50% (apparently less a “tariff preference” of 2.60%)
  • Long grain, rough rice (of a length/width ratio greater than 2 but less than 3) from Vietnam: 211.00 EUR per 1000kg with a “non-preferential tariff quota” of 15.00%

You will find the EU has made available a full-featured online system for navigating the maze of tariffs and regulations, but haven’t they missed the point? Is this free trade?

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