Skip to Content

Tariff Reform, Free Trade or No Trade? The fiscal fraud exposed

The Why and the Wherefore
The increase in the number of working men rallying to the cry of Tariff Reform”, and the near prospect of another General Election during which that cry will be greatly heard, are the reasons that the “fiscal question” is again dealt with in these columns. The enormous extent of unemployment and misery amongst the workers after a glorious 60 years of “Free Trade” provides “Tariff Reform” with a ready audience to receive its plausible policy.

Why is “Tariff Reform” advocated by various sections of the capitalist class? The answer is found if we recall that “Free Trade” was adopted when Great Britain was the chief manufacturing nation of the world, but economic development has brought countries, then mainly agricultural, into competition with her for the world market. Certain sections of the capitalist class, therefore, are feeling the effect, and see in Tariff Reform, a policy for keeping their trade with the profits it brings. To achieve this they are, by means of their “Tariff Reform League,” baiting for working-class support, by saying that Tariff Reform means the end of unemployment and poverty.
 
Great Britain, they say, is the only Free Trade country. Every other country has “Tariff Walls”. And they point to the conditions in these countries to show the effect of Tariff Reform. But if we examine the conditions in these other countries, we find the facts offer us little inducement to favour Tariff Reform. Is Great Britain solitary in possessing a working class suffering from poverty and unemployment? Look at Spain, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Austria – countries whose conditions compel the admission that the workers are no better placed than here.
 
What of France? Mr. Harry Marks, the Tory M.P. for Thanet, gave in the House of Commons (April 28th, 1909), some interesting details of French wages. Tailoring: the men average 4 francs (3s. 4d.) per day; homeworkers get. 1s. 3d. to 1s. 8d. for a day of 12 hours. Lace trade: men, 4 francs 75 cents (about 4s. 1d.) per day; women 2 francs (about 1s. 8d,) per day. Cardboard box trade: men 3s. 1d per day; women 1s. 3d. for a day of 12 hours.

The Fraud of Tariff Reform
When the Trade Boards Bill was before Parliament recently, Tariff Reformers declared that it was useless while goods made under sweating conditions abroad were imported into England, thereby naively showing the fraud of Tariff Reform claims. But America and Germany are the “trump cards” of the Tariff Reformer. Of American unemployment this may be said: The only States that officially collect and publish figures are New York and Massachusetts. This latter State, after official enquiry issued a return showing in March 1908, 16.18 per cent. and on December 31st, 1908, 10.98 per cent of trade unionists unemployed.

The Department of Labor of the State of New York reports in the September 1908 Bulletin 30.2 per cent, and in the September 1909 edition states that 17.5 per cent of the trade unionists reporting were unemployed. The New York correspondent of the Daily Telegraph reports in that paper (April 27th, 1908) that after very careful enquiries he put down the number of unemployed in the U.S.A. at 3 millions as a moderate estimate.
 
The same paper for January 21st 1909 states:

“In New York this morning 3,000 men applied for work at clearing away snow, and as only 1,000 were needed, the applicants fought among themselves until the police reserves arrived.”

In the Land of the Millionaires
Mr. Sam Gompers, speaking for the American Federation of Labour at Washington, February 10th 1909, and basing his remarks upon branch reports, said: “I am sure it is not an exaggeration to say that there are now in this country and have been with very little variation since October 1907, nearly 2 million wage-earners unemployed.” The Times (October 2nd, 1908) said: “Economic laws have tended to assert their sway until the total number of unemployed, entirely or in part, in the whole country, cannot be less than 3 to 4 millions.” The conditions of life for the workers were recently illustrated by the struggle at the works of the Steel Trust at Pittsburgh and the tramworker’s strike in Philadelphia.
 
We will now quote from a book written by a prominent Tariff Reform journalist and politician (the Tariff Reform candidate at Leicester at the recent election) after personal investigation into the industrial life of America. (America at Work, 1903, by John Foster Fraser.)
 
Regarding poverty he says:

“I went into some of the poorer districts. I have seen our slums in English towns, foul and loathsome, but never quite as bad as I saw in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh slums are dreadful ; the houses wheezy, unsteady, filthy. In one street I saw a lake stretched half across the way of little else than sewage. The men were pale, worn, not well set up and they were all anxious faced.
“Chicago has its poor and plenty of them.
“Life is hard, many workmen go to the wall.
“Mr. Davies, the chief factory inspector of  Illinois State said ‘I can take you to places where life is just a struggle, where if you gave a cent banana to a family of five it would be the greatest treat that they have had for weeks’. In the sweatshops the places were wretched, furniture was lacking, the finger of poverty was there.”

Wages in America
As to wages he points out that:
“After working out calculations, based on the increased cost of living, I am convinced that the American shopworker is no better off financially than the English.
“The ruck or the girls” (in departmental stores) “get badly paid, as low frequently as 10s. 6d. per week, and this in a city where living is twice as expensive as in London.
“The average wage for all Chicago – poor women who get a penny for sewing trousers and managers of firms who get £20,000 a year – is about 38s. per week.
“The skilled workman is not required. What is required is, firstly, the man who can devise fresh labour-saving machinery, secondly, the labourer who will do one little routine thing year after year, and do it expeditiously.
“Wages can only be reckoned by their purchasing power. Therefore while the American workingman earns more than the Briton he has to work harder, and he has to pay more for the necessaries of life, in the case of rent about 3 times as much.
“I find taking America as a whole, that on the last ten years, wages are on the decrease while the cost of food is on the increase.”

The reward of toil in after years is thus indicated:
“It is a life of strained nerves. It explained many of the grey hairs I saw on boyish heads. It explained why I saw hardly any grey beards. Where are your elderly workmen? I asked a Philadelphia manufacturer, once, twice, three times. At the third time he said, ‘Have a smoke and we’ll take a car ride along to the cemetery.’
“Practically every railway company refuse to engage a new man if he is over 35 years of age.
“The British working man may think these conditions frightfully hard. So they are. If a man falls out of work say at the age of 38, his chances of getting work are practically gone.
“The American working man is soon played out, that is why you seldom see an old man in big industrial concerns.
“Employers, if trade unions are in their way, set about to smash them.
“The American employer can often snap his fingers at his men because if there is any trouble others can be brought in.”

Bleeding the Children
Regarding child labour be says:
“Of recent years the New England manufacturer has been hit hard by the great cotton industry – due to the introduction of Northern capital – which has sprung up in the South, in Georgia and in North and South Carolina. The labour  is cheap – men only get about 23s. a week of 66 or 70 hours. In some places there are no regulations as to the age of child workers, and little ones of 8 or 10 are to be found by the hundred in the Southern mills working these long hours for 5s. per week. Child labour is one of the blackest spots on American industrial life.

“There are 40,000 boys employed about the anthracite mines, i.e., one in four of the total employees, and thousands or them are obviously under 14 and 12. The employer evades responsibility by getting an affidavit from the parents that the child has passed the legal age, and the parents, eager for an extra half dollar a week, lie readily. Children of 12 are to be found in a Pennsylvania mine, a cruel thing.
“I had a long talk with Mr. Davies about the employment of children. He told me that there were lots of children under 12 working in Chicago. When I refused to believe him he took me to his office and brought out report after report of inspectors who had found children of 12 earning their poor 4 shillings a week amid the horrors of Chicago slaughterhouses. The law of Illinois State is that employers shall not knowingly employ children under 14. Some of the porkpacking firms repudiate responsibility by flaunting the signed declaration in Mr. Davies’ face. But Mr. Davies told me of the cases of boys obviously under the age of 14 that had been enquired into by the inspectors, quite 98 per cent. were found to be under age.”
 
The extracts that we have given above can be supplemented, but enough have been given. Before leaving the case of America it may be as well to state that unemployment in America is said by Tariff Reformers to be due to extensive immigration, but this claim recoils on those who make it, because the majority of the immigrants come from lands where Tariff Reform exists.

Germany is the pet illustration of the Tariff Reformer. We saw by means of the Berlin Sweating Exhibition in 1906, the terrible struggle for existence there. The official Income Tax returns of Prussia show that out of a population of 38 millions 21 millions have an income of less than 17s. 3d. per week per family.

Official returns state that there are 33 unemployed colonies in Germany. In December 1908 the Official Labour Gazette showed that the applicants for work at the Labour Bureaux were more than four to each vacancy.

The Daily Telegraph (17th Feb, ’09) states that the census taken by the “Free Trade Unions” showed 101,300 unemployed in Greater Berlin. This was done by a house-to-house visitation. This paper also points out that in November 1908 the Berlin municipality called upon the unemployed to report themselves on the 17th and they report that 40,000 did so.

The “protectionist” Morning Post (20th January, 1908) says: “The unemployed question can and undoubtedly must be discussed in part at least, without reference to fiscal policy, because it results in part at least, from causes unaffected by tariffs or their absence. Unemployment is found in the United Kingdom under Free Trade, and it has not been banished from other nations by their tariffs. Germany is the classic home of experiments for dealing with the unemployed – by labour colonies, labour registries, vagrancy laws and relief works. German official reports recognise a problem indistinguishable in character for those we are familiar with here”.

After this comparative survey a more scientific examination is necessary. The same issue of the Morning Post says:
“The universality of unemployment makes it necessary to look for its explanation not only to the differences but to the common features of the industrial systems of all countries.
“In so far as unemployment is an incident of modern industry it is an incident of individualistic industry. Nor is there any difficulty in showing how individualism in industry leads necessarily to unemployment or the constant fear of unemployment. So long as the workman depends upon a private employer whose business fluctuates or may cease altogether, so long as competition exists to produce strenuous fits of over-production followed by stagnation, so long as whole trades may be revolutionised or destroyed by new inventions, – the constant possibility and the occasional realisation of unemployment must remain. If the solution of the unemployment problem means the guaranteeing of absolute continuity of employment to every man at all times at his own or something like his own trade, it does mean nothing less than the ending of industrial competition and the superseding of the private capitalist by a single universal employer.”

We are constantly told that “the one thing needful” for us is “more work,” to obtain which the commerce of the capitalist class must be increased. Thus trying to get the worker to identify his interests with his master’s.. But unemployment by itself is not the plight of the worker. If unemployment was the real trouble then the capita1ist class would fare badly. Though unemployed, they live sumptuously. This illustrates that the real trouble is the lack of the necessaries of life already produced by the workers but owned by the masters through their possession of the instruments of production, the workers being only allowed to use these on condition of parting with the wealth they produce. The ever increasing amount of wealth produced by the working class and the attempt of each employing unit to sell to as large a number of buyers as possible, alongside of the increasing insufficiency of the workers’ wages to enable them to buy back their product, causes industrial crises, which we see are the result of the workers having done too much work

It is also erroneous for the Tariff Reformer and Free Traders to claim that an increase of trade means more employment in that trade. Dozens of trades could be named where the output has increased although the number employed is less or the same as with a smaller output.

This is accomplished by means of wages-saving devices, more perfected machinery, the splitting up of processes and speeding up; also by the merging of several plants under one control, thus eliminating waste and duplication. The Daily Mail’s Special Commissioner into the “Problem of No Work”, said (6.10.08): “Constantly, too, I have had labor-saving machinery indicated to me as cause of much unemployment. . . Almost everywhere the tendency is to employ fewer hands and to require less technical ability. I heard an echo of this at Fulham. Local gasworks have been turning men off for some time past. Coke can now be broken and retorts can now be emptied by machinery. Men with 20 and 30 years’ reference from the Gas Co. have been applying to the Distress Committee for a few days’ digging or dirt shovelling. Anything that will give them a chance to earn something. It is the same with a very large number of men following trades connected with the Building”.

The policy of Free Trade and Tariff Reform both show their fallacy and they go to pieces in face of this fact, that no alteration of fiscal methods can prevent the use of the mightiest industrial weapon (the machine) that the capitalist has in rendering workers relatively superfluous, cheap, submissive, and in drawing into the vicious circle of modern factory life, the woman and the child. The very development of capitalism itself – whether tariffs exist or not – extends and intensifies this process.

Capitalist society, under Free Trade or Tariff Reform, cannot assure an existence to the makers of its wealth. The private ownership of the instruments, together with the results, of production, has shown that if social development is to proceed, Socialism must be instituted, i.e. a system of society wherein all those who labour shall jointly possess and use those things which are necessary to satisfy the wants of all.

Both Free Trade and Tariff Reform involve the sale by the worker and the purchase by the capitalist of value creating energy – the source of the wealth of capitalist society. Economic development has made trade an anachronism, and the next step in social evolution, that is Socialism, means a system where trade “free” or “protected”, is rendered impossible by the fact of the common ownership of the means of wealth production. Socialism therefore – a society wherein we have the free and equal association of the wealth producers, operating the means of production they commonly own, making everything for use and for use alone – is the next stage in social progress. Onward! Speed the day!

A. KOHN
(Socialist Standard, May 1910)