I have to acknowledge an interesting communication on the subject of free trade from Paisley (for a short letter from "A Wellwisher" at —, my thanks are yet more due). But the Scottish writer will, I fear, be disagreeably surprised to hear, that I am, and always have been, an utterly fearless and unscrupulous free trader. Seven years ago, speaking of the various signs of infancy in the European mind (Stones of Venice, vol. iii. p. 168), I wrote: "The first principles of commerce were acknowledged by the English parliament only a few months ago, in its free trade measures, and are still so little understood by the million, that no nation dares to abolish its custom-houses".
It will be observed that I do not admit even the idea of reciprocity. Let other nations, if they like, keep their ports shut; every wise nation will throw its own open. It is not the opening them, but a sudden, inconsiderate, and blunderingly experimental manner of opening them, which does harm. If you have been protecting a manufacture for a long series of years, you must not take the protection off in a moment, so as to throw every one of its operatives at once out of employ, any more than you must take all its wrappings off a feeble child at once in cold weather, though the cumber of them may have been radically injuring its health. Little by little, you must restore it to freedom and to air.
Most people's minds are in curious confusion on the subject of free trade, because they suppose it to imply enlarged competition. On the contrary, free trade puts an end to all competition. "Protection" (among various other mischievous functions) endeavours to enable one country to compete with another in the production of an article at a disadvantage. When trade is entirely free, no country can be competed with in the articles for the production of which it is naturally calculated; nor can it compete with any other, in the production of articles for which it is not naturally calculated. Tuscany, for instance, cannot compete with England in steel, nor England with Tuscany in oil. They must exchange their steel and oil. Which exchange should be as frank and free as honesty and the sea-winds can make it. Competition, indeed, arises at first, and sharply, in order to prove which is strongest in any given manufacture possible to both: this point once ascertained, competition is at an end.