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Saturday, February 23, 2008

A quarter of barley

[posted by risa]

Those of us who remember the name H. Rider Haggard are familiar with him mostly as the author of King Solomon's Mines.

On his return to England from Africa, he took up farming in Norfolk, and noted that, though he and some of his neighbors persisted in it, economic considerations, driven by the twin demons Urbanization and Global Trade, had made it impossible to make money at agriculture.

In A Farmer's Year, Being His Commonplace Book for 1898, Haggard has this to say about globalization:
Men only too often keep up the game till beggary overtakes them, when they adjourn to the workhouse or live upon the charity of their friends. The larger farmers struggle forward from Michaelmas to Michaelmas, and at last take refuge in a cottage, or, if they are fortunate, find a position as steward upon some estate. The landlords with farms upon their hands work them with capital borrowed at high interest from the bank, till they can let them upon any terms to any sort of tenant. Unless they have private means to draw on. or are able to earn money, into their end it is best not to inquire ; they sink and sink until they vanish beneath the surface of the great sea of English society, and their ancient homes and accustomed place are filled by the successful speculator or the South African millionaire.

This is the result of Free Trade, which if up to the present it has brought a flush of prosperity to the people as a whole, has taken away the living of those classes that exist by the land, at any rate in our Eastern Counties. When that principle was introduced ruin to agriculture was foretold, but at first, owing to a variety of circumstances, it did not fall. Yet disaster was only postponed: now it has come, and whether the land and those who live on it will survive is more than I or anyone else can say. The truth is that the matter is no longer of pressing interest to the British nation. The British nation lives by trade and fills itself with the cheap food products of foreign countries ; the fruit of the fields around its cities is of little weight to it one way or the other. If all England went out of cultivation to-morrow, I doubt whether it would make any material difference to the consumer—the necessaries of life would still pour in from abroad. What would happen if a state of affairs should arise under which corn and other food could not be freely imported is another matter. When it does arise, no doubt the town-bred British Public, and the Governments which live to do what they conceive to be the will of that public, will give their earnest attention to the problem, perhaps too late. Meanwhile, all is doubtless as it should be, and, as there is not the slightest prospect of redress, we poor farmers must bow our heads to the inevitable, and, while hoping for a turn of Fortune's wheel, make the best of things as we find them and be thankful.

Yet, with becoming humility, I would venture to ask a question of those who understand these matters.

A____, an English farmer, grows a quarter of barley which pays rent to the landlord (part of which the landlord hands over to the Government in the form of taxes), rates to the parish, tithe to the parson, and land-tax to the State. This quarter of barley he offers for sale on Bungay market. B____, an Argentine or other foreign farmer, grows a quarter of barley and also offers it for sale on Bungay market, to compete against that offered by A____. This quarter of barley has paid no rent to a British landlord, no rates to a British parish, no tithe to a British parson, no tax to the British Government. Also, in practice, it has the benefit of preferential rates on British railways, and is carted to the market over roads towards the cost of which it has not subscribed, as A____'s quarter is called upon to do.

In what sense, then, is the trade which takes place in these two competing quarters of barley Free Trade? That it is free as air in the case of the Argentine quarter I understand. I should go further, and call it bounty-fed; but surely in the case of the English quarter it is most unfree, and indeed much fettered by the burden of rent, rates, tithe, and taxes, which have been exacted upon it for the local and imperial benefit. To make the trade equal, just, and free in fact as well as in name, before it appears on Bungay market, ought not the Argentine quarter to contribute to our local and imperial exchequers an exact equivalent of the amount paid by the British quarter? Why should the Englishman bear all these burdens and the foreigner who seeks the advantage of our markets be rid of them? In the case of whisky I understand the principle to be that imported spirits should pay an approximately equal tax to that exacted upon those manufactured in this country. Why, then, should not this rule—if it is the rule—be applied to other things besides whisky ; the barley from which it is distilled, for instance?

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