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Cobden's Pacifist Political Economy: From Special Interests to Irrational Voters

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Like David and Robert Higgs, I'm a fan of Ralph Raico.  Just one stand-out section of Raico's new book explains the evolution of Cobden's pacifist political economy.  He began like an orthodox public choice economist, blaming special interests for wars against the public interest:
Cobden maintained that "The middle and industrious classes of England can have no interest apart from the preservation of peace.  The honours, the fame, the emoluments of war belong not to them; the battle-plain is the harvest-field of the aristocracy, watered by the blood of the people." He looked forward to a time when the slogan "no foreign politics" would become the watchword of all who aspired to be representatives of a free people. Cobden went so far as to trace the calamitous English wars against revolutionary France--which went on for a generation and ended only at Waterloo--to the hostility of the British upper classes to the anti-aristocratic policies of the French.
But then the facts rudely introduced Cobden to the reality of voter irrationality:
Castigating the aristocracy for its alleged war-lust was standard for liberal writers of earlier generations. But Cobden's views began to change when he observed the intense popular enthusiasm for the Crimean War, against Russia and on behalf of the Ottoman Turks.  His outspoken opposition to that war, seconded by his friend and co-leader of the Manchester School, John Bright, cost both of them their seats in the Commons at the next election.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
gabriel rossman writes:

George Canning opposed the Great Reform Act (which made Britain substantially more democratic) precisely because he saw the common people as too bellicose (or more particularly, eager to start wars but lacking the patience to win them).

Salem writes:
Cobden went so far as to trace the calamitous English wars against revolutionary France--which went on for a generation and ended only at Waterloo--to the hostility of the British upper classes to the anti-aristocratic policies of the French.
Typical Foxite propaganda. As Pitt had to keep pointing out, it was France that declared war on Britain. Revolutionary France invaded Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Ottoman Empire, etc. Was that also all caused by the hostility of the British upper classes? Britain was at war with France for a generation because France, whether under Revolutionary or Napoleonic rule, was trying to conquer the whole of Europe - including Britain and Ireland.

The irony is that Cobden's successors wound up pursuing their own wars, except that instead of being (nominally) for the national interest, Gladstone was happy to pursue wars for reasons we would now see as neo-Conservative.

scineram writes:

What exactly is " Foxite propaganda"? Never heard the word.

Salem writes:

Foxite from Charles James Fox, the leader of the Whig opposition at the time of the French Revolution. He took this Cobden line that the Revolution was wonderful and blaming Britain for the French Revolutionary Wars. Burke took the opposite view and it split the Whigs.

Mark Brady writes:

"[Cobden] began like an orthodox public choice economist, blaming special interests for wars against the public interest."

"But then the facts rudely introduced Cobden to the reality of voter irrationality."

Isn't it rather anachronistic to squeeze the evolution of Cobden's thought into the analytical framework of today's GMU economists?

Evan writes:
Isn't it rather anachronistic to squeeze the evolution of Cobden's thought into the analytical framework of today's GMU economists?
I believe that GMU economists attempt to design frameworks that work on all humans. It wouldn't be a good framework if it didn't also explain the actions of people in the past.
Mark Brady writes:

"I believe that GMU economists attempt to design frameworks that work on all humans. It wouldn't be a good framework if it didn't also explain the actions of people in the past."

I'm sure GMU economists, like most economists, hope their theories are of general applicability to the human situation, or at least explain more rather than fewer cases, and historical episodes as well as current events. That said, I suggest it's not very useful to understand the evolution of Cobden's thought through the prism of economic analysis, even a sophisticated mix of orthodox public choice and Bryan's voter irrationality model.

parviziyi writes:

I stayed up late last night reading Raico's freely downloadable book and much enjoyed it. My thanks to Bryan Caplan and David Henderson for the tasty link. Chapter I, Raico's overview of World War I, was my favorite. "British propaganda was, as always, topnotch." -- well said!

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