How to bring free trade into the 21st century

As a millennial free trader and a prolific Instagram user, I find international trade secretary Liz Truss’s approach to the promotion of free trade awe-inspiring.

Rarely do we come across politicians who consistently and creatively keep the public up to date on their work as she does via social media. Almost never are such politicians passionate advocates of free trade.

At a time when the US and the EU may be on the verge of a new trade war, Britain has a momentous chance to fight against these protectionist tendencies by touting the benefits of free trade not just at home, but globally too.

Abolishing or lowering trade barriers is crucial, but not enough on its own. A victory for free trade is only possible if it succeeds in winning over public opinion. Richard Cobden of the Anti-Corn Law League knew this, and it seems that Liz Truss does too.

The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 is one of a small handful of groundbreaking events in history which had a profound and lasting impact on the state of international trade. For mercantilism, which spread across Europe like a plague, it was a major hit but not a total defeat.

The Cobden-Chevalier treaty of 1861, which was an Anglo-French free trade agreement signed between the United Kingdom and France, brought economic liberalisation for both Britain and the world at large. The Corn Laws repeal had shifted public perception of free trade in an unprecedented way.

This could not have happened without extensive media coverage, widespread education on the matter and a strong voter engagement campaign led by the Anti-Corn Law League, also known as the Free Trade League, and Richard Cobden himself.

As a lobby group, the league was primarily concerned with sustaining and expanding its access to policymakers. However, Cobden was also mindful of other societal factors that would need to be addressed in order for free trade to take the reins in Britain.

The league hired lecturers and hosted public meetings to educate interested parties. Moreover, pamphlets and brochures were disseminated on a huge scale to shape public opinion.

The result was that British mercantilism went from rejoicing in its popularity towards the end of the eighteenth century, being seen as the only acceptable way to approach trade, to being pronounced dead in 1851.

During the Great Exhibition of 1851, British protectionists hosted a meeting that suffered from very poor attendance and weak press coverage. Public support for the Corn Laws was scant. Mercantilism had been defeated on all fronts thanks to the campaigning efforts of the Anti-Corn Law League.

Had he had access to Twitter and Instagram, there is little doubt that Cobden would have quickly become a social media star. The league’s shareable pamphlets and witty caricatures would have attracted huge amounts of online clout.

Free trade is much more than hundreds of pages of legalese – it is a mindset. It refers to free exchange between people of all nations, races and genders. It makes the world better and more peaceful. Free trade is progressive, constructive and universally beneficial.

We are living through the most exhilarating time for the promotion of free trade. Protectionism has always existed, and will probably never be vanquished entirely, but we now have access to such a great array of campaigning tools to trigger a profound societal shift.

We are blessed with the support of forward-looking politicians such as Liz Truss, freedom-loving think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute and the Initiative for Free Trade, student movements, consumer advocacy groups like the Consumer Choice Centre, countless media outlets and publications like 1828, and millennial free traders like me and – hopefully – you.

Highlighting the economic peril of trade protectionism is important, but not enough on its own. For free trade to win, we need to take a multi-pronged approach, including politics, media and education, in our campaign. And, crucially, all supporters of free trade should be working together.

Written by Maria Chaplia

Maria Chaplia is European Affairs Associate for the Consumer Choice Center.
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