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Oxfam and free trade

Canon Theodore Richard Milford (1896–1987) and the Oxford Meeting (Quakers who included Edith Pye and the Gilletts) founded Oxfam, the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, in Britain in 1942. They sent food through the Allied blockade to the citizens of Nazi-occupied Greece. The first overseas branch of Oxfam was founded in Canada in 1963, and since then Oxfam has grown into Oxfam International, a confederation of 13 independent, non-profit, secular, community-based organizations that work with local partners in over 100 countries worldwide to develop and implement strategies that reduce the causes of famine.

The stated aim of the recent Doha Development Round of World Trade Organization negotiations was to lower trade barriers around the world, permitting free trade between countries of varying prosperity. The negotiations have run into obstacles, and Oxfam has charged the European Union with "delaying tactics". The EU places high tariffs on food coming into Europe while massively subsidizing European farmers. Farmers in Africa and Asia cannot get past the EU's high tariffs with their crops and goods. Oxfam believes free trade will help people in less developed nations sell their goods, and help Europeans purchase those goods at lower cost.

I know little about the details of these talks, so I will refrain from criticizing the position of the EU, but I will point to an interesting precedent.

In 1815, to protect farmers and landowners and boost corn (grain) prices, the British Parliament introduced legislation that taxed cheaper foreign grain imports. These tariffs raised the price on wheat coming into Britain from overseas, and consequently raised the price of bread. While wheat sales and farmland became more valuable, poor and middle class Brits suffered from higher food costs.

In 1838, John Bright and Richard Cobden rise to the challenge and establish the Anti-Corn Law League. They travel across Britain, making speeches, hammering ideas about free trade into the minds of their listeners, organizing monster petitions, and registering voters. Cobden is the steady, rational speaker. Bright, the younger man, is the greatest master of English oratory in several generations.

Prime Minister Robert ‘Bobby’ Peel, the man with the "moonlit smile" who had established Britain’s first police force, comes to believe the Corn Laws have to be repealed, and he is willing to fight his own party to do so. The fight is fierce. Opponents to eliminating the tariffs included the Chartists, who feared reducing the price of corn will reduce the wages of agricultural workers.

This early struggle for free trade is won when Brits show the voting muscle they had gained with the Reform Act of 1832. With the help of Opposition Leader Lord John Russell, Parliament ends the Corn Laws in 1846. (From the Liberty Timeline)

The result is quite unexpected. The tariffs had distorted the market in many unseen ways. Freeing the market generated an unforeseen tide of prosperity.

Why would Britain, which understands the practical and ethical principles behind free trade, retrogress to the EU's closed, high tariff market?