24 January 2018

Trade and toleration

by Christopher Rowe

It might sound like a Jane Austen sequel, but the juxtaposition of trade and toleration is not as contrived as it may seem.

David Hume and Adam Smith are just two of many important thinkers who have argued for a link between trade and peace - both discussed the extent to which international commerce provided a mutual interest between nations, minimising risks of future conflict.

Similarly, their intellectual forebears, making the same case for free trade in the nineteenth century, were often members of peace organisations. Richard Cobden’s antipathy to interventionist foreign policy is well known and typical of other members of the Anti-Corn Law League who were successfully behind the campaign for the abolition of the Corn Laws in the 1840s: John Bright was a member of the Peace Society; in the 1820s, John Bowring served as Secretary of the Society for Universal Peace; and Joseph Sturge expressed his opposition to the Opium War in China, denouncing British foreign policy in early 1840 as ‘wholesale carnage’. All saw free trade as a roadmap to peace.

But were they right in their convictions? Just as advocates of the EU frequently argue that the political bloc has prevented conflict, drawing a link between free trade and peace seems too easy.

However, the theory is underpinned by logic and borne out by the evidence, albeit indirectly. It is uncontroversial to argue that relationships prosper when they are founded upon mutual interests – and trade evidently creates such ties. Commerce also promotes understanding between nations, thereby forestalling the potential for conflict.

What about the indirect evidence? Most obviously, the twentieth century witnessed the culmination of nationalist and protectionist economic agendas in unprecedented conflict and bloodshed.

Looking back further in time provides an even clearer insight into the potential for trade to encourage peaceful relations where they would otherwise not exist. European societies in the wake of the Reformation were riven along sharply demarcated religious fault lines. For a long time, historians understood this period as the high watermark of intolerance – not merely between the state and the populace, but between people of differing faiths in their localities.

Yet the last few decades have seen social histories emerge which detail the remarkable degree to which peaceful coexistence often defined relations between those of different religious beliefs on a day-to-day basis – and trade frequently lay at the heart of this.

Willem Frijhoff’s study of the Netherlands, Embodied Belief: Ten Essays on Religious Culture in Dutch History, provides one of the most useful accounts of the way in which economic ties temper seemingly irreconcilable differences. He examined the collection of short texts, observations and records of conversations of the people of Holland collected by Aernout van Overbeke (1632-1674), a “well-to-do lawyer from the Hague”. Key to Frijhoff’s analysis is a distinction between the public space (where religious issues seldom featured) and the private space (more heavily dominated by religion).

One anecdote from Frijhoff’s work suffices to make the point. A Protestant non-conformist pastor goes to a Catholic’s cheese shop (and no, this is not one of those jokes) and is shown a selection of fine cheeses. Before tasting them, the pastor takes off his hat. The Catholic cheese-monger immediately recognises this action as introducing Protestant prayer, so he insults the pastor and refuses to conduct business with him.

Frijhoff offers two insights in explanation of this, but attaches greater importance to the latter: first, that this is an example of the non-conformist seeking to use his limited freedom to express himself. Second, the scene reflects the “confessional neutrality” which is supposed to reign in semi-public spaces such as shops and other fora in which business is transacted. In essence, a code of acceptable behaviour had arisen: the will to commerce trumped the importance of asserting confessional differences. Those who breached this modus vivendi were shown the door.

Frijhoff supports his theory through an examination of the paintings of the time, which indicate that shops, counters and offices were consciously secular spaces. An inventory of an inn at Woerden in 1652 also underscores the distinction between the public and private space: in the bedrooms, religious paintings are found. In the public spaces, secular paintings (for example, maps) and utilitarian objects (mirrors etc.) predominate.

Much has undoubtedly changed since then, but Frijhoff’s account contains lessons of relevance for today. Above all, the argument for trade in the twenty-first century should not be a purely economic one. In many, but not all, cases, commerce can provide bridges between nations – it can enhance toleration, encourage mutual understanding, and thereby obviate international conflict.

Christopher Rowe

Christopher Rowe is a historian of free trade, with particular expertise in nineteenth-century British and European history.