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Free Trade


Published: September 24, 2020

Britain’s conversion to free trade in the nineteenth century allowed the nation to become the workplace of the world. When tariffs were high, consumers turned to the black market to buy cheaper goods. However, once the British Parliament embraced free trade, the economy expanded and standards of living improved.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the benefits to international trade?
  2.  Are the benefits to free trade worth its downsides?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “The Case for Free Trade” by Milton Friedman and Rose D. Friedman, available here.
  • Read “Defending Free Trade” by Richard A. Epstein. Available here.
  • Watch “The Benefits of International Trade,” available here
View Transcript

When Adam Smith published the Wealth of Nations, Britain was still a largely rural and placid place. 

But the Industrial revolution was already getting started, and standards of life were beginning to rise. 

One obstacle was that trade with other nations was still tightly controlled. 

Merchants in the home market had persuaded the government of the day to impose heavy duties and taxes on all foreign imports, in order to insure themselves a protected market. 

One of the results was to turn Britain into a nation of lawbreakers. 

Smuggling was a national pastime: brandy, wines, tobacco, anything with a heavy customs duty on it.

In 1846, after years of argument and partial success, the followers of Adam Smith finally persuaded the British Parliament to remove all duties on goods imported from abroad. 

Britain embarked on complete free trade, giving a further push to the rising standard of life. 

Free trade enabled Britain to become the workplace of the world.