Libertarian History/Philosophy

Who Was Jane Cobden?

She cared about land reform, peace, and social justice, not unlike libertarians of her time

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Among libertarians and classical liberals, the name Richard Cobden (1804–1865) evokes admiration and applause. His activities — and successes — on behalf of freedom, free markets, and government retrenchment are legendary. Most famously, he cofounded — with John Bright— the Anti–Corn Law League, which successfully campaigned for repeal of the import tariffs on grain. Those trade restrictions had made food expensive for England's working class while enriching the landed aristocracy.

But Cobden did not see free trade in a vacuum. He and Bright linked that cause with their campaign against war and empire, arguing that trade among the people of the world was not just beneficial economically but also conducive to world peace. Unlike other liberals of his time (and since), Cobden understood that free trade means trade free of government even when it pursues allegedly pro-trade policies. As he said (in one of my favorite Cobden quotations),

They who propose to influence by force the traffic of the world, forget that affairs of trade, like matters of conscience, change their very nature if touched by the hand of violence; for as faith, if forced, would no longer be religion, but hypocrisy, so commerce becomes robbery if coerced by warlike armaments.

Unfortunately, this brilliant insight has eluded most advocates of international trade, especially in the United States going back to its founding, who looked to government to open foreign markets — by force if necessary.

Cobden's legacy is much appreciated by libertarians, but one aspect of it is largely unknown. (I only just learned of it, thanks to my alert friend Gary Chartier.) Cobden's third daughter and fourth child, Emma Jane Catherine Cobden (later Unwin after she married publisher Thomas Fisher Unwin), carried on his work. Born in 1851, she was a liberal activist worthy of her distinguished father.

The Wikipedia article on Jane Cobden, which I draw on here, relies heavily on two sources: Anthony Howe's entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Sarah Richardson's "'You Know Your Father's Heart': The Cobden Sisterhood and the Legacy of Richard Cobden" in Re-thinking Nineteenth-century Liberalism, edited by Howe and Simon Morgan (2006).

"From her youth Jane Cobden, together with her sisters, sought to protect and develop the legacy of her father," according to Wikipedia. "She remained committed throughout her life to the 'Cobdenite' issues of land reform, peace, and social justice, and was a consistent advocate for Irish independence from Britain."

The triplet land reform, peace, and social justice has a left-wing sound today, but that's because the modern classical liberal/libertarian movement from the 1930s onward got sidetracked by an alliance of convenience with the conservative and nationalist American Right, which, like the liberals, also opposed the New Deal and (in those days, but alas no more) militarism. That alliance, which was fortified in the 1950s due to the common opposition to Soviet communism, had the unfortunate effect of cutting libertarians off from their true heritage.

That heritage included a focus on the class conflict and rights violations inherent in mercantilism (protectionism, corporatism),  government control of land distribution, and many other state activities. The libertarian abandonment of some of those concerns in the second half of the 20th century in effect bequeathed them to the antimarket Left. Today a growing number of libertarians have reclaimed them.

Jane Cobden was also a prominent voice for extending the vote to women. Wikipedia says: "The battle for women's suffrage on equal terms with men, to which she made her first commitment in 1875, was her most enduring cause." Cobden was a member of the Liberal Party" (which was hardly a libertarian party) and she "stayed in the Liberal Party, despite her profound disagreement with its stance on the suffrage issue." (The Liberals tended to favor the vote for women but had higher priorities.) The libertarians of her day, both in England and the United States, also made women's legal and social equality a major part of their agenda. (Some, like the American Lysander Spooner, thought no one should have the vote because they opposed government solutions to problems.)

In 1888 Jane Cobden and other Liberal women ran for seats on the new London County Council. This was a controversial move because up till then women could not hold office and not everyone interpreted the Local Government Act of 1888 as permitting it. She and Margaret Sandhurst won seats in 1889. Sandhurst was disqualified under the act after a challenge from her defeated rival, but Cobden was not challenged.

Even so, her position on the council remained precarious, particularly after an attempt in parliament to legalise women's rights to serve as county councillors gained little support. A provision of the prevailing election law provided that anyone elected, even improperly, could not be challenged after twelve months, so on legal advice Cobden refrained from attending council or committee meetings until February 1890. When the statutory twelve months elapsed without challenge, she resumed her full range of duties.

But her problems were not over. A Conservative member took her to court, arguing she had been illegally elected, that her council votes were therefore illegal, and thus that she should be severely fined. The court agreed, but an appeal cut the fine to a nominal amount. Her allies hoped she would go to jail instead of paying the fine, but she did not take their advice.

After a further parliamentary attempt to resolve the situation failed, she sat out the remaining months of her term as a councillor in silence, neither speaking nor voting, and did not seek re-election in the 1892 county elections.

In 1892 Cobden married Unwin (whose company published Ibsen, Nietzsche, H.G. Wells, and Somerset Maugham), at which point, Wikipedia says,

Jane Cobden extended her range of interests into the international field, in particular advancing the rights of the indigenous populations within colonial territories. As a convinced anti-imperialist she opposed the Boer War of 1899–1902, and after the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 she attacked its introduction of segregationist policies. In the years prior to the First World War she opposed Joseph Chamberlain's tariff reform crusade on the grounds of her father's free trade principles, and was prominent in the Liberal Party's revival of the land reform issue.

Again, she was carrying on her father's antiwar, anti-imperialist, and free-trade campaign and his concern with social-legal equality. Wikipedia quotes Richard Cobden from 1848:

Almost every crime and outrage in Ireland is connected with the occupation or ownership of land… If I had the power, I would always make the proprietors of the soil resident, by breaking up the large properties. In other words, I would give Ireland to the Irish.

He also wrote:

Hitherto in Ireland the sole reliance has been on bayonets and patching. The feudal system presses upon that country in a way which, as a rule, only foreigners can understand, for we have an ingrained feudal spirit in our English character. I never spoke to a French or Italian economist who did not at once put his finger on the fact that great masses of landed property were held by the descendants of a conquering race, who were living abroad, and thus in a double manner perpetuating the remembrance of conquest and oppression, while the natives were at the same time precluded from possessing themselves of landed property, and thus becoming interested in the peace of the country.

Here Cobden asserted an idea from John Locke: that the criterion for ownership of a parcel of land is not conquest but labor.

Jane Cobden thus "embraced the cause of Irish home rule — on which she lectured regularly." She also "was a strong supporter of the Land League," which strove to "enable tenant farmers to own the land they worked on."

"After visiting Ireland with the Women's Mission to Ireland in 1887," the Wikipedia article continues, "she subsequently used the pages of the English press to expose the mistreatment of evicted tenants."

Reflecting her interest in land reform, Jane Cobden published The Land Hunger: Life under Monopoly in 1913.

Along with these causes she maintained a keen interest in her father's passion, free trade.

In 1904, Richard Cobden's centenary year, she published [and wrote an introduction to] The Hungry Forties [subtitle: Life under the Bread Tax, Descriptive Letters and Other Testimonies from Contemporary Witnesses], described by Anthony Howe in a biographical article as "an evocative and brilliantly successful tract." It was one of several free trade books and pamphlets issued by the Fisher Unwin press which, together with celebratory centenary events, helped to define free trade as a major progressive cause of the Edwardian era.

With the coming of World War I in 1914,

Cobden became increasingly involved in South African affairs. She supported Solomon Plaatje's campaign against the segregationist Natives' Land Act of 1913, a stance that led, in 1917, to her removal from the committee of the Anti-Slavery Society. The Society's line was to support the Botha government's land reform policy.… Cobden maintained her commitment to the cause of Irish freedom, and offered personal help to victims of the Black and Tans during theIrish War of Independence, 1919–21.

She spent the late 1920s and '30s organizing her father's papers and otherwise carrying on his work.

One final — and telling — story:

In 1920 Cobden gave Dunford House [the Cobden family home in Sussex] to the London School of Economics (LSE), of which she had become a governor. According to Beatrice Webb, co-founder of the School, she soon regretted the gift; Webb wrote in her diary on 2 May 1923: "The poor lady … makes fretful complaints if a single bush is cut down or a stone shifted, whilst she vehemently resents the high spirits of the students … not to mention the opinions of some of the lecturers." Later in 1923 LSE returned the house to Cobden; in 1928 she donated it to the Cobden Memorial Association. With the help of the writer and journalist Francis Wrigley Hirst and others, the house became a conference and education centre for pursuing the traditional Cobdenite causes of free trade, peace and goodwill. [Emphasis added.]

Beatrice Webb co-founded the LSE with her husband Sidney. Both were leading advocates of state socialism and the reformist welfare-state strategy known as Fabianism. (They were also among the many prominent welfare statists who favored eugenics.) We can imagine which opinions Cobden resented.

Jane Cobden, who died at age 96 in 1947, still has a place in modern culture. She was made a character in the BBC television series Ripper Street, and her portrait hangs in Britain's National Portrait Gallery.

This article originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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  1. They who propose to influence by force the traffic of the world, forget that affairs of trade, like matters of conscience, change their very nature if touched by the hand of violence; for as faith, if forced, would no longer be religion, but hypocrisy, so commerce becomes robbery if coerced by warlike armaments.

    Separation of church and state means you’re not allowed to make that analogy.

    1. The quoted passage eloquently explains why the whole “Free Trade led to the late Victorian holocausts” argument is stupid.

      1. But the passage makes no mention of Free Trade. It’s talking about trade tainted by coercion. Isn’t that an accurate way of looking at Anglo-Indian relations at the time? Not sure what your point is.

        1. He’s saying that it was “trade tainted by coercion” and not actual free trade that led to the Victorian holocausts, and the passage above illustrates that. Is English your first language?

          1. ” not actual free trade ”

            Of course it isn’t actual free trade. Free Trade is an ideal, that’s why we who are native English speakers CAPITALIZE it. As an ideal, it doesn’t actually exist. You’ve surely come across Leftists who happily criticize communist countries but still hold out for the promise of Communism. You’re giving their old line a twist of your own.

  2. “The triplet land reform, peace, and social justice has a left-wing sound today, but that’s because the modern classical liberal/libertarian movement from the 1930s onward got sidetracked by an alliance of convenience with the conservative and nationalist American Right, which, like the liberals, also opposed the New Deal and (in those days, but alas no more) militarism. That alliance, which was fortified in the 1950s due to the common opposition to Soviet communism, had the unfortunate effect of cutting libertarians off from their true heritage.”

    By the same token, the alliance between the 19th century figures the author calls libertarians with illiberal “liberals” also had an unfortunate effect – associating libertarians with a portion of the political spectrum which was for the most part in favor of increasing government’s role.

    Ambrose Bierce’s cynical remark that a conservative is a statesman enamored of existing evils, and a liberal wants to replace the existing evils with new ones, seems applicable here. By associating with these illiberal liberals, the proto-libertarians were doing at least as much damage as by their alliance with right-wingers, many of whom were at least sympathetic to liberty and introduced certain libertarian themes (especially in the economic field) into mainstream conservative discourse.

    Where are the liberal themes in contemporary progressive discourse?

    1. Outside of sexual freedom issues, they don’t exist.

      1. But lots of conservatives cheer on economic freedom, some (like NR) have been for some version of drug legalization, etc.

        Draw a Venn diagram of Congressional supporters of economic freedom and Congressional SoCons, and there will be *way* more overlap than a Venn diagram of economic liberalizers (or liberalizers of other laws) and social liberals/social moderates.

      2. “sexual freedom issues”

        To your average SoLib, this includes supporting the contraceptive mandate.

    2. “Ambrose Bierce’s cynical remark that a conservative is a statesman enamored of existing evils, and a liberal wants to replace the existing evils with new ones, seems applicable here.”

      It was the Duke of Wellington, I believe, who said, “Reform? Reform? Aren’t things bad enough already?”

  3. Another commenter alerted me to this:

    New York Times wants to roll back the federal marijuana laws – teens, minorities hardest hit.

    With MJ legal, more teens will use it, stoned driving will go up, not to mention –

    “Yet the most pervasive harm of marijuana may be psychic rather than physical. A battery of studies have found regular marijuana use to be associated with worse outcomes at school, social life, and work. I use the cautious phrase “associated with,” because it’s far from clear whether marijuana use is a cause or an effect of other problems?or (most likely) both cause and effect. An isolated, underachieving kid starts smoking marijuana. That kid then descends deeper into isolation and underachievement. Marijuana may not have been the “cause” of the kid’s malaise, but it intensifies the malaise and may inhibit or even prevent his emergence from it….

    “The resistance will be all the weaker since the costs of marijuana legalization will be borne by people to whom American legislatures pay scant attention anyway. Marijuana retailers will be located most densely in America’s poorest neighborhoods, just as liquor and cigarette retailing is now.”

    http://www.commentarymagazine……go-to-pot/

    1. As opposed to a jail / prison record, which would totally help him turn his life around.

      1. He says force them into treatment instead.

        1. Yeah, how could that have any negative consequences?

          He even writes in his article that people often stop smoking with age, but refuses to glean anything useful from that fact.

  4. Among libertarians and classical liberals, the name Richard Cobden (1804?1865) evokes admiration and applause

    Or looks of bewilderment. Is there some sort of libertarian welcome basket that I never got?

    1. You didn’t get a gift basket? Oh they’re very nice. The hand lotion smells so good! Plus the organic beeswax candles. And the artisinal mayonnaise.

      1. The Milton Friedman fleshlight was, however, one gift too many

        1. shudders

  5. She’s a hottie.

  6. OK now is when you roll with the punches dude.

    http://www.AnonToolz.tk

  7. The triplet land reform, peace, and social justice has a left-wing sound today, but that’s because the modern classical liberal/libertarian movement from the 1930s onward got sidetracked by an alliance of convenience with the conservative and nationalist American Right, which, like the liberals, also opposed the New Deal and (in those days, but alas no more) militarism. That alliance, which was fortified in the 1950s due to the common opposition to Soviet communism, had the unfortunate effect of cutting libertarians off from their true heritage.

    So it seems that while some Reason authors dabble in Holocaust Revisionism, Richman dips his toe in the pool of Duranty-esque Communist Apologetics. Libertarians didn’t get sidetracked, it was the “liberals”, mugwumps, goo-goos, and members of the Anti-Imperialist League, who got sidetracked into supporting bloodthirsty revolutionaries around the world who evoked their anti-colonialists sympathies.

    Soi-disant “left”-libertarians like Richman can go fuck themselves. That he believes he can get away with such whole-scale historical revisionism belies the utter contempt in which he views his audience’s intelligence and education.

    And the editorial staff at Reason magazine should be embarrassed for choosing to publish him.

    1. Britain’s aristocratic privileges kind of complicate the issue, though. Were he strictly speaking of the US, you’d have more of a complaint.

      1. Perhaps, but the alacrity of Kim Philby & Co. in showing their true colors only strengthens my point about who got sidetracked with what.

    2. I don’t see anything wrong with his observation. Yes, the Left did go all authoritarian so it did make sense to form an alliance with the Right (though the terms mean different things in the 30s than today). What didn’t make sense were the ways that the classical liberal movement, to some degree became part of the Right. I would disagree with Richman that we are of the Left, we are neither, but the man has a point here. Allying yourself with the lesser of two evils doesn’t require you to adopt some of your new friend’s attitudes. The whole Rockwell/Rothbard “let’s make friends with the populist Right, what could go wrong?” strategy is one of the greatest blunders in the history of the libertarian movement. This is the sort of thing Richman seems to be criticizing, not leaving the evil authoritarian Left.

      1. The Left started authoritarian and got worse, especially in its continental variants. Forced egalitarianism, its theorizing, and its implementation may not have been widespread until the 20th century, but it was still around and a large part of bloody-minded revolts like the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. I mean, at what point was there a non-authoritarian Left which could be distinguished from classical liberalism proper?

        Not that classical liberalism is the “right” per se, but in this country classical liberalism is the tradition and therefore most rightist movements in this country are classically liberal (if inconsistently so). Rockwell/Rothbard’s mistake was and is allying with the authoritarian/national socialist right, which does not have a particular tradition in the US to draw from but nonetheless exists as something of a foreign import.

        1. Well by that standard all non-libertarians are authoritarian. When I talk about the anti-authoritarian Left I mean those who are skeptical of the state, even when their people are in charge. Yes, they mistakenly hold the view that the state is like other elements in society and it can be used to achieve good ends. They are wrong about a lot of things and their core beliefs about the nature of political authority are flawed, but they don’t hold the grotesque view that “the state is us” or “government is what we do together.” They recognize many of its flaws and are hesitant to grant it authority. Some of them will even admit that the sorts of programs they support (like the welfare state) can have negative consequences and aren’t an unmitigated good thing.

          1. And I’m not an apologist for the Left. I’m on record as saying the scariest person in contemporary American politics is Liz Warren, because she is evil and I can see a future where she is President. I think the Proglodytes are a much greater threat than some flag waving yahoo in camo with a wooly beard at an anti immigration rally.

            1. “I’m on record as saying the scariest person in contemporary American politics is Liz Warren, because she is evil and I can see a future where she is President.”

              The only way she could do that is by a forceful takeover, and she just doesn’t have the numbers nor respect of the armed forces.

          2. Well by that standard all non-libertarians are authoritarian.

            That’s a bit too narrow, but certainly political ideologies which are defined to the exclusion of classical liberalism are authoritarian pretty much by definition.

            When I talk about the anti-authoritarian Left I mean those who are skeptical of the state, even when their people are in charge.

            By that standard Lenin was part of the anti-authoritarian left. I judge movements by their willingness to use force and reasons for such; I suppose you could define some aspects of the anarchist left as “non-authoritarian” due to their preference for collectivized mob violence in achieving their aims over hierarchical structures of the state, but they’re no less dangerous for it.

            They recognize many of its flaws and are hesitant to grant it authority. Some of them will even admit that the sorts of programs they support (like the welfare state) can have negative consequences and aren’t an unmitigated good thing.

            Such is a diluted form of leftism rather than an alternate expression of the same tendency. Their “good” views on the subject are not endogenous to leftism and the egalitarian emphasis, but are the result of interaction with classical liberals. They are moderates positioned between the Left and classical liberalism, not “anti-authoritarian leftists”.

    3. Yeah, because everyone knows Gabriel Kolko, William Appleman Williams, Kirkpatrick Sale, Carl oglesby, and other anti-new deal new left 60’s libertarians were soviet agents. Better an ally of the mass murderer LBJ than a dirty red!

      And everyone knows that Duranty and the CPUSA were anti-imperialist, even though, you know, they lobbied for internment, supported the creation of HUAC, and smeared anti-war American First patriots as nazis during WW2 because America was allies with Stalin.

  8. Jane looks highly sexual. She’s either demanding to be properly fucked or to perform a dominatrix wax job on someone.

  9. The triplet land reform, peace, and social justice has a left-wing sound today, but that’s because the modern classical liberal/libertarian movement from the 1930s onward got sidetracked by an alliance of convenience with the conservative and nationalist American Right, which, like the liberals, also opposed the New Deal and (in those days, but alas no more) militarism. That alliance, which was fortified in the 1950s due to the common opposition to Soviet communism, had the unfortunate effect of cutting libertarians off from their true heritage.

    Gee, what a shame that libertarians were cut off from the radical socialists and anarchists who made the beginning of the 20th century such a paradise. I mean, sure, the American anti-New Deal conservatives of the 30s were in favor of far more actual liberty than the American socialist/anarchist tradition ever was, and Edward Bellamy and his cohorts were scarce removed from Stalinism in their aims, but the conservatives supported things like Christianity and respect for tradition — icky!

    1. I don’t think that’s Richman’s point. He’s not bemoaning the fact that we aren’t buddies with the authoritarian Left, he’s bemoaning that, in its alliance with the Right, the classical liberal movement jettisoned some important parts of its ideology. One can debate this, but it seems uncharitable to ascribe a sentiment to Richman that he doesn’t hold.

      1. What, exactly, did the classical movement jettison? I’m curious now; as near as I can tell their fidelity to civil liberties is much stronger than that of the right and their ideology is uncorrupted by the right’s bizarre fixations on various populist socio-cultural concerns.

        1. It isn’t my argument to make, which is why I said “One can debate this”, my point is that one shouldn’t misconstrue Richman’s argument. Disagree with what he said, not some distortion of what he said.

  10. social justice

    Why would someone add the descriptor of social to justice? Why not simply “justice”? Any time I read this term I assume that the person using it does not mean actual justice. If they did, why differentiate? Usually it is because what they really mean is a supposedly “just” outcome which requires coercion, of course.

    1. It is easily recognized as an Orwellian weasel phrase, and an Objectivist would identify two operative fallacies involved: the stolen concept and the floating abstraction.

    2. ” Any time I read this term I assume that the person using it does not mean actual justice.”

      And you’d be correct.

      ” If they did, why differentiate?”

      If they just said justice, people would always correctly understand it as the opposite of what they mean.

      They call it social justice to communicate what they mean while pretending it is just.

    3. I suppose in a strictly libertarian sense the term “social justice” could be used to refer to what are thought of as good social or moral outcomes that do not involve government. In other words, maybe you have no legal obligation to, say, provide for the poor, but you should do so anyway because it’s a “good” or “just” or “moral” thing to do. However, because of the origin of the term in the Catholic tradition and the modern usage of the term by social liberals, it’s usually safe to assume that is not the case unless it is explicitly stated so.

    4. Because they’re trying to apply the concept of justice to questions about society. Asking a jury to acquit or convict an accused criminal is a question of individual justice. Asking what sort of laws are just in the first place is a question of social justice.

      Obviously one can disagree with any proposition about what constitutes social justice, but I’ve never found it difficult to understand that the phrase refers to the justice (or lack thereof) of something that is social in nature.

      1. ” something that is social in nature.”

        In a word, Socialist!

  11. So what is this true heritage that the libertarians have been cut off from? The Jacobins? The Enrages? The Paris Commune? Blanquism? Eugene Debs? Norman Thomas? William Jennings Bryan? Tom Watson? The CNT?

    1. Marquis de Sade

      1. I realize that this is snark but de Sade opposed property rights and I believe he supported public schools and communal raising of children.

        1. “de Sade opposed property rights”

          I don’t think so, tho his idea of property rights differs from the typical idea of today. Theft was to be punished. But not the thief whose enterprise, cunning and courage de Sade admired. Those punished were those careless enough to let themselves be victims of theft.

          When you speak of the ‘libertarian heritage’ do you mean libertarian in the anglo world, or outside it? Two very different takes on what it means to be libertarian.

    2. Forget it; it’s Richman.

  12. “Social justice”: One of the many euphemisms for leftism.

    You can’t be a libertarian and be for “social justice”.

    Equal justice, perhaps. But not “social” justice.

    1. If they were talking about justice, they wouldn’t have to call it social justice.

  13. Richman is of course a nitwit, but an important grain of truth managed to sneak it’s way into his article.

    Property in land/natural resources fail to meet the Lockean proviso, and thus fail to meet the standards for just property. This was arguably more important in agrarian times, but is still a failure in justice in most libertarians today.

    (I’d note that ideas do not require exclusive control for their use, and therefore similarly fail as just property.)

    Enforcement of unjust property claims is initiation of force. The most practical and equitable solution I am aware of is for those who could claim exclusive use of what everyone has equal just claim to is for the possessors to compensate the dispossessed via the collection of a natural resource tax that is refunded to all.

    This would we a *just* way to implement the negative income tax/basic income guarantee of Friedman or Murray, and would also help drive property ownership to productive uses.

    1. +1000!
      Georgism FTW!

  14. I’ve never been bored by an article faster…

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