Looking up the hill at Robin Hood’s Bay
During our summer holiday we visited Robin Hood’s Bay. The entire town, tumbling down a steep Yorkshire cliff, was once an eighteenth century smuggling machine. To avoid tariffs, goods would be unloaded at night in the bay, either to be clandestinely stored in wall cavities and under floorboards, or carried via a hidden route through the houses and narrow lanes to the clifftop, where carts waited to move them away to market. The rewards were considerable, as would be expected when all wealth ultimately comes from trade. The risks, however, were great. Smuggling was a crime entirely created by governments, for which governments reserved their severest punishments.
Today Robin Hood’s Bay is a charming tourist destination and smuggling is not what it was. This is because, until recently, the world has generally supported an international trading system which does not use protective tariffs. A survey of American economists conducted by Robert Whaples in 2006 found that 87.5% believed the general benefits to society of free trade considerably outweighed local disadvantages. The overwhelming opinion of professional economists is that society would have benefited if the people of Robin Hood’s Bay had been allowed to carry on their business in peace.
There are dark echoes of the past in the way today’s populist politicians are calling for protective economic policies. This is part of a general trend of people wanting to retreat behind the apparent security of various borders. Politicians who support the rational idea of free trade, basing their support on the advice of the world’s leading economists, are vilified. Just as smugglers of Robin Hood’s Bay were deemed criminals, one of Hilary Clinton’s “crimes” as defined by the recent Republican convention, is her past advocacy of the North American Free Trade Agreement which established open markets in 1994. Personally I think Robin Hood’s Bay works better as a tourist destination that a smuggling operation. It is somewhere to remember the bad old days, and learn the lessons of history.