“I think that one of the narrative themes of the progressive era that spawned our modern state is the deliberate smashing of the poor and, in particular, of the “petty capitalism” that sustained them. One of the things I get from reading through the hugely influential London Labour And The London Poor by the reformist activist Henry Mayhew is a horror of the poor, as he describes the costermongers and hawkers and small underclass production businesses which sustained them. The poor had to be done away with and replaced with something more acceptable to higher class tastes and, by all kinds of social activism and regulation they were, to a large extent, done away with as, their petty capitalism squeezed out by the State, they were dragooned into a compliant workforce for factories run by bewhiskered, interfering philanthropists who voted for Victorian Nick Cleggs. And in the end, they all got their council flats and a better wage, and all they had to give in return was their spirit.”
IanB, who has happily resurfaced over at Counting Cats after a period away from the blogging gig.
I’d add my two cents to this article by arguing that although some people want things like council houses, rent controls and minimum wage laws out of a naive but sincere belief that these are good, it has always struck me that part of the reformist zeal to do away with things like “cheap labour” is a sort of “yuck” factor. I sense a lot of this whenever I watch a programme about the downtrodden, poor workers of distant lands. It never seems to cross the minds of the do-gooders here that such folk face far worse alternatives to working for a relatively low wage to a Western one – not working at all. The poor child labourers of Asia do not have the alternative of spending much of their teens in a school and then off to college. And in any event, their best hope of escaping their plight is to have as much vulgar capitalism as possible.
IanB identifies puritanism – both of the religious and the secularised versions – as a key driver of the reformists’ zeal. I’d also add in a sort of aesthetic dislike, even hatred, for industry and trade. The Fabian movement that has had such a baleful effect on the past 100 years or so was inspired not just by the Evangelical “Great Awakening” of the 19th Century, but by the back-to-the-land movements inspired by the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris.
Read the whole article.
Update: It might be objected (and indeed it was, predictably, by an incredibly rude and now banned commenter) that religious puritanism has anything to do with the nanny statist trends of our time. But while there are some who argue, with Max Weber, that the “Protestant Work Ethic” was in some ways pro-market, the fact is that that ethic was double-sided. Sure, there was a striving, pro-enterprise side of it, but there was also a strong, anti-materialist side and a side that scorned pleasure, which provided some of the intellectual fuel for groups such as the “Christian socialists” of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The teetotal movement, for example, found ready adherents. And consider the intellectual backgrounds of folk like RH Tawney, Arnold Toynbee, and so on. To deny that they had religious inspiration for their views is obtuse.