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“Parliament took an ax to itself …”

From a WSJ review by Trevor Butterworth of Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy:

But the power of knowledge would not, by itself, have given Britain its formidable economic edge; the Continent, too, had an array of scientific genius as brilliant as any in Scotland and England. (Think only of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier.) The reason for Britain’s exceptionalism, Mr. Mokyr says, lies in the increasing hostility to rent-seeking – the use of political power to redistribute rather than create wealth – among the country’s most important intellectuals in the second half of the 18th century. Indeed, a host of liberal ideas, in the classic sense, took hold: the rejection of mercantilism’s closed markets, the weakening of guilds and the expansion of internal free trade, and robust physical and intellectual property rights all put Britain far ahead of France, where violent revolution was needed to disrupt the privileges of the old regime.

Such political upheaval in Europe, notes Mr. Mokyr, disrupted trade, fostered uncertainty, and may well have created all kinds of knock-on social disincentives for technological and scientific innovation and collaboration with business. Much as we might deplore too many of our brightest students going into law rather than chemistry or engineering, it is not unreasonable to think that many of France’s brightest thinkers were diverted by brute events into political rather than scientific activism (or chastened by poor Lavoisier’s beheading during the Revolution).

Thus Montesquieu may have advocated free trade as passionately as Adam Smith, but Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” – the canonical text of the Industrial Enlightenment – fell upon a society primed to judge and implement it as an operating system. Evangelical and liberal alike shared in the vision of “frugal” government, as Mr. Mokyr puts it. In the opening decades of the 19th century, Parliament took an ax to itself, pruning the books of what were now seen as harmfully restrictive laws.

I have my doubts about whether robust intellectual property rights did much to encourage the industrial revolution, but apart from that …

This books is now in the post to me, thanks to Amazon, that characteristic trading innovation of our own time.

I suppose reading books like this is, for a British libertarian, an experience somewhat like that of a religious believer contemplating the delights of the Garden of Eden. It may be a bit bogus, in the sense that like all earthly Edens this one was decidedly imperfect and probably felt just as discouraging to its contemporaries as life seems to a lot of us now, a lot of the time.

For who knows? Maybe the times we are living through now may be looked back upon by later generations as similarly Eden-like, either because we are now making huge intellectual (as well as more obvious economic – think Amazon) progress, but we can’t quite see it (maybe any decade now our Parliaments will take axes to themselves), or because times are about to get a lot worse.

I hope (although I promise nothing) to report back here about whether the book deserves the above praise.

10 comments to “Parliament took an ax to itself …”

  • Paul Marks

    In Britain (especially England and Wales) there was no way to enforce detailed statism in the 18th century.

    Firstly the Royal Administration has never been so strong or comprehensive as it was in (for example) France or Spain – if their was a “Tudor Revolution in government” led by Thomas Cromwell it was a revolution that FAILED (the local landed families resented a profressional class of administrators ordering them about in the name of the King).

    And what Royal Adminstrative structure that existed was hit badly by the Civil War of the 1640’s and the Revolution of 1688.

    True Parliament (via the ministers who depended on Parliament for money) could have built an administrative structure of its own – and that is what happened in the 19th century (with the creation of the Civil Service).

    But in the 18th century that was still thought of as Cromwellian (Oliver not Thomas) – and so there really was not much of an administrative structure at all. Parliament remained a CHECK ON government, not a PART OF government (as it is now). Of course British M.P.s were not paid till 1911 (a mistake that Americans made at the very start of the Republic)

    The Tudor legislation remained on the statute books (mostly not repealed to the early 19th century) – but most of it was ignored (because there were only unpaid Justices of the Peace to enforce it and they normally had better things to do).

    So the land remained (in the attack of J. Bentham – a man who dreamed of 13 great departments of state controlling every aspect of human life) “feudal despotism” in theory and “anarchy” in practice.

    But it was a rather peaceful “anarchy” (outside the big cities). True there were no police – but people could call on the general population to help them, and population generally did (even in the big cities).

    Marxists might cry about false “ideology” distrating the poor from their true “class interests” and other folk today might talk about how the property of the rich was not “justly acquired” (to this sort of person no individually owned property is “justly acquired” of course – to find a flaw in ownership they will search all the way back to the Ice Age if they must), but the fact remains that if a rich man or women (in rural area or city) was attacked by robbers and called for help – they could expect to be helped.

    Not only would the rich person be likely to be armed (poor people were quite likely to be armed also) – but they could count on the active help of poor people if attacked by robbers (either in their home or walking in the streets).

    This basic respect for property rights was the bedrock on which everything Britain achieved was built.

    “Anarchy” with general and active (i.e. people will join with you in defence of your property) respect for property rights (in both person and possessions) is the foundation of progress – “anarchy” without such general and active respect is indeed evil “chaos”.

  • John B

    Government has indeed become an all-encompassing, all-engorging beast that can only pass more and more laws in order to justify its existence.
    And justify they must because it is their caviar and cake that are at stake.
    Not to mention the yachts, exotic destination, luxury private holidays, luxury transport, and all that mundane stuff.
    The inevitable is that it will take over, everything.
    I suppose one should plan accordingly?

  • Paul Marks

    John B. – the statists may win (totally), but then they will lose.

    Economic law is not the false “ideology” that Marxists (and those who are Marxist without using the word) claim it is – it is fact.

    Unlike the so called “utopean socialists” (who Marx so attacked) Marxists are careful to never carefully describe the system they wished to create – it is “unscientific” to describe the future development of the laws of history.

    This is nice for the enemy as they can simply concentrate on the attack.

    For example “The Story of Stuff” (the propaganda film aimed at school children, produced by Barack Obama’s old friends at the Tides Foundation) is just one long attack on private enterprise (although under the names “corporations” and “consumerism”), it contains no account what-so-ever of how an alternative society would work. For example how and why collective ownership of forests is better than private ownership of forests.

    Thus it followers the policy of Karl Marx – never explain, just attack.

    But after we are dead or enslaved…….

    What do Comrade Barack and the others do then?

    Are they like Trotsky, who defended himself on the grounds that no Marxist had ever thought in detail about what happens AFTER they win?

    Marxist thought has made no progress at all since Trotsky’s time – indeed it CAN NOT make progess for two reasons.

    Firstly the great ban on thought by Karl Marx himself – they are not ALLOWED to think about these matters (it is “unscientific” to do so).

    And the fact (and it is a fact) that the problem of how to equal “capitalism” (indeed go beyond modern society) without private property in the means of production (and free civil interaction) CAN NOT be solved (it is like constructing a square circle).

    That, of course, was the reason the ban on thought was imposed in the first place – Karl Marx had seen how anti socialists refuted the schemes of socialist with ease, so he decided to not produce any detailed scheme at all (nothing for evil “reactionaries” to refute).

    A clever move – and the enemy are full of tactical cleverness (indeed genius – taking over so many cultural institutions is hardly the sign of stupid people).

    But strategically they are a dead end – their victory can lead only to destruction and decay. Eventually even for themselves.

  • Nuke Gray

    I must disagree with one point. Many books I have read, like ‘This Little Britain’, and ‘The World is Flat’ and ‘The age of Plenty’, claim that Intellectual Property Protection is one of the many ways that Britain was superior to other countries, and acted as a magnet for the best and the brightest. America incorporated Patents and copyright deliberately to encourage the growth of its’ own society.
    Why should I think that Intellectual Property retards progress? It seems to be essential to it!

  • Rich Rostrom

    “it is not unreasonable to think that many of France’s brightest thinkers were diverted by brute events into political rather than scientific activism…”

    “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” – John Adams

  • John B

    Paul, what consolation is it to know that they will also sink on the same boat as you, that they have destroyed?
    And they will go down somewhat later because they occupy all the top level state rooms.
    Perhaps one can indicate to them they are sinking the boat and that everyone is on it?
    But I suppose people who believe that the only way deliver us all from “debt” is to make more of it, will believe anything they want to.
    Or perhaps they think the world has so much resilience that it is safe to steal most of the goodies as long as they leave some crumbs lying around for the servants,
    not recognising that the psychology of theft and self-deception knows no natural boundaries other than starvation and death?

  • Paul Marks

    John B. – I wish I had a good reply for you, but I do not.

    I do not even have Glenn Beck’s reply – i.e. that if we truly become better people (if we make the ultimate effort) then God will help us.

    I am not an athiest – but I do NOT hold with that view of theology. I believe that God may well NOT help people – no matter how much they change their own lives.

    To take Churchill’s words I have nothing to offer you but “tears, toil and sweat” (I do not use the word “blood” as the left will say I am suggesting violence). The grim endless struggle.

    In concrete political terms (in an American context) this means making sure that people who understand basic political economy (such as the fact that government spending must be radically CUT, not the rate of increase slowed) win Republican party primary elections.

    And then workind so that these people (Rand Paul, Sharen Angle and so on) win the elections themselves – and so can start (if not after 2010 then after 2012) trying to save what can be saved. And then to build again.

    Not easy – for the power of the “education system” (the left control most schools and colleges) and the “mainstream” media is still vast.

    However, at least (for the first time in my life) TENS OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE understand that the “education system” and the “mainstream” media are in no way “objective” – that they are in fact part of the enemy (a ruthless enemy that will stop at nothing – no lie or distortion is too vile for them).

    Alternative sources of information are growing in strength every day – we are NOT alone (unless we make ourselves alone by mindless sectarianism – whilst the left laugh), and we must voluntarily cooperate to save Western civilization.

    Rich Rostrom.

    The American Founding Fathers did not kill scientists (because of their political opinions or some other reason) the French Revolutionaries did.

    People like John Adams really did believe in individual freedom – and the French Revolutionaries (of most of the factions – not just the Jacabins) basically DID NOT believe in individual freedom.

    The difference really is that simple and that basic.

    For example John Adams had a hot temper – and often argued with people (sometimes over small things). But he would never murder anyone or rob them – even if he utterly opposed their theological or political opinions.

    Indeed he would risk his own life to PROTECT the life and property of someone with whom he utterly disagreed on political and theological matters.

    This is NORMAL for one of the American Founding Fathers.

    Yet I have trouble thinking of many leading French Revolutionaries of whom such a thing could be said.

    A person of individual honor may NOT have God come and help them – such a person may still die face down in the mud (and have their name dragged in it – in order to make even their own children believe lies about them). But individual honor (respecting the lives and property of others – and putting one’s own life on the line to defend them) is still the key.

  • John B

    This is from Mises, today, regarding the ACTA treaty that looks set to demolish internet freedom as government spreads its control ever deeper into our ‘annoying’ freedoms, such as remain:

    This would not be the first time in history when stagnation and decline characterize entire eras. Ancient Egypt, the Roman and Byzantine Empires, the European Dark Ages, Bourbon France, and the Soviet Union are just a few examples; obsolete and parasitic institutions, with enough force, can ruin the lives of multiple generations before finally collapsing under their own oppressive weight.


  • On the subject of intellectual property there’s an article here(Link) suggesting that the steam engine didn’t get going (er, pun not intended) until Watt’s patents expired.

  • Nuke Gray

    I am a minarchist, not an anarchist, so I have no trouble with an Intellectual Property system. After all, it is a limited-life monopoly. If it had been something that was in perpetuity, that would have been different. Amongst other things, I am convinced that we wouldn’t have Viagra without IP! The company needed a long time to develop it, and the thought of IP was what kept the company on the job. If there had been no legal impediment to copying Viagra, they would have been impoverished soon after coming out with it.