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From Pitt to Brown: how the UK state has grown

In his classic demolition of Big Government, Parliament of Whores, P.J. O’Rourke explains that one of the keys to explaining how govermment can spread its tentacles and prove so hard to roll back is that its very size makes it hard for anyone, even a smart reformer, to understand. The bafflement that one experiences when looking at the extent of the state is part of why it stays big, he argues.

I was reminded of this by the sheer contrast with what used to be the case. As William Hague points out in his excellent biography of 18th Century UK statesman Pitt the Younger (now out in paperback), Pitt had hardly any resources at all in his brief spell as Chancellor of the Exchequer. There were no civil servants or secretaries, no armies of bureaucrats. Nothing. Nada. Zip. And when Pitt entered 10 Downing Street, the actual size of the state engine at his command was just as meagre, even though this was a government that was to wage war against Bonaparte, deal with the growth of an empire in India and the effects of the Industrial Revolution.

Ponder on that, Gordon Brown.

22 comments to From Pitt to Brown: how the UK state has grown

  • RAB

    The whole of the British Empire
    was administered with less staff
    than are now currently employed
    at the DVLA Swansea.
    Think on Gordon and Dave both.

  • Verity

    That. is. truly. horrifying. The entire Empire. God I hate governments!

  • pete

    The depressing things about the ever increasing number of government employees are these.

    1. Every predictable failure they accomplish means they perceive the need to redouble their efforts, which usually means hiring ever more staff.

    2. Every public employee gets a vote.

    I would advise any youngster to make sure he or she is employed by the state. In the short to medium term this is the best option for the average and not so specially clever person. What a mess.

  • XWL

    2. Every public employee gets a vote.

    To that point from pete, maybe it’s time to force people to choose one or the other.

    career in govt=disenfranchisement

    (on conflict of interest grounds)

    (you could even make a libertarian argument for the practice)

  • Delmore Macnamara

    Since it was Pitt who introduced the Income Tax, to fund the wars against Napoleon, it was he who enabled the subsequent growth of the state.

    Revenue raising measures are usually wartime expedients that mysteriously fail to be dropped when peace arrives.

  • Karl Rove

    The reason Govt is bigger now is – because there’s more money around to tax. The whole Industrial Rev.
    seems to have passed you by.

  • Delmore Macnamara

    No Mr Rove, that cannot be the case. The exponential rise in the size of the tax burden facilitated by the introduction of direct taxation of income continued _after_ the industrial revolution. For instance, at the start of the 20th Century, the UK tax burden was ~10% of GDP, at the end ~40%.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The reason Govt is bigger now is – because there’s more money around to tax. The whole Industrial Rev.
    seems to have passed you by.

    Rove (or whatever your real name is), if one considers the relative size and importance of Britain now and in Pitt’s time, the relatively puny size of government then and the monster we have now is still something that cannot be either explained or justified by the Industrial Revolution or anything else.

    In fact, I would go further: as society gets richer, the need for government services should, in fact, decline. So your argument is even sillier on second glance.

  • Johnathan

    I would add that government share of GDP was relatively modest by current standards up until the turn of the 20th Century, more than 150 years or so since what is usually defined as the Industrial Age kicked in. Even in the age of Lord Salisbury in the late 19th Century, the British Empire was run out of Whitehall with a tiny fraction of what Britain now, in its diminished state, now has in terms of civil servants.

    My argument stands.

  • Thon Brocket

    I gotta keep saying it.

    This is what happens when you give legislators the power to legislate and the power to tax to pay for it all. Corrupt, power-hungry people accept the invitation and take to politics. Next thing we’re paying 40% tax in order to furnish the state with bribes to the lumpenproletariat and the waBurukrati tribe to continue voting the Statist ticket.

    By separating the powers to legislate and the powers to tax by constituting separtate legislatures, we would create a class of legislators holding the purse-strings and elected solely on their taxing record, not their performance in government. That would be something new under the sun, and would start the process of really rolling back the state.

    And it would be 100% democratic.

  • Thon Brocket

    The reason Govt is bigger now is – because there’s more money around to tax

    Well, yeah. There’s more money around. So naturally the state taxes it, for the same reason a dog licks its bollocks – because it can. It has the monopoly of force, and the democratic imprimatur. Like, go for it, Gordon.

    Now if it had to ask a separate taxing legislature for the money to employ a few more Diversity Outreach Facilitation Officers and lock in the shiny new DOFOs’ votes, instead of just grabbing the money off the taxpayer, how many more DOFOs do you think it would end up employing?

  • Thon Brocket

    career in govt=disenfranchisement
    (on conflict of interest grounds)

    Yup. We apply this rule to parliamentarians – “if you have an interest in the vote, declare it and abstain” – and nobody gripes.

    Not that I think that it’s remotely doable, politically, but it’s a good idea in principle, and a good arguing point.

  • Delmore Macnamara

    Senior UK civil servants, including all tax inspectors, are already barred from public political activity. Similarly for local government chief officers.

  • Delmore Macnamara

    Though of course, not from voting. But perhaps the ban on poliltical activity should be extended to less senior employees.

  • John K

    There was a discussion on Radio 5 this morning about a shortage of head teachers. The consensus seemed to be that heads are ground down by the weight of bureaucracy imposed on them by LEA’s and the Department of Education. The problem with giving all these bureaucrats jobs is that they think they have to do stuff, so they come up with stupid initiatives and projects, and heads have to jump through hoops satisfying the worthless demands of these useless parasites. The obvious solution is to get rid of all these pointless positions, and allow heads to run their schools as they see fit, given that they are experienced professional people. Given that this was the BBC, that course of action did not occur to them. The best they could come up with was that heads should have business managers to deal with the bullshit from local and central government, freeing up the heads to run the schools.

    Thus does government create more and more useless and unproductive work, requiring more and more useless and unproductive people to do it, all leeching off the dwindling tax base. Eventually the economy crashes in flames, at which point the people demand that government does something about it, and the cycle starts again.

  • Nick M

    John K,

    Good God man! allowing teachers to run schools… Next you’ll be allowing doctors and nurses to make healthcare decisions, generals to run the army… Where will it all end?

    …and where will all those sociology/politics/media grads find employment?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    …and where will all those sociology/politics/media grads find employment?

    We could turn them into coffee tables, or possibly barbecue fuel. The weather is getting better. You see, we offer solutions at Samizdata, not just problems.

  • rosignol

    Oh, come on. I’m sure they would do just as well as waiters, or perhaps as garbagemen.

    Someone’s got to take out the trash. Might as well be the PoliSci types.

  • Paul Marks

    I once considered writing a “decline” series so that folk could know the key dates and facts of the rise of statism in various places (the Rome, Britain the United States and so on), and that it is a complex story – i.e. some bits of statism (certain regulations) can actually be abolished even while vast numbers of new regulations are being imposed and taxes and spending are expanding out of control.

    For example the end of the “Jim Crow” laws in the United States was a real gain for liberty, even though there soon came new laws (starting, at the Federal level, in 1964) new laws that were (to some extent) Jim Crow in reverse “you must” as opposed to “you must not” let blacks into this bus or shop or whatever.

    Still on Pitt and statism.

    Well he started out O.K.

    From 1784 when he came into office he tried to cut government spending and was fairly friendly to deregulation ideas (although he had some odd ideas also – for example he thought about introducing govenrment schools).

    He was not good in India (which the history textbooks say he was) in that his India Bill handed over a lot of cash to corrupt murdering scum bags like Paul Benfield (whatever one thinks of Warren Hastings some years before, hero or villian, there can be no doubs about Benfield), but Benfield ended up bankrupt and better men came to the top in time.

    As for the French wars – actually Pitt did not want war. However, having a regime a few miles away that openly states that any government that is not based on the “rights of man” (and by this they meant democracy – or rather there own version of rule of the people) was not acceptable is not going to mean peace in the long term.

    No British government could have not protested over the murder (and it was murder – Louis XVI was a harmless person) of the King of France. And with this protest the regime in France declared war.

    People like “Emperor” Bony might not be interested in the rule of the people – but they were not interested in letting any country be independent of their rule either.

    The French wars were not like Iraq – they were not optional. Thealternative was conquest by Revolutionary France or (later) rule by the French Empire and its puppet regimes.

    As for Karl Rove point. Mostly wrong actually.

    The late Roman Empire managed to take about half of output without there having been an industrial revolution – certainly it had less actual buying power than (say) the U.S. government – but unless we are going to be Rothbard on a bad day (the U.S. government spends the most money so America is the most statist country in the world – and other such nonsense) it is the amount of spending IN PROPORTION TO TOTAL INCOME that matters.

    As for Britain – actually the low point (as far as I can work out) of government spending as a proportion of national income was in 1874. So “Karl Rove” is not quite as clever as he thinks he is.

    “But functions Mr Marks, functions – the government now had schools and public health inspectors and other such that it did not have before the industrial revolution”.

    Well, of course, many ancient civilizations (such as the late Roman Empire) had such things, as did many city states (in certain periods of their history). In fact many of the nations of Europe had such things before the industrial revolution.

    Indeed the odd one out was in England where there was no proper administrative structure to enforce the various laws passed under monarchs like Elizabeth I.

    The lack of statism in England (and, in some ways, Scotland) may well be why there was an industrial revolution here rather than in France or Spain or the Empire of Hapsburgs. Old T.S. Ashton (“The Industrial Revolution” which he wrote back in the 1940s understood this quite well).

    Even in the 1820’s there was very little administrative structure in Britian – government schools were unknown outside Scotland (which, to balance things up. had much less of a Poor Law than England), and government had virtually no other function than national defence.

  • Karl Rove

    You people are not as clever as you think. We now have a lot more to pay for. In Pitt’s time there was no compulsory skooling (presumably you’d like to go back to that to save money in the short term). There was no NHS (or, before Flo N., even nursing). No RAF (planes are a little expensive). No social workers (no objections from me…) The state didn’t encourage unmarried motherhood. No public libraries. Etc. etc.

  • veryretired

    I appreciate Paul Marks’ informative contributions very much.

    It is critical to remember that the growth of the modern welfare state was due to a philosophical reinterpretation of the purpose of the state itself.

    Instead of being the personal property of the monarch, to be used and abused as the autocrat saw fit, the governmental apparatus became an entity whose function was to serve the populace. As initially outlined by the constitutional theories of the Enlightenment, this meant a limited state, which was recognized as a danger to the citizen, and whose powers were very deliberately curtailed.

    This emphasis, however, was slowly corrupted, starting with the French error of demanding “egalite'”, and pursuing it at the cost of all other freedoms, and continued with the blossoming philosophical trends of the 19th century, which relentlessly glorified the collective, and opposed the individualistic interpretations of capitalist economics and a social model based on “rugged individualism”.

    By the end of the 19th century, the socialist intellectual model was the only accepted mindset for “forward” and “scientific” thinkers. The result, starting with the populist and progressive movements in the US, and the welfarist models in Europe, was an ever expanding committment to the state as the embodiment of the moral and social conscience of the community.

    The ultimate expression, of course, were the “total” states of the fascists or marxists, which openly proclaimed that the collective had the right and duty to “remold” and “reinvent” human nature itself in the service of the social aims of the nation. All this was gussied up in the most elaborate rhetorical window dressing, so that it sounded modern and progressive, as opposed to the old fashioned and obsolete ideas of capitalism and individual rights.

    For most of the last century, the collectivist ideal was unchallenged in any serious way in the halls of political power and academic theory. Even the grotesque excesses of the fascists in WW2 failed to discredit this view, as the equally or even worse lunacies of the marxist states were ignored and covered up.

    Finally, when the Soviets imploded, and the peoples’ experiences and official archives saw the light of day, the marxist model was discredited in practice, although not in academia, or in its various “soft socialist” forms, which still hold sway in many parts of the world.

    When those of us who value individual rights and limited government look around, we see these seemingly unstoppable mega-states finding more and more ways to control, tax, regulate, and in reality, obstruct and corrupt, the progress of society economically and politically, even as they pay lip service to the ideas of free markets and political freedom.

    It is at the point when it all seems insurmountable and hopeless that the example of those who began this revolutionary movement towards the recognition of human rights and freedoms is most instructive.

    When the Declaration was written, there were no representative models of government in the modern sense. And yet, less than 200 years later, that form was being replicated and emulated across the globe, even if many corruptions and errors had crept into the mix. The intellectual and moral momentum is on the side of the individual, even as the theories of collectivism kick and thrash on their way to the dump.

    Terrible, perverted tyrannies have been defeated and discredited. This is a time of hope, not despair. The collectivists have failed, and can be shown to have failed.

    The case for a political model respecting the rights of the individual needs to be made, and re-made, at every opportunity, but the opportunities exist as never before. The world is now connected, and able to communicate on a personal level in a way unheard of prior to the internet and satellite revolutions. It may be difficult and frustrating, but billions of people are waiting to hear that their lives have dignity and meaning.

    The philosophical case for individual human rights and freedom is the only narrative which supplies that dignity, and provides that meaning.

    We hold the aces. Go all in.

  • It’s not so much that the State had to do more, but that whining moron victims could frighten voters into thinking that they would someday be victims too. And that they might need the state because no one in their right minds would listen to them and give them money. The state bureaucrats would because it meant more money for them. Why ask your father or uncle for money and food when the local female PC state-supported bureaucrat would give it to you without so many questions or guilt? No one could really work or produce, after all. That is an illusion. Money comes from the air. Sooner or later this kind of thinking will crash. I hope I am dead then.