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The rise and decline of freedom in Britain – the decline and rise of the State

Freedom/liberty is defined in different ways. Some people talk of “free will” of agency, of the ability (sometimes and to some extent) to choose. Of how human beings are just that (beings) not flesh robots whose actions are either determined by a process of causes and effects going back to the start of the universe or are a matter of random chance (neither determinism or random chance being agency – being human choice).

This is not the place to debate the existence of the “I” (the reasoning, self aware, self) and to argue that agency is not an “illusion” (although if it is a illusion who is having the illusion – humans being simply being flesh robots), but I will say that if humans are not “beings” (not agents) then freedom is of no moral importance. No more than it is of moral importance whether water is allowed to “run free” or constrained behind a dam. But then, of course, if there is no agency (no freedom of choice) then there is no morality anyway. A clockwork mouse does not have moral responsibility – and neither would something that looked like a human being but was, in fact, not a “being” (an agent – a choosing “I”) at all.

As for the position that it is “compatible” that a human might have no capacity what-so-ever to choose any of their actions (including lines of thought) and yet still be morally responsible for them – well it is not compatible, basic logic does not allow us to have our cake and eat it as well.

Others talk of freedom in terms of stuff – goods and services.

Such people may or may not accept that humans have the capacity (sometimes to some extent) to make real choices – but they hold that even if humans do have the ability to make choices this does not mean they should be allowed to.

People will make the wrong choices – they will do things make the world a worse place, even for themselves.

To some extent the political libertarian actually agrees with that – after all we do not believe that people should be allowed to make the choice to rob, rape or murder other people.

Or, rather, they should be allowed to make the choice – but not to act on it (aggression should be opposed), and they should be punished if they do act upon it.

Some people have suggested that we be called “propertarians” (rather than libertarians) because of our opposition to chosen actions that aggress against the bodies and goods of people – to which my response is “if you want to call me a propertarian do so – I do not take it as a insult”.

However, the political libertarian (such as myself) tends to deny that non-aggressive choices – choices that respect the bodies and goods of other people, tend to be “wrong” in general.

We hold that most people, most of the time are more likely to get things right than the “great and the good”.

Not just “were you ten times and wise you would not have the right to impose your plans upon myself and others”, but also “even if you were ten times as wise you would still muck it all up”. Indeed it would be claimed that the clever elite are not “wise” at all – for if they were “wise” (rather than just clever) they would understand that trying to “plan society” always ends badly.

In part at this point we move from philosophy to political economy – economics… The statist claims two things, that giving the state (under the control of the “correct people” of course) control of resources (money) and people (via regulations) will make life more prosperous – and that this prosperity is “true freedom”.

In terms of economics this is just flat wrong. To prove their case (the case that collective control will produce more prosperity than allowing people to get on with things as best they can) will produce higher material living standards the statists would have to refute the most basic laws of political economy as outlined by such thinkers as Bastiat or Ludwig Von Mises. And normally the statists have not even opened their works – let alone come up with any refutation of their reasoning.

In fact more statism tends to produce less prosperity than would otherwise have been the case.The grand process of finding better ways (technologically better or organizationally better) of producing goods and services may continue for some time – but less well than it would have gone without the “help” of the state.

Also even if people were better fed (and so on) with increasing statism – this would not be freedom.

A well fed slave is not a free man (although he has the capacity for freedom – as the Stoics noted) – and a free man who is starving to death is still a free man

In short “you are wrong and it would not matter if you were right”.

More statism does not produce more prosperity, it produces less prosperity than would otherwise have been the case. And even if the opposite was true this would not be freedom – goods and services (even “happiness” – which may have very little to do with goods and services anyway) is not freedom. The supporter of “positive freedom” (in the sense of goods and services – not in the older sense of the control the passions by our reason) is caught in a category mistake.

Having given some indication that freedom is possible (i.e. that human beings are a different sort of thing from a clockwork mouse) and that the rise of the state is a “bad thing”, as it can not achieve its objective of making people better off, in the long term, than would otherwise have been the case (indeed that it makes people worse off than they otherwise would have been) and that material prosperity is not “freedom” anyway… I had better outline the actual historical events:

The key historical events in the decline of freedom in Britain – the rise of the state.

A word of warning – the reader may well note an bias towards English matters in what follows (indeed a confusion of Britain and England) this is true. I will mention other places from time to time, but my prime area of historical interest, in relation to this island or islands, is England.

Also I am not going to consider ancient history.

Perhaps the person in a hunter gatherer band was more free than someone today, or perhaps the leader of the band horribly persecuted weaker members (I do not know – I would guess it varied).

Perhaps fields in the bronze age were worked by slaves at the mercy of their lords, or perhaps they were not (again I do not know – although I rather doubt it).

Perhaps with the collapse of the Roman Empire (and its vast taxation) in the 5th century AD there was a period of great freedom for farmers in some parts of the island of Britain (at least before the Germanic warbands reached them), or perhaps there was not. Again I do not know.

Basically I am going to deal with recent centuries – and leave the ancient past to people who know something about it.

First it should be noted that is some ways freedom has not declined.

For example acts of sodomy were punished for centuries and since the 1960s they have not been punished – this is advance for freedom. Whatever one may think of sodomy in moral terms – it should not be a matter for the criminal law.

Also, at least since the Norman Conquest, women were denied their property rights upon marriage – up till the late 19th century. And marriage itself (whilst in Christian theory a free choice) was often decided upon by the parent or guardian.

Also in Ireland in the 18th century (a century that was perhaps the golden age of freedom in England) Roman Catholics had very little property rights (till the late 18th century) and both they and Protestant Dissenters (the latter group often ignored by historians and others) were persecuted in other ways also. The economy of Ireland was so distorted by the “Penal Laws” that even after they were repealed Ireland was left (mostly) a land of peasant plots, a “catastrophe waiting to happen”, and it did happen – in the horror of the 1840s.

Indeed religious freedom was not fully established in these islands till the 19th century. Although I am not one to agree that there was widespread religious persecution in England in the 18th century (although there was intense fear and distrust of Roman Catholics – partly for political reasons, the claims of the Pope and the rivalry between England and Catholic France and Spain) – sorry but Dissenters not being allowed to take degrees from Oxford and Cambridge does not rank as “persecution”.

Regulations are hard to measure.

Which regulations should be ranked as important (in regards to reducing freedom) and which less important?

With the size of the state (the proportion of civil society it takes) things are hardly easy (for example virtually every writer assumed that taxes in Ireland in the 18th century were lower than in Britain – till Edmund Burke pointed out that as proportion of economic output they were much higher in Ireland than in Britain).

Also many of the (essentially 16th century Tudor) regulations that existed in 18th century England were not enforced (there was not formal civil service structure to deal with such matters) indeed they had never been fully enforced – certainly not in northern England (where such things as complex economic regulations passed under Elizabeth the first were basically a dead letter in places like Lancashire).

However, it is the case that many of these regulations (restricting not just freedom of trade, but even freedom of movement) were not formally repealed till the early 19th century (this is the argument against considering the 18th century the golden age of liberty – even in England).

Nevertheless, it tends to be the case that as the state increases as a proportion of civil society (as government spending goes up faster than economic growth) so regulations also tend to increase. And as the state declines as a proportion of civil society – so regulations tend to decrease.

For example, the deregulation of the early 19th century happened at a time when the state was declining in relative size (in relation to civil society) with the end of the French wars.

And the “set the people free” deregulation under the Churchill and Eden in the early 1950s happened also at a time when the state was declining as a proportion of civil society.

In any case this is the judgement must be made – and I am going to now concentrate on government spending and taxation, not regulations.

At the start of the 19th century taxation was very high by historical standards – not as high as it now, or (perhaps) as high as it was during the last period of the Roman Empire, but still very high.

Perhaps as high as a quarter of all of economic activity went to the state at the start of the 19th century. One reason who people were so eager to leave for the United States (not just from Ireland, but from England, Scotland and Wales also) where after Jefferson’s reforms there were no internal Federal taxes at all – i.e. America was the land where the income tax collector and the excise (taxes on internal goods not just imports) man were unknown.

This high taxation was for three reasons:

Firstly the very high cost of the French wars of the early 1800’s is the first (and obvious reason), Britain was fighting for its life (just as England had done against Philip II of Spain and Britain was to do against Germany in the 20th century) so no expense could be spared.

But there were two other reasons…

The policy of financing wars by vast borrowing (rather than just by taxation) that had been followed for a century. Those people (including historians) who boast that the Bank of England (created in 1694) allowed England to finance its wars are essentially talking out of their backsides.

The Bank of England financed nothing – it was just a way of borrowing money, and the people you borrow money from have to be paid back one can stress how the Bank of England meant lower interest rates – but really this misses the point.

The point is that wars cost money (lots of money) England was a richer country than France (per person) because it was (already) a more free country (see above for the economics of that) so it was able to finance more military spending (per person) than France was. Thus England was normally able to win its wars with France – even though England was greatly outnumbered…. but only at a terrible cost.

By the late 18th century half of all government spending went simply on servicing the National Debt – and this was still true in the 1820s.

For every Pound raised in taxation ten shillings just vanished into what William Cobbett called “The Thing” (the money dealers of the City of London and their political friends). This led to endless taxes – as was noted in Scotland after Union with England in 1707. Taxes on the poor had been almost unknown in Scotland, taxes were for well off people – the taxes on the well off continued, but after unification the poor got taxed as well. Union may have been unavoidable (due to Scotland bankrupting itself with the insane scheme to set up a colony in the Americas) but anyone who says the poor in Scotland were not hit by it is wrong. And the burden of excise taxes and so on did not go away – more imposts and duties came over time.

But there was a also a third reason for the very high level of taxation at the start of the 19th century – less important than the first two, but still interesting.


Contrary to certain BBC historians (Michael Woods) government poor taxes (rates – as opposed to charity) were not the invention of the 1834 Act (in fact this Act was a desperate effort to reduce the poor rate, not to introduce it). In fact they go back to Acts under the Tudors in the 16th century.

However, in the 18th century the burden of the Poor Rate (although often complained about) was not vast, if someone in the parish really could not work (very young, very old, hopelessly crippled) the Justices of the Peace had the legal task of making sure that they did not starve to death (in Scotland and Ireland the law was different than it was in England and Wales) and they had the power to levy a local tax to get them the money to prevent this happening. If someone could work but did not – then the J.P.s could take action against them (if they were a burden on the parish) a punishment or a threat of being sent to a workhouse (not an invention of the Act of 1834 – it existed in the Act of 1723) normally inspired the able bodied poor to find work (in Ireland they most likely would not be punished for having no work – but the local taxpayer would not be feeding them either).

However, in 1782 a Act of Parliament was passed that might have come from the brain of Gordon Brown – it allowed the magistrates to levy a poor rate to subsidize the wages of those people who were actually in work.

Starting in the village of Speenhamland in 1795 (under the pressure of the French wars) this system spread like a plague in England and south Wales.

Of course people in work liked having their wages “topped up” (as it were), the ratepayers did not like it (at least most of them did not – see later) but the magistrates were unelected so there was not much they could to about it.

The largest farmers (with a lot of hired labour) might get by with this system (the Parish was basically paying a lot of their wage bill), but small farmers (who had few hired hands, other than their own family) faced a heavy burden.

And it was a burden that got worse.

In the 18th century when peace came so the bills for govenrment spending got less – and so it proved after the end of the French wars in 1815, but the bills for the Poor Law did not get less.

At first it was thought to be the deflation (the return to sound money after the fiat money inflation of the French wars) – but the burden carried on into the 1820s and 1830s.

Hence the Poor Law Reform (Workhouse) Act of 1834. No more would the able bodied be paid not to work – or have their wages topped up.

True those who were judged to be incapable of work would still be paid (and it is often forgotten that there were twice as many people on “out relief” as in Workhouses – even under the new system), but if you were capable of work and presented yourself as a burden on the parish – into the Workhouse with you.

For all the bad reputation of this Act it was a clear success in rural areas of England and Wales – people who had insisted they could not possibly manage without tax money suddenly found they could when told “so you are able bodied and can not manage your own life – well is it the Workhouse for you then”. The Poor Rate fell – and fell dramatically over time. And yet the poor were NOT starving to death – in fact the mid 19th century is a time of dramatic increases in real wages, although there were setbacks (the coming of the Irish in the 1840s, the war of the 1850s, and the effects of American Civil War in the early 1860s) in spite of all these setbacks wages were dramatically higher in 1870 than they had been in 1834.

The story in the big cities is more mixed – few people actually had their wages topped up when they were in work (because, contrary to the myth, factory work was better paid than farm work), but the old Poor Law was useful during bad period for trade (when there were fewer factory jobs to be had). Under the New Poor Law for those capable of work it was the Workhouse or (perhaps) nothing so there were riots and so on. Partly motivated by one of the Jeremy Bentham elements of the Act – they belief that people could be taken to the Workhouses or kept their against their will (to a utilitarian of Bentham’s type “happiness” not freedom was what was important – and he believed that even forced work made people “happy”).

It should also be noted that for the first few years the Poor Rate in the northern industrial cities actually went up under the new system – hardly what was intended.

But was any of it needed anyway?

Scotland was a poorer country than England – the soil was not so good, wages were lower, the country was more damaged by civil strife (such as the revolt of 1745) and economic collapse (it is often forgotten that the “Highland Clearances” were motivated by landowners facing bankruptcy – great landowners in England did not fact that in the early 19th century). Yet most of Scotland managed to get by without a compulsory Poor Rate – right till the Act of 1845 (by the way Scotland learned by the English mistake – people might complain about the Workhouses, but they were their strictly by their own free will, their own choice).

Even in Glasgow (during the darkest days of French wars and the deflation after them) the Rev. Chalmers managed to look after the poor with voluntary donations alone. And even Chalmers’ worse enemies (and he had many – for religious and other reasons) did not claim that people were starving to death.

Perhaps the English “voluntarists” (such as those associated with the Leeds Mercury newspaper) could have done such a job in England – a richer country anyway. Without any need for the state.

After all government has no money of its own – just resources it takes. The Scottish example casts doubt on whether people really need the threat of government punishment to pay money to avoid other people starving to death on the streets of their town.

However the fact remains that neither the 1834 Act in England and Wales or the 1845 Act in Scotland led to any massive burden in Poor Rate (they were designed not to – it is possible to do that). And the locally elected Board of Guardians in England and Wales (elected by the ratepayers – not by those who got the welfare money as is partly the case with modern governments) neither allowed people to starve to death on the streets (more than happens in any time or place anyway – there will always be a few people who slip though any net) nor made living on welfare a comfortable “life style choice” (no sane person would want to live in a 19th century Workhouse).

As for Ireland…

A Poor Law was introduced there after unification with Britain. It was a failure – an utter failure.

Almost one third of the entire population of Ireland either died or left the country in the 1840s – a horror that most British people seem unable to grasp (then as well as now).

I do not know if things would have been much better even without government poor relief – but it did concentrate the poor together (for example on the “roads to nowhere” the public works projects the British government financed in Ireland) and it was sickness (not starvation) that tended to kill people. However, the basic structure of the Irish economy was a mess – it was not useless peasant plots in all parts of Ireland, but it was in most of Ireland. And that was a economic system that could only end one way – in horror.

And it was a structure the Penal Laws had created in Ireland.

The principle of taxes to fund poor relief in England and Wales (although not in Ireland and Scotland), as we have seen, goes back centuries. But that does not mean an out of control Welfare State as we have today.

And it is worth remembering what the causal words “out of control” actually mean. To give some sense of proportion…

In 1904 there was a terrible panic over a vast increase in the number of people dependent on the state – eight hundred thousand people were on poor relief in England and Wales (250,000 in workhouses). There is a trade recession (perhaps partly due to the costs of the Boer war, the costs of war normally being seen after it is over, although the human costs alone were about one hundred thousand lives).

Terrible – it led to (or was used as excuse for) demands that a Royal Commission be set up on the Poor Law (the Majority Report was bad enough, but it was demented “Minority Report” that the Liberal party government decided to follow). But look how small a percentage of the population it was – about two per cent of the people were dependent on government support even in a supposed time of crises.

Today well over 40% of total income is from state benefits.

Not those working for the government (which is also a vast amount of money), but just benefits.

In the United States (in the “Age of Obama”) it has reached a third of all income – here it is heading for half of all income (again even excluding the people who actually work for the governmental. Cloward and Piven must be pleased (well Piven is pleased – I believe her husband is uncomfortably warm at the moment).

And people wonder why my writings seem like a suicide note (and I do not deny that they do) why they basically boil down to “we are DOOMED (TM).

Think of the Roman Empire – but not with just the city of Rome (and a few other cities) with a large mob dependent on govenrment handouts, but rather about half the population of the entire Empire dependent on government benefits.

That would not have taken centuries to “decline and fall” it would have fallen within a few years.

Yes technology has changed – but the laws of mathematics have not changed.

This is why fundamental Welfare State reform (what Americans call Entitlement Program reform) is not optional – or rather there are two options, reform or die.

This growth was not natural – the principle of government Poor Relief existed for centuries without it.

There were not dramatically more people dependent on it in 1702 then there had been in 1602, there were a lot more people dependent upon it in 1802 (and still more a few years later), but this was dramatically pushed back after 1834 – and by the early 1900s even 2% of the population (remember this includes the old) on welfare was considered a crises.

So what caused the growth?

The first cause was the “Minority Report” mentioned above – basically a bunch of Fabian Socialists (plus useful idiots) produced a let-us-copy-Germany-but-with-a-few-extra-things-added-on report and Lloyd-George and co (including a young and sadly misinformed Winston Churchill) said “fair enough”. So we have old age pensions, health “insurance”, and unemployment pay (this was one even Bismark had not introduced in Germany – think about it, it is payment for not working). All with the bland assurance that none of these government benefits would undermine self help and mutual aid – such as the “Friendly Societies” that covered 80% (and rising) of industrial workers in 1911. Of course they start to go into decline almost at once – just as the Fabians (and so on) intended.

Secondly this was all extended in the 1920s and 1930s (largely by Neville Chamberlain) when such things as forcing local councils to provide council houses (to make up for a shortage of housing for rent – caused by the government’s own World War One rent control measures).

Thirdly there is the formal Welfare State itself in the 1940s.

The Beveridge Report of 1942 (to which, in the cabinet, only Sir Kinsley Wood and Winston Churchill expressed any doubts) and then the extreme interpretation of the report made by the Labour Atlee government after they came to power in 1945.

Since that time the Welfare State has grown and grown (under governments of both major political parties) and many reorganizations of it parts of it (such as the National Health Service, and benefits) have been made. However, they have all accepted its fundamental principles – so they have not restrained (let alone reversed) its growth.

More on size and principles…

The most obvious measure of state control is the ownership of industry (the “means of production”) the old style socialist dream (before they were converted to indirect control by government regulation and unions and community activist groups – what used to be called, in the days of the Empire and then of Hitler, the “German form of socialism”).

At its hight (in about 1951) the British government owned about 20% (or a bit less) of the economy (due to old nationalizations such as the telephone industry, and the orgy of nationalizations under the Atlee government after World War II), but almost at once this dream started to fall apart.

Not just because of the few denationalizations of the Conservatives after 1951 – but also because the nationalized industries themsleves went into decline.

The railways lost money hand over fist – they were then dramatically cut back and lost even more money (cut “feeder lines” and find out what the word “feeder” meant). It was the same with steel and coal – Labour governments closed more coal mines than Mrs Thatcher did.

By the time Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister nationalized industries were about half the share of the economy they had been – and the lady (at leastO) cut it half again.

Direct state ownership has been a failure (a farcical failure) whereever in the world it has been tried, so socialists (in such places as Britain and especially the United States) are turning to the “German form of socialism” (the system mentioned above – the system of “War Socialism” during World War One, and under Adolf Hitler in the 1930s) of indirect control by the provision of easy credit money (for those who fit it), vast webs of regulations and control by activist groups. In Germany itself (partly due to a stronger tradition of family owned business enterprises and partly because of a caution drawn from history) the “German form of socialism” is actually less of a problem (even though their are trade union representatives on Boards of Directors and so on – the whole context is very different).

The other main threat to modern society is (as mentioned above) government spending.

The overall size of British government (local and national) as proportion of civil society must likely reached its low point in about 1870 – at government spending at less than 10% of national income (it is about 50% now). However, national government spending reached its low point in 1874 (the low point for income tax – most excise taxes and import duties being abolished long before).

It was in 1870 that the Forster Act was passed allowing (but not forcing) local communities to set up a School Board and levy Poor Rate – my own home town of Kettering Northamptonshire did not do this (till forced to after the Act of 1891) so the low point for statism here (unless one wishes to speculate about what things were like under the Anglo Saxons or whatever) would have been 1874 (not 1870).

However, this is to miss a vital factor – principles.

Certain principles were accepted long before 1870 that made the future growth of government much more likely.

For example remember that there were a whole web of vile economic restrictions passed by the Tudors (they not only restricted freedom of trade and freedom of movement – but a final demented Act under Elizabeth even tried to compel every ordinary person to do the same job as their parent, in a sort of throw back to the legislation of the late Roman Empire) – but that I suggested we not be obsessed with them because England lacked an administrative structure (a complex Civil Service) that could really administer them?

Think what Tudor ministers (such as Thomas Cromwell – with his unrealized dream of great formal department of state, rather like Jeremy Bentham’s 13 departments of state covering every aspect of human life) would have done with a structure based on the report that Charles Trevelyan and Strafford Northcote produced for a well meaning Gladstone after 1853 (you do not have to think very hard look around you, this is what men like Jeremy Bentham would have created).

This led to the Civil Service Commission of 1855 and the system by competitive examination (perhaps the worse possible system) introduced in 1870. No longer would government work be looked upon a perk for knowing a minister (or whatever) something to be done for a year or so (or whatever) or, at the lower levels, just clerking that one did because no other job was available at the moment. Now it would be a “profession” and people would devote their entire lives to this “public service” seeking the details of other people’s lives (for there own good of course). Hardly what Gladstone intended – but “the man in Whitehall knows best”.

This was a system rather like that of Mandarin dominated China – which is where we get the nickname for senior civil servant “Mandarin” from. Intellectuals as far back as the late 18th century (Voltaire springs to mind) had suggested such a system for the West – forgetting the older wisdom of such thinkers as Montesquieu that the centralized and state dominated society of China was not the “most perfect in the world” (Voltaire), but rather something to avoid.

But this was not the only bad principle to be accepted in 19th century Britain.

The principle of a govenrment police (which would have horrified most 18th century Englishmen, who even thought the Bow Street runners smacked of France or some German “police state” – oh yes the term was in German thought at the time and included what we would call a “welfare state”, see F.A. Hayek’s “Constitution of Liberty” and “Law, Legislation and Liberty”, although the size of most German states in the 18th century made such dreams utterly impractical, Bismark was to alter that).

In Britain Sir Robert Peel introduced the London police in 1829.

And by 1856 every county in England and Wales (whether it wanted to or not) had to have its own police force.

That is a different world from 18th century England. Although the police were polite and deferential at first – and unarmed (where as the British people remained an armed people till the First World War – a “little” thing that has slipped down the memory hole).

In a free society (as Jefferson never tired of pointing out) the main body of domestic force lies with the people, in an unfree society in lies with the government. Britain slipped from one state of affairs to the other with so little fuss that most people did not even notice.

As late as 1911 it was considered normal for unarmed police (in London) chasing armed criminals, to ask for the help of armed ordinary people who happened to be walking by.

Just think about that for a little while

A false interpretation of such things as the French Revolution (presented as liberty going “too far”, rather than as Edmund Burke tried to explain, the increase of statism and tyranny) had prepared British opinion for an ever stronger state – so when such things as the gun control Acts came along there was little protest.

Just as their had been little protest about the Act of 1856 – on the contrary people of property thought that it would be a “good thing” they would no longer have to worry about protecting their own property and protecting other people, the state would do it all for them (in their hearts they were already half slaves).

Other principles…

The basic idea that the people must be counted, and measured whether they want to be or not (rejected by supporters of liberty – such as the Financial Secretary of Hong Kong in the 1960s “population figures – what would we want them for”) was conceded by the Census of 1801 (a return to the principles of the Roman Empire and the Doomsday Book). According to Walter Bagehot (third editor of Economist magazine and author of the vile “classic” the “English Constitution” of 1867 with its demands that “everything that it is safe to concede should be conceded” – referring to any demands for statism) this was no reduction of liberty only an “old women” objected to it, according to him (I like to think he was lying – as J.S. Mill lied in claiming that no one opposed the Labour Theory of Value of his father and David Ricardo).

No doubt only an “old women” objected to the Births, Marriages and Deaths (Registration) Act of 1835 either.

Good person this “old women” Churchill (in his young statist period) was still attacking her in the early 1900s – only this “old women” thought the new government welfare schemes and regulations were a threat to liberty.

Clearly the “old women” was Miss Marple – but I must get on.

As part of the Public Health Act of 1848, Edwin Chadwick slipped in a national Public Health Board – (straight out of the dreams of his master Jeremy Bentham) which would plan such things on a national scale. True it was abolished in 1858 – but, of course, it came back with a vengeance in the 20th century.

But where did even local statism come from?

It came from the Act of 1835 – what the Duke of Wellington called an Act for creating a little Jacobin Republic in every major town and city in England and Wales.

Certainly it was not sold as increasing statism – on the contrary the promoters of the Act (such as those in Manchester) claimed that having elected councils (rather than corrupt closed Tory Corporations – only one was left by the Act, the City of London “the square mile”) would lead to lower local taxes.

Even when taxes went up (not down) it was a temporary thing and taxes would come down soon – we are still waiting.

However, this is not entirely the fault of local politicians (“Paul – you are covering your backside” perhaps) as a weird principle was introduced in England and Wales.

Logically “local government” means (if it means anything) that local people (either directly or via elected representatives) get to decide what (if anything) to spend tax money on.

However, in 1875 the great “reformer” Disraeli got together most of the things that local councils could do (if they wished to – under about 40 previous Acts of Parliament) and made most of these things compulsory.

Local government (at least a logical understanding of the term) took a bit of a nock at that point – and things have got worse and worse since (especially with Neville Chamberlain’s antics during the interwar period) as for post World War II – well it best not to think about this period (unless you wish to lose your will to live).

By the way, also in 1875, Disraeli also put trade unions above the Common Law (or tried to with his Act of Parliament of that year) not just legalizing obstruction (“picketing” – a military term), but trying to put unions beyond being sued. Certain flaws in his plans delayed the destruction of the Common Law in this area (and the destruction of basic British industries such as the railways) till after the Act of 1906 (which put the matter beyond doubt – at least till Norman Tebbit, under Mrs Thatcher, tried to do something about it all).

But it should be remembered that the principle of the subsidization of local activities by the state had already been conceded as long ago as 1833 – the first annual subsidy for education in England and Wales.

In Scotland there were several education Acts (going back more than century before this) however, the system remained under local control (indeed basically Church control), contrary to what is often taught it is only after the Act of 1872 that one can talk of a national system of education in Scotland.

In England it is even later – the Act of 1833 leads to other subsidy Acts, which in turn leads to the Act of 1870 (the Forster Act), which then leads on to the Act of 1876 (if you have a School Board education must be compulsory) and then to the Act of 1891 – you must have a School Board (till they were abolished in 1902) and education must be free and compulsory. In short game over – England is now Prussia (at least in this respect).

Just to show you how far things had fallen – look at the front page of the “Daily Telegraph” for January 1st 1900 (or was it 1901).

Britain must imitate an another country – we must copy them in all things. For this country is the new top nation.

No not the United States (that just had the largest economic output in the world – so, of course, it does not even get mentioned) no it is Imperial Germany we must copy in all things.

Well the British upper classes had already started talking in a weird clipped way (no they did not speak like that in the 18th century) as if they were Frederick the Great and his Junkers. So I suppose the rest was natural enough – if one is barking mad.

Think – what would have been the reaction to a British publication in the 18th century that had seriously argued (not as a satire) that “we must copy the French in all things – they are better us, they are scientific, they are the wave of the future…….”


Under the chest thumping patriotism of the start of the 20th century – the leadership in Britain (Conservative as well as radical) had lost all belief in the principles of liberty. The ordinary people might still have been holding out (in part), but the leadership was rotten to the core.

Of course it was the same in the United States – where the self styled intellectual elite first fell in love with Imperial Germany (even when they urged war with Germany – they envied Germany as a rival, they did not hate the deeds of the German government) and then fell in love with the Soviet Union (just as so many of the British elite did).

Edward Heath going around licking the boots of the worst mass murderer of all time, Mao (responsible for the murder of some 70 million people), was following a “progressive” and “scientific” tradition that was a century old (at least).

All of a piece with his putting the nation into the EEC (now the EU), smashing up traditional counties (indeed traditional anything -from coinage to weights and measures), imposing wage and price controls, “scientific” planning, and so on.

“But Heath had a good war record” – being a soldier does not make you love the traditions of your country, and Heath’s education (the elite parts of it anyway) might as well be summed up as “down with Britain, death to Britain, Britain is always wrong” and so on.

When P.E. Moore (the American tutor of the once American T.S. Eliot) visited Oxford in the 1930s he noted that, under the ultra civilized surface, the principles of liberty were dead (utterly dead) among the elite.

Of course F.A. Hayek noted the same thing at the same time – thus he dedicated the “Road to Serfdom” to “the socialists in all parties”.

If one understands socialism in the indirect way that, for example, Adolph Hitler did – then nothing much has changed.

57 comments to The rise and decline of freedom in Britain – the decline and rise of the State

  • george


    Off-topic but can I persuade the editors to make a white background version of this blog? Reading this site makes my eyes bleed.

  • amphiboly

    Most impressive, Paul. I’m surprised, though, that this epic tour de force did not cover some of its earlier mis-starts, from say 1539 to 1714 or so — then again, it would have required much more space! In any event, it would be an impressive infographic that traced the connection between some index of personal, or economic, freedom as you define it and the impact of state (as represented by the percentage of income from state benefits). I hope you are wrong in your assessment that we are doomed unless drastic, corrective action is undertaken immediately, but you make a very strong case. Thank you again

  • George:

    Try http://samizdata.net/blog/print.html.

    Now watch this comment get smited. 🙂

  • Paul is back – life is good again.

  • A most excellent discourse; thank you Paul.

    It is, however, very long. I think those of us who have followed right through it deserve some credit for the effort. I do recommend the posting to others, when they have the time to take it with sufficient diligence.

    I am wondering if further might be written on the following points. And I raise these for Paul’s attention as I know he is far better informed on the history of these things than nearly all of us.

    My points concern the influence on society and politics (for good, for bad and for just plain old difference) of the following:

    (i) The extent of the political franchise, and the limitations that have been applied over the years.

    (ii) The effect of population, and particularly of population density.

    (iii) The effect of technology, on what is possible (and cost-effective).

    (iv) [As a subsidiary aspect of technology] The effect of changing speed and cost of travel and of long-distance communication.

    Best regards

  • Midwesterner

    I only intended to read half and to finish it later. But then I couldn’t stop and read it through to the end. Excellent article, Paul.

    Nigel, I don’t know why credit for reading, I enjoyed it. I hope Paul writes more articles like this from time to time and maybe your points might inspire him to other essays.

    I’ve told Paul before and notice it here again, there is something about his style and method of presenting political history that reminds me of how James Burke presented scientific history in ‘Connections‘. I think it is because, instead of treating history as a series of events ordered by date, Paul tracks back and forth through time to show how previous actions influence later outcomes.

  • RRS

    Further problems in using a “State” as a social institution:

    Who shall make the decisions?

    How shall they be chosen?

    What should be the criteria for either?

    Then, “Why?” to each of the above and to the following:

    Does the “collective” differ from the commonalities of individuals?

    In the family, clan and tribal conditions the answers could be somewhat simpler. That is one reason why the evolution and intrusions of the modern relationships have caused constant tensions, some resolutions, and the answers are still far from fully satisfactory.

  • Nigel,
    Sometimes longer is better. I have a feory (he has a feory!) that a good blog needs the long and the short of it. There is a place for the quick “gotcha!” post and a place for dealing with complicated matters in a complicated manner. I think an alternation of the two keeps the “bums on seats”. Perhaps surprisingly (and BTW Paul if you feel like kicking-back and not looking at a keyboard for a fortnight then fair play to you!) despite the length of the post I kept thinking, “Tell me more, expound on that”. That’s got the makings of a book perhaps but I rather like the fact it is as Mid hints entirely digestible at one sitting as it is.

    My last posts were an advert featuring cats and some post-it note calculations about high-speed rail so… Yeah, rope-a-dope! A few little jabs and then wham with the big right hook!

    I’m not trying to thread-jack here but the issue of the length of Paul’s piece has already come up and I’m curious what folks think about long/short vs a sometimes quite incredible mixture. I think I nailed my colours to the mast here on that score.

  • John B

    Yes, some really great points.
    I loved the exploration of what constitutes being free, of course. That is a decision one has to make, to make sense of anything! At what point does “I” begin?
    And economics, regulation reducing production. We went there, escaped slightly in the 1979/80s and now we are going right back.

    Can there be some room for hope? Is wisdom capable of overcoming thug cleverness and the pursuit of short term advantage?
    They may, indeed, be clever but intelligence is, as you say, missing.

    This piece from AJ Nock (The Theory of Education in the United States) salutes:

    The person of intelligence is the one who always tends to “see things as they are,” the one who never permits his view of them to be directed by convention, by the hope of advantage, or by an irrational and arbitrary authoritarianism. He allows the current of his consciousness to flow in perfect freedom over any object that may be presented to it, uncontrolled by prejudice, prepossession or formula; and thus we may say that there are certain integrities at the root of intelligence which give it somewhat the aspect of a moral as well as an intellectual attribute.

  • I throw my vote in with those in favor of the occasional long post – provided it’s informed, that is, but Paul’s always are.

    I don’t see the point of the discussion at the beginning, though. Whether or not we are meat machines or really have some ghostly free will (and we’re meat machines for my money), the point is that we can do no other but behave as though we had free will. The reason is that our information processors have a smaller capacity than is necessary to handle all the information it would take to accurately predict with absolute certainty (of course we can guess, often quite accurately) what someone will do next. And that’s even assuming we COULD get all the information necessary to do that, which, of course, we can’t.

    So the Free Will discussion is a red herring. Either we have it or we don’t, but we are unable to determine whether or not we have it, and even if we were able to make the determination, that knowledge would change nothing. Law and morality must be conducted as though we had free will in the sense Mr. Marks seems to mean, even if we don’t.

    Put somewhat more accurately, we do have Free Will and Agency, even though our actions are in principle completely determined.

  • I really don’t see why the length of an article should be an issue – people still read books, don’t they? (BTW, Nick, a very good point about a book in the making here – thoughts, Paul?) If people are interested enough in a subject, and if the first few lines grab their attention, then they’ll read on – otherwise they can always skip and go read or do other things. Personally, my view is that Paul’s articles are not “long enough” (which is to reiterate Nick’s point of the need of further elaboration of certain points).

    Paul’s take on history, politics and economics is unique in that he has an excellent factual knowledge and technical understanding of these disciplines, combined with an evaluation of various events and historical figures made through the prism of a very clear and well-defined moral philosophy. This makes his articles extremely valuable for someone like me, who happens to share that philosophy to a great extent, while also being in great need of gaining more historical perspective on the various burning issues we are facing right now. More please.

  • RAB

    Well said Alisa. I don’t care how long a post is as long as it is good, and that was awesome Paul.

    It should be sent to every MP, though I doubt more than a handful would understand it, and even less agree with it. So deeply emeshed in almost total Statism is the whole of the Western World.

    The real question is, how do we roll back the State and regain our freedom? I see no answer to this apart from the total collapse of the current illusion we live in. And I think that the concept of real freedom would scare most average people shitless.

  • Sunfish

    Once again, Paul makes me glad I showed up today.

    Him making things make sense is why I come back.

  • John W

    Ah, but Paul, by the very acting of discussing this issue you are ‘guilty’ [sic] of committing Moore’s naturalistic fallacy.

    To answer Moore you need Ayn Rand:

    In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought.” Rand – The Virtue of Selfishness.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Superb article, Paul.

  • Paul Marks

    Joshua – either people can make choices (sometimes to some extent) or they can not – in which case these human looking flesh robots are not “oeople” (not human BEINGS) at all.

    The stuff at the start was deliberate – not the sort of thing I would have written when I was younger (“when you were less senile” – perhaps so), then I kept history and philosophy in tidy boxes – two different boxes. And I had other mental boxes for other subjects – not I mix them all together (without careing that it makes life hard for the reader).

    I did it hopeing to get the response you wrote – from someone (anyone).

    Because then I could write the following.

    This sort of reponse explains a lot about the decline of freedom…..

    If people (at least the elite) are taught that people are not really people – that it is “as if” they were free (and so on) then it is not likely that the (supposedly nonexistent, indeed supposedly IMPOSSIBILE) freedom of these flesh robots is going to be considered very important.

    Why not a “euthansia of the constitution” if freedom is just an “illusion” anyway?

    In short compatible – ism (or whatever) is not just false (and it is false – we are either people or we are not people, I will have none of this “people are not people but we should act as if they were people” stuff no matter how many university philosophers love it) it is dangerious as well.

    This is basic human agency we are dealing with here – if humans are not agents (if they have no agency) if they are not “beings” (people) at all, then we can forget about all the political and economic arguments – because they do not matter a damn.

    What starts off as clever intellectuals proving their own non existance (i.e. proving that there is no such thing as a human being) will, sooner or later, have practical political consequences.

  • Paul Marks

    “That is not what I said Paul” – of course it is not Joshua, but no one else came close to the comment attack I wanted (wanted so I could write the reply) so you got drafted.


    Yes I could, and perhaps should, have written a short piece just giving the key dates and the key events. I have done such things in the past.

    But I am old and nasty – and I like chasing my rabbits. I am not a straightforward man – I just was talking to a straightforward man (for over two hours on the telephone – in the middle of the last comment and I forgot about it) and I was struck by how different we were. The past and present are a twisted mess – trying to work out what happened (and so on) is a twisted task.

    In the end I write stuff for me (other people come way second) – I am trying to work out in my own head what happened and how it relates to other stuff. And whether any of it makes sense.

    WHY did it happen – that is vastly harder than when and how it happened. I have some ideas (as I indicated), but even after more than 30 years of thought I am still not sure – partly because there are so many different people involved.

    How can it be reversed?

    The reactionary version of “Lenin”‘s question “what is to be done”?

    At that point I come upon the great wall.

    It would not matter if it was not 1AM in the moring – the wall would still be there.

    I do not believer there was any great demand from “below” (from ordinary people) for mass statism.

    Like Maurice Cowling and others I believe “policy” largely comes from above – from elite groups and individuals (not popular movements).

    By the way – that partly deals with the franchise question.

    In New Hampshire (and so on) people had the vote (from the start) that did not get the vote in England till the Act of 1884-5.

    That did not stop America haveing a SMALLER government than Britain.

    Although I would not deny that the situation that developed after 1867 – with the central government mainly financed by income tax (not a normal Federal tax in the United States till 1913) yet most voters not paying this tax, had an effect.

    In American the Federal government was financed by the taxes on imports (everyone is hit by those) and the State and local government were financed by property taxes (“rates” in English language) and so on – and non property taxpayers did not tend to be voters (a voter was someone who at least paid something – as was the case in Britain up till 1918).

    Nor do I believe that the rise of statism was invetivable (any more than the decline of the size of the state between 1815 and 1870 was inveitable).

    The state of 1870 was smaller than the state of 1830 – even though certain principles (in education and in local govenment) were conceded after 1830.

    But the state would have smaller still in 1870 (or later) if those principles had NOT been conceded – and they need not have been (there was a choice).


    I spend a good deal of every day thinking about that – if I had easy suggestions I would shout them.

    But I do not.

  • Richard Thomas

    Paul, i feel an honest answer may be that nothing can be done. The question then becomes “what then?”

  • John B

    Statism, or any controlling ideology comes from a lust for power (telling other people or things what to do and think) and a lust for goods and services.
    No matter how genteel a face put upon it, that lust is the root.
    There have been people in power who have managed to truly operate for the good of others, despite that lust, but I think they first had to recognise it and then to deal with it.
    Who has that discipline, and in the rule of the mob is it possible, and is there any other alternative?
    Perhaps the US Founding Fathers got the closest?

  • Paul Marks

    If fundemental reform does not happen then there will be economic bankruptcy – perhaps not in name (the word “bankruptcy” may not be used), but in fact.

    There is (or was) a faction of British free maket thought that holds that we must “go along with the Welfare State basically as it is” (in America such people include David Frumm – although as he is also in favour of the credit money expansion of the Federal Reserve he is “free market” in a sense that is wildly alien), the problem with this view is obvious.

    Going along with things as they are does not avoid the comming breakdown.

    “But what if the beakdown CAN NOT be avoided – because of political factors”.

    Then people will have to start again – from the ruins.

    I will do not have the strength to do that – but other people may.

    Ouch – I am sounding like a suicide note again, and I do not mean to.

    Even now fundemental reform is perfectly possible – it is “just” politics that prevents it.

    And starting again may not be fundementally hard (although to hard for me) – AS LONG AS SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE IS KEPT.

    The key is to prevent this knowlege (a lot of which is practical knowledge – not knowledge in written form) being lost.

  • amphiboly

    Paul, your point about the “preservation of scientific and technological knowledge” is an interesting one.

    In my mind, I connect that point with the theme of the post itself, which is the ideological/philosophical battle over agency, about whether the individual — whether or not the numbers of those in the throngs and wings chant for the expansion of the collective state — ought to be the central principle guiding political action against the state. That political power ought to be limited to ensure that the expansion of the state is neither lucrative nor self-serving. That the state’s primary purpose is to ensure order and order is not measured by the size of the regulation book but on the health of individuals in a society.

    It is as though collective and corporate action undertaken by humans irregularly reflects underlying humanity, particularly when history is not connected to the group. As an example of that, I point to the genesis of Community Chest societies in the US (which gave name to the cards in the classic game Monopoly) to become United Way. Community Chest reflected the limited central approach to receiving and distributing philanthropy in the 1920s and 1930s, and it was critical for many in the US struggling with the Great Depression. This approach, however, was replaced by a different type of philanthropy, marked by central administration costs soaking up more than 20% of the donations. (See the Charity Navigator on the efficiency of the United Way as an organization.)

    If your points are correct, Paul, and if my understanding of how this works is likewise on the level (and I must admit that I am considering these types of movements with an eye toward Jonathan Rauch’s 1994 Demosclerosis), then it may be mathematically expressed as so: the sum of group interests in a pluralist system does not equal the general interest. But I think I understand you to take this one step further, by your addition of the preservation of scientific and technological knowledge, perhaps as the general interest includes scientific and technological advances when compared historically.

    I guess the one question it leaves me with: are humans able to look beyond the narrow needs of their group interests (read clan, culture, family, etc) to see the trade-offs in their desires and its impact on what may be loosely understood as the general or common interest? Because I do agree with you that bankruptcy, whether of morals or community chests, is the inevitable outcome — whether or not we quibble over the semantic meanings.

  • The book ought to be called, “What is to be undone?” perhaps.

  • Paul Marks

    Economically it is not inevitable.

    Not just you and me, but MILLIONS of other individuals could work out what to do to avoid the breakdown.

    The problem is political.

    However, yes the pilitical problem is now vast.

    Will people try and preserve knowledge if it is not in their personal material advantage to do so?

    Yes they will – history shows that some people will put their lives in danger even to preserve things with which they do not agree.

    Will they be able to do preserve the knowledge in a way that is useable (rather than desperatly trying to preserve things that they do not really understand themselves) – I do not know.

    I hope we never have to find out.

    To come down from the mountains, to the grubby world of politics……

    I believe we will know within two years.

    Will Comrade Barack be defeated in 2012 – and, even if he is, will real reform be even attempted (or will the world see another useless waste of space – such as George Walker Bush)?

    By early 2013 we (or you – if I am not around) will know.

    I strongly believe it will be the last chance.

  • Nick, that’s brilliant!

  • Paul,
    You make an excellent point about knowledge and it’s application. It is entirely possible that following some global catastrophy a book on The Calculus is unearthed and “read”. Perhaps it’s mysteries are pronounced holy, perhaps nonsense. If the continuity of the use of The Calculus is lost that could happen. The trig identities and function of a function differentiation and partial integration are my mantras. Better than “Cool wet grass” or “Deep blue ocean”.

  • Paul Marks

    Last time things varried.

    Some Christians (including at least one Pope) tried to destroy the writings of the past (if they were not Christian).

    Most people just were not involved (they concentrated on saving their lives against roving warbands). So things just rotted away.

    But a “saving remnant” did all they could to preserve knowledge (if by non Christian – even ANTI Christian writers).

    The Celtic Church in Ireland did this – but not just them. Mainstream Roman Catholics did as well as did people in the Orthodox Church.

    Of course they did not save all knowledge – for example during a period of relative political stability, there was an attempt made to repair the water system in Rome, only for it to be found that no one understood how to make concrete any more (I would have made that mistake as well – I am a “humanities” man, like most of the monks, the knowledge it would occur to me to first try and save would be……).

    They did try to save knowledge – and they achieved a lot (just not as much as could have been done).

    But I repeat none of this is inevtable.

    Collapse can be prevented, the state can be rolled back.

    The cycle of “chaos, civilization, statism, back to chaos” can be broken.

    If we can just put theory into PRACTICE.

  • Midwesterner

    John W at March 11, 2011 11:54 PM, the Ayn Rand quote:

    […] let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life.

    The step that is missing is to first define ‘living entity‘. There is a very strong and rationally sound school of thought that defines the living entity not as the individual, but as the society. These people see society has a highly developed ant colony or beehive. Their values require purging of all ‘not self’ individuals from the hive/colony/society. This is why genocide is intrinsic to, not coincidental to, societies in which all restraints on collectivism are defeated.

    John B at March 12, 2011 09:57 AM,

    […] any controlling ideology comes from a lust for power (telling other people or things what to do and think) and a lust for goods and services.
    No matter how genteel a face put upon it, that lust is the root.

    I disagree with you. The lust for power is secondary to the lust for ‘belonging’. A true individual does not lust for power over anyone but their own self. And while many people who lust for ‘belonging’ do also lust for power, many who lust for belonging do not and only seek belonging and absolution from personal responsibility.

    amphiboly at March 12, 2011 01:19 PM:

    […] and order is not measured by the size of the regulation book but on the health of individuals in a society.

    Only for individualists. For collectivists, order is measured by societal control and assimilation of individuals.

    NickM at March 12, 2011 01:27 PM,

    Great title suggestion. That title establishes the metacontext before the first page is cracked.

    NickM at March 12, 2011 02:18 PM,

    I had that discussion tangentially with commenter Pa Annoyed and he recommended a book, The Road to Reality – A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe by Roger Penrose. I bought it and keep it nearby. Every now and then I attempt to read it.

  • Mid:

    And while many people who lust for ‘belonging’ do also lust for power, many who lust for belonging do not and only seek belonging and absolution from personal responsibility.

    But what about those who only lust for power, not for belonging?

  • To my question to Mid, I should have added ‘which includes most of us, even individualists’.

  • John B

    Okay Paul. You opened this one.
    Would you call GW Bush a small state Republican?
    Or David Cameron a true conservative?
    A Christian does not need to try to restrict what other people think (burn books). If they did I would say they still have a problem in getting to grips with the truth.
    Perhaps a person who found the cure for cancer might get a bit over excited and try to impose it on others, but as soon as he realised it was a pill the patient must want to swallow before it can work, I am sure he would stop.
    This might be deemed an unimportant point but you know what awful confusion can be caused when people call Nazis and fascists ultra right wing/conservatives, instead of the reality left wing socialists that they are.
    All part of the old obfuscation routine.

    Midwesterner. I think the control thing is the dominant influence, and, indeed, an individualist/libertarian is at best, a person who has recognised it and come to terms with it. Made a conscious decision to limit it. Libertarians are forever telling each other what to think! 🙂

  • Midwesterner

    If you lust for power over somebody else, you are lusting after a collective state in which the two of you are governed by your half. There is no way to lust for power over somebody without wanting to combine your identities into one. What is a dictator without someone to dictate to? That is why I said:

    A true individual does not lust for power over anyone but their own self.

    I do not seek power over others. Only to defeat their attempts to exert power over me. That is not a lust for power, that is a lust for independence.

  • Well Mid, you are a better person than I am. I’m with John B on this: I often find myself lusting for power over this or that person, and I have to make a mental effort to resist that. And it is a real effort, believe me.

  • Alisa,
    I don’t know if it is better or worse. Some of us my dear, “Quite frankly don’t give a damn…” 😉

  • Midwesterner

    Not better, just cursed with a more insistent imagination. For one thing, I always have visions of reciprocity at which point the dream becomes a nightmare. I often lust for the power to be immune to someone else’s attacks, but that is not the same as wanting the power to attack them.

    Power over somebody else comes with two choices and two only. Either you assume responsibility for their care as a consequence of assuming control of them. Or you do something horrible to them when they become inconvenient. All it takes to resist the urge to power is to think past the moment.

  • No, I am not talking about an urge for lasting power – I’d hate that. I’m talking about wanting someone to do something specific, while they simply won’t, no matter how much I’d reason with them. This is where one, even an individualist, may be tempted to justify means by an end, a temptation always worth resisting. This is also where lie most problems in human society: not so much collectivist being what they are, but individualists who fail to act according to their principles, because it is easier, more expedient or convenient, etc.

    I have to go, will be back later.

  • Midwesterner

    But single, one time actions can and often do have lasting and profound consequences. That moment of power when you force someone to your will may alter their life completely. And you then must either assume responsibility for the consequences you visited on them or abandon them to the fate you chose for them. Chose for them whether that was your intent or not.

  • John B

    I agree, Midwesterner, we change people’s lives the whole time. And forcing our ideas or actions on people is out of line!
    But I have wondered why it seems the rulers, elites, have such a compulsion to mess things around. Why they have to tinker, to social engineer, when it is evident the more they do the worse it gets.
    What did JM Keynes actually get out of endorsing the most disastrous economic policies? I don’t think he really believed them. Likewise the Fed or BoE and quantative easing.
    And the only real reasons I can find is that they want to engineer things so they get more of the goodies (cars, mansions, clothes, dream locations, privacy, luxury) or they want to get superiority, style, class, status. To be the boss man.
    Yes, they need to belong but only to their class and only so they can experience their superiority with all its superior trappings.

    Whether there is hope.
    I do think that Margaret Thatcher’s lot, for all their faults, did steer events in the right direction despite immense opposition from very clever people who took every opportunity to thwart, nullify and reverse the economic, political and social freedom that did happen.
    A little common sense goes an awful long way, in my opinion, if it just gets the chance!

  • Midwesterner

    In a collective society, the leaders don’t share the same goals and values as individuals do. Why do you think Keynes policies were disastrous? You must be sure you know what he intended to achieve? If you instead assume the goal was to consolidate the centralized power of the government/society and weaken ‘the private sector’/individuals, it looks like a very successful policy.

    Don’t ever assume their goals to be personal ones like “cars, mansions, clothes, dream locations, privacy, luxury“. Some of the most vile despots in history lived ascetically. And even when they do want the trappings of power, they want relative, not absolute wealth. They would rather live in the best hovel among even more destitute than live in wealthy equality with others. Their lusts are relative to others, not to their own self. You reflexively caught this when you used the word “superiority“. One cannot be superior without being part of a group. To elucidate, an individual recognizes that they are different from other individuals but also recognizes that their goals may be different so superior/inferior is not an appropriate comparison.

    Recognizing these people for what they really are and for what they truly intend to achieve is the essential first step in turning the tide.

  • That moment of power when you force someone to your will may alter their life completely.

    Tell me about it.

  • John W


    John W at March 11, 2011 11:54 PM, the Ayn Rand quote:

    […] let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life.

    The step that is missing is to first define ‘living entity’. There is a very strong and rationally sound school of thought that defines the living entity not as the individual, but as the society. These people see society has a highly developed ant colony or beehive. Their values require purging of all ‘not self’ individuals from the hive/colony/society. This is why genocide is intrinsic to, not coincidental to, societies in which all restraints on collectivism are defeated.

    Indeed. That was the point made by Hegel — if space, plurality, causality, etc., are merely Kantian mental categories then there are no grounds at all for positing the existence of individual selves ‘in themselves.’ How can you claim that your noumenal self is a separate and distinct thing from some other noumenal self?

    Rest assured that they seek loftier goals than happiness and even if man is still misled by his “self-seeking animal inclinations”… “nothing straight can be constructed from such warped wood as that of which man is made.”

    Some ‘base men,’ no doubt, can be expected to be preoccupied with their own lives and with the ‘illusion’ of material society but it will not be long before we have a master to break our self-will and force us to obey Rousseau’s universally valid General Will under which everyone can be allegedly “free.”

    These are the slogans of death camps and totalitarian regimes everywhere and I hear them in the UK with increasing frequency.

  • Plamus

    Well done, Mr. Marks, hat off.

    Today well over 40% of total income is from state benefits.

    Not those working for the government (which is also a vast amount of money), but just benefits.

    In the United States (in the “Age of Obama”) it has reached a third of all income – here it is heading for half of all income (again even excluding the people who actually work for the governmental.

    If it’s not too much trouble, may I ask for the source of the statistics? It would be a very useful resource to have handy. I am not doubting your numbers, but they just look a bit… high… considering that dividends and capital gains are also income.

  • Mr. Marks,


    I spend a good deal of every day thinking about that – if I had easy suggestions I would shout them.

    But I do not.

    Libertarian Fabianism?

  • Laird

    Libertarian Fabianism


    Since the two are a completely antithetical (Fabianism being pure socialism; libertarianism being its polar opposite), I can only assume that you are using the phrase as a rhetorical device to call for the application of the gradualist methodology advocated by the Fabians. But there’s no need to adopt the Fabian monicker for that; it would only create confusion. Rather, simply advocate the adoption of the strategy proposed by Cloward and Piven, and the tactics developed by Saul Alinsky, to hasten the collapse of the leviathan welfare state and the (hoped for) rise of a successor state with a more libertarian orientation. A reasonable proposition, and one which has been made here on more than one previous occasion. The problem I have with it is that societal collapse tends to lead to more tyranny, not less.

    If, however, your point was something different, more explanation is needed. Because on its face the concept of “libertarian Fabian” is nonsensical.

  • Paul Marks

    On income – it is actually two different things (smashed together by my bad writing).

    More than 40% of people are dependent, in all or part, on government for their income. “But that includes the old” – yes but in 1904 it was about 2% of people dependent on welfare (and that was thought to be a national crises)

    And more than 40% (indeed almost 50%) of GDP is government spending in Britain.

    “Source” – the above is not contested. So official sources will confirm (no need for a special source).

    Although there is one factor to remember – size is not all that matters in history.

    The state as a proportion of civil society shrank from the early years of the 19th century (when it was at least 25% of civil society) to about 1870 (when it was less than 10% – even counting local government as well as national government).

    HOWEVER, many key principles were conceded in the 1830s (although, contrary to a BBC historian, not poor relief – that had been conceded in England and Wales back in the 16th century), government support for schools, local councils, registration of births marriages and deaths…..

    And in the 1850s – police (compulsory for every county from 1856) civil service (formally in 1870 – but the report is in the 1850s).

  • Paul Marks

    “Libertarian Fabianism”.

    No that is what will NOT work.

    Firstly because the methods of the enemy (lies, backroom deals, manipulated committees – and so on) produce the results of the enemy. Evil means produce evil results – the universe is just structured that way (for whatever reason or lack of one).

    Also what is needed is fundamental dramatic reform NOW – there is no time for reform over decades.

    Even if reform over decades was possible – which it is NOT (see above).

    The way of the “mind benders” (the Fabians) will not work for us.

    We need fundamental rolling back of the state – and the only way to do that is FAST and in the OPEN.

    As Harris did in Ontario. But on a grander scale.

  • Kate

    I am an American who is also puzzled about overcoming statism.

    While watching local labor union riots here I have heard the cry, “bring on socialism and environmentalism.”

    Many people believe these ideas:

    It’s a religion which places faith in mankind, not God.

  • Tim Carpenter, Libertarian Party

    A superb posting, Paul. As others have said, you have woven a storm and the consequences and their genesis grips.

    You make an excellent point about knowledge and it’s application. It is entirely possible that following some global catastrophy a book on The Calculus is unearthed and “read”. Posted by NickM at March 12, 2011 02:18 PM

    Sounds a bit like A Canticle for Leibowitz(Link).

    As for “Libertarian Fabianism” and the precursor, the Fabian of Fabianism “Libertarian Paternalism”…as others have said, forget it. Get too close to the enemy, study their ways too well, and you become them. No shady lies for me. Yes, we have to introduce concepts not all at once and in terms people can grasp, but not to hide where we are going and what we are at.

    Maybe that is why Libertarianism fails – but if you cheat, there is no victory.

  • Richard Thomas

    George, if you use Firefox, you can set up your own userContent.css. Details here:


    If you wish, you can use one I created:


    You’ll have to use http://www.samizdata.net instead of samizdata.net if you don’t already.

  • BTW, I know I am not a “flesh robot”, because I am looking out from behind these eyes. I am aware of my life, which would be totally unnecessary and impossible for a “flesh robot”.

  • John B

    So self awareness is the mark of not being a robot, Tim?
    Perhaps you are just programmed that way – unnecessary or not?
    But certainly not impossible.

  • Paul Marks

    If a robot achieves full self awareness (if it becomes an “I” – a being in its own right) then it is no longer property.

    That is also true of a biological life form.

    Whether something is the product of electronics or biotech – once it has trancended its programming it is no longer property.

    “But it is my creation” – so, in a sense, our your children.

    And they are not property either.

    Of course those who deny agency (those who claim that “free will” is just an “illusion” – whose illusion?) can deny this and can claim to justly own self aware robots and artificially created life forms (such as adapted humans – via biotech).

    But, of course, they can also supposedly justly enslave (or destroy) humans as well – as their agency is supposedly an “illusion” also.

    The unspoken assumption is that whilst most people are not agents (are not really people at all) a few special people (the elite) are agents.

    The determinist philospher will often use terms such as “I” and “I think that….” or “I decide to”

    It is not really just an error of language.

    Thomas Hobbes (and so on) put themselves in a different group from the common herd of humanity (or rather nonhumans – according to them).

  • John,

    My point is if I were “programmed that way” it still would not explain why I do look out. Of course, it could explain why I say to you I *think* I look out, but that is not the same thing, now, is it?

  • Paul Marks

    As soon as there truly is an “I” the programming has been transcended – so if if the thing is a box of silican chips that I have programmed with my own hands, once an “I” has emerged then it is no longer mine – it is itself.

    It is no longer just a “thing” – a person (a being) is there.

    “This is all mystical stuff – it is about the soul”.

    No it is not – remember my example is a “box of silican chips” (a computer that has developed consciousness). And Ayn Rand, a strong supporter of agency/free will, was an athiest. As was both Karl Popper and Antony Flew in his athiest days.

    However, I would love it if the self denying (litteraly “SELF denying”) arguments of the determinists that agency depends on the existance of the soul were correct.

    I would love it because they would not have refuted free will (as they falsely claim), they would have refuted materialism – and PROVED the existance of the soul.

    Alas, I do not think that proving the existance of the soul is so easy (even if there is any chance of proving such a thing at all) because I think that the determinist “arguement” that the existence of free will depends on the existence of the soul is false.

  • John B

    Sorry. These comments went off the Samizdata “event horizon” 🙂 and I didn’t know how to get them back. Occurred to me this morning to just go through my history!
    Tim, yes, the concept of “I”, the unique perspective I have in looking out at the world through these two eyes of mine, and living/experiencing it through this body, is amazing. If the whole thing is random and we are just things that have evolved from other things (nevermind where the things came from) is extremely strange. Profound. A one off unique event in infinity, and it is me.
    (A side issue is, again, if I am part of all this, part of infinity then I am also infinite?)
    But, yes. How does a sense of “I”, me, as far as I am concerned the focal point of eternity, occur in a random collision of bits?
    But that is also a side issue as regards: How does any form, structure or force (order) occur spontaneously in randomness?

  • Paul Marks

    My own position is that the soul DOES exist – I am a believer (very much a minority position among British libertarians). However, I accept that one can accept agency/freewill (the “I”, ones own existence) without believing in the soul in a religious sense of the term.