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Georgian welfare

I am reading Pride and Prejudice, annotated by David M. Stoppard. It’s the part of the novel where Elizabeth is starting to figure out that Darcy might be an all right bloke after all. Mrs Gardiner and Darcy’s housekeeper are discussing him:

“His father was an excellent man,” said Mrs Gardiner.

“Yes Ma’am, that he was indeed; and his son will be just like him — just as affable to the poor.” [34]

Note 34 reads:

Helping the poor was an important function for one in Darcy’s position. The large numbers of people in this society with meager incomes, and the fairly limited means of public support available, meant that the need for such assistance was often great, especially in years of poor harvests.

Shortly after, and related:

“He is the best landlord, and the best master,” said she, “that ever lived. Not like the wild young men now-a-days, who think of nothing but themselves. There is not one of his tenants or servants but what will give him a good name. [37]

Note 37 reads:

The tenants would be those renting land on the estate and farming it; they could have frequent reason to deal with the owner, especially since owners could help fund improvements to the land that would raise productivity and benefit both owner and tenant.

So it turns out that it is not the case that the state is the only thing standing in the way of the rich laughing as the poor starve. And poor harvests? Thanks to globalisation, the “poor” have it easy now-a-days.

15 comments to Georgian welfare

  • Paul Marks

    The primary stress on the economy in the time of Jane Austin was not the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution (both of which were good things – not bad things), it was the terrible cost of the French Wars (I am not saying the wars should not have been fought – but there was a terrible economic cost to them).

    Some business enterprises benefited from the wars (some business enterprises benefit from fire and flood as well), but most business enterprises (including most large ones) were hurt (not helped) by the wars.

    Poverty – there is always poverty (and the technology of the time meant it was inevitable that people would be poorer MUCH poorer than they are today – if forced to use only Jane Austin era technology most people under our demented system of endless taxes and regulations would starve to death), but the high taxes needed to pay for the wars made it worse than it otherwise would have been.

    As did the increasing burden of the Poor Rates themselves – since the change in the Poor Law after the 1782 Act (really after the 1790s – when the Act started to be applied in various places in an odd way), a move towards WAGE SUBSIDY.

    The Speenhamland system (which ended up covering most of England and Wales by the time of Jane Austin’s death) was a bad one – like “earned income tax credits” (or whatever “negative income tax” Gordon Brown and Milton Friedman meet a Berkshire village in the 1790s) today. And it forced up local taxation at the very time that national taxation was also increasing.

    Was there an alternative?

    Yes there was.

    For example most of Scotland had no compulsory Poor Rate till 1845 – see the work of Chalmers in Glasgow and so on.

    As for what life would have been like without the crushing burden of the French Wars – see New England during the time of Jane Austin.

    Remember there was no “free land” – New England had long been settled.

    And the land in places such as New Hampshire was actually very poor (fully of rocks, terrible compared to the soil in old Hampshire).

    There was less poverty in New England than in Old England (in the time of Jane Austin) because the taxes (and government spending) were lower.

  • Snorri Godhi

    WRT the technological advances mentioned by Paul, i note that these advances were due to both the economic policies of Georgian and Victorian Britain, and to the preemptive wars that, though expensive, ensured that such policies could continue.

  • CaptDMO

    Well, there’s noblese obliege
    and there’s smart “economics”, the kind without PoliSci hiding (poorly) in the bushes.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Austen had a forgiving view of people; compare her England with Dickens’s portrayal of slightly later Victorian England, in which self-interest reigns supreme. Even Mrs. Jellyby’s.

    Just saying that both pictures may reflect the author’s attitudes, not reality.

  • Paul Marks

    True Snorri – although technically the French war was not preemptive.

    Revolutionary France declared de facto war on all other (non “people’s”) governments from the start.

    And Revolutionary France also declared official war upon Britain on February 1st 1793. After the British protest over the murder of the King.

    Louis XVI was kindly man, guilty of no crime other than weakness. However, politics weakness is a capital offense – an argument against hereditary monarchy (at least of the absolute) as (sooner or later) a weak person must become King or Queen under such a system.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul: i was thinking of ALL the wars of the Georgian+Victorian periods (well, almost all: certainly not the Opium Wars); and actually also of the war of the League of Augsburg and the war of the Spanish succession.

    Incidentally Brad DeLong wrote a fine essay about this period, under the title: Overstrong Against Thyself.

  • PfP, I don’t see a contradiction – note that Darcy is favorably compared by Mrs. Gardiner to ‘the wild young men now-a-days, who think of nothing but themselves’, which makes Austen’s take on the way things were around her sound very realistic and balanced.

    Besides, both Austen’s and Dickens’ novels are first and foremost morality tales, regardless of their historic accuracy or lack thereof.

  • Paul Marks

    Snorri – I apologise for my error.

  • Tedd

    Two things strike me about this.

    One is that Mr. Darcy’s regard for his tenants is a form of enlightened self interest. While it’s no doubt true that Austin intended Mr. Darcy’s compassion and reasonableness in dealing with his tenants to be admirable character traits in themselves, it’s also likely that good relations with tenants and a progressive attitude toward investment and progress served a landlord’s long term interests, as well — then as now.

    The second thing is that reading Jane Austin always makes me think that the useful part of Rawlsian “social justice” was already understood in Austin’s time and place. That is to say, it was understood that those born into favourable circumstances were making a morally positive choice when they helped those born into less favourable circumstances. (Sorry for offending any objectivists reading this.) But also that, like all moral choices, it was inherently and necessarily an individual choice, and not an obligation of government.

  • Tedd, the way I see it, morality (at least its Western, Judeo-Christian version) is all about enlightened self-interest anyway.

    Regardless, I’m sure that such thoughts were as far from Elizabeth’s (i.e. Austen’s) mind as they could be: all she cared about was that Darcy was a good person, and rightly so, because at the end of the day that’s what counts. It’s the essence of individualist voluntary society.

  • BTW Rob, I am so glad that you noticed precisely the part of the book that made such a strong impression on me. That scene is so telling, in so many ways. What a wonderful book.

  • Just saw the comments — I did not see the notification emails I usually see. Thank-you Paul for the useful context. Tedd: that’s pretty much what I was thinking. Alisa: I’m glad too!

  • Julie near Chicago

    [Tedd — assuming that the persons born into well-off circumstances engage in charitable giving or philanthropy or even, heck, financial investment out of what I’ll call “healthy” motivations, in other words not out of a need to “atone” for “guilt” or out of fear (“don’t hate me just because I’m rich — I’m a good person too, see how much I give”) or a power-lust or to prove status or to indulge a swelled head — I think that properly-understood Objectivism would be in agreement with you. As to the “Rawls” part, I plead knowledge insufficient to support or demolish my negative bias. 🙂 ]

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well now what! Posted above is the second half only of my intended comment, and the minor half at that — as indicated by the parens.

    The major part was to say, Three cheers for both Tedd and Alisa in their comments at 3:32 and 9:07 respectively, on April 8.

  • Paul Marks

    John Rawls was the leading thinker of the robbers – of those who wish to steal from some people to give to others. And he defended himself against the charge of being motivated by envy by redefining the word envy.

    Our late friend Antony Flew wrote all that needs to be written on the charlatan John Rawls.