"Laissez Faire in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Fact or Myth?"

Paul, Ellen Frankel
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First Pub. Date
Winter 1980
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Literature of Liberty. Vol. iii, no. 4, pp. 5-38. Arlington, VA: Institute for Humane Studies
Pub. Date
1980
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The Counter-Revisionists' Case for an "Age of Laissez Faire"

Taylor's Case for an Era of Relative Laissez Faire

P.48

Given this overwhelming evidence testifying to the energy and inventiveness of Victorian legislators it is no wonder that the counter-revisionists—i.e., those who contend that there was, indeed, an age of laissez faire—advance a somewhat hesitant and qualified case. Arthur Taylor's "Laissez-Faire and State Interventions in Nineteenth-Century Britain," is typical of this genre. For Taylor, laissez faire set the terms of debate in mid-century, and it acted as a brake against more extreme interventionism, forcing compromises rather than simply vanquishing statism. An example of this activity would be the Factory Acts in which laissez faire set limits to the scope of reform; that is, while men like Senior and McCulloch supported the Act of 1833 to regulate the working hours of women and children, they balked at the more intrusive Ten Hour campaign of 1846.

P.49

Taylor concedes that the noninterference principle was quite often honored more in the breach than in the observance:

Yet while the claims of the non-interference principle could never be wholly excluded from ministerial calculation, decisions on policy often took an interventionist course. Even when the invalidity of non-interference was conceded in principle, expediency demanded and secured policies which breached both the letter and the spirit of laissez-faire.*35

How, then, does Taylor resolve the question of a supposed "age of laissez faire"? Curiously, he concludes that, in essence, such an age lies in the eyes of the beholder. Laissez faire certainly cannot be viewed as the "keystone of the arch," yet its effects were important. In fact, when we focus upon the economic realm an "age of laissez faire" seems justifiable. But even here, the evidence is not conclusive in the areas of banking, patents, bankruptcy, weights and measures, and joint-stock companies. However, on the larger economic issues—free trade, internal economy of industry, and frugality in government—Taylor sees ample warrant for a verdict of pronounced laissez faire. Taylor examines government expenditures between 1820 and 1870 and accounts for the relatively trivial increase (57.5 million pounds to 69 million pounds) as evidence of a fiscal policy of frugality and balanced budgets inspired by laissez faire. While government expenditures increased tenfold between 1900 and 1938 they increased at an infinitesimal rate in the nineteenth century; in fact, government expenditures as a percentage of gross national product fell from 11% in 1792 to 8.9% in 1890. Taylor concludes that the attempt to regulate the economy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and, indeed, in the twentieth) is as evident as the deliberate abstention from such endeavors in the nineteenth.

Set besides the experiences and policies of an earlier and later age and related to the principles and practices followed by her European contemporaries, nineteenth century England may be said to have come closer to experiencing an age of laissez-faire than any other society in the last five hundred years of world history—this, though laissez-faire was on more than one occasion honored in the breach in Britain itself and still more clearly subverted in the economic policies applied to Ireland and India, it was until at least 1870, and arguably for a further twenty-five years beyond that, the strongest impulse influencing the shape and character of governmental economic policy.*36

Given the extent of interventionism that can only be denominated "economic"—the factory acts, railroad and mining regulation, banking, etc.—one must remain somewhat skeptical of Taylor's rather exaggerated conclusion as indeed Taylor himself is in some of his more equivocal pronouncements.

Crouch on "Refined" Laissez Faire and "Enlightened Interventionism"

P.50

Undoubtedly, the most inventive of the counter-revisionists is R. L. Crouch. His "Laissez-Faire in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Myth or Reality?" went to tortuous lengths in redefining laissez faire, thereby emasculating it to such an extent that it is barely recognizable, all in order to resurrect an "age of laissez-faire." Crouch attempts to convince us that what Roberts and Brebner take as evidence of incipient welfarism was, rather, quite consistent with a "refined laissez faire" position of the classical economists. The classical economists, in Crouch's account, embodied this "refined" laissez-faire position, not the "anarchy plus the constable" caricature castigated by Carlyle. Government functions under such a "refined" view of government's role include: (1) to establish and enforce the law and arbitrate disputes, (2) to combat monopoly and promote competition, (3) to make allowances for the existence of externalities (for example, Adam Smith's views on public works, patents, and monopolies), (4) to exercise unavoidable paternalism (as in the case of children), (5) to provide a stable monetary framework, and (6) to protect the indigent. Having redefined the concept of laissez faire to include whatever the Classical economists had to say about government's legitimate powers, Crouch, to no one's great surprise, finds nineteenth-century legislative enactments in conformity with his redefinition. But as we discovered earlier, the Classical School was far from a repository of a consistent noninterventionism. A few examples ought to suffice to illustrate how far Crouch stretched the concept of laissez faire on his procrustean bed in order to make it fit British regulationism. Now, the Factory Act of 1833, the Chimney Sweep Act of 1840, the Miners' Act of 1842, and the Ten Hour acts of 1847-48 are pictured as measures designed to combat firm-individual external diseconomies, or alternatively as acts of unavoidable paternalism. Dicey, according to Crouch, was simply wrong in denouncing state involvement in education or the imposition of minimum safety and sanitary standards as inconsistent with laissez faire and the harbingers of collectivism. Rather, they were the quite natural results of a "refined laissez faire" position which requires a "substantial amount of enlightened interventionism."

P.51

Crouch fervently denies that his "refined" principle could justify every policy of modern welfarism. Such salient features of the welfare state as nationalization, import controls, public housing, price controls, minimum wage legislation, and agricultural support programs would remain unjustifiable. Colin Holmes, in his assault upon the counter-revisionists, unveils Crouch's semantic sleight-of hand:

In seeking to reconcile classical economics with the laissez-faire position Crouch begs the question, on the grandest scale possible, by offering a compromise redefinition of laissez-faire that is so wide as to be devoid of useful meaning. Acts of government intervention that are justifiable in terms of the resulting external economies include nationalization of key industries and state provision of welfare schemes. Therefore, Crouch's "redefined" version would accommodate most mixed economies and welfare states of the late twentieth century; in this way the last 150 years could be described as an age of laissez-faire.*37

Holmes obviously has the better of the arguments here because Crouch's redefined laissez faire could quite easily embrace the welfare state measures which he declares beyond its pale with little more ingenuity required than he employed in justifying the factory acts. Holmes fired one more salvo against the counter-revisionists when he refuted Taylor's claim that a low rate of increase in governmental expenditures during the nineteenth century reflects a prevailing opinion against interventionism. If one compares the decade of the 1820s with that of the 1870s, the categories of civil and educational expenditures have jumped from 1% of the national budget to 20.4%.

The Final Judgment on Britain's "Age of Laissez Faire"

P.52

How might we appraise this heated controversy over an "age of laissez faire"? The record of interventionist legislation is prodigious, but we ought not to dismiss too lightly the legislative excrescences of the mercantilist age that were jettisoned in the first half of the century; e.g., the combination laws which had prohibited labor unions, the Navigation Acts, the Corn Laws, and myriad other lesser known restraints on trade. And when we consider the whole host of governmental controls over the economy exercised by modern welfare states—an ersatz currency, nationalization, compulsory social security and Medicare, minimum wage laws, massive deficit spending, fine-tuning of business cycles, etc.—the Victorian state appears singularly apathetic. After 1870, of course, the legislative and administrative landscape would be far more recognizable to the modern interventionist. Taylor's position or Burn's may be closer to the mark in assessing England in mid-century as a contested battleground between collectivism and individualism. However, what seems fairly uncontroversial—although even here there are naysayers who view England as simply slipping from one age of interventionism into the next with nary an interregnum—is that, by comparison with the England of earlier and later centuries, the nineteenth century was a "high tide" of laissez faire.

Spengler: Why Laissez Faire Leaves Few Tracks

P.53

Joseph Spengler raises one important historiographical point which touches upon this question of an "age of laissez faire."*38 He cautions that sources of bias may affect recent findings which indicate that state intervention played a much greater role than experts in the nineteenth century had thought. Historians may discover relatively more evidence of interventionism than was characteristic of the period simply because statist acts are much more likely to "leave tracks" than are events consonant with laissez faire. Advocacy of laissez faire in written forms would be far less likely in an age where it is the regnant ideology and needs little enunciation, while government reports, pamphlets and books agitating for interventionism would be abundant. Also, bureaucrats and philanthropic organizations prove diligent keepers of their own records, while the evidence of laissez faire would tend to disappear since it was composed largely of private agreements and dealings. These factors would be accentuated with the passage of time.

P.54

Spengler's cautionary remarks are revealing, and they might account for the fact that the early writers on the question of the extent of noninterventionism in nineteenth century England tended to view the period as the apotheosis of laissez faire. After all, revisionism is a rather late phenomenon dating from the late 1940s and it only gathered full momentum in the 1960s.

B. What Effect Did the Benthamites Have on the Politics of Their Day?

Brebner's Revisionist Indictment of Benthamite Collectivism

P.55

Once again, it was Brebner's article, "Laissez-Faire and State Intervention in Nineteenth-Century Britain," which launched the revisionist assault upon the traditionalist view of Benthamism as either an innocuous bystander or an unwitting accomplice in the rise of collectivism. Not only was Bentham "the archetype of British collectivism," on the theoretical level, but his disciples are revealed as the prime movers in "every interventionist pie." Edwin Chadwick, Bentham's amanuensis and collaborator on the Constitutional Code becomes the "architect of state intervention" as he industriously labors on royal commissions to promote the Benthamite ends of state inspection and regulation. Whether it be the poor laws, the factory acts, the municipal police, or the public health agitation, Chadwick's role and that of fellow Utilitarians was vital. Lest one assume that the influence of the Utilitarians ended with the death of Bentham or the aging of his disciples, Brebner assures us that John Stuart Mill, that "liberal socialist," insured the continuation of Benthamite activism. "Mill, then, throughout his independent life and thought was at bottom the Benthamite interventionist, not the apostle of laissez-faire."*39

Roberts and MacDonagh: "A Tory Interpretation" vs. Brebner

P.56

It is rather curious that two of Brebner's most ardent followers among the revisionists on the issue of a supposed "age of laissez faire," comprise, on this question of the influence of Benthamism, the strongest chorus of dissent.*40 MacDonagh and Roberts do not deny the mammoth body of evidence of Benthamites' staffing royal commissions and agitating for compulsory education and state provision, limitations of child labor, and sanitary legislation, etc. Yet they refuse to concede to the Benthamites an indispensible role. MacDonagh goes even farther in his condemnation of Benthamism as irremediably tainted with the onus of individualism. In administrative matters, MacDonagh contends, Benthamism had no influence upon either opinion at large or most public servants:

... nothing is more mistaken than a 'blanket' prima facie assumption that 'useful,' 'rational,' or centralizing changes in the nineteenth century were Benthamite in origin. On the contrary, the onus probandi [burden of proof] should rest on Benthamism. The great body of such changes were natural answers to concrete day-to-day problems, pressed eventually to the surface by the sheer exigencies of the case.... Generally, we can say, first, that the genuine contribution of Benthamism to modern government must be measured in terms of the particular actions of particular individuals; secondly, that Benthamism, insofar as it took colour from other contemporary ideologies, was an obstacle, after their fashion, to the development of modern government, and thirdly, that the 'administrative' Benthamism, where it was effective, also made a peculiar, idiosyncratic contribution to nineteenth century administration, and one which was extraneous and at points antagonistic to the main line of growth.*41

Roberts's Case against the Importance of Benthamism for Collectivism

P.57

The most elaborate analysis of both Bentham's Constitutional Code for the reconstruction of Britain's government, and the machinations of the Benthamites in agitating for political, social, and economic reforms is given by David Roberts in his article, "Jeremy Bentham and the Victorian Administrative State." Consonant with his general aversion to attributing historical changes to the efficacy of ideas or individual men, which we reported earlier, Roberts denies to the Benthamites any pivotal role in building the collectivist state. But the evidence which he adduces of overwhelming Benthamite staffing of key royal commissions, seems to belie Roberts's own conclusion. In his Constitutional Code, written in the 1830s and known to his followers (although published only in 1841), Bentham's sweeping reforms were nothing if not centralist. He called for the establishment of thirteen ministries to supervise local authorities in order to secure free public education, an efficient police force, good roads, and expeditious poor relief. Castigating Britain's amateur bureaucracy chosen by favoritism, he called for the establishment of a professional, paid, central administration, chosen by competitive examination. Yet Roberts views this reformation as embracing a belief in laissez faire and a balance between localism and centralism. He is ably and decisively taken to task by L. J. Hume on precisely these points. Hume interprets Bentham's reforms as essentially centralizing, as an attempt to reorganize the law to ameliorate social disorders. He consequently views Benthamism as in conformity with the actual reforms that built the collectivist state.*42

P.58

It is in his examination of the great social and economic reform acts of the 1830s through the 1850s that Roberts's case against Benthamite influence is most tortured. He meticulously documents the efforts of Bentham's disciples in agitating for these reforms, but in each case he dismisses their importance by either finding some slight departure from orthodox Benthamism in the final product, or a certain inevitability about the outcome that would belie the Benthamites' influence. Thus: (1) Although Nassau Senior and Edwin Chadwick were the leaders of the Poor Law Reform of 1834 by comprising the royal commission which established central administrators, Roberts doubts whether Chadwick was inspired by Benthamism; (2) Although the Utilitarians, Chadwick and Southwood Smith, served on the Factory Commission, the Benthamites did not initiate the reforms nor shape its final form, since it was fomented and shaped by the Evangelical Tories and large manufacturers; (3) Although Chadwick, Smith, and James Kay wrote reports as Poor Law Commissioners in 1838 and 1839 which exposed unhealthy conditions and urged sanitary improvements, the Act which emerged in 1848 was not particularly Benthamite. The same procedure is applied to the dismissal of Benthamite influence in reforms involving education, prisons, insane asylums, private charities, railways, and the merchant marine. All of these reforms were endorsed and agitated for by the same group of Utilitarians.

P.59

Roberts appears to have made his adversaries' case, but he adamantly refuses to concede anything more to Benthamism than being in tune with the times. "The simple calculation of doing the greatest good to the greatest number, and not God's will or natural law, offered Victorian social reformers a strong justification for the establishment of a larger and more active state, one guaranteeing the well-being of the factory worker, the railway passenger, and the tenement dweller."*43 Despite this admission and the tell-tale trail of Benthamites penetrating royal commissions and agitating for state intervention, Roberts declared that had Bentham never written a word Victorian reformers would have continued their poor laws, factory acts, and education schemes, all with central inspectors. It was simply a necessity of the times.*44

Hart's Critique of the MacDonagh-Roberts "Tory Interpretation"

P.60

What should not be surprising, then, in the light of Roberts's own evidence undermining his conclusion, is the vehemence of the counterattacks which sought to salvage the good name of the Benthamites as avid interventionists. Jennifer Hart's "Nineteenth-Century Social Reform—A Tory Interpretation of History,"*45 while not the first of this genre, certainly warrants our attention for its perceptiveness in designating the MacDonagh-Roberts school as exemplifying a "Tory interpretation" of history. While a "Whig interpretation" requires heroes and villains, a Tory view belittles the role of men, and even more significantly, ideas. What Hart finds most fallacious about this Tory interpretation is its belittling of Benthamite influence; its overemphasis upon humanitarianism and an aroused Christian conscience as tools shaping public opinion in the direction of reform; its contention that evils were dealt with when men felt them to be intolerable; and its belief that reforms were not premeditated or planned but were the result of "the historical process" or blind forces. In Hart's anthropocentric conception of nineteenth-century legislative history, the Benthamites capture center stage. From the Factory Act of 1833, to the Poor Law Reform of 1834, the Public Health Act, and prison reform, Hart asserts the centrality of the Benthamites in agitating for the reforms and formulating their mechanisms.

Parris's Reassertion of the Link between Benthamism and Collectivism

P.61

Henry Parris in an earlier contribution to the debate, "The Nineteenth-Century Revolution in Government: A Reappraisal Reappraised,"*46 emphasized the unconscious influence of ideas on men's minds, so that if not everyone who was instrumental in propagating reforms had read Bentham, his ideas still could have been decisive as they influenced the intellectual climate of the day. It may be perfectly true, as MacDonagh suggested, that public servants in general had not read Bentham, yet one Edwin Chadwick "counted for more than many hundred of public servants."

P.62

Furthermore, MacDonagh's model fails to explain either why the transition to centralism occurred when it did, or why it did not occur long before. The missing ingredient is Benthamism. Parris replies to those who devalue the Benthamites' influence with a model of his own, one which underscores the centrality of the Utilitarians. He maintains that the nineteenth-century revolution in government cannot be understood without an examination of the part played by thought, that is, by ideas about political and social organization. Dicey astutely made this very point when he drew the connection between law and public opinion. In this relationship between law and opinion, the nineteenth century separates into two distinct periods with the dividing line falling in 1830. Throughout the second period, the dominant current of opinion was Utilitarian. Prompted by the principle of utility as its central core, the Utilitarians agitated for considerable extensions of both laissez faire and of state intervention simultaneously. And once central administrative officers were appointed to administer the new reforms, a device promoted by the Utilitarians, these bureaucrats played a leading role in legislation, including the development of their own powers.*47 Now, Benthamism moves with the spirit of the age, but it does so as a prime mover not a disinterested or reluctant bystander. "Bentham was working with the grain. But it does not follow that the same solutions would have been reached had he never lived."*48 A description of Edwin Chadwick, which Parris takes from R. A. Lewis's study, will suffice to demonstrate the nature of the faith that drove the Benthamite who was most instrumental in agitating for the interventionist reforms:

He had great faith in self-interest. He commended it as the spring of individual vigour and efficacy; and it figures prominently in his thought as the most persistent and calculable element in human character. But he saw no evidence at all that social benefits resulted of necessity from its pursuit, and much which persuaded him that without the barriers erected by the law its undirected energies might disrupt society. He put his trust, therefore, not in the rule of some 'invisible hand' blending the interests of the individual and society in a mystic reconciliation, but in the secular authority of the state which, abandoning the superstitions of laissez-faire, should intervene to guide the activities of individuals towards the desirable goods of communal welfare.*49

The Final Judgment on the Role of Benthamism

P.63

What conclusions may one draw from this heated controversy over the extent of Benthamite influence in propelling Britain towards the welfare state? The preponderance of evidence indicates that in both Bentham's own writings—whether it be on political administration, economics, or social problems—and in the political activities of the Utilitarians in Parliament, in the bureaucracy, and on the royal commissions, a highly significant, if not indispensable, buttress for state interventionism is apparent. Chadwick and his Utilitarian associates were in the thick of the polemical movement for every piece of interventionist legislation of the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Although it is undeniably true that they were aided and abetted by Evangelical Tory reformers, their efforts were far from inconsiderable or expendable. The history of Britain's movements away from laissez faire, if indeed there ever was an archetypal period of laissez faire, can only be understood once the Benthamites are awarded their proper and leading role.

III. Conclusion

P.64

Whether Britain in the middle quarter of the nineteenth century epitomized a golden era of laissez faire, or whether the Benthamites precipitated a period of collectivism or individualism, both of these disputes pale in significance before an indisputable fact. The final two or three decades of the century, virtually all analysts agree, marked the arrival of the age of collectivism. By any yardstick, this was a triumphal period of legislative interventionism: compulsory state supported education was enacted by a series of acts in 1870, 1880, and 1891; the Public Health Act of 1875 provided for slum clearance; an all-encompassing factory act passed in 1878, extending the purview of earlier legislation; the Arbitration Acts (1867-1896) established government boards of inquiry to arbitrate labor disputes; and by the Employer's Liability Act (1880) and the Workmen's Compensation Act (1897) employers were compelled by law to insure workers against industrial accidents. In foreign affairs, too, the old liberal doctrine suffered an undignified demise, as new forces arose championing internationalism, militarism, imperialism, and even protectionism.

Britain's Slide to Statism and Imperialism: Collectivism or Liberalism?

P.65

Commentators have long striven to explain this recrudescence of statism and imperialism. Of course, for those who view the period from 1825 to 1870 as incipiently collectivist, the transition allows a felicitous explanation, i.e., it was simply a logical development, a mere gaining of momentum on a foreordained course. Others, who perceive a decisive breach around the years 1865 or 1870, offer complementary explanations of the ascendancy of the corporate state. As Winston Churchill wrote:

The great victories had been won. All sorts of lumbering tyrannies had been toppled over. Authority was everywhere broken, slaves were free. Conscience was free. Trade was free. But hunger and squalor were also free and the people demanded something more than liberty. How to fill the void was the riddle that split the liberal party.*50

It was not as though liberalism had failed, but in a strange, convoluted way it had succeeded too well. Thus, men began searching for direct remedies to shore up the remaining deficiencies of the social order, deficiencies made all the more conspicuous by the urbanization of the country and the attendant concentrations of deformities in plain view.

Herbert Spencer's Account of Britain's "Rebarbarization"

P.66

Perhaps the most eloquent and persuasive explanation of Britain's slide into "rebarbarization," was propounded by a philosopher who mourned the death of the "Old Liberalism" more acutely than any of his contemporaries. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), in a series of essays published as The Man Versus the State and written in the early 1880s, decried the path taken by liberalism.*51 The new Liberals, Spencer charged, forgot the animating heart of their beliefs—that is, individual freedom as opposed to state coercion—and rather than seeking the popular good by indirect, market means, by relaxing restraints on individual enterprise, they began to search for easy fixes, for direct, governmental means to advance the social good. A curious phenomenon occurred, then; for precisely when social evils decreased, the denunciation of them increased. And the public began demanding the therapeutic intervention of the state. Each piece of meddlesome legislation served as precedent increasing the momentum for further regulation, and Spencer became increasingly pessimistic, convinced that Britain was ineluctably slipping into a new age of feudalistic militarism.

Various Factors Contributing to Anti-Laissez Faire

P.67

Reverberating through the explanations offered by the commentators—whether it be Spencer, Dicey, Schumpeter, or Hutchison*52 —are the following causes or factors: (1) the second and third parliamentary reform acts which finally created universal manhood suffrage (1867, 1884)*53; (2) the cumulative effect of the denigration of laissez faire by influential cultural critics such as Carlyle and Ruskin; novelists such as Dickens, Thackery, and Flaubert; and romantic poets like Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge; (3) the rise of a working class labor movement combined with an intellectual cadre in the form of Fabian socialists (precipitated by a severe depression); and (4) the erosion of belief in noninterventionism and self-help among the business class and, also, among the leading economists. This last factor cannot be denied, for the most influential successors of John Stuart Mill, W. S. Jevons and John Marshall, found not only interventionism alluring but, in the case of Marshall, socialism appealing.

Is the Drift from Capitalism to Socialism Inevitable?

P.68

Marxist interpreters, nurtured by V. I. Lenin's Imperialism, perceive an inevitability about this genesis of imperialism out of capitalism. According to this interpretation, imperialism is the final stage of capitalism that arises inevitably out of the new conditions of large-scale production as capitalists try to stave off the fall in profits by exporting their surplus products. Joseph Schumpeter, oddly enough, propounds a similar theory, relying again on some inherent, ineluctable feature of capitalism to explain the transition to collectivism: as Schumpeter wrote:

... one need not be a Marxist in order to realize that the private enterprise system tends to develop toward a socialist form of organization. The facts we have been discussing... however ominous they may have been for the bourgeoise order of things, were therefore part and parcel of this very order and in this sense perfectly 'natural.' *54

The Final Verdict on the Demise of Laissez faire: Utilitarianism vs. Natural Rights

P.69

We do not, however, need to repair to arguments from inevitability to explain the tremendous outpouring of interventionist legislation in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Leading intellectuals, the heirs of the Classical Economists conspicuous among them, diligently labored to demonstrate that economic science most certainly did not lead to the policy principle of laissez faire. Thus, by the close of the century scarcely any voices were heard championing noninterventionism as the solution to perceived social dislocations.

P.70

Herbert Spencer stood nearly alone in his advocacy both of laissez faire and of a natural rights moral theory which spurned any taint of Utilitarian pragmatism. Certainly, the Utilitarians played a leading role in removing that sturdy barrier against ad hoc interventionism—natural rights—and for this alone they can claim a great deal of credit for the piecemeal movement towards collectivism. Their efforts were far from insubstantial, as we have seen, in the realm of practical politics, as Edwin Chadwick and his associates labored unstintingly for universal education, the factory acts, sanitary legislation, and a reformed administrative state.

P.71

In all likelihood, Britain in the earlier part of the nineteenth century did not embrace a version of laissez faire that would warm the heart of a purist. Perhaps W. T. Hutchison came closest to the mark when he wrote that a "new interventionism" arose in midcentury before the "old interventionism" had been fully expunged.*55 Yet it is undeniable that liberalism and the spirit of governmental quiescence enjoyed greater respectability than at any time before or since. Journals, newspapers, popular novels, and the earlier economists labored to secure respectability for the ideal of limited government. While the defense promulgated by the political economists was flawed, they, nevertheless, succeeded in erecting the principle of laissez faire as a bulwark against state intervention in the market. Admittedly, it was a crumbling bulwark, increasingly so as the century progressed. But what distinguishes that earlier epoch from our own is that the interventionists rather than the free-marketers were the ones constantly on the defensive. For each proposed act of governmental regulation a case had to be made—the general presumption against the meddlesome state was at least that strong. Today the contest would be limited to competing schemes all exhibiting the same interventionist feature of governmental solutions to social problems. It is this influence, more than anything else, that would earn Victorian England her designation as an "age of laissez faire."


Notes for this chapter


35.
Arthur Taylor, "Laissez-Faire and State Intervention," p. 48.
36.
Taylor, "Laissez-Faire," p. 64.
37.
Colin Holmes, "Laissez-Faire and Interventionism: A Potential Source of Historical Error," Journal of Political Economy 57(October 1949):438-441.
38.
[Econlib Editor: This footnote is missing in the original text. In the Bibligraphy the following work by Spengler is listed: Spengler, Joseph A. "Laissez-Faire and Interventionism: A Potential Source of Historical Error," Journal of Political Economy 57,5 (October 1949):438-441.]
39.
J. Brebner, "Laissez-Faire and State Intervention," p. 69.
40.
For a competent survey article on this topic see: Valerie Cromwell, "Interpretations of Nineteenth-Century Administration: An Analysis," Victorian Studies 9, No. 3(March 1966):245-254.
41.
Oliver MacDonagh, "The Nineteenth Century Revolution in Government," pp. 65, 66-67.
42.
L. J. Hume, "Jeremy Bentham and the Nineteenth-Century Revolution in Government," The Historical Journal 10, No. 4(1967):361-375.
43.
David Roberts, "Jeremy Bentham and the Victorian Administrative State," Victorian Studies (March 1959):207.
44.
For other authorities who concur with MacDonagh and Roberts in disparaging the influence of Benthamism upon British collectivism see: Kitson Clark, The Making of Victorian England; R. L. Lambert, "A Victorian National Health Service—State Vaccination, 1855-71," Hist. Fl. V(1962), pp. 1-18; Robert M. Gutchen, "Local Improvements and Centralization in Nineteenth-Century England," Hist. Fl. 4(1961):85-96; W. L. Burn, Age of Equipoise.
45.
Jennifer Hart, "Nineteenth-Century Social Reform: A Tory Interpretation of History," Past and Present, No. 31(July 1965):39.
46.
Henry Parris, "The Nineteenth-Century Revolution in Government: A Reappraisal Reappraised," Historical Journal 11(1960):17-37.
47.
Henry Parris, "The Nineteenth-Century Revolution," p. 35.
48.
Henry Parris, "The Nineteenth-Century Revolution," p. 36. For other authorities who view the influence of the Benthamites upon the creation of the Victorian administrative state as profoundly significant see: Sidney and Beatrice Webb, English Poor Law History, Part II; B. L. Hutchins, The Public Health Agitation; Elie Halevy, The History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century; Samuel Finer, The Life and Times of Edwin Chadwick, pp. 12-37,74-75.
49.
R. A. Lewis, Edwin Chadwick and the Public Health Movement, p. 188.
50.
W. I. Churchill, Lord Randolph Churchill, pp. 268-69, as quoted in Viner, "The Intellectual History of Laissez-Faire," p. 68.
51.
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State, see particularly "The New Toryism," "The Coming Slavery," and "From Freedom to Bondage."
52.
W. Hutchison, A Review of Economic Doctrine 1870-1929.
53.
Dicey discounts this factor, remarking on the tendency of the rich to either feebly resist or explicitly favor collectivist legislation. Dicey, Law and Opinion, p. 218.
54.
Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis, p. 763.
55.
Hutchison, A Review of Economic Doctrine, Ch. I.

End of Notes


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