A Plea for Liberty: An Argument Against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation
By Thomas Mackay
Thomas Mackay (1849-1912) was a successful English wine merchant who retired early from business so he could devote himself entirely to the study of economic issues such as the Poor Laws, growing state intervention in the economy, and the rise of socialism. Mackay was asked by the individualist and laissez-faire lobby group, the Liberty and Property Defense League (founded in 1882 by the Earl of Wemyss), to put together a collection of essays by leading classical liberals to rebut the socialist ideas contained in
Fabian Essays in Socialism edited by George Bernard Shaw in 1889. The result was a volume of essays called
A Plea for Liberty: An Argument against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation which appeared in 1891, and another volume of essays
A Policy of Free Exchange: Essays by Various Writers on the Economical and Social Aspects of Free Exchange and Kindred Subjects, which appeared in 1894.Two of the guiding intellectual lights of the Liberty and Property Defense League were Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), whose
The Man versus the State had appeared in 1884, and Auberon Herbert (1838-1906), whose
The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State had appeared in 1885. Both Spencer and Herbert were troubled by the direction in which the British Liberal Party was heading, away from strict adherence to policies of individual liberty and non-intervention in the economy and towards a “New Liberalism” which laid the intellectual foundations for the modern welfare state. The aim of Mackay and the members of the Liberty and Property Defense League was to use the occasion of the publication of a major defense of state interventionism in the economy, the
Fabian Essays, as an opportunity to oppose all advocates of these policies whether from the “right” (the Liberal Party) or the “left” the Fabian socialists and the Labour Party. The result were the two volumes mentioned above. The strategy adopted was to argue against both the morality and the practically of socialism. The latter resulted in many essays showing how specific examples of state intervention or control, such as electrical distribution or public housing, led to unintended, harmful consequences.The ideas expressed in the two volumes,
A Plea for Liberty and
A Policy of Free Exchange, are still timely even after the passage of some 110 years. In spite of the fall of communism and the discrediting of the idea of a centrally planned economy, myriad government interventions in the operation of the economy are still with us, seemingly entrenched and impossible to remove. It is thus interesting to see the response to socialism by free market people who were present at its birth.Dr. David M. Hart
Library of Economics and Liberty
December, 2002Recommended ReadingEric Mack,
“Foreword” to Herbert Spencer,
The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981).Eric Mack, “Introduction” to Auberon Herbert,
The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, and Other Essays (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978).Jeffrey Paul, “Foreword” to
A Plea for Liberty: An Argument against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation, consisting of an Introduction by Herbert Spencer and Essays by Various Writers, edited by Thomas Mackay (1891) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).Edward Bristow, “The Liberty and Property Defence League and Individualism,”
The Historical Journal, 1975, vol. XVIII, no. 4, pp. 761-789.N. Soldon, ”
Laissez-Faire as Dogma: The Liberty and Property Defence League, 1882-1914″, in
Essays in Anti-Labour History: Responses to the Rise of Labour in Britain, ed. Kenneth D. Brown (Macmillan, 1974), pp. 208-233.J. W. Mason, “Thomas Mackay: The Anti-Socialist Philosophy of the Charity Organisation Society,” in
Essays in Anti-Labour History: Responses to the Rise of Labour in Britain, ed. Kenneth D. Brown (Macmillan, 1974), pp. 290-316.J. W. Mason, “Political Economy and the Response to Socialism in Britain, 1870-1914,”
The Historical Journal, 1980, vol. XXIII, no. 3, pp. 565-587.
Thomas Mackay, ed.
First Pub. Date
New York: D. Appleton and Co. In print: Liberty Fund, Inc.
Collected essays, various authors. Includes "From Freedom to Bondage," by Herbert Spencer.
The text of this edition is in the public domain.
- Preface, by Thomas Mackay
- Introduction, From Freedom to Bondage, by Herbert Spencer
- The Impracticability of Socialism, by Edward Stanley Robertson
- The Limits of Liberty, by Wordsworth Donisthorpe
- Liberty for Labour, by George Howell
- State Socialism in the Antipodes, by Charles Fairfield
- The Discontent of the Working-Classes, by Edmund Vincent
- Investment, by Thomas Mackay
- Free Education, by Rev. B. H. Alford
- The Housing of the Working-Classes and of the Poor, by Arthur Raffalovich
- The Evils of State Trading as Illustrated by the Post Office, by Frederick Millar
- Free Libraries, by M. D. OBrien
- The State and Electrical Distribution, by F. W. Beauchamp Gordon
- The True Line of Deliverance, by Hon. Auberon Herbert
If every action which is good or evil in man at ripe years were to be under pittance, prescription, and compulsion, what were virtue but a name, what praise could be then due to well doing, what gramercy to be sober, just, or continent?…
They are not skilful considerers of human things who imagine to remove sin, by removing the matter of sin;…
Suppose we could expel sin by this means; look how much we thus expel of sin, so much we expel of virtue: for the matter of them both is the same: remove that, and ye remove them both alike.
Areopagitica: A Speech
for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing
by Thomas Mackay
The Essays contained in the present volume have a common purpose, which is sufficiently indicated on the title-page. The various writers, however, approach the subject from different points of view, and are responsible for their own contributions and for nothing else.
As will be readily seen from a glance at the table of contents, no attempt has been made to present a complete survey of the controversy between Socialists and their opponents. To do this, many volumes would have been necessary. The vast extent of the questions involved in this controversy will explain the exclusion of some familiar subjects of importance, and the inclusion of others which, if less important, have still a bearing on the general argument. All discussion of the Poor Law, for instance, the most notable of our socialistic institutions, and its disastrous influence on the lives of the poor, has been omitted. The subject has often been dealt with, and the arguments are familiar to all educated readers. It seemed superfluous to include a reference to it in the present volume.
The introduction and the first and second articles deal with theoretical aspects of the question. The papers which follow may be described as illustrative. Mr. Howell traces the gradual advance of the working-class on the path of liberty. Mr. Fairfield and Mr. Vincent describe socialistic influences at work in an English colony and in the London streets. Mr. Mackay’s paper is an endeavour to point out the disadvantage of monopoly, and the advantage of giving to free investment the largest possible sphere of action. The objections to ‘Free’ Education are very briefly set out by Mr. Alford, who takes a practical view of the subject, and declines to discuss the larger question of compulsory education as being for the moment at any rate beyond the range of practical politics. M. Arthur Raffalovich may be introduced to English readers as one of the secretaries of the
Société d’Études Économiques recently founded in Paris, a frequent contributor to the
Journal des Économistes, and author of an excellent work,
Le logement de l’ouvrier et du pauvre. His article deals historically and from the cosmopolitan point of view with the question of the Housing of the Poor. The difficulty, he argues, is being overcome gradually, in the same way as other difficulties in the path of human progress have been overcome, by the solvent power of free human initiative. The Post Office is often quoted by persons of socialist proclivities as an example of the successful organisation of labour by the State. Mr. Millar’s paper points out that this department has not escaped from defects inherent in all State-trading enterprises. These are tolerable when they exist in a service comparatively simple and unimportant like the Post Office, but if Government monopoly were extended to more important and complicated industries, the inherent incapacity of compulsory collectivism would, it is argued, play havoc with human progress. The attempt of Free Liberty agitators to make their own favourite form of recreation a charge on the rates is criticised by Mr. O’Brien as unjust to those who love other forms of amusement and generally as contrary to public policy. Mr. Gordon, writing from the point of view of his profession, explains how the business of the electrical engineer has been let and hindered by the ill-considered, but no doubt well-intentioned, interference of the State. Mr. Auberon Herbert’s paper contains a criticism on the present attitudes of Trade Unionism, and purposes for the consideration of working-class associations a new policy of usefulness.
It will be seen from the foregoing epitome of the volume that some of the illustrations chosen are in themselves of comparatively small importance. But the great danger in this matter lies in the fact that ‘plain men’ do not appreciate the enormous cumulative effects of these many small infractions of sound principle. They do not seem to realise that all this legislation means the gradual and insidious advance of a dull and enervating pauperism. The terrible tale of the degradation of manhood caused by the old poor law, was unfolded to the country in the judicial language of the Poor Law Commissioners. A similar burden of impotency is being day by day laid on all classes, but more especially on our poorer classes, by the perpetual forestalling of honest human endeavour in every conceivable relation of life. While this weakening of the fibre of character is going on, the burden of responsibility to be carried by the State grows every day heavier. The difficulty of returning even a portion of this burden to the healthful influence of private enterprise and initiative is always increasing.
If men will grant for a moment, and for the sake of argument, that, as some insist, our compulsory rate-supported system of education is wrong; that it is injurious to the domestic life of the poor; that it reduces the teacher to the position of an automaton; that it provides a quality of teaching utterly unsuited to the wants of a labouring population which certainly requires some form of technical training; that, here, it is brought face to face with its own incompetence, for some of the highest practical authorities declare that the technical education given in schools is a farce; that therefore it bars the way to all free arrangements between parents and employers, and to the only system of technical education which deserves the name;—if this or even a part of it is true, if at best our educational system is a make-shift not altogether intolerable, how terrible are the difficulties to be overcome before we can retrace our steps and foster into vigorous life a new system, whose early beginnings have been repressed and strangled by the overgrowth of Government monopoly.
Those who still have an open mind should consider carefully this aspect of the question. Each addition to the responsibility of the State adds to the list of ill-contrived solutions of difficulty, and to the enlargement of the sphere of a stereotyped regimentation of human life. Inseparable from this obnoxious growth is the repression of private experiment and of the energy and inventiveness of human character. Instead thereof human character is degraded to a parasitic dependence on the assistance of the State, which after all proves to be but a broken reed.
If the view set out in this volume is at all correct, it is very necessary that men should abandon the policy of indifference, and that they should do something to enlarge the atmosphere of Liberty. This is to be accomplished not by reckless and revolutionary methods, but rather by a resolute resistance to new encroachments and by patient and statesmanlike endeavour to remove wherever practicable the restraints of regulation, and to give full play over a larger area to the creative forces of Liberty, for Liberty is the condition precedent to all solution of human difficulty.