As the founders of the IEA pointed out with great regret, at a time when more than three quarters of the working class had made welfare insurance provision for themselves, and memberships of Friendly Societies were growing quickly and were set to provide nearly all but the improvident underclass with unemployment, sickness and even pension benefits, the State took fright and stepped in in 1911 to nationalise welfare.
Adam Smith liberals who believe there is a trade off between State coercion and private moral authority, wanting less of the former and more of the latter, will recognise the 1911 Act not as a forward thinking piece of legislation but as the start of the rot and of a system of State welfarism that has brought us to our current sorry condition. As Green writes;
This approach to morality placed a heavy burden of responsibility on private individuals, as parents and as participants in the organisations that make up their local communities. Each person’s daily conduct was in some way a contribution to upholding or modifying the prevailing order. Every supportive frown or raised eyebrow as well as every complacent shrug of the shoulders made a difference. The value of a moral tradition that embraced both disapproval and toleration had been learnt from hard years of religious persecution.That State welfarism is corrosive of personal morality is axiomatic.
Such were the main elements of the ideal of liberty upheld by writers such as Smith, Hume and Tocqueville. A free society for them should be made up of many organisations pursuing particular purposes but also based on liberal principles: a framework of rules, morals that were upheld but susceptible to gradual change, individuals guided by a sense of duty to others and aware that their personal contribution to upholding moral rules counted. And here lay the true significance of organisations like the friendly societies. They were examples of the best in this liberal tradition.
Both G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were followers of a movement termed Distributism; it's not any easy one for us to understand today, being somewhat a creature of its time, but it shares with Adam Smith liberalism a belief that a society founded on the moral authority of family, community and intermediate organisations rather than on State coercion is a healthy one. Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum;
The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error. True, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth. In like manner, if within the precincts of the household there occur grave disturbance of mutual rights, public authority should intervene to force each party to yield to the other its proper due; for this is not to deprive citizens of their rights, but justly and properly to safeguard and strengthen them. But the rulers of the commonwealth must go no further; here, nature bids them stop. Paternal authority can be neither abolished nor absorbed by the State; for it has the same source as human life itself.That black rogue Rousseau (and this will be my last mention of this villain on this blog in 2008) who would separate children from their fathers lest they distort the ownership of the State of the individual and whose perverse form of enlightenment 'liberalism' forms the basis of State welfarism would of course have gone for coercion over moral authority every time.
As Wiki has it, "Distributism sees the trinitarian human family of one male, one female, and their children as the central and primary social unit of human ordering and the principal unit of a functioning distributist society and civilization".
Let's hope that 2009 and all that it brings will see a shift back to families, neighbourhoods, communities and intermediate institutions, friendly societies, mutual building societies and credit unions, localism, liberalism and the small State. We lost our way in the twentieth century; let's find it again in the twenty-first.