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Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Adam Smith, welfarism and Distributism

I'm grateful for a comment below that's pointed me in the direction of a useful online collection of essays from Civitas, 'Before Beveridge' and in particular to David G Green's piece on The Friendly Societies and Adam Smith Liberalism.

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.

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.
That State welfarism is corrosive of personal morality is axiomatic.

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.


Bob's Head Revisited said...

It's a lot to hope for in 2009, but I absolutely concur. We started losing our way in 1911. It's about time we began the difficult but necessary steps to find it again.

A first important step would be a return to the pre-1948 mixed economy of welfare.

People are generally far nor moral, generous and charitable than the State has ever given them credit for. Then again, it was all idealogical wasn't it?

Anonymous said...

Do remember that the pre-1914 Liberal reforms were largely concerned with making the poor feel greater loyalty to the British state so that they would be better soldiers in any coming war with Germany.

Essentially, the Liberals saw the German welfare system (set up by Bismarck more than a generation earlier) and feared that German soldiers would be more attached to their state than British soldiers would be to their own and that, correspondingly, they would fight harder.

The roots of the welfare-dependent society lie, absolutely and unarguably, with the desire of Imperial Britain's Liberal to have dependable cannon fodder who would not question the diktats of Whitehall.

Things have evolved somewhat so that now the function of welfareism is to create a class of reliable voters who are utterly dependent on the state for their livelihood and who associate the expansion of state-spending and welfareism with the Labour Party.

DBC Reed said...

I think you are misconstruing Distibutism which was a touch revolutionary.AS the name says on the tin, it believed in dividing up large landed estates ,big chains of shops and huge businesses and distributing the assets equally into small family-run units whether small holdings, arts and crafts workshops & what have you.So all families were supported by their own assets.What is now called asset-owning democracy by the likes of IPPR.In a way more revolutionary than Socialism which might simply replace owners with managers (See Burnham's Managerial Revolution).Families were encouraged to stand on their own feet but were provided with sufficient assets and there was a safety net provided by a Merrie England-style Catholic Church.Much the mowst literary political movement: all the principals wrote brilliantly.

Raedwald said...

Anon -

Yes, you're right of course. The fear that the nation wouldn't fight in 1914 was a real one - though misplaced, I think.

And yes, although the German State as such had only been in existence for a few decades since 1870 the measures often described as social-liberal reforms were in actuality measures to increase dependency on the State.

As are most of Labour's measures.

Raedwald said...


Have I misunderstood? Were they in favour of the seizure and redistribution of private property? I thought not. I thought Pius' Encyclical explicitly came out against this as the curse of Socialism.

I understand they were more in favour of the evolution of small, local scale production and ownership as an alternative to the then large industrial conglomerates - though coal, steel and railways, the big players at the time, were subject to economies of scale of which they were perhaps unaware at the time. As I said, it's hard for us to understand exactly their aim today.

Anonymous said...

>As are most of Labour's measures.<

Exactly. That is the tao of New Labour - to increase state power at all costs, to increase state power as a matter of course not because it offers any particular advantage and certainly not because there's a popular clamour for it but because the primary - one might almost say sole - function of the Labour Party is to grow the central state.