As the welfare state unravels, scholars such as Marvin Olasky and James L. Payne have helped bring back the sensible ideas of Victorian poverty fighters. But it’s also important for today’s reformers to understand why the individualistic ideas of the Victorians did not prevail into the 20th century. Reformers need to know why governments turned to socialistic notions about welfare and how leftist reformers convinced politicians that their ideas should prevail.
Many of the answers to these questions can be found in historical journals. Britain’s Institute of Economic Affairs, one of the world’s leading organizations that analyzes welfare, has thus performed a service with this collection of five articles—including three reprints—that look at various aspects of the British welfare debate between 1870 and 1940. Students of this period know that Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her magisterial Poverty and Compassion, has explored much of this territory. But the three reprinted articles complement Himmelfarb’s work, and in some cases expand on her research.
Most superficial analyses of the Victorian period portray the welfare state as arising from a clash between tough-minded individualists and more compassionate collectivists. But papers by Oxford University historian Jose Harris and political scientist A.W. Vincent of the University of Wales show that the conflict was less clear-cut than subsequent scholars have claimed: the individualists were less freedom-minded, while the socialists were a bit tougher than their reputation would suggest.
Harris’s article shows how the more anti-statist British poverty fighters at the turn of the century were heavily influenced by a philosophy known as Idealism. Invented by philosopher T. H. Green, Idealists read Plato’s work to find what Harris calls “clues, principles, and practical nostrums with which to approach the problems of mass, urban, class-based, industrial and imperial civilization.”
While abandoning Plato’s authoritarianism, Idealist reformers saw themselves as supporting what Helen Bosanquet, an important anti-socialist writer of the period, called “social collectivism.” If it’s common today to see nonprofit organizations as “mediating structures” that stand as buffers between the individual and the state, the social collectivists saw the state, as Harris puts it, as “the overlord and final arbiter of culture, education, economics, religion, and morals.”
Why, then, should the poor be aided privately instead of by the state? According to Helen Bosanquet, nonprofits provided more personal “companionship and assistance” while someone seeking state aid would only face “barren intercourse with poor law officials.” But if you believe that the state represents the collective wisdom of society, why shouldn’t the government be the principal provider of welfare? Social collectivists could not answer this question, which is why their position collapsed.
Further reasons for the collapse of individualism are provided by A. W. Vincent in his article exploring the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws. This commission, which operated during the years 1905-1909, is important historically because it represents the last time before the 1980s that both sides of the welfare debate argued publicly.
The Royal Commission issued two reports. The majority report called for maintaining the status quo, but Vincent shows that the report was not a clear cut individualist manifesto. Indeed, its principal author, Bernard Bosanquet (husband of Helen) explicitly rejected laissez-faire individualism, calling instead for “an army of social healers” to march on behalf of the poor. These “healers,” Bosanquet believed, would urge the poor to obey the collective principles of society, including charity, thrift, and self-reliance.
As for the Fabians, Vincent notes that, like the Bosanquets, they also favored elites telling the poor how to live. But while the Fabians wanted the state to provide a guaranteed minimum income, they were quite concerned about moral degradation. Sidney and Beatrice Webb wanted to jail parents who abandoned their children, and thought that enlightened elites (presumably fellow Fabians) could abolish immorality through government regulation.
But what did the workers think of all this benevolence imposed from above? As historian Pat Thane of the University of Sussex notes in her article, workers gave a cool reception to the politicians who championed the welfare state.
At the turn of the century, most British workers belonged to “friendly societies,” which provided them both with clubs where they could socialize, but also with doctors and with loans during periods of unemployment. In 1900, 5.6 million British workers belonged to friendly societies, while only 1.2 million belonged to trade unions. Many of these friendly societies long resisted having the state take over welfare. Many thought that capitalists favored old-age pensions as a cheaper way of satisfying labor’s demands than raising workers’ wages. “The aim of the working class,” noted an 1894 editorial in the journal of the Ancient Order of Foresters (the second-largest British friendly society), “ought to be to bring about economic conditions in which there should be no need of state alms.”
Others feared that state-funded social insurance programs were a ruse that government and business would use to destroy trade unions. “The grip of the state will be gradually tightened until it will be almost impossible for a man to speak unless in regulation tones,” warned an 1890 editorial against old-age pensions in the Cotton Factory Times, a newspaper for cotton workers. “A people under the heel of such a tyranny can not be permanently prosperous.”
The two original papers in Before Beveridge are less important. IEA Health and Welfare Unit director David Green’s paper on friendly societies repeats research he has published elsewhere. University of Bristol public policy professor Noel Whiteside’s paper on the semi-nationalized health insurance program which existed in Britain between 1912 and 1948 is too British for most American readers. Most of Before Beveridge, however, is worth reading for anyone interested in the welfare debate. In particular, it should be closely read by foundation program officers involved in administering welfare-to-work programs.
Editor’s note: Before Beveridge: Welfare Before the Welfare State is available from Institute of Economic Affairs for £8.00 plus £1.50 airmail postage. IEA can be reached via email or by fax (011-44-171-799-2137).
Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center and an associate editor of The American Enterprise.