The Fourth Revolution – Beatrice and Sidney Webb Laid Foundations for the Welfare State

Last week, we reviewed the book: The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, by former Economist Editor in Chief John Micklethwait and Management Editor Adrian Wooldridge. This week, we summarize how two individuals: Beatrice and Sidney Webb, laid sure foundations for the third revolution: the welfare state.

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Prelude

The world lurched leftward in second half of the nineteenth century. The British elite recognized their poor needed support to escape crushing poverty. More insidiously, they realized hands off politics had left them unable to, as Lloyd George would later phrase it in the early twentieth century, “…maintain an A1 Empire with a C3 population.” They were falling behind Germany with its successful government intervention in business and social welfare. In response, Britain embraced state activism.

Around the same time period, Abraham Lincoln said: “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do, at all, or cannot, so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.” Some would claim him as progressive, others as aspirational .

Marx formulated his communist ideology over the same half century. He theorized that government was merely the way one class controlled another. Once classes were abolished, the government would wither, reduced to the administration of things. The form of government did not much matter to Marx.

By ignoring Thomas Hobbes’s statement [not original to him, of course] that a state is necessary for the peaceful conduct of human affairs, Marx prepared the way for dictatorships that treated people as nothing more than things to be administered. The next century would put Marx’s theories into practice.

The Webbs

Living on her Victorian father’s fortune, Beatrice Potter (b. 1858 – d. 1943) was characterized as: “the cleverest member of one of the cleverest families in the cleverest class of the cleverest nation in the world.”

Beatrice met the tireless, brilliant, and homely Sidney Webb in 1890. She was swept off her feet by his vision for expanding government: “collective ownership wherever practicable; collective regulation everywhere else; collective provision according to need for all the impotent and sufferers; and collective taxation in proportion to wealth, especially surplus wealth.”

Beatrice Webb’s vision—the state as the epitome of reason and truth—enabled her to develop the ideology adopted by pro-statists worldwide. The state stood for: planning versus confusion, merit versus privilege, and science versus prejudice.

Her modus operandi to spread this ideology was one of progressive suffusion. Why cause revolution when the same change could be brought about more lastingly through subversion of society using propaganda and recognized committees of experts.

The Webbs founded the Fabian Society as guardians of this socialist transformation. They established the London School of Economics to train a global cohort of social engineers. The Webbs also founded the New Statesman, a weekly review of politics and literature, as the clarion of their revolution.

Since people are the constituents of the socialist state they wished to build, it made sense, the Webbs said, for Leviathan to regulate society’s reproductive practice. They embraced eugenics as eagerly as they did town planning. The Webbs trusted the judgment of professional experts over the “average sensual man” when it came to bettering the life of commoners.

They ingeniously formed the inchoate anxieties and idealism of their age into political action of all three major British parties. The Webbs pushed collectivism using Labour’s penchant for social justice, Liberal’s national efficiency, and Conservatism’s desire to preserve the Empire. Within a generation, they converted educated opinion to the view that the state must provide “a national minimum” of education and social welfare.

In the period 1905-1915, sympathetic British governments passed legislation that provided: free meals for needy school children (1906), old-age pensions (1908), anti-poverty budget provisions (1909), national sickness and unemployment insurance (1911), and sterilization for the unfit (1913).The Webbs helped enact redistributive taxation to pay for these programs and lessened the stigma of “Poor Laws.” The poor became “victims,” not layabouts.

The Webbs, through their vast influence, helped redefine classical liberal principles. Freedom, which used to mean freedom from external control, became “freedom from want” and equality before the law became “equality of opportunity” and, to a lesser extent, equality of respect. This shift required activist government intervention. The government now provided social services and primary and, to the talented poor, secondary education.

Propagation

The Webbs were not alone in this socialist revolution. A prominent liberal ally, John Maynard Keynes, advocated for government intervention to aid Adam Smith’s hidden hand of the market. Although he spelled out caveats to his philosophy, these were conveniently forgotten over the years. His philosophy, Keynesianism, still powers big government.

The British Statist model was adopted by Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, and Peron. They all blended Hegelian state worship into their dictatorships and used the state to control their economies. America, however, took a different turn under the Roosevelts.

Theodore Roosevelt (US president 1901-1909) acknowledged that the Webbs were right when they said that laissez-faire capitalism was over. He established regulatory bodies to constrain the power of corporations over the American people: “The Corporation is the creature of the people, and must not be allowed to become the ruler of the people.”

He was not a socialist. He saw capitalism for the wealth creator it was. However, he used state power to make it work better by suppressing “crony capitalism” which arose from the collusion of “corrupt politics” with “corrupt business.”

TR’s goal was to use the state to provide a “square deal,” a safety net in rough times, and to improve the quality of America’s workforce. By not embracing European style statism, with its comprehensive welfare state, he squared-the-circle through his progressive republicanism and saved the US from Europe’s excesses.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for his part, imposed tighter regulation instead of nationalizing broad sectors of the economy in the face of economic collapse and world war.

Establishment

World War II demonstrated big government’s ability to marshal all of industry to the service of war through detailed planning, financial incentives, and coercion. The same occurred on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific.

In post-war Britain, the Education Act, the National Insurance Act, and the National Health Service Act were formulated by a Conservative (Butler), a Liberal (Beveridge), and a socialist (Bevan), respectively. The Webb’s cross-politics approach was further validated when the Conservative Party, under Winston Churchill, returned to power in October 1951 and did nothing to roll back the welfare state.

On the continent, the state ran companies, universities, research institutes, libraries, and broadcasting corporations. In the closing days of World War II, international supervisory organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were created under Keynes influence as a result of the Bretton Woods international agreements.

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As counterpoint, Philip Hamburger writes in his book about US executive branch agencies that administer regulations, Is Administrative Law Unlawful:

“There is a jarring disconnect between what is taught and celebrated in constitutional law and what is accepted in administrative law…” and “…[Only] the shell of [the American] republican experiment remains. Within it, however, another government has arisen, in which new masters once again assert themselves, issuing commands as if they were members of a ruling class, and as if the people were merely their servants. Self-government has given way to a system of submission.” [Emphasis mine]

Hamburger reasons that judicial pushback at the Appellate and Supreme Court levels is necessary to head off a more Lockean approach. Read more about Hamburger’s book in Myron Magnet’s City Journal book review.

Finally, here is another lecture and Q&A by Micklethwait and Wooldridge:

John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge, “The Fourth Revolution

Portrait of an Ideologist — by Bernhardt Writer

One of our reasons for reviewing Kenneth Minogue’s book: Alien Powers – The Pure Theory of Ideology is that in it he promised a recipe book for constructing an ideology. The book didn’t provide a step by step method but it did provide a portrait of an ideologist. It is this portrait we sketch next.

General Characteristics

An ideologist believes that the modern world is evil and oppressive and that it must be overthrown. She sees particular incidences of evil as proof of ubiquitous, structural imperfection which can be remedied only by far-reaching and thorough change of the whole system. The difference between appearances and reality implies that the real truth is hidden by the system. Denial of this difference by the system’s apologists demonstrates the deception.

The ideologist believes that incremental social and moral reform is a mystification of (i.e., a means to obscure or conceal) the oppressive system’s real interests (i.e., the revealed secret) and a means to take its victims for a ride. Politics is a question of power and only a unified oppressed group can wrest their demands from more powerful oppressors.

The lead ideologist(s) owns the revealed secret, intimidating attackers and insubordinate followers via verbal abuse or direct action to maintain superiority. The full revelation is limited to only those who are attune to the shifting policies of the leader or leaders. This coterie is the vanguard of the movement.

Journalism is a conspiracy to suppress oppressor truths by defining facts and shaping how events are perceived:

“Communicative power is about the right to define and demarcate situations…In short, one must see the news as reflecting not the events of the world ‘out there,’ but as the manifestation of the collective cultural codes of those employed to do this selective and judgmental work for society.”

Ideologists deny that news viewers have the ability to exercise discernment. All viewers are helpless victims of journalistic bias.

Methodology

Social criticism is the tool ideologists use to reveal and undermine the system’s structure of domination. While social criticism purports to discover truth, it finds fault with everyday modern society for the purpose of confirming the ideologist’s theories of oppression. This oppression is imposed upon the masses via societal constraints (i.e., moral and civil rules of conduct).

By attacking so-called apologists for the status quo (i.e., structural oppression) the ideologists believe they perform the work of liberation. The ideologist as social critic is infallible because she’s either right or, because of the corrupting influences of society’s structural flaws, is wrong (and therefore right again having demonstrated those flaws in herself).

Ideologists’ claims to superiority arise from their heroically escaping societal constraints by embracing universal and comprehensive knowledge; from having arrived at their special knowledge of how the oppressors operate even in the face of societal conditioning to the opposite; and from their practical work of change on behalf of the oppressed masses. The ideologist demonstrates courage, discipline, and unwavering constancy in her mission when confronted with opposition and peril.

The ideologist sees the world divided into those who know the central secret and those who don’t. Those who don’t must be tutored. The ideologist determines the conditions under which all will live and disseminates these dogmas via indoctrination rather than open inquiry and discussion because their truths are incontrovertible and settled.

Politics and Argument

Ordinary politics relies on the evenhanded assumption that other parties share similar values and goals. Debate centers on what means should be employed to achieve common ends. This is not the case for the ideologist who is always fighting to liberate the oppressed masses from their oppressors’ central secret (and smaller subsidiary secrets).

When arguing, the skilled ideologist will establish that she recognizes reality, she is sensible, and that her approach is reasonable. She might make concessions to the opponent which may be sincere or merely a façade. All these remarks are made to set up a reversal signified by the words: ‘but’ or ‘yet.’ Then she reveals the hidden character of the domination she fights against. The ideologist derives power and force from using melodrama when unmasking her adversary’s secrets.

The ideologist is slippery. They pretend to confront particular problems but their intent is to gain an upper hand over their opponent and the issues. No practical issue can be isolated from the system’s universal imperfection. The only solution for the particular problem being discussed is comprehensive and total revolution to abolish the root causes (i.e., if coveting property is at issue then doing away with individual ownership is the fix).

The ideologist knows that arguments always reflect interests and do not objectively decide the truth or falsity of statements about reality. The ideologist must deny her opponent a position of neutrality on the issue under discussion. Arguments are a contest for power and dominance. Because the ideologist is struggling on behalf of the oppressed, she gains the moral high ground since truth always supports justice.

Ultimately, no real discussion is possible. The ideologist’s role in arguments is to raise the opponent’s consciousness via a tutorial since she possesses the truth whereas the opponent advocates for oppression. By demonstrating courage and intellectual insight against the conformist pressure of the domination structure, having rejected its mystifications, the ideologists portray themselves as heroic and superior.

Achieving the End State

In order to achieve the overthrow of the existing system and establishment of their goals, the ideologist must make a direct assault on freedom. The ideologist replaces freedom through deception (and violence, if necessary) with an enlightened dictatorship promising distant perfection. In this perfection (i.e., the ideological terminus) there is no freedom because there is no need for it. Only the one right option will be what everyone wants to do.

Once the end state is achieved there will be no possibility for a reversal. The historical (i.e., temporary) progress from capitalism and individuality to socialism and community is inevitable. The ideologists are the beneficiaries of this shift in power. They alone speak for the oppressed masses since they (the masses) are not capable of speaking for themselves. The ideologists have selected (and cultivated) the masses based on the principle that those who are most excluded from a corrupt society are least corrupted by that society.

Dogmatic in rhetoric and ruthless in practice, the ideologist fights to transcend the evils of the world. The inevitable twisting and turning of political upheavals indicate that humanity is waking up from the nightmare of history. “Every event is providential and every slaughter is the price paid” to bring about the end of history in perfection (i.e., the ideological terminus).

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As we’ve said before, all political persuasions and any grievance focus can be made into an ideology. That’s Minogue’s thesis. Once you decide there is only one universal way for all to proceed, you are on your way to becoming either a god or his (or her) slave.

After the fiascos of the Twentieth century most ideologists see that their role is to slow walk the inevitable revolution. You’ll recognize the tactics and techniques described above on our televisions, in our books, and from many claiming authority (especially on college campuses). Ideologists cultivate their oppressed masses even going so far as to prevent their rise from oppression. This, to me, is the most despicable aspect of the ideological project.

Again, I concur with Orwell’s assessment of his novel Nineteen Eighty Four: “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”

William F. Buckley and Kenneth Minogue – part 1