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

The State and End State by Bernhardt Writer

A while back we reviewed Kenneth Minogue’s book: Alien Powers – The Pure Theory of Ideology. In it, he contends that Western civilization is in the throes of a conflict over a right understanding of the human condition. So, how does it all turn out in the end were ideology to win?

Politics and Democracy

Ideology masquerades as a political movement, but it is determined to destroy the circumstances underpinning politics. It draws out our moral instincts while it denies the possibility of morality. It affirms freedom while striving for a community in which only one right act will be possible for each circumstance. Ideology attacks inequality but seeks to destroy the individual human capable of achieving equality in a meaningful sense. It champions real democracy but advocates unanimity that makes democracy superfluous. Ideology’s practitioners use criticism to attack opponents while claiming their own truths are incontrovertible.

Ideology portrays deficiencies of the human condition (i.e., personal sin) as structural flaws of an oppressive system. It must methodically destroy the political ideas and values that the system represents. These ideas and values merely hide the system’s ulterior interests. Ideology can only be satisfied by a perfect democracy which is, by definition, unattainable. It is ideologically absurd to let those deluded by the system’s structural faults to select leaders when the people (i.e., the vanguard) leading the way to the perfect community, alone, have the necessary knowledge.

Ideology and the State

States provide liberty by instituting legal rights. Individuals within the state exercise these rights as responsible agents of choice. The result is a world both unpredictable and uncontrollable because what people will do with their rights is unknowable until they decide and act.

Karl Marx, however, said that rights separated person from person (i.e., alienated them one from another). His ideal society would possess liberty without rights. Those in his transformed society would no longer mistrust or have disagreements of right and wrong. There would be complete harmony in which no one would need to exercise rights. In fact, there would no longer be individuals capable of exercising rights in such a perfect harmonious community.

Ideology says states foster citizens’ independent actions, the soil in which oppression thrives. Oppression can only be prevented by destroying the state itself. Ideologies use “one party states” to destroy any remaining independence in a society enthralled to the ideology.

A capitalistic society provides laws under which the citizenry orders their life choices and actions. Under an ideology’s social order, everyone is occupied with transforming society. Nothing prevents citizens in a modern state from creating communes, collective farms, or cooperatives. However, it is both criminal and regressive for those in an ideological state to set up a business or practice unsanctioned religion.

States provide rules according to which citizens choose how to satisfy their interests. The mistake ideological governments make is to decide between interests. By determining interests, ideologies show that their social criticism is aimed, not at the centralized state, but the private interests of citizens and associations that compose the state.

Impediment to Revolution

What stands in the way of ideology’s revolutionary conquest is transcendent religion. Minogue says that someone is not fit for revolution who, like Adam Smith, believes:

“A wise man never complains of the destiny of Providence, nor thinks the universe in confusion when he is out-of-order.”

Marx observed that engaging the wretched to carry out insurrection will never happen if they are lost in religious fantasies.

Perfect Community and the Individual

In an integrated community of individuals, each one is the proprietor of their own desires and the adjudicator of their own thoughts. Ideology sees this as the cause for aggression, greed, selfishness, and violence because some desire more than they have or want what others possess. Ideology rejects the possibility of personal responsibility and self-control as the foundation of relationships within a functioning society.

Should humans live as free agents making individual choices or as a collective species with no individuation in so-called perfection? Ideology says perfect community is not only desirable, but the only form possible (all other forms being ones of oppression).

Would these humans in perfect community have self-awareness and the ability to choose to cooperate? Ideology says that as long as they have real choice then their actions no longer depend on correct human consciousness but on contingent human will. In short: no. A community that freely chooses to cooperate could choose not to do so at some point in the future. If that were to happen, then the ideological terminus (perfect community) could itself be overthrown.

To give a sense of the import of such a transformation, Marx says:

When the laborer co-operates systematically with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species…The present generation resembles the Jews whom Moses led through the wilderness. It must not only conquer a new world, it must also perish in order to make room for people who will be equal to a new world.

Further, Minogue says that in true community:

Each of us will be drops of water in a clear pond. We shall live at the level of the universal, sloughing off that involvement in particular passions and particular points of view which is the very definition of our present entrapment. There will be no self to be denied or subjected. Particular character and situation would have no reality in themselves.

Ideology’s Results

Ideology’s direct contribution to society is to set worker against capitalist, Black against White, men against women, etc. No one can doubt ideology has gotten results by calling out grave instances of oppression; but, in the process, it has multiplied pointless, diffuse antagonisms that have weakened the fabric of Western society and culture.

True community may be a thing of wonder. However, the resolution of strife between essences and existence leaves no one to contemplate that beauty since they both must be “resolved.” The so-called alienated human being is abolished.

This means that ideology, carried to its terminus (and there is no other purpose), poses an existential threat to the West. Declaring Western civilization rotten to the core, ideology does away with the possibility of the individual human life in exchange for a myth of pure species. This is the equivalent of a suicide pact.

May Day Poster

Russian 1st of May poster, Soviet, Public Domain in the US

Minogue’s book is available (in part) on Google Books. As an example of the pervasive influence of ideology, the National Association of Scholars has recently addressed the sustainability movement as an ideology encroaching on academic freedom.

“Sustainability” is a key idea on college campuses in the United States and the rest of the Western world. To the unsuspecting, sustainability is just a new name for environmentalism. But the word really marks out a new and larger ideological territory in which curtailing economic, political, and intellectual liberty is the price that must be paid now to ensure the welfare of future generations. [Emphasis mine]

The movement is just another example of special interests seeking to “throw off oppression” using coercion and, if that fails, barbarity in a quest for supremacy.

As I’ve said before, I agree 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.

Ideology’s Characteristics by Bernhardt Writer

A few weeks ago, we reviewed Kenneth Minogue’s book: Alien Powers – The Pure Theory of Ideology. He writes that Western civilization is in the throes of a conflict over a right understanding of the human condition. Minogue suggests that the ideological approach is ascendant in our society while the transcendent is declining. He claims that there is a generally applicable pure theory of ideology best realized to date in Marxist ideology and its offspring. Let us touch on some of the general points from his book.

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The common person on the street condemns the results of bad human actions. They attempt to rectify those results when possible through small corrective steps. These citizens view politics as the method to work together toward agreed-to ends within the context of the rule of law.

The ideologist takes bad actions as evidence of systemic structural oppression that can be remedied only through complete overhaul of the entire system (i.e., revolution). The ideologist sees incremental moral reform as the mystification (i.e., obscuration or concealment) by which an oppressive system strings its victims along. Politics is a question of power. Only the power of a unified oppressed group can wring concessions from the oppressors who have more power.

Ideologies disclose truths that the prevailing system has an interest in hiding. Ideologies claim all interactions within the system are power relationships. This truth is masked by societal constraints (i.e., moral and civil rules of conduct) and nefarious concealments perpetrated by the oppressive system. Denial of unmasked truths is proof of the system’s betrayal and oppression at work.

Societal constraints serve the oppressors’ interests. That these rules promote goodness and justice masks their real import which is the exercise of power over the oppressed. If the oppressed demand their right to overthrow these constraints they are rebuffed for not obeying a law, moral principle, or divine ordinance. But the real reason they are denied is because it conflicts with the oppressors interests in a zero-sum transaction.

Ideology reveals masked favoritism and domination throughout the corrupt system. The oppressed have rightful grievances (e.g., ones of class, gender, race, or ethnicity) against the system. Each oppressed person is imprisoned by the system’s conditioning which divides the oppressed from each other and from their real source of being in the species. Their struggle for liberation will result in true community.

Science, philosophy, law, and the state are instruments of special interests according to ideology. Although the intellectual elite might root out interests in favor of inclusiveness, those ideologically driven look to those deprived by the system for remedy. These persons, excluded by the system, unqualified to represent themselves, are appointed to lead humankind to liberation. This oppressed group is qualified because it is least tainted by the system’s corrupting influences. Of course, ideologists are ready and willing to indoctrinate the oppressed group in the ways of liberation and speak for them.

Ideology unveils for us the hidden truth otherwise mystified by the system’s apologists. Cleansed of the system’s mystifications we will see the truth of our essence and our consciences will rise to state of things as they actually exist. We will realize that the human species is defined by social (e.g., production) and material (e.g., eating) processes. We will arrive at this non-western reality through the struggle for liberation rather than through fruitless and pernicious contemplation.

Ideology is to revolution the way politics is to reform. Ideology does not debate whether theft, for instance, should be treated severely or mercifully but rather abolishes private property altogether making theft fictitious. Each resolution of this type typifies the true community. Any particular problem is solved only by solving all problems via revolution.

Ideology pledges a comprehensive and ultimate explanation of this material world (since it claims that the transcendent world to come does not exist). The explanation (i.e., ideological revelation) is not merely knowledge but leads to societal transformation which improves the earthly human condition. The difficulty of overcoming opposition and bringing about the transformation is evidence for the truth of the explanation.

The ideological model of human history is triadic: the primitive community in harmony gives way to a succession of societies characterized by domination. By overthrowing this progression man arrives at a higher form of his initial communal harmony.

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Minogue credits Karl Marx as the sole individual responsible, not only for clear insights into capitalism, but for the creation of pure ideology. He claims Marx developed the theory further and more deeply than all others. It is this pure theory that Minogue describes in his book. We will cover the end result of the ideological project in a later post.

Karl Marx

A Portrait of Karl Marx, John Jabez Edwin Mayall (1813–1901), Public Domain in the US