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

Inflammation – Tomarick Fescidia

We Can Do It poster for Westinghouse, closely ...We used to be people who fulfilled our needs before our wants. We valued those things necessary for life. We saved for things we’d like to have if we were able. Sometimes we provided for needs to the exclusion of our wants so we’d have enough to share with others. Now we can’t wait to put on credit the newest electronics we saw unboxed online. We hold down multiple jobs to “sacrifice” for what we think we want. All the while, our families, relationships, and community fall by the wayside.

We used to live in places that had stories to tell. We valued the historical diversity of our nation. Now we all go down for our morning pick–me–up to the local franchise, offering the same experience in every city and town across the nation. We shop when we’re anxious, burn with passion for the latest trends, and forsake human companionship for electronic simulations of various forms and intensities.

When did we give up our culture? How did we become a consumer society? Why have we given ourselves over to our invisible overlords? To those who, however ineffectively, pull the strings which control our collective thoughts and actions. To them, it turns out, we, the American public, had a problem in need of a solution. What was our problem? Instability.

The solution was the active use of propaganda to direct the American collective unconscious towards social stability. You may remember, propaganda is the use of psychological manipulation or coercion to influence opinions and actions of individuals and groups toward stated or unstated goals. This was their chosen method to engineer the “consent of the governed.” Not the means that our founders intended when they penned those words, I’m afraid.

Propaganda in the twentieth century proved effective to promote democracy during World War I and the Final Solution during World War II. The same techniques were effective in regimenting and controlling the American public. Plans were instituted without many of us being aware of their influence. And there was money to be made for those who caught on. Lots of money.

Consent engineers, also known as public relations specialists, maintained that we Americans inherently distorted any information we took in. We made up our minds before we gathered and analyzed the relevant facts. We operated with partial facts corrupted by our preconceived prejudices and were unable to reach sound conclusions. Because of this situation, we were deemed incompetent to direct the public affairs of our democracy. An elite would rule the nation.

The specialists envisioned a utopia where individuals’ otherwise unconscious instinctual biological urges were controlled and directed by the elite to the service of some purposeful goal. Over the centuries, some societies built pyramids, some constructed hanging gardens, and many tried to rule the world. In our nation’s case, the goal was economic prosperity. The elites, which the specialists served, happened to own the means of mass production and directed the irrational desires of citizens to consume their wares. This had the simultaneous effect of satisfying the biological forces that might tear society apart.

By directing our own desires, the elites built a stable society. Citizens could work off their frustrations by spending on self-gratifying goods and services. These goods and services represented a common identity to which citizens were to adapt their self-images. Each citizen would acquire from what they consumed a sense of self, purpose, and history reflecting current attitudes and social patterns. The society and environment at large would also take on this immediacy and impermanence. No longer would we inherit our self–images or environs from previous generations.

Conscious and intelligent control was deemed important for democracy. Those who performed this duty were the real rulers who directed of the country. They used media tools to manipulate an unsuspecting public. The press release informed readers of the ‘news’ about events, products, or attitudes to adopt. Leaders were used, with or without their agreement, to sway those who followed them. Polling, focus groups, or other “democratic” means were employed to shape opinion rather than just measure it. Events, or better, spectacles, were created that purported to inform or celebrate when what was intended was to influence acceptance of new concepts and perceptions by the unconscious minds of many.

But weren’t they really tapping into humans’ ancient underlying motives. The scriptures say that the fear of death brings lifelong slavery. It was really this fear into which modern propaganda taps. Do I need to explain the concept of “duck and cover?”

They thought scientific manipulation of public opinion was necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in society. However, they knew that public relations propaganda could be used to subvert democracy as easily as it could be used to resolve conflict. It is in use to this day and we find ourselves at a crossroads.

None of this is new. It has been happening for millennia. All I did was gather the information in one place for you to read. I urge you to decouple from the hype, search your conscience and a Bible, if you’ve got one, and make changes starting with yourself first. Skip the hearty breakfast and don’t go shopping! Instead, find a church to participate in that reveres Christ, our only savior from our bodies of death. And let the love of Christ rule your reason and passions. Maybe we can still recover the life and community we’ve surely lost, before it’s too late.