Vindicated by History: Statism’s 19th Century Critics

Vindicated by History: Statism’s 19th Century Critics
Profile photo of Philip Vander Elst

Reprinted from the Cobden Centre

What is the single most important fact about the 20th century? The answer must surely be that it was the century which saw the birth and spread of totalitarian socialism. That is not what most school children are taught or what most people in the West believe, but it is a justifiable conclusion. Not only was totalitarian socialism directly responsible, through the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact and invasion of Poland, for provoking the bloodiest war in history. It has also been the biggest single cause of internal repression and mass murder in modern times.

According to The Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press, 1999), at least 94 million people were slaughtered by communist regimes during the 20th century, a truly colossal figure. Yet this is only a minimum estimate. Professor R. J. Rummel, in his landmark study, Death by Government, (Transaction Publishers, 1996, pp.v-vi), puts the death toll from communism at over 105 million, and his detailed calculations do not include the human cost of communism in most of Eastern Europe, or in Third World countries like Cuba and Mozambique. Even so, his figure is double the total number of casualties (military and civilian) killed on all sides during World War 2.

The full horror of this totalitarian socialist holocaust cannot, of course, be adequately conveyed by these grim statistics. Behind them lies a desolate landscape of economic collapse, mass poverty, physical and mental torture, and broken lives and communities. In fact, nothing illustrates the destructive impact of totalitarian socialism more vividly than the tsunami of refugees it has generated in every continent in which it has taken root. Between 1945 and 1990, over 29 million men, women and children voted against communism with their feet in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America.[i] Had it not been for the landmines, border guards, and barbed wire lining their frontiers, the world’s communist states would have been emptied of their populations long before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The totalitarian logic of socialism

What provoked this vast tide of human despair? What was it that made life intolerable for most of the inhabitants of these socialist countries? The greatest Russian writer of the last century has given us the answer. To quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “Socialism begins by making all men equal in material matters…However the logical progression towards so-called ‘ideal’ equality inevitably implies the use of force. Furthermore it means that the basic element of personality – those elements which display too much variety in terms of education, ability, thought and feeling – must themselves be levelled out…Let me remind you that ‘forced labour’ is part of the programme of all prophets of Socialism, including the Communist Manifesto [1848]. There is no need to think of the Gulag Archipelago as an Asiatic distortion of a noble ideal. It is an irrevocable law.”[ii]

It was therefore always predictable that by requiring the abolition of private property and the family, and monopolistic State ownership of agriculture and industry, the socialist pursuit of equality would necessarily produce the evil fruit of totalitarianism. One party rule, the secret police, the imprisonment and torture of dissidents, concentration camps, mass executions, the political indoctrination of the young, the persecution of religious minorities – all these horrors have been the inevitable result of that concentration and monopolisation of power which invariably corrupts the ruling elites and buraucracies of all full-blown socialist societies. As an eminent Russian-born political scientist, the late Tibor Szamuely, wrote a generation ago in a pamphlet which should be read by the citizens of every civilised democracy: “How could it be otherwise? …How can there be any freedom when one’s livelihood from cradle to grave depends totally upon the State, which can with one hand give and with the other take away?” [iii]

Unfortunately, left-wing intellectuals and other critics of free enterprise have always been reluctant to acknowledge the totalitarian logic of socialism, wedded as they are to a benevolent vision of the State and the dream of using its power to create a more just society. Consequently, despite all the evidence to date, many of them still pursue the phantom of ‘democratic socialism,’ believing that democratic institutions can be relied on to prevent socialism degenerating into tyranny. The great classical liberal thinkers of the 19th century, by contrast, harboured no such illusions. Every single one of them discerned the incompatibility of socialism with the maintenance of free and democratic institutions. They did so, moreover, long before the advent of the socialist tyrannies of the 20th century.

One of the earliest warnings was sounded by John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) more than 50 years before the Russian Revolution. In a now famous passage in his essay On Liberty (1859), Mill declared: “If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities and the public charities, were all of them branches of the government; if, in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became departments of the central administration; if the employees of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to the government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free other than in name.”[iv]

As Mill understood, you cannot maintain freedom of speech and of the press, or freedom of assembly and association, if all the means of communication – newsprint, meeting halls, radio stations, etc – are in the hands of the State. It is equally impossible, in such conditions, for opposition parties to win elections, since a State controlled economy also prevents them from acquiring the capital to finance their political campaigns. That is why democratic socialism is a contradiction in terms. Either socialism must be diluted or abandoned for the sake of democracy, or democracy (as well as liberty) will be sacrificed on the altar of socialism.

The truth about pre-revolutionary Russia

What is so tragic about the Russian Revolution, is that the triumph of communism in October 1917 aborted the embryo of a developing liberal society. As Tibor Szamuely points out, “…few people in the West are aware of the extent of freedom in Tsarist Russia before the Revolution, in the early part of our century. It enjoyed full freedom of the press – censorship had been abolished, and even Bolshevik publications appeared without restrictions – full freedom of foreign travel, independent trade unions, independent courts, trial by jury…a parliament, a Duma with MPs representing parties of every political shade, including the Bolsheviks.”[v]

By the early 1920s, by contrast, all this had been swept away. To quote Solzhenitsyn’s summary of the first period of communist rule under Lenin: “It dispersed the [democratically elected] Constituent Assembly…It introduced execution without trial. It crushed workers’ strikes. It plundered the villagers to such an unbelievable extent that the peasants revolted, and when this happened it crushed the peasants in the bloodiest possible way. It shattered the Church. It reduced 20 provinces of our country to a condition of famine.”[vi]

Democratic socialists may object, at this point, that pre-revolutionary Russia was not as free and democratic as Britain or the United States, and that the cause of socialism was compromised by the Bolsheviks’ violent seizure of power. But even if Lenin had triumphed in a peaceful election, his subsequent takeover of the economy and nationalisation of all previously independent institutions would eventually have produced the same totalitarian outcome.

The inherently despotic nature of socialism, so vividly confirmed by the history of the Russian Revolution and all subsequent socialist revolutions, was clearly perceived by John Stuart Mill’s great Italian liberal contemporary, Joseph Mazzini (1805 – 1872). In an essay on ‘The Economic Question’ written in 1858 and addressed to the workers of Italy, Mazzini not only defended private property as an institution essential to human progress and wellbeing; he also denounced socialism with passion: “The liberty, the dignity, the conscience of the individual would all disappear in an organisation of productive machines. Physical life might be satisfied by it, but moral and intellectual life would perish, and with it emulation, free choice of work, free association, stimulus to production, joys of property, and all incentives to progress. Under such a system the human family would become a herd…Which of you would resign himself to such a system?”[vii] In addition, Mazzini pointed out, the establishment of a socialist society would, ironically, create the very worst form of inequality, because universal State ownership would require the establishment of an all-powerful ruling bureaucracy. “Working-men, my Brothers,” he asked, “are you disposed to accept a hierarchy of lords and masters of the common property?…Is not this a return to ancient slavery?”[viii]

The prophetic discernment of the 19th century classical liberal critics of socialism is again very apparent in the writings of Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850), the leading French economist and free trade activist of his generation. A constant critic of Statism in general, and socialism in particular, Bastiat summarised his objections in The Law, a short but lucid pamphlet published in 1850, the same decade, curiously enough, during which Mill and Mazzini raised their warning voices.

In this brief yet comprehensive analysis, Bastiat offered many valuable insights, of which three deserve particular mention. The first drew attention to a fatal contradiction within the ideology of democratic socialism, one which continues to characterise many of the attitudes of present-day European leftists and American liberals. On the one hand, complained Bastiat, socialists are passionately committed to the cause of democracy, insisting that all adults are responsible individuals who should have the vote and an equal share in all political decision-making; yet on the other, they consider the same sovereign people incapable of running their own lives without the intervention and supervision of all-powerful State officials. “When it is time to vote,” wrote Bastiat, “apparently the voter is not to be asked for any guarantee of his wisdom. His will and capacity to choose wisely are taken for granted…But when the [socialist] legislator is finally elected – ah! then indeed does the tone of his speech undergo a radical change. The people are returned to passiveness, inertness, and unconsciousness; the legislator enters into omnipotence. Now it is for him to initiate, to direct, to propel, and to organize.”[ix]

As well as being arrogant, socialists were also deeply misguided, argued Bastiat, because they confused society with the State, and altruism with collectivism. As a result, he predicted, their economic programme would only undermine the spirit of true fraternity and impoverish society, since moral and social progress depended on individual creativity and voluntary co-operation, not government planning and coercion. “ When law and force keep a person within the bounds of justice, they impose nothing but a mere negation” declared Bastiat. “They oblige him only to abstain from harming others. They violate neither his personality, his liberty, nor his property. They safeguard all of these…But when the law, by means of its necessary agent, force [i.e. the State], imposes upon men a regulation of labour, a method or a subject of education, a religious faith or creed – then the law is no longer negative; it acts positively upon the people. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own wills; the initiative of the legislator for their own initiatives. When this happens, the people no longer need to discuss, to compare, to plan ahead; the law does all this for them. Intelligence becomes a useless prop for the people; they cease to be men; they lose their personality, their liberty, their property.” For these reasons, concluded Bastiat, “We repudiate forced fraternity, not true fraternity.”[x]

Finally, Bastiat pointed out, by concentrating all resources and decision-making in the State, socialism only offered a recipe for permanent social conflict and revolution, since it would arouse expectations that could never be satisfied, and encourage everyone to live at each other’s expense through the tax and benefit system. “As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose – that it may violate property instead of protecting it – then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder…Good fortune and bad fortune, wealth and destitution, equality and inequality, virtue and vice – all then depend upon political administration. It is burdened with everything, it undertakes everything, it does everything; therefore it is responsible for everything…Is it surprising, then, that every failure increases the threat of another revolution in France?”[xi]

The second generation of anti-socialist critics

The intellectual assault on socialism mounted by Bastiat, Mazzini and Mill in the middle of the 19th century, was renewed by the next generation of classical liberal thinkers in response to the rapid growth of socialist militancy throughout Europe during the 1880s and 1890s. During this period, four of its leading figures in Britain: Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903), Charles Bradlaugh (1833 – 1891), Auberon Herbert (1838 – 1906), and William H. Lecky (1838 – 1903), condemned socialism with prophetic insight and unsparing severity. Three of them, Herbert, Lecky and Spencer, also linked their attack on socialism to a more general critique of the State, warning of the corrupting consequences for democracy of the growing contemporary trend towards big government and State welfare.

“We object that the organisation of all industry under State control must paralyse industrial energy and discourage and neutralise individual effort,” wrote Bradlaugh in 1884.[xii] Lecky agreed with him. “The desire of each man to improve his circumstances, to reap the full reward of superior talent, or energy, or thrift,” he wrote in 1896, “ is the very mainspring of the production of the world. Take these motives away…cut off all the hopes that stimulate, among ordinary men, ambition, enterprise, invention, and self-sacrifice, and the whole level of production will rapidly and inevitably sink.”[xiii]

The destructive economic consequences of government ownership and control of all farms and businesses, added Lecky, were not only due to the removal of all personal incentives to innovation and wealth creation. They also flowed from the fact that because of their bureaucratic training and mentality, government officials lacked the necessary skills and reflexes to engage successfully in trade and commerce. Obeying orders and observing administrative routines and procedures did not encourage or leave much scope for personal flexibility and initiative. To quote Lecky: “The tact and foresight which anticipate changes in the course and conditions of commerce or fashion; the promptitude which seizes the happy moment for contracting or expanding supply, meeting half-disclosed wants, and giving to enterprise new direction and impulses; the rare combination of daring, caution, and insight by which alone these great forms of industry can succeed, will never be found in routine-ridden Government officials.”[xiv] For these reasons, concluded Lecky, the attempt to convert the State “into a gigantic shopkeeper, or storekeeper, or manufacturer, providing for the vast and ever-changing variety of human wants and tastes,” was “hopeless.”[xv]

This has certainly proved to be the case in the 20th century. Wherever you look, the failure of nationalisation and central planning has been universal and disastrous, as anyone who reads David Osterfeld’s article, ‘Socialism and Incentives’ (The Freeman, November 1986), Clarence B. Carson’s study, Basic Communism (American Textbook Committee, 1990), or Kevin Williamson’s book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism (Regnery, USA, 2011), can see for themselves. Tibor Szamuely’s aforementioned pamphlet, Socialism and Liberty, is especially valuable on this subject because in the case of Russia, he reveals the extent to which communism reversed the rapid economic progress of the last two decades of the pre-revolutionary period. Professor Richard L. Walker’s 1971 U.S. Senate Report on The Human Cost of Communism in China (published by the ACU Education and Research Institute, Washington D.C. 1977), provides equally detailed evidence of the dreadful economic and political price exacted by revolutionary socialism in the world’s most populous country. On the other side of the Atlantic, British scholar, John Marks, has provided a similarly compelling and comprehensive account of the economic and social failure of communism in his book, Fried Snowballs, (Claridge Press, London) published appropriately in 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Bradlaugh and Lecky’s objections to socialism were not, of course, confined to its material destructiveness. They too, like their classical liberal predecessors, perceived its hostility to freedom and the family. “If the establishment of a Socialistic State be conceived possible,” said Bradlaugh, “ it is certainly not possible to imagine such a State co-existing with free expression of individual opinion, either on platform or through the press. All means of publicity in a Socialistic State will belong to and will be controlled by the State. It is not conceivable that a Socialistic government would provide halls for its adversaries to agitate for its overthrow, print books and pamphlets for its opponents to show that its methods and actions were mischievous…”[xvi] Remarkably, Bradlaugh even predicted that the successful imposition of socialism would require the ideological re-conditioning of the entire population – a phenomenon that has subsequently proved characteristic of all communist regimes, notably China before and during the Cultural Revolution, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and North Korea today. To quote his prophetic words: “But a Socialistic State, even if achieved, could not be maintained without a second (mental) revolution, in which the present ideas and forms of expression concerning property would have to be effaced, and the habit of life (resulting from long-continued teachings and long-enduring traditions) would have to be broken. The words ‘my house,’ ‘my coat,’ ‘my horse,’ ‘my watch,’ ‘my book,’ are all affirmations of private property which would have to be unlearned. The whole current of human thought would have to be changed.”[xvii]

In chapters 8 and 9 of the second volume of his wide-ranging book, Democracy and Liberty (1896), W.H. Lecky showed the same prophetic discernment in his analysis of socialism as Bradlaugh, but with the added advantage of covering more ground at greater depth. His treatment of socialism included a detailed historical survey of the rise of socialist ideas and organisations in Britain and Europe, as well as a penetrating analysis of industrial relations, the trade union movement, and the changing conditions of the working class. In the course of his extensive examination of socialist ideas and movements, Lecky exposed Marx’s theoretical errors and misconceptions, and demonstrated the empirical falsity of all his predictions about the growing misery and impoverishment of the workers under capitalism. Above all, however, he emphasised the illiberal and reactionary nature of socialism.

In a section, for example, describing the activities of the First International (1864 – 1876), Lecky refers approvingly to the opposition of one French delegate to the abolition of private property in land, “a policy of spoliation” adopted by the First International at its Congress in Basle in 1869. “One French representative,” wrote Lecky, “warned his fellows that the course they were taking would alienate from them the whole body of the French peasant proprietors, and that it was the opposition of this class that crushed the Republic of 1848. He added, that the only result of a collective ownership of the soil would be that the whole rural population would become a population of serfs, performing forced labour at the command of the agents of the State, and that they would gain nothing in material wellbeing that could compensate them for the total destruction of their liberty.”[xviii]

How often and how terribly has that prophecy been fulfilled in Europe, Asia, Africa and Central America. Whether in Russia or China, Cuba or Mozambique, Vietnam or Nicaragua[xix], Rumania or Ethiopia, every socialist revolution between 1917 and 1990 has treated its farmers and peasants like cattle, stealing their land, confiscating their produce, herding them into collectives, and reducing their numbers through mass slaughter and starvation. And this is not simply a matter of past history. The same pattern has, with some variation, repeated itself more recently in present-day Zimbabwe, under the murderous dictatorship of Robert Mugabe.

Socialism’s hostility to religion, morality and the family

Lecky’s clearsighted recognition of the totalitarian character of socialism was reinforced by his awareness of its inherent hostility to traditional religion, morality and the family. As he saw it, allegiance to God, belief in absolute moral standards, and respect for private property and the family, were so inextricably intertwined, their continued existence could not be reconciled with the establishment of a full-blooded socialist system. They erected barriers against the absolute authority and claims of the State. It was therefore understandable, in Lecky’s view, that most European socialists were militant atheists and sexual revolutionaries. Whereas “many English Socialists treat questions of religion and marriage as wholly extraneous to their theory,” he observed, “In the opinion of Marx, and of the great body of continental Socialists, they are intimately, and, indeed, necessarily connected with it. In my own judgment, the continental view is the more just. It is perfectly true that marriage and the family form the tap root out of which the whole system of hereditary property grows, and that it would be utterly impossible permanently to extirpate heredity unless family stability and family affection were annihilated. It is not less true that a system which preaches the most wholesale and undisguised robbery will never approve itself to the masses of men, unless all the foundations and sanctions of morality have been effectually destroyed. The sense of right and wrong must be blotted out of the minds of men before the new doctrine can triumph.”[xx]

Lecky’s tragically vindicated anticipation of the horrors of socialist revolution in the 20th century, including its persecution of religious believers, is not the only issue about which he showed himself to be a true prophet of our times. He was equally perceptive about the growing danger, already visible in his day, that the advance of democracy would have an increasing tendency to corrupt representative government and undermine liberty. As more and more people obtained the vote, he argued, the temptation to use the power of the State to advance sectional interests at the expense of unpopular minorities (or the nation as a whole) would become irresistible. This in turn would encourage ambitious politicians to use the coercive arm of government to bribe voters and placate powerful lobbies.

“ Growing democracy,” he said, “had weakened the connection between property and taxing power, and had made it easy for a majority of voters to throw the burden of the taxation they voted, upon other shoulders than their own.”[xxi] The growth of State employment, and socialist influence within the trade unions, further aggravated this problem, because it created an ever larger popular constituency in favour of big government and pork-barrel politics. “Where democracy reigns,” explained Lecky, “few things are more to be feared than a great increase in the number of those who are in the direct employment of the State and the municipality. If a dominant proportion of the voters in each constituency are in the pay of one or other of those bodies, it is idle to suppose that the relations between the representative and his electors can long be kept distinct from the relations between the employer and the employed. The temptation of the representatives to use public money and public works as a means of electioneering, and the temptation of the electors to use their political power as a means of obtaining trade advantages for themselves, will soon become irresistible, and the floodgates of corruption will be opened.”[xxii]

If, as Lecky pointed out in his chapter on ‘Labour Questions,’ this process of corruption had already become notorious within nineteenth century America’s cities and municipalities, and had begun to rear its ugly head in Britain’s “dockyard towns” in the 1890s, how much worse has that problem become in our present century! The politics of nearly all western democracies are now bedevilled by the fact that large sections of their electorates either work for the State at national or municipal level, or are dependent for much of their livelihood on municipal housing and government-provided welfare. This not only favours the political fortunes and interventionist policies of socialist parties and pressure groups; it also means that attempts to roll back the State and reduce government spending always encounter powerful resistance, especially at regional and local level, and during economic recessions.

Herbert Spencer’s analysis of socialism, democracy and the State, developed the same critical themes as Lecky’s. In an eloquent essay revealingly entitled, ‘The Sins of Legislators’, one of four essays making up his 1884 book,  The Man versus the State, Spencer underlined the contrast between the creative dynamism of civil society, and the incompetence and destructiveness of government down the ages. It was creative individuals and families, wishing to better their condition and lead fuller and happier lives, he argued, who were responsible for the inventions and advances that constitute human progress. It was they who had first tamed the wilderness, developed agriculture, built homes, and engaged in trade. And whilst governments had occasionally furthered this process by discharging their proper function of maintaining law and order, they had all too often hindered it and reversed the tide of progress through tyranny, wars and extortionate taxation.

“It is not to the State,” declared Spencer, “that we owe the multitudinous useful inventions from the spade to the telephone; it was not the State which made possible extended navigation by a developed astronomy; it was not the State which made the discoveries in physics, chemistry, and the rest, which guide modern manufacturers; it was not the State which devised the machinery for producing fabrics of every kind, for transferring men and things from place to place, and for ministering in a thousand ways to our comforts. The worldwide transactions conducted in merchants’ offices, the rush of traffic filling our streets, the retail distributing system which brings everything within easy reach and delivers the necessaries of life daily at our doors, are not of governmental origin. All these are results of the spontaneous activities of citizens, separate or grouped.”[xxiii]

The socialist belief that government should be the principal engine of social progress, continued Spencer, was therefore not only economically and historically illiterate, but positively dangerous. Modern industrial societies, with their multitudinous activities, could function efficiently and harmoniously, he explained, because the needs and desires of their millions of inhabitants were satisfied and co-ordinated by thousands of independent shops and businesses. Supply and demand, for countless products and services, were constantly brought into balance through voluntary co-operation and the profit motive, operating within a competitive free enterprise system based on private property. This meant, concluded Spencer, that central planning was unnecessary and freedom could prevail. If, however, this system were to be replaced by a government planned and controlled economy, it would require the creation of a huge and all-powerful army of State officials to supervise and control the population at large. And the inevitable result of that, warned Spencer, would be the destruction of liberty.

“Imagine,” he wrote, “ the vast administration required for that distribution of all commodities to all people in every city, town and village, which is now effected by traders! Imagine, again, the still more vast administration required for doing all that farmers, manufacturers, and merchants do; having not only its various orders of local superintendents, but its sub-centres and chief centres needed for apportioning the quantities of each thing everywhere needed, and the adjustment of them to the requisite times. Then add the staffs wanted for working mines, railways, roads, canals; the staffs required for conducting the importing and exporting businesses and the administration of mercantile shipping…Imagine all this and then ask what will be the position of the actual workers! Already, on the continent, where governmental organisations are more elaborate and coercive than here, there are chronic complaints of the tyranny of the bureaucracies – the hauteur and brutality of their members. What will these become when not only the more public actions of citizens are controlled, but there is added this far more extensive control of all their respective daily duties? What will happen when the various divisions of this vast army of officials, united by interests common to officialism – the interests of the regulators versus those of the regulated – have at their command whatever force is needful to suppress insubordination and act as ‘saviours of society’?”[xxiv]

Spencer’s realism about human nature and society

As this passage suggests, Spencer’s forebodings about socialism and the growing tendency of modern democracies to enlarge the powers and functions of government, were not merely rooted in his awareness of the monopolistic and coercive nature of the State. They were also based on his realistic view of human nature, reinforced by his knowledge of history. For instance, in his essay, ‘From Freedom to Bondage’, originally published in 1891 but included in the current Liberty Fund edition of The Man versus the State, Spencer does not emerge as an uncritical supporter of laissez-faire capitalism. He agreed that there was much to complain about in contemporary Victorian society, like poverty, class divisions, and commercial dishonesty. But unlike so many of his reform-minded contemporaries, and the politically correct leftists of our own day, Spencer did not suffer from the utopian illusion that all social problems have a solution, or are best dealt with through new government legislation. Instead, his writings are full of warnings about the harmful unintended consequences of government action, and the persistent tendency of all human institutions to deteriorate owing to the inherent corruptibility of human nature. ‘From Freedom to Bondage’, for example, drew attention to the potential significance for the socialist future of the ruthlessness and selfishness then to be found within existing trade unions.

“Instead of the selfishness of the employing classes and the selfishness of competition,” wrote Spencer, “we are to have the unselfishness of a mutually-aiding system. How far is this unselfishness now shown in the behaviour of working men to one another? What shall we say to the rules limiting the numbers of new hands admitted into each trade, or to the rules which hinder ascent from inferior classes of workers to superior classes? One does not see in such regulations any of that altruism by which socialism is to be pervaded. Contrariwise, one sees a pursuit of private interests no less keen than among traders. Hence, unless we suppose that men’s natures will be suddenly exalted, we must conclude that the pursuit of private interests will sway the doings of all the component classes in a socialistic society.”[xxv]

In ‘The Coming Slavery,’ the second essay in The Man versus the State, Spencer’s realism about human behaviour and socialism anticipated some of the key findings of ‘public choice theory’ -  one of the most important branches of modern economics and political science. In one striking passage, for instance, he explained how difficult it is for any democratic electorate to arrest the expansion of State bureaucracy, and the extension of its powers, once it has grown beyond a certain size. “A comparatively small body of officials, coherent, having common interests, and acting under central authority, has an immense advantage over an incoherent public which has no settled policy, and can be brought to act unitedly only under strong provocation. Hence an organisation of officials, once passing a certain stage of growth, becomes less and less resistible; as we see in the bureaucracies of the Continent.”[xxvi]

In addition to this, Spencer pointed out, there were other equally compelling forces at work encouraging the spread of government regulation and interference beyond its originally prescribed limits. One of these was the constant need to introduce new measures to correct the unforeseen damage inflicted by earlier legislation. Another was the ever increasing prejudice in favour of State intervention derived from past precedents. Thus the more people relied upon government to solve all their problems and deal with every crisis, the more they would favour its continued growth and involvement in every aspect of their lives. Even worse, wrote Spencer, “The multiplication of careers opened by a developing bureaucracy, tempts members of the classes regulated by it to favour its extension, as adding to the chances of safe and respectable places for their relatives. The people at large, led to look on benefits received through public agencies as gratis benefits, have their hopes continually excited by the prospects of more. A spreading education, furthering the diffusion of pleasing errors rather than of stern truths, renders such hopes both stronger and more general. Worse still, such hopes are ministered to by candidates for public choice, to augment their chances of success; and leading statesmen, in pursuit of party ends, bid for popular favour by countenancing them.”[xxvii]

Can anyone deny the relevance of these prophetic insights to modern democratic politics? Are we not constantly deluged by new laws and regulations, demands for more government action, and endless promises of a better tomorrow, usually at the taxpayer’s expense?

Spencer’s contemporary and follower, Auberon Herbert, would not have been surprised by these developments. He not only anticipated them, as well as the advent of modern totalitarianism. He was also especially prescient about the moral and psychological destructiveness of State coercion and government social engineering.

In The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and other essays, (Liberty Fund, 1978),  a collection of his lectures and writings between 1880 and 1906, Herbert developed a passionately eloquent case against all attempts to use the power of the State to do good or reform society. Believing that every individual is the sole legitimate owner of his own person, and therefore has a ‘natural right’ to the product of his labour, Herbert argued that there was no justification for the State to seize his property in order to force him to contribute to the relief of the poor. Whilst he agreed that it was morally desirable that individuals should help one another and be ever ready to pool their resources for the common good, he insisted that genuine altruism and true community could only flow from voluntary co-operation and freely directed personal effort. Government coercion, by contrast, however good the cause invoked to justify it, necessarily violated the individual’s right to self-ownership, as well as inhibiting his creativity and moral growth. Human beings, Herbert explained, needed to be free to set their own goals and learn from their own mistakes if they were to grow and develop as moral agents. To subject their wills, instead, to State compulsion, was therefore a reprehensible step. It sapped personal motivation, discouraged self-reliance, and frustrated personal enterprise. Even worse, argued Herbert, it had a positively corrupting effect on the whole of society, because it encouraged its individual members to disregard each other’s rights and interests in the competitive pursuit of power, blunting their feelings of solidarity and their sense of moral obligation.

Harmful effect of power on character and intelligence

“If you wish to know how power spoils character and narrows intelligence,” he wrote, “look at the great military empires; their steady perseverance in the roads that lead to ruin; their dread of free thought and of liberty in all its forms; look at the sharp repressions, the excessive punishments, the love of secrecy, the attempt to drill a whole nation into obedience, and to use the drilled and subject thing for every passing vanity and aggrandizement of those who govern. Look also at the great administrative systems. See how men under them become helpless and dispirited, incapable of free effort and self-protection, at one moment sunk in apathy, at another moment ready for revolution. Do you wonder that it is so? Is it wonderful that when you replace the will and intelligence and self-guidance of the individual by systems of vast machinery, that men should gradually lose all the better and higher parts of their nature – for of what use to them is that better and higher part, when they may not exercise it? Ought we to feel surprise, when we see them become like overrestrained children, peevish, discontented and quarrelsome, unable to control and direct themselves, and ever loud in their complaints that enough cake and jam do not fall to their share?”[xxviii]

As this extract makes clear, Herbert’s analysis of the moral corruption engendered by absolute power was supported, in his view, by solid historical evidence. Perhaps he was thinking of the Roman and Ottoman empires or of Napoleonic France. But whatever examples he had in mind, how much truer do his words seem today as we look back on the experience of fascism and communism. Are they not equally applicable to all the post-colonial revolutions and dictatorships that have so blighted the Third World since 1945?

The prophetic quality of Herbert’s writings is again apparent when we read what he, like Spencer, had to say about socialism. “Have you ever carefully thought out what life would be like under the schemes of the socialist party, who offer us the final, the logical completion of all systems of force? Try to picture the huge overweighted groaning machine of government; the men who direct it vainly, miserably struggling with their impossible task of managing everything, driven for the sake of their universal system to extinguish all differences of thought and action, allowing no man to possess his own faculties, or to enjoy the fruit that he has won by their exercise, to call land or house or home his own, allowing no man to do a day’s work for another, or to sell or buy on his own account, denying to all men the ownership and possession of either body or mind, necessarily intolerant…of every form of free thought and free enterprise, trembling at the very shadow of liberty…”[xxix]

The warning voice of classical liberalism, protesting against the growing contemporary trend towards collectivism, was not confined to Europe in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. It also made itself heard on the other side of the Atlantic through the lectures and writings of Yale scholar and sociologist, William Graham Sumner (1840 – 1910). Like Auberon Herbert, an admirer of Spencer, Sumner was similar to both men in his realism about human nature and the State, and the totalitarian logic of socialism.

For instance, in his essay on ‘Socialism’ written in 1880, Sumner anticipated Lecky’s argument that the socialist pursuit of material equality would end up destroying both freedom and the family. “The love of children,” he pointed out, “is an instinct which, as I have said before, grows stronger with advancing civilization. All attacks on capital have, up to this time, been shipwrecked on this instinct. Consequently the most rigorous and logical socialists have always been led sooner or later to attack the family. For, if bequest should be abolished, parents would give their property to their children in their own life-time; and so it becomes a logical necessity to substitute some sort of communistic or socialistic life for family life, and to educate children in masses without the tie of parentage. Every socialistic theory which has been pursued energetically has led out to this consequence. I will not follow up this topic, but it is plain to see that the only equality which could be reached on this course would be that men should be all equal to each other when they were all equal to swine.”[xxx]

Sumner’s perceptiveness about conflict between liberty and democracy

Sumner was as perceptive about the potential conflict between liberty and democracy, as he was about the despotic tendencies of socialism. Coming, like Spencer, from a Christian family background, it is arguable that both men were influenced in their thinking by the biblical doctrine that man is a fallen creature. But whether or not this was really the case, they certainly had no illusions about human motivation and behaviour in relation to politics and the State. Like Spencer, Herbert, Lecky and Bastiat, Sumner was all too aware of the vulnerability of human nature to the corruption of power. He, too, saw the danger that as democracy developed, the voting majority, particularly those in the public sector, would inevitably be tempted to use the power of government to obtain material benefits for themselves at the expense of wealthy minorities and the taxpayer. Looking to the future, therefore, he asked the question: “Can the State find anywhere power to repel all the special interests and keep uppermost the one general interest or the welfare of all? Will the State itself degenerate into the instrument of an attack on property, and will it cripple wealth-making or will the wealth-making interest, threatened by the State, rise up to master it, corrupt it, and use it? This is the alternative which the twentieth century must meet.”[xxxi]

Sadly, we now know the answer to Sumner’s question. Under socialist regimes, the State has been a relentless instrument of plunder and the biggest single obstacle to wealth-creation and economic growth. Elsewhere, especially in Latin America and the Middle East, under both feudal monarchies and so-called ‘right-wing’ military dictatorships, government and the economy have been dominated by traditional aristocracies of rich landowners and businessmen, allied to ambitious and successful generals. In all these cases, however, the lesson has been the same: the State has signally failed to “keep uppermost the one general interest or the welfare of all” – to use Sumner’s telling phrase.

In our modern liberal democracies, by contrast, it could be argued that a free press and an independent judiciary have acted as a check on the ability of sectional interests to manipulate the political process for their own purposes. But as modern ‘public choice’ theory has abundantly proved, their success in this regard has been limited. The expansion of both government employment and government intervention in the economy has, as the classical liberals warned it would, created powerful vested interests against which the ordinary voter and citizen tends to battle in vain. This is because the involvement of the modern State in so many areas of our lives creates endless opportunities and incentives for special interests to get into bed with politicians for their mutually selfish ends. Whether this involves ‘right-wing’ business groups or ‘left-wing’ unions and public sector workers, is a secondary issue. The general welfare still suffers because of the failure to keep the powers and functions of government within strict limits.

The corruption of democracy by special interests is, of course, facilitated by the widespead and popular belief that the State can create jobs and increase people’s incomes by printing money and increasing government spending. But as the nineteenth century classical liberals repeatedly pointed out, especially Bastiat, the State has no real resources of its own. It can only spend what it has stolen from the people through taxation or inflation. Sumner, for example, was particularly eloquent on this subject, referring to the ordinary plundered citizen as the ‘Forgotten Man’ ignored by politicians.

“Wealth comes only from production,” he reminded his contemporaries, “and all that the wrangling grabbers, loafers, and jobbers get to deal with comes from somebody’s toil and sacrifice…The Forgotten Man is delving away in patient industry, supporting his family, paying his taxes, casting his vote, supporting the church and the school, reading his newspaper, and cheering for the politician of his admiration, but he is the only one for whom there is no provision in the great scramble and the big divide.”[xxxii]

The future of freedom is never secure

As this final quote from Sumner confirms, the great nineteenth classical liberals have proved to be true prophets. Their warnings about socialism and the growth of the State, and the potential conflict between liberty and democracy, have all been sadly vindicated. But what about the future? Will the lessons they have taught us be heeded? Is the cause of freedom on an upward path?

These remain urgent questions despite the fall of Soviet communism and its empire 20 years ago. Totalitarian communist parties still remain in power in China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea. “Despite economic liberalisation, the Chinese communists have killed an estimated 1 million people for political reasons since 1976 [and] the laogai prison system [the Chinese gulag] still operates today with about 1,000 camps.” (‘Communism’, The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, p.83). Elsewhere, Islamism threatens to spread its particular brand of theocratic tyranny throughout the Middle East and central Asia, and according to Freedom House surveys, around half the world’s population live under dictatorships of one sort or another. As for our western democracies, there seems no end to the growth of the regulatory and politically correct ‘Nanny State’, despite its wastefulness and incompetence, and the whole movement towards supranationalism, in all its various manifestations – from the European Union to the United Nations and its agencies – threatens a further and dangerous centralisation of power.

If, then, we are to preserve what remains of our liberties, let alone extend them, we must heed the warnings that they are never secure, but must be fought for anew in every generation.

[i] For details & sources see: Philip Vander Elst, Idealism Without Illusions: a foreign policy for freedom, (Freedom Association, England, 1989, pp.29 & 49).

[ii] Warning To The Western World, (The Bodley Head & BBC, p.43).

[iii] Socialism and Liberty, (Aims for Freedom and Enterprise, London, England, 1977, p.6).

[iv] On Liberty And Other Essays, (Oxford University Press, 1991, pp.122 – 123).

[v] Socialism and Liberty, p.6.

[vi] Solzhenitsyn: The Voice of Freedom, (AFL-CIO, 1975, p.7).

[vii] The Duties of Man, (Everyman’s Library, J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1961, p.106).

[viii] Op cit, p.107.

[ix] The Law, (Foundation for Economic Education, USA, 1974, p.59).

[x] Op cit, pp.28 – 29, and p.32.

[xi] Op cit, pp.18, 65, 66.

[xii] ‘Some Objections to Socialism’, p.102, A Selection of the Political Pamphlets of Charles Bradlaugh, (Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, New York, 1970).

[xiii] Democracy and Liberty, (Volume 2, Liberty Press, Indianapolis, 1981, p.310).

[xiv] Op cit, pp.339 – 340.

[xv] Op cit, 339.

[xvi] ‘Socialism: its fallacies and dangers’, 1887, p.12, op cit.

[xvii] ‘Some Objections to Socialism,’ p.105, op cit.

[xviii] Democracy and Liberty, (Volume 2, pp.252 – 253).

[xix] See: Paul Staines, In the Grip of the Sandinistas: human rights in Nicaragua 1979 – 1989, (London: International Society for Human Rights – British Section, July 1989).

[xx] Democracy and Liberty, (Volume 2, pp.295 – 296).

[xxi] Op cit, 319.

[xxii] Op cit, p.338.

[xxiii] The Man versus the State, (Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 1982, p.101).

[xxiv] Op cit, pp.507 – 508.

[xxv] Op cit, pp.511 – 512.

[xxvi] Op cit, pp.47 – 48.

[xxvii] Op cit, p.54.

[xxviii] ‘A Plea for Voluntaryism’, Op cit, p.320.

[xxix] Op cit, pp.341-342.

[xxx] On Liberty, Society and Politics: the essential essays of William Graham Sumner, (Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 1992, p.176).

[xxxi] Op cit, p.380.

[xxxii] Op cit, p.219.

Profile photo of Philip Vander Elst

Philip Vander Elst is a freelance writer, lecturer and C.S. Lewis scholar, and a former editor of Freedom Today. After graduating from Oxford in 1973, with a degree in politics and philosophy, he spent more than 30 years in politics and journalism, serving in free market think-tanks like the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute of Economic Affairs, and writing for Conservative papers on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator, Human Events, and the American Spectator.

More in Articles


Government Medical “Insurance”

Murray N. RothbardAugust 31, 2016

Socialists Are Scarcity Deniers

Jeffrey TuckerAugust 29, 2016

The inflation conundrum

Emile WoolfAugust 26, 2016

Ends and Values and the Law of Marginal Utility

Murray N. RothbardAugust 25, 2016

Quest for a Tinfoil Hat Utopia

Roger ToutantAugust 24, 2016

Work or Die

Doug FrenchAugust 23, 2016

Investment that Raises the Demand for Capital

F.A. HayekAugust 22, 2016

The importance of interest rates

Emile WoolfAugust 18, 2016
Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 9.15.09 AM

Hedging against inflationary money

Thorsten PolleitAugust 18, 2016