I am a minimal state libertarian (indeed someone with “Tory Anarchist” tendencies – i.e. that in a ideal world, the world is not ideal, I would not like to see a total end to the use of aggressive force stealing the property of people and ordering them about with threats), and like many liberatarians (minimal state “minarchist” or anarchist “anarchocapitalist”) I am used to sneering at limited state folk.
“Contrary to F.A. Hayek it is the limited state, not the minimal state, that can not be clearly defined – limited to WHAT EXACTLY?”
“The minimal state (whether possible or not in practice) is at least a clear principle – only use state violence to counter other violence. What is the clear principle of the limited state?”
“Once you have accepted that the state is more than a sword (i.e. can do nice things for people – not just be force) then you open the door to ever more government – look at the history of the modern world…..”
And on and on – with philosophical (to use force other than to counter force is evil), economic (government interventions have higher, even if hidden, costs than benefits) and political/historic (once you get away from a clear principle of what the state must be confined to you open the door to ever bigger government) arguments.
Thus the limited state position is shown to be utterly absurd – surely only fools could be limited state people (rather than minimal state or no state folk).
However, in history very many pro liberty people were limited state people – and they were not fools. Indeed, for example, the great figures of the later part of the Scottish Enlightenment (not just Adam Smith – but also, for example, Dugald Stewart, the great teacher of so many liberty supporting British public figures) were limited state, not minimal state people.
Indeed a large faction of the American Republican party has been fundementally misunderstood by libertarians – people like Thomas Dewey (the once famous Governor of New York) regarded themselves as frugal and in favour of sound finance (they were not corrupt RINO types) yet they believed in active (although limited) government based on “scientific principles” (i.e. not the corrupt unlimited government of the New Dealers or of statist Republicans such as Nelson Rockefeller – but NOT libertarians either, and thus hard for us to understand). In this they follow, for example, the Scottish tradition (of Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart and so on) not the minimal state libertarian tradition (a tradition that sees the state, sometimes, as a useful tool for constructive progress, not the tradition of “Old Whig” Edmund Burke and so on that sees the state as a sword – and regards the idea of constructive moral, for it was Dugald Stewart not Edmund Burke who was not wildly hostile to such things as government attacks on drug use – a moderate in his theology, but the active view of the moral role of the State remained in the Church of Scotland just as the democratic ideals it partly put into practice in the 16th century to a great extent remained, or physical improvements comming from the state as absurd – the Burkeian view of both state and church being different).
Even the Constitution of the United States does NOT confine the Federal government (let alone State and local governments) to just using force to counter force. Certainly the vast majority of things that the Federal government now does are unconstitutional (the Constitution has been subverted by a corrupt academic, media and political class), but NOT all of them.
For example, the post office and post roads are clearly powers that the Congress has – if it wishes to use them. These powers are plainly in the text – and not by some oversite.
Nor were the Founding Fathers odd in this respect – I repeat that very many other pro liberty people (sincere pro liberty people – folk who would have died for liberty, and liberty as we understand it) were limited state people – not libertarians, not minarchists or anarchocapitalists.
The subject is a vast one – so I will confine myself mainly (but not totally) to the Scottish example.
The Scottish example:
In many ways Scotland in the late 18th century (and the early 19th century) was close to being a “minimal state”. For example, most parishes (even in the big city of Glasgow) did not levy a compulsory Poor Rate – relying instead on voluntary contributions. Also the much talked about Scottish education system was not as the simple books present it – by the late 18th century compulsion (i.e. forcing parents to send their children to go to school – even if they did not want to) had broken down in many areas (just as it had done in New England, even Massachusetts did not really have compulsion, until H. Mann brought it back in the mid 19th century – and then in new secular, rather than theocratic, form) and education was not “free” (although there was much help for some poor people) – and the universities were a matter of students often directly paying (or not paying) to hear certain lecturers on the basis of whether they thought they were any good or not.
So why did this wonderful state of affairs end? Why did Scotland move from (almost) a minimal state in the late 18th century, to a limited state by the mid 19th century?
Well firstly we must remember that taxes did not go up (not overall) – just as in England taxes (all taxes as a proportion of total economic activity) were lower in the late 19th century than had been in the early 19th century (the low tax/spend point for England, at least in areas that did not at once establish an Education Board after the Act of 1870 – is the year 1874, but taxes remained low for decades after this).
Why? Two reasons.
Firstly current war – the wars of the 18th and early 19th century (especially the French Revolutionary wars) took a vastly greater share of resources than the wars of the mid to late 19th century. Partly because they were simply bigger wars – but also because of the industrial revolution transforming just how big the British economy was (the bigger the economy the smaller the share of resources may be needed to win a war). The military function is a function of both minimal states and limited states – so if war is less common (or war takes a smaller share of the economy) a limited state may actually be smaller than a minimal state.
However, also the way that war was financed in the 18th century must be noted. Unlike the mid to late 19th century war was largely funded by DEBT in the 18th century.
Borrowed money has to be paid back – with INTEREST. And eventually fully HALF of all national government spending (Scotland and England having the same national government and national debt) was spent on the debt.
Due to a policy of balancing the budget (when possible) the share of government spending devoted to paying interest on the national debt was only a tiny fraction of government spending by the end of the Victorian period – thus meaning there was room for government spending on other things (i.e. a move from a minimal state to a limited state) whilst government as a whole actually got SMALLER as a proportion of civil society.
However, none of the above deals with the question of WHY people wanted to move from a minimal state (or close to it) to a limited state – why they wanted government to do various things, and (and this is very important) why they thought government had been SUCCESSFUL in doing various things.
Living in the world we do (a world of endless and obvious government failures in just about everything) the limited state attitude, that government can achieve XYZ, seems absurd – but this was not the world of 19th century Scotland.
The historian Norman Stone (no leftist) described 19th century Scotland as the ultimate “Protestant society” and he was not really talking about a belief in predestination or even the priesthood of all believers (although perhaps, in a way, he is pointing at the latter). What Norman Stone means is a society based on work and honesty and the belief that one “means what one says – and does what one says one will do”. It seems a bit harsh to a High Church person like me to call hard work and honesty “Protestant” (implying that Catholics are not honest and hard working), but let that pass.
Stone often talks of a single town clerk running a vast local authority – and running it well, making sure that the steets were cleaned , the rubbish collected (and so on) and all for the lowest possible cost to the local rate payers.
To many English people this would have sounded dubious even in the 19th century – for example the liberals (including the famous free traders Richard Cobden and John Bright) promised “lower rates” would result from sweeping away the old Tory dominated Manchester Corporation and replacing it with a modern elected council under the Act of 1835.
Rates (property taxes) of course went UP. No surprise to Tory folk busy fighting “reform” in much of England (including in my home town of Kettering – where the fight went on till the Act of 1891 forced a local education board on a town that had rejected it after 1870).
However, English local government does seem to have got things done in the 19th century. True it was not always government that led the way – the basic utilities that the Liberals of Manchester thought that government “must” provide (the word “must” I take from J.S. Mill’s works – even in “On Liberty” we are told, casually and in passing, that “everyone” agrees that X,Y, Z, “must” be provided by the state) were mostly (not all) provided by private enterprise in Newcastle – and provided at least as well.
However, only it would be wrong to deny that Manchester (and so on) achieved dramatic things. To someone who lived through the transformation of Manchester from the terrible place it was (Fred Engels was not making it all up) to the decent city it became, talk of “the improvments would have happened another way – as economic growth proceeded” might have sounded hollow.
Even though I regard the methods used as terrible (not just taking money by force but, for example, taking whole areas of the county of Chesire against the will the of the people who lived there – and using the land for the needs of Manchester) I can not deny that the results were impressive (even if I admit this through gritted teeth).
And no one but a fool would call 19th Manchester “socialist” – it was dominated by private enterprise (as were all British cities) and it was part of the “workshop of the world” not a dependent dump that only produces demands for more subsidies. The arguments we libertarians use against modern statism can not just be applied in a lazy way to the much smaller statism of the 19th century.
But it was Scotland that offered the best case for the limited state point of view. Glasgow had perhaps the worst poverty in the country – with people living short lives in terrible conditions. Yet (for example) clean water was brought to Glasgow in perhaps the most impressive public works scheme since the Roman Empire – water delivered many miles through solid (and incredibly hard) rock. Could voluntary finance (charitable or commercial) really have achieved such things? We might say “yes” – but many people at the time said “no” and came to the conculsion that the alternative to state action was for people to continue to drink brown filth (and die of it).
It was the same with poor relief. Libertarians (including myself) point at the problems of government poor relief – but there seemed to be no such problems with the Scottish Poor Law of 1845. No one was FORCED into a Workhouse – but nor were large numbers of able bodied people on out relief either. And nor did either Poor Rate or POVERTY grow over time – indeed poverty shrank. The condition of the population (whilst still poor by modern standards, due to the inferior technological economic base of the time) was vastly better in (say) 1905 than it had been in 1845 – the government system seemed to work.
In education also the Scottish state education system (far more than the English state system – which, as E.G. West pointed out long ago did NOT increase the speed of the spread of literacy, and even at the time was understood to let children down in such things as the teaching of science) was considered a wonder of the world – producing generations of clear thinking people on whose inventions the modern world still depends.
Think back a century. To go to Scotland a century ago and say “government poor relief leads to a vast ever growing underclass” or “government education does not work” or “local government schemes inevitably become corrupt white elephants” (and on and on) would just have attracted laughter (as the evidence around people a century ago would seem to contradict such statements).
So, however much we may disagree with the limited government people of the past – they were not fools. They had much evidence to back their beliefs and we should not claim they did not.