I have something of a fascination with history, especially at the moment with the Victorian era and period immediately preceding it because, as I’ve mentioned in various blogs and comments (more comments than blogs) I think it’s this era, and the social forces active in it, that we need to understand in order to in turn understand how we got here today. With reference to the earlier post on anarcho-capitalism and minarchy, one assumption we libertarians make is that States always, inexorably grow unbounded. While it’s certainly true that that often seems to happen, I’m beginning to be a little less certain in my own mind that it’s some kind of law of the Universe.
Historically, governments, even those of large empires, generally didn’t show the type of frantic bloat that they have recently. Prior to the nineteenth century, governments generally did little more than run the armed forces and make a few aristocrats comfortable- defence spending was well over 90% of the budget, whereas now it’s generally around 5% (the USA is a bit of an outlier there). If we draw a graph of the growth of States over, say, the last 1000 years, we get something of a hockey stick. If we go back to ancient times we certainly can’t describe for instance Ancient Rome as a “minarchy”; besides the massive armed forces it handed out the dole of grain, and spent lots of tax money on public buildings, but we don’t see this strange urge to expand into every area of life with, I dunno, a Wine Safety Authority and a Amphitheatre Planning Quango and so on. And in general, when we look at pre-modern states (up to the end of the C18) we do see the occasional making of “social laws” but generally on an as-needed basis to respond to particular perceived problems; rather than the organised, constant pressure and frantic legislative paper chase of today’s States.
So to me it’s worth exploring what happened in the times leading up to the Age Of Bloat and, if we see that some specific thing happened, it might give us some hope- as minarchists or anarchists or what have you- that different political structures, if their citizens have a different understanding of life, might not inexorably create States that bloat. They may even manage some form of “anarchy”. That is, we maybe shouldn’t presume that the processes we see today are inevitable or universal.
So on and off I keep reading up about Victorian England, and the progressivist social movements, and the problems they set themselves to solving, and the state of the poor and society in general. Of course, the progressives were, and always are, very big on solving “poverty” and the solution demanded is always, of course, State action. Which in a roundabout way brings me to the Old Nichol.
The Old Nichol was a notorious London slum. It was widely considered to be by a long neck the worst in London. Infant death rates were twice those of surrounding slums, and four times the average. Conditions were appalling, with families crammed into one or two rooms, negligible sanitation, all the usual stuff you get in a BBC documentary about how socialism saved us from the Bad Old Days. But here’s something interesting, in a review of a book about it-
What [the author's] account unexpectedly brings out is the pride and self-respect of the Old Nichol’s residents. They did not think of themselves as slum- dwellers but as people. [...] Even the poorest took out insurance to cover their funerals if they possibly could, since being buried in a pauper’s grave was considered shameful. A greater disgrace was to be forced to go into the workhouse. Most people would rather have starved. Some did. The Bethnal Green coroner’s court regularly heard cases of death from starvation. We tend to associate poverty with unemployment and dependence. But the list of occupations that were carried on within the Old Nichol’s cramped confines reads like a Victorian trade directory. There were furniture makers, satin weavers, cats’-meat sellers, ivory turners, french polishers, watercress hawkers, cobblers, omnibus-washers and dozens more. [...] Despite or because of the misery, every chance of pleasure was grasped. Social investigators noted that spontaneous dancing would break out in the streets whenever an organ grinder, or just a man with a mouth-organ, was heard. Men, women and children, sometimes barefoot, would dance in couples or holding hands in a ring.
It was their resilience that made the Old Nichol-ites such a headache for progressives. They simply would not believe that others knew what was good for them better than they did themselves. Anarchists and socialists strove in vain to raise some spark of political awareness among them. One dispirited revolutionary reported that it was like trying to tickle an elephant with a straw.
So, what happened to the Old Nichol? After a vigorous campaign by upper class do-gooders, it was demolished and the country’s first council housing- The Boundary Estate- replaced it. But only 11 of the over 5000 Old Nicholites moved into the new council flats. Not allowed their old population density, they couldn’t afford the rents and, the council regulations meant they couldn’t carry on their trades- essential to these people who were not just poor but working poor. Instead, they simply had to move on to other slums in Dalston and Bethnal Green. The State action hadn’t helped the poor, just forced them somewhere else.
I think that one of the narrative themes of the progressive era that spawned our modern state is the deliberate smashing of the poor and, in particular, of the “petty capitalism” that sustained them. One of the things I get from reading through the hugely influential London Labour And The London Poor by the reformist activist Henry Mayhew is a horror of the poor, as he describes the costermongers and hawkers and small underclass production businesses which sustained them. The poor had to be done away with and replaced with something more acceptable to higher class tastes and, by all kinds of social activism and regulation they were, to a large extent, done away with as, their petty capitalism squeezed out by the State, they were dragooned into a compliant workforce for factories run by bewhiskered, interfering philanthropists who voted for Victorian Nick Cleggs. And in the end, they all got their council flats and a better wage, and all they had to give in return was their spirit.
Now don’t think this is some kind of hymn of praise for the slums. They were ghastly, and nobody wants them back. But the Victorian Era was the most difficult era for free markets- when the howling mass poverty that had dogged the mass of humanity for all history was starting to lift due to, for the first time ever, a steady, sustained increase in human productive capacity. There was bound to be such a dark period for a civilisation moving from low production agrarianism to urbanised industrialism (since there were no more advanced countries around and about whose technologies could offer a shortcut, as we can to the inhabitants of poor countries today). That poverty created a breeding ground for the reformists who, even if they could not get the peoples’ compliance, could use the mere existence of those people as leverage to Get Something Done, even if that Something was throwing ungrateful poor people out of their homes.
If we had made it through that bear trap of a period, the poverty would have gone anyway, without the social handouts and millions trapped on welfare. And we’d still be a nation of proud individualists, like those people of the Old Nichol, instead of being a nation who look to the State to fix every little damned problem we perceive.