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Poor People Were Libertarians, Once

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.


  1. NickM says:

    I agree. Oddly enough the BBC is showing a doc on the slums of Lagos and accentuating the positive. The trailer had a very chipper bloke who clearly was having a good time and had big plans.

    A sort of African Del Boy.

    I nearly blogged a while back about a story from the RSA. They are clearing the streets of the poor and putting them into – quite literally, no exaggeration – concentration camps to make the country look lovely for the World Cup. You know in case Wayne Rooney’s missus sees a beggar and cries or something. RSA, look to the North for Zim is where you are heading. I didn’t blog it because it outraged me so.

    I’ve read about the availability of mobile comms helping the third world’s “petty capitalists” (you can taste the righteous distain in that phrase) is doing more for the World’s really poor than anything St Bob & St Bono could even dream of.

    There is just one point I would disagree with (to a certain extent). You regard the driving force here as being moral and religious. Yes, but there were other forces. Look at some of the likes of the Quaker industrialists. Yes, there was a moral imperative but also getting the proles off the booze and able to read served their industrial ambitions very neatly. The same I’m sure can be said of a great many industrialists of the time who saw temperance movements and social housing and all this proggy stuff was seized upon by moustachio twirling capitalists as a handy wagon to jump on. A convergence of interests with the genuinely fired-up religious do-gooders assuming the role of the useful idiot.

    Now before you all start jumping-up and down and saying that sounds remarkably lefty of you Nick! It isn’t. I have seen similar happen under this government and it’s third way with it’s crony capitalism, PFIs, QUANGOS and fake charities and all that. The single greatest evil this government has carried out is a blurring of the public and private sectors to a point where distinguishing them is impossible.

    In both the Victorian and contemporary case what we have is a pretense of helping the poor which is actually entrenching vested interests and doing that is not a free market at all.

  2. Delighted to see you cranking out the posts again, Ian. Interesting post.

  3. Andrew Duffin says:

    The one thing that enabled the growth of the Leviathan State was instant communications.

    Back in the day, you couldn’t have an enormous central government meddling in every detail of your daily life, because it simply took too long and cost too much, to send a message to Whitehall to ask whether your carriage had an MOT, or whether it was legal to sell a squirrel on a Sunday, or whether the Danish fleet was actually in sight or not, and if so what specific action ought be taken to avoid them asking for asylum, etc etc.

    Absent the telephone, you simply HAD to let the local guys decide, and freedom filled the vacuum, with discretion, common sense, and self-reliance being part of the package.

    Nowadays, as Solzhenitsyn has said, if the judge (or the official) has any doubt at all as to what his masters require, he need only consult the oracle – “the shiny black telephone on his desk”, to be sure of covering his ass.

    Multiply that facility, and that mentality, a million-fold – and you have Gordon Brown.

    I don’t see any way back.

    Tragic but inevitable, I think.

  4. Peter MacFarlane says:

    And don’t forget either, that when 80% of the workforce was needed to grow food, you couldn’t have 7 million working for the state, because starvation would result.

    Now, we can afford bureaucracy, in some – financial – ways, even if not in other – spiritual and psychic – ways.

  5. Ian B says:

    Nick, I think you’re entirely right, and I alluded to that benefit to capitalists with the “dragooned into the factories” bit. I think it’s probably fair to say that the origins of the moral fervour were “honest”; people like Wesley and Wilberforce/The Clapham Sect were doing what they thought was the right thing. But it became a dogma that was enormously advantageous to elite groups in business, government etc. The same process in the States started with pietist Yankees (themselves inspired by the religious revival that had occurred in Britain) and then it was enormously appealing to the “Captains Of Industry” etc.

    Johnathan, thanks for the kind words!

  6. Hektor says:

    Contrast the shanty city of Soweto with London and I think you’ll find that the poor who live in shacks made from corruged iron are more happy than those in proper houses with more money than they know what to do with. When people talk of “the poor” they are only talking about being poor financially. What they lack in money they more than make up for in enjoyment of their lives. Just a shame that most people taking the tube to work every morning haven’t seen just how unhappy they really are.

  7. NickM says:

    “it was legal to sell a squirrel on a Sunday”

    I think you will find that New labour have made it specifically illegal to sell grey squirrels upon any day of the week. They have also made it illegal to sell Japanese knotweed and to detonate an atomic device (except during war).

    Andrew, up to a point you are right about communications but… There have been bureaucratic states before without such stuff. Think of Daoist Chinese mandarins. They couldn’t get on the horn to the Forbidden City but they didn’t need to because the local head honchos on the ground were all schooled in the same way. Think of it as a disconnected homogeneity. The Atlantic obeys the same laws of physics off the shores of Cornwall as it does off those of Maine without communication. Liquids are an example (if I recall my fluid mechanics correctly) of a locally ordered but not distance ordered state of matter. At the local level it all behaves the same wherever you are without the need for a “Water Centrol Command”.

  8. David Davis says:

    Thank you IanB, thank you, thank you, thank you! Good kind man!

    I will now die happy. This is the kind of thing I’d _/beg/_ you to write for us on the LA….

  9. Ian B says:

    Counting Cats and Nick offered me dirty women, David. It clinched the deal.

  10. Sam Duncan says:

    Excellent post, Ian. I knew you’d be back.

    Something that’s been on my mind recently, and which I’ve refrained from commenting anywhere for fear of sounding obsessive, is the Scottish Unionists’ (ie, Tories’) absolute majority of the Scottish popular vote in (off the top of my head) 1953. It’s the only time any party has ever achieved such a feat anywhere in the UK. So Scotland, the supposed socialist heartland, the “Tory-free-zone”, was once overwhelmingly Tory. And not a century ago, before universal suffrage; well within living memory. My dad voted in that election.

    But the same process that befell the Old Nichol happened all over the country, writ large, starting in the ’50s (under, ominously, a Tory government lacking the courage of its convictions, preferring, in its own words, to “manage socialism better than the socialists”), really getting into gear in the ’60s, and more or less concluding by the ’70s. Here in Glasgow, under the guise of “comprehensive redevelopment”, whole districts were flattened, their inhabitants moved wholesale to massive new estates (among the biggest in Europe) on the edge of the city. These “schemes”, as they’re known here, were famously built without shops.* The grateful socialist working class wouldn’t need commerce; Work would be provide by the benificent state. The schemes became notorious for gang violence, and being places you didn’t go if you could possibly help it; something that could be said only for the very worst areas of the slum districts they replaced (Anderston, for example – almost completely destroyed, to be replaced by the M8 motorway and its approach roads – was by all accounts no worse, no more to be avoided, than nearby Finnieston, which remains).

    What it comes down to is that the “underclass” is a creation of socialism. Whether cynically deliberate or not, by providing only for a “working class” of passive, uncreative, victims, it has made one where it didn’t exist before.

    I’m not sure you’re right about the classical world though. I’m currently reading Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit, in which he talks about the error of regarding a highly developed and powerful government as the greatest achievement of civilizations. Over and over again in history (he notes China in particular), one sees civilizations rise through trade and commerce (for example, the “relative anarchy” of medieval Europe) only to stagnate and fall through strong government. He gives the transition of the Roman republic to Empire as one example (don’t forget that the great Circuses were the classical equivalent of the BBC: vacuous entertainment provided by the State), and even describes dynastic Egypt as “state socialism”.

    It’s rather depressing to speculate that, with the rise of global governance, human civilization as a whole may be entering such a phase of stagnation.

    *In another example of the bizarre thought processes of Planners which doesn’t really fit into this argument, my mother’s family moved to one of the smaller schemes, which was built in 1955 with a coal fire in every living room.

  11. An excellent post. It reminded me of an old article in, I think, Reason, that compared being poor in the Favellas in Rio with being poor in a government project in Washington DC (or a council estate in the UK): The Favellas are a hubbab of entrepreneurial activity. Anybody who has been on holiday to developing countries knows you can’t stop your car without somebody offering you oranges or pistachios. Like the slums you mention, everybody caries out a trade, and, in fact, like an experiment in anarcho-capitalism, the favellas actually seems to have a real estate market, as, despite few people actually legally owning land there, customary rules and procedures have developed to resolve disputes over what belongs to whom.

    Meanwhile, in the projects in the US and the council estates here, everything is different: Shops close and don’t reopen, but nobody tries to sell you oranges when you pass through. People languish on state supports, waiting for somebody else to solve the local problems for them. There is no taking ownership, in the broader sense of responsibility, of either the community or each person’s predicament. There is no entrepreneurialism, no initiative, nothing that there is in the favellas, or there was in the London slums.

    I am also reminded of a book I read on poverty in the nineteenth century, especially in relation to the vast amounts of charitable giving that went on then. We libertarians often point to just how incredibly large the revenues of charities were in those days, but in doing so we miss the informal charity. We don’t count, for instance, the person who gives the neighbour a cup of sugar, for instance. It used to be typical, for instance, that if the dad over the street hadn’t been able to get work at the docks for the last couple of days, well you’d send your son over with a pot of stew for the family. That sort of informal neighbourliness was a typical part of everyday life. But as I heard somebody say on TV recently “when I was growing up, mum used to send me next door to ask to borrow some milk if we didn’t have any; nowadays I wouldn’t sned my kid next door – he’d probably get attacked by the dogs!”

  12. RAB says:

    Another cracking piece Ian, and yes welcome back. I win my bet though, I told them you wouldn’t be gone long, you are too bloody good a writer to languish in the wilderness. It’s in your blood son!
    Now then where to start, so many good comments already.

    I think this is what Blake meant by his “Dark satanic Mills”. I dont think he was against progress and industrialisation per se, but the souless dehumanising mechanical nature of it.
    The top down reformers fired by their religious convictions and belief in things either being a vice or a virtue, thought they could erradicate what they considered to be vices. Poverty was a vice, drinking and having a good time, prostitution, slum dwellings all vices. So they set about erradicating them one by one.
    This led to what is called the Protestant work ethic, which would lead to a prosperous ,sober industrious society.
    The hugely patronising schemes of the Quackers, who built Model villages for their workers (without asking them of course!) supposedly ideal conditions that the workers would be grateful to live in and work hard in their factories forevermore. But no Boozers!
    And this is the way Govt has continued, trying to solve supposed societal problems that they have no business doing. To the point where, as we are today, they are trying to order every aspect of our not only public, but private lifes as well.

    I lived in the Meadows for a while when a student in Nottingham in the early 70s. It was a white working class ghetto, it looked straight out of Saturday Night and Sunday morning starring Tom Finney. Yes the housing stock was fucked, but it had a great community. They were in the process of tearing it down and replacing the whole neighbourhood with brand spanking new housing. There we go problem solved eh?
    Well no because in the process they totally destroyed the self reliant community that existed and scattered it to the four winds.
    It is now apparently (I havent been back since the 70s) a black and immigrant ghetto. The housing stock may be ok, but the community is gone. Skunk, Crack and Smack are the enterprises of the moment, together with drive by shootings.

    Similarly my gramp grew up in a dirt poor Welsh speaking village, but it was a living community. If someone wanted help to get the harvest in, or mend a fence or dig a ditch etc then help was at hand. If someone was sick and couldn’t work, like Richard said above, the neighbours would provide food and support.

    All this has been almost eradicated by a State that in its drive to make us all equal, believing that it can micromanage our whole lives for us, has turned us into a bunch of souless empoverished unfeeling ungrateful robots, forever whining that the State must do something about every goddam thing for us, instead of standing on our own two feet and doing it for ourselves.

  13. Current says:

    In the book “Farewell to Alms” Greg Clark points out that in England the working class were decendents of the middle class. Since, it was the middle class who could afford to have many children and look after them well. So, in England at least the working class had quite middle class values in Victorian times at least. Ian’s description of working class neighbourhoods fits in with that theory.

    It also fits in with the much more controversial theory proposed by American pick-up artists and mens-rights activists. They split men into two different groups in terms of their attractiveness to women. Alphas are the most attractive, they are some mixture of handsome, dominant, rich and aggressive. Betas are the less attractive men without those traits.

    According to this theory in a monogamous society with no welfare the alphas would marry the most attractive women. Then the betas would marry the rest. They could do this because despite being unattractive because the woman needed partners for economic reasons to create a family, and the alphas were taken anyway. Men in such family relationship – normal men – are called beta providers.

    Through welfare the state usurped the role of the beta provider among the poor. Women could be single mums without entering poverty. The end of monogamy meant that the alphas could enter serial relationships with many women in turn leaving the children to be cared for by the state. This leaves the betas nowhere, and with little chance of a relationship. So they begin immitating the behaviour of the alphas, they try to become socially dominant, aggresive and charismatic, because they believe that doing so is their best chance of a relationship (or at least sex).

  14. Ian B says:

    Sam Duncan,

    Your “obsession” actually sounds rather interesting, but you described what happened without any analysis of why. Got any more thoughts about why Scotland went Tory?

  15. El Draque says:

    Spot on post.
    Collins’ book “The Likes of Us” documents the working class of south Londonvery vividly.
    One anecdote stuck in my mind. A supermarket was planned in the 1960′s and the desginer feared having large glass windows as they would be vandalised.
    A police check showed that the last case of vandalism of a shop window was in 1910.

    And “to go slumming” meant going to the music halls south of the river. Because, “those people, you know, they don’t have much but they know how to enjoy themselves.”

    Final remark, ref the use of instant communications.
    Stalin was called “Ghengis Khan with a telephone”.

  16. John B says:

    Ian, insofar as you go I agree with you regarding the religous roots of socialism and other everyday interferences in other peoples’ affairs.
    But I think it predates the Victorians. Since humanity began walking on this planet it has ever been the same.
    Man has forever been trying to get God out of the driving seat and himself into it, and this has been one of our later attempts.
    Whether by wizards and witches and magicians. Man wants to be in control. Even the existence of “religion” as something, is man trying to define God’s work.
    If we would return that control back to where it should be, in the hands of God, I am firmly convinced we would experience blessings that we cannot imagine.
    But I doubt we will let anything much change, until we have to.

  17. NickM says:

    John B,
    That’s a beaut of a comment. I will do it the honour of not saying anything more because I need a shower and that’s where I do my thinking!

  18. Paul Marks says:

    A very good post by Ian B.

    As for religion.

    It is on both sides – a lot (although not all) of the government intervention people were relgious.

    But also a lot of the self help, mutual aid, and voluntary help people were religious also.

    For example, the leading opponent of extending the Poor Law (state relief) into Scotland was Thomas Chalmers – who was not only religious, but was the leading religious man in the Scotland of his time (for example he was the real founder of the Free Church of Scotland).

    And in the United States for every Maxist Liberation Theology “Social Justice” supporting J. Wright or Jim Wallis there are many religous people who think that government is too big and should be rolled back.

    The anti religious side is also split.

    With the Ayn Rand Institute people being pro freedom – but the best known athiest leaders (Philip Pullman, Dawkins, Bill M., “Jon Stewart” and so on) being worshippers of big “careing” government instead of God.

  19. Sam Duncan says:

    Went Tory, Ian, as opposed to what happened since?

    I think Paul’s comment is relevant, in that here, just as everywhere else, for every statist there’s a liberal. (Or used to be. It’s hard to believe in today’s Scotland.)

    In the ’50s, the Nationalists were still a fringe group and, as in the rest of Britain, the Liberals (who’d been strong up here, particularly in the East) were pretty close to being one too, so the choice was Labour or Tory. I assume a great part of it was simply the reaction to the Atlee government’s continuation of wartime austerity combined with the Tories’ acceptance of much of the rest of its programme. Rather as in 1997, but in reverse, many instinctive socialists possibly saw the Tories as safe, or less of a threat than they might be.

    But as to why they were so successful here, to the point of that record vote share, I have to admit I just don’t know.

    What I said about the Nats (thinking as I type here; may descend into incoherence) may be relevant: as I mentioned, the Unionists were a seperate party, albeit joined at the hip to the Conservatives, so there was less opportunity to smear Toryism as “English”. It’s certainly notable that the party’s decline in Scotland has occured since it became the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party in the ’60s, aligning itself more closely with the national organisation, and coincides with the rise of nationalism. (The odd thing about that is why Labour, which has always been a UK-wide organisation, hasn’t suffered in the same way. Possibly something to do with so many of the early figures within that party being Scottish themselves.)

  20. NickM says:


    The folks you mention as “atheist leaders” aren’t in a sense atheists. They, to put it bluntly and in Old Testament language are into idolatry.


    “Possibly something to do with so many of the early figures within that party being Scottish themselves.”

    I think you have it.

  21. Rob says:

    Progressives do not understand people, their behaviour or the communities they are part of. The people Progressives claim to want to save are further from them than French peasants were from the aristocracy pre-revolution.

    This gulf and the combination of their ignorance and sheer ego means that all of their plans are doomed to fail, though sadly the Progressives do not suffer the consequences of that failure

  22. Roue le Jour says:

    I’ve been thinking about why governments have grown so rapidly in recent years, and I think the reason is depressingly simple. In ages past, private wealth was owned by powerful individuals with the means to protect it. After the war, the increase in prosperity meant that ordinary people started to acquire substantial wealth (considered as a group). As this wealth was undefended, governments simply confiscated it “for the common good”.

  23. [...] Poor People Were Libertarians, Once – Counting Cats in Zanzibar [...]

  24. In olden times, the battle lines were quite clear. On the one hand were the state/the large landowners. On the other were ‘the poor people’.

    The ‘poor people’ developed two cunning plans – Communism, which had superficial appeal and took off, but failed for obvious reasons. And Adam Smith-ism or Tom Paine-sim or Henry George-ism, which was a far greater threat to the state/the landowners.

    So the state/the large landowners did a bit of divide and conquer:

    1. They gave ‘the poor people’ freeholds over infinitesimally small pieces of land – a few hundred square yards in most cases – and told them that they were now part of the ruling club, that land ownership had been democratised etc.

    2. They set up ‘banks’ by which ever larger amounts of money were siphoned off from ‘the poor people’ who were desperately trying to buy those cherished bits of land (which are deliberately rationed by the NIMBYs), so the poor people were running to stand still.

    3. Once a UK government seriously intended to introduce Henry George-ism, they started the First World War to crush the poor people.

    4. They forced ‘the state’ to collect the hated income tax (to fund all the improvements which in turn ended up as higher rents to the landowners) so that anybody who still subscribed to Adam Smith-ism could be decried as ‘a large state Communist’ and hence the enemy of ‘the landowners’.

    5. They enrolled the services of the Faux Libertarians, who genuinely believe that that the interests of ‘the state’ are diametrically opposed to those of ‘free men’ (i.e. the poor people who have been deluded into thinking of themselves as landowners).

    Same old, same old.

  25. [...] brings out the Devil in me. I was holding this for a suitable time… But hey-ho, let’s go! The Meux and Company [...]

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