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Mimimal State or Limited State: Mainly the Scottish Example.

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.


  1. Sam Duncan says:

    Excellent article, Paul. I don’t suppose it should come as a surprise that someone as widely-read as yourself should know more about 19th Century Scotland than myself. :)

    But of course you’re right: the Scottish state education system at the turn of the last century really was the envy of the world. And one of the things that most excercises my mind when thinking about our current situation is how we got to here from there.

    I think the answer is socialism: not just the libertarian bogeyman socialism-as-a-synonym-for-state-power, but the whole egalitatian shooting match. Take the local school where I live. It’s always been owned and run by the state, but until the late 1960s, it was fee-paying and selective. It was also considered one of the best in the country, holding its own in terms of exam results and famous alumni against the two nearby independents. It wasn’t alone: Alan Glen’s and the High School of Glasgow were the same, if not better.

    So what happened? Comprehensives. The fee-payers were either closed – Alan Glen’s* – or turned into comps. When I was at – an independent – secondary school in the ’80s, this local state place was still okay. My friends who went there still wore uniforms, and the ethos obviously hadn’t changed much. There were still extra-curricular activities (one well-known actress credits her career to its drama club), and they were still bussed out to the playing fields once a week for Games, like us. Now? Well, now anyone with any sense avoids the area at chucking-out-time. Its results are, I think, still relatively good for a state school, but of course are utterly demolished by the independents.

    It’s the same story with everything, familiar to anyone living in modern Britain: providing the same service to everyone takes a back seat to providing a good one to anyone.

    *The High School (founded in 1124, the 12th oldest in Britain) was threatened with closure, but saved by its FP club. It bought what might now be called the intellectual property but not the building, which had been earmarked for the headquarters of the short-lived Strathclyde Regional Council, erecting a new school next to the playing fields in the west of the city which it already owned. Now independent, it’s still considered one of the best in Britain (says the alumnus of a rival through gritted teeth). But imagine that: a state school FP club with the means to, effectively, re-establish its alma mater. Beats wandering around in front of the City Chambers with placards, pleading like medieval supplicants for their masters to save “their” school, thats for sure.

  2. “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”

    This will be a pregnant observation for anyone who, like myself, has found themselves musing over the last few days/weeks about what’s to be done with the crisis-beset university sector. I don’t have any answers except to say that what’s wrong with higher education, not just in the UK, is something that will need more than a few tweaks to put right. There’s something rotten at the core of it all, a strange unidentifiable smell of something at the back of the fridge gone bad. I don’t know whether or how to apportion blame between the entitlement mentality of the India Lenons of this world, grade inflation at A level and elsewhere concealing a pandemic of functional illiteracy, so-called affirmative action in the US, tenured lefties mentally stuck somewhere in the 60s still writing syllabuses, “media studies” and “wimmins studies” courses, unrealistically steep fees, social snobbery, or what the Spanish call “titulitis” (a fixation on frequently token or meaningless qualifications, such as the notorious BSBA) among both employers and potential employees. I teach English in an Ecuadorian university and, while the country’s education system has dysfunctions all its own (inter alia, a thuggish, Trotskyist schoolteacher’s union staffed by illiterate vandals, and a local archetype of a university rector who is too busy blackmailing undergraduettes into providing sexual favours to actually run the institution he’s in charge of) it has to be said that there’s something eerily familiar about the spectacle of young hopefuls who cheat and parrot their way through exams and expect at the end of it to go into a well paid job with lots of status but with absolutely no requirement for rigorous or creative thought. Unfortunately I can’t talk much about any of this because I’m too racked with guilt for having been a “full grant” student back in the early eighties (and having wasted that grant on a pointless degree in languages).

  3. Sam Duncan says:

    ERI, I think it comes from the obsession with education over learning. Universities have always been repositories of knowledge, havens for the curious and learned. This, even for its own sake, is a Good Thing. However, over the last few decades, they’ve become schools. This, in itself, is not necessarily a Bad Thing; by necessity, they’ve always had to pass on their learning to the next generation.

    But by confusing the undoubted good of learning and knowledge for their own sake with teaching for its own sake, they’ve got severely out of whack. We’re led to believe universities must be maintained (and multiply) because teaching ever greater numbers of young people is of benefit to us all in and of itself. This is the finest, grade-A hooey: even if those thousands of surplus students weren’t studying trivia, the world simply doesn’t need so many archaeologists and cosmologists.

    Having some universites is certainly a good thing, and as in the past, those who really want them will pay for them. But having so many glorified further education colleges – and by that I mean practically all of them, not just the ones that used to be honest about it – churning out pathetically devalued “degrees” in a sort of economic bubble of qualifications does nobody any good.

  4. Sam Duncan says:

    Dammit, just thought of something. A perfect symptom of what I’m talking about is one of the bees in my dad’s bonnet: you don’t graduate from a university, you graduate to it. In other words, the point of a degree is to become a member of the university, part of that haven of learing; it’s not supposed to be just another certificate to add to your GCSEs and show off to potential employers.

  5. Paul Marks says:

    Of course, putting my libertarian hat back on, the first thing I would point out is that the Clyde (the river that runs through Glasgow) was one of the few rivers in Scotland that was state owned – and, perhaps, if it had been privately owned (as many other rivers were) the pollution problem would not have got so bad (hence, perhaps, no need to construct the most difficult public works project since the days of the Roman Empire to get clean water to the people of Glasgow).

    E.R. – I could have done with some English teaching when I was young and it is my native language (“dyslexia” is something that too many young English people are told they have – I was also told I was so “dylaxic” that I would never be able to tie my own shoe laces, I suspect a lot of this stuff really is “these things are going to be difficult for this child – so we will tell the child that these are IMPOSSIBLE for them, then we can all forget about the matter”).

    The left should be allies on the sexual matter – unless, of course, their “cultural politics” is just a pose to gain power (as it so often is) and they do not really care that students are being sexually exploited.

    Leftist teacher unions are a problem all over the world – apart from in South Korea where teachers in government schools are not allowed to join a union (no “collective bargaining” – clubs to cover insurance and so on are, I believe, allowed).

    Oddly enough….. South Korea has the best state education system in the world (in both reading and mathematics).

    Meaningless qualifications. Up to the First World War a Doctorate was very rare in Britain (normally given as a honour) even when I went to university (York) there were lecturers who only had undergraduate degrees (not even a Masters – which, at Oxford or Cambridge anyway, was just a matter of waiting around a bit and then filling in a form). I am not sure the D.Phil obsession achieves anything – although that could be sour grapes on my part as my thesis was turned down.

    As for “Spanish Practices” – the guilds (with all their titles) of Spain have been famous (or infamous) for centuries.


    Yes “admin” (either academic or general government) always grab the best buildngs. They may be utterly senseless in everything else – but their sense of the nicest building to have is sound.

    In York the administrators were not satisfied with “just” Heslington Hall (the family seat of the family that gave the land for the Univerity) they also eventually grabbed “The Stables” building – where Jack Wiseman’s library of politics and economics (and so on) books was.

    The books were considered of no importance – and were just tossed into storage (in other places such books were simply distroyed). It is the much the same in many other universities in Britain.

    “Oh it is the computer age – that means we can get rid of all these books we never approved of anyway, and use the excuse that we are making room for more machines” (it is never the leftist books that go).

    That is true in libaries (both university and town) in many places in Britain.


    The period of the state grammar schools in England was actually quite short (in most of the country – in Kent and so on the period continues).

    The Grammar schools were only really taken over by the state under the Butler Act of 1944, and by the late 1960′s the government was already attacking them (seeking to undermine everything that was good about them).

    So when Conservative party members (and others) talk about the wonderful state education system of Grammar schools that used to exist in England they are really (whether they know it or not) talking about a period of about 20 years.

  6. Paul Marks says:


    Yes – Cambridge (I do not know about Oxford) still has a element of that.

    For example, if a thesis is turned down one can demand the intellectual equivalent of trial by combat – a formal debate before the members of the university (i.e. anyone with a degree from Cambidge who can be bothered to turn up – plus the ….)

    With the modern universities there is no real sense of being a “member” of anything (no library rights anymore or stuff like that – just requests for money). For example, I was never given a reason for why my D.Phil thesis was turned down – and even though I had an MA from York I had no right to trial by debate (indeed no rights at all).

    No specific evidence or arguement needed to be used against me – just we do not like your stuff.

    Being young (ish) at the time I took it very badly – I took it all the way to the Lord Chancellor of England and Wales (when people say “the Court of Chancery was abolished in the 19th century” they forget that the Lord Chancellor still had this function for universities – and my case was straight out of “Bleak House”).

    However, looking back on it, they were legally in the right – the Statutes of the University of York 1963 (which I had, stupidly, never even read) clearly state that they have total discrestion. Therefore arguments based on equity and natural justice were always going to fail in the end.

    There did not need to be any evidence or argument against me – they could have failed the thing (legally) because they did not like the colour of my eyes. I was a fool to put myself in the hands of the enemy – and I was an even bigger fool to be a sore loser when the trap was sprung.

  7. ‘ and my case was straight out of “Bleak House” ‘

    Well, I for one am glad you did not fall prey to Spontaneous Combustion.

    I have one of those cut out ‘n’ keep Oxford MAs. When I was a kid the only people you ever came across with MA after their names were headmasters. Perhaps that’s what I should have gone into chiz.

    (I am still hoping for a job in the colonial service somewhere.)

  8. Paul Marks says:

    Oddly enough you share something in common with a young Miss Roberts (now Lady Thatcher).

    The young lady was a hopeless romantic – not just walking for many miles to see historic buildings in Lincolnshire, but dreaming of a life in the Indian Civil Service (not the Colonial Service I know – but the same idea of a single person out hundreds of miles from anywhere, trying to keep order and do justice against bandits, evil relgious cults, and communists seeking to convince poor people that their poverty was caused by the wealth of other folk).

    It took her father to explain to her that even if a young lady was allowed such a position, the Raj was comming to an end (something clear to the intelligent shop keeper that Alderman Roberts was – clear even in the 1930′s).

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