Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Land fit for Heroes

Tim Worstall went to the Cenotaph today, and came away from the Remembrance Parade consumed with rage:

How did we get here? That the things which our forefathers fought and died for, the freedom and liberty of themselves and their descendants, are tricked away from us as if we are children too naive to be able to handle the rights and responsibilities of being a free people?
Unfortunately, I don't think those were the things our forefathers fought and died for. If they fought for anything, it was a form of security the modern Labour government offers, supported by David Cameron's Conservatives. In this, there is a strong echo of the 1918 General Election.

At the end of the First War, Lloyd George called an election declaring his intention, if re-elected, to build a "land fit for heroes". His faction of the Liberal Party was in coalition with the Conservatives, and their manifesto stated (transcription errors come from the linked site):
The principal concern of every Government is the must be the condition of the great mass of the people who live by manual toil. The steadfast spirit of our workers, displayed on all the wide field of action opened out by the war - in the trenches, on the ocean, in the air, in field, mine, and factory - has left an imperishable mark on the heart and conscience of the nation. One of the first tasks of the Government will be to deal on broad and comprehensive lines with the housing of the people, which during the war has fallen so sadly into arrears, and upon which the well-being of the nation so largely depends. Larger opportunities for education, improved material conditions, and the prevention of degrading stndards of employment; a proper adaption to peace conditions of the experience which during the war we have gained in regard to the traffic in drink - these are among the conditions of social harmony which we shall earnestly endeavour to promote.
That's very New labour, even down to the moralistic concern about drink. Although the manifesto promised to hold down taxes and mentioned the Empire in approving terms, there were other passages that seem contemporary today:
The war has given fresh impetus to agriculture. This must not be allowed to expire. Scientific farming must be promoted, and the Government regard the maintenance of a satisfactory agricultural wage, the improvement of village life, and the development of rural industries as essential parts of an agricultural policy. Arrangements have been made whereby extensive afforestation and reclamation schemes may be entered upon without delay. A systematic improvement in the transport facilities of the resources of the soil, and the Government are preparing plans with a view to increasing these facilities on a large scale.
Protectionism was there too:
It is the intention therefore of the Government to preserve and maintain where necessary these key industries in the way which experience and examinatino may prove to be best adapted for the purpose. If production is to be maintained at the highest limit at home, security must be given against the unfair competitino to which our industries may be subjected by the dumping of goods produced abroad and sold on our market below the actual cost of production.
And they would have approved of the European Union:
Our first task must be to conclude a just and lasting peace, and so to establish the foundations of a new Europe that occasion for further wars may be for ever averted.
The coalition that stood on this platform won a resounding victory.

A similar thing happened after the Second World War - a Labour Government was returned vowing also to build a land fit for heroes, and they founded the modern welfare state. The "the rights and responsibilities of being a free people", as Tim put it, were deeply undermined. But Labour won by a landslide; this was what people wanted. Hayek had been warning of the dangers - and the stupidity and the irony - of trying to build a National Effort in support of National Objectives in the heat of a battle with the Nazis who had been doing just that, albeit with some deeply evil accessories. But Hayek was ignored and that's what we did. The consequences have been inevitable.

I'm going to draw a parallel with the events of 1845 in the Fenlands of East Anglia. This year saw the start of the Irish Potato Famine, but hunger was known all over the British Isles at that time, it's just that the Irish were more dependant than most on a single crop that suffered a blight. It has been suggested that English landlords had the comfort of distance from their starving Irish tenants but in East Anglia landlords had no such comfort, and no greater concern for the welfare of starving people.

My small library includes a copy of a fascinating collection of oral history called Tales from the Fens (thanks to Kes for showing me this book). One of the chapters - Hunger in the Fens - describes how people tried to find food during the general starvation, eating rotten meat, grating acorns into broth, how moorhen eggs could be cooked even when rancid and how, if someone got lucky and managed to get the head of an old cow that had been slaughtered where she stood, it was shared with everyone, including the old veteran of the Napoleonic wars and his wife. A day or so later, this starving, weakened elderly couple died. Meanwhile, the Bishop of Ely - in scenes straight from Robin Hood - was so fat his carriage could hardly accommodate him, and the local squires sat in alehouses, carousing and eating until they could force no more food down.

"Just about this time," the narrator tells us, "when most people were keeping their miseries to themselves, some chaps came into the Fens and told us we were a lot of silly fools to put up with things." I think these agitators might have been Chartists, it's the right time but, unfortunately, the narrator didn't mention what their platform was. In any event, these activists met with deep hostility and ended up being dragged through a stagnant pond, tarred and feathered and sent on their way.

The next day, Squire Bagge turned up at the local pub, where almost everybody was sitting without drink, and without having been able to afford any beer for weeks, and bought forty four pints for the men who had done this, then another round, then offered some work - which was gratefully accepted. The men walked, many of them for many miles every day, to earn what money they could and they spent three months on estates where the pheasants were "so thick in the woods on those squires' estates that father said they nearly trod on them. But the men never touched one of them, because a dog doesn't bite the hands of the one who feeds it".

The last phrase haunts me. What free men liken themselves to dogs?

What does this have to do with the two world wars? The town and villages around East Anglia have their war memorials, engraved with the names of the farm labourers and shopkeepers who volunteered or were conscripted. They fought because they felt they had to, because they really did have to (they were conscripted), because they signed up in a blaze of patriotic fervour. It varied.

But just like their fathers who tarred and feathered the agitators half a century and more earlier, they were not fighting to be free of masters. They just wanted better masters, masters who would be kinder to them. Those of us who agitate, today, for freedom need to be realistic about this. We haven't won the argument, there isn't some vast silent majority fuming along with us, anxious to be free.

This urge to be subservient is the driving force in our polity and it has been for centuries. And if you get into political conversations in the burger bars, pubs and cinemas of the country, you might start to realise that it isn't even that we haven't won the argument. We haven't even started to have the argument. And any libertarian or Liberal - classical Liberal - viewpoint is contaminated by the poison of conservatism, indeed of Toryism: the complacent advocacy of aspects of the status quo because it benefits us and our prejudices personally. Or, bizarrely, because it benefits our masters.

P. J. O'Rourke just let his fury free upon the Republicans who lost the recent election to Obama. Here's a small portion of it:
We railed at welfare and counted it a great victory when Bill Clinton confused a few poor people by making the rules more complicated. But the "French-bread lines" for the rich, the "terrapin soup kitchens," continue their charity without stint.

The sludge and dreck of political muck-funds flowing to prosperous businesses and individuals have gotten deeper and more slippery and stink worse than ever with conservatives minding the sewage works of legislation.
Anyway, a low tax rate is not--never mind the rhetoric of every conservative politician--a bedrock principle of conservatism. The principle is fiscal responsibility.

Conservatives should never say to voters, "We can lower your taxes." Conservatives should say to voters, "You can raise spending. You, the electorate, can, if you choose, have an infinite number of elaborate and expensive government programs. But we, the government, will have to pay for those programs. We have three ways to pay.

"We can inflate the currency, destroying your ability to plan for the future, wrecking the nation's culture of thrift and common sense, and giving free rein to scallywags to borrow money for worthless scams and pay it back 10 cents on the dollar.

"We can raise taxes. If the taxes are levied across the board, money will be taken from everyone's pocket, the economy will stagnate, and the poorest and least advantaged will be harmed the most. If the taxes are levied only on the wealthy, money will be taken from wealthy people's pockets, hampering their capacity to make loans and investments, the economy will stagnate, and the poorest and the least advantaged will be harmed the most.

"And we can borrow, building up a massive national debt. This will cause all of the above things to happen plus it will fund Red Chinese nuclear submarines that will be popping up in San Francisco Bay to get some decent Szechwan take-out."

Yes, this would make for longer and less pithy stump speeches. But we'd be showing ourselves to be men and women of principle. It might cost us, short-term. We might get knocked down for not whoring after bioenergy votes in the Iowa caucuses. But at least we wouldn't land on our scruples. And we could get up again with dignity intact, dust ourselves off, and take another punch at the liberal bully-boys who want to snatch the citizenry's freedom and tuck that freedom, like a trophy feather, into the hatbands of their greasy political bowlers.
Now, the modern Conservative Party isn't going to make those kinds of arguments. This is because (like most Republican politicians) they don't believe in those kinds of arguments. They want to be the better type of master the people have been fighting for, one way or another, for centuries.

The Labour party wants to be that better kind of master too. It's just that they don't feel the separation from the people that the Tories feel, and so give a damn about how we all behave in the pub, or when walking our dogs, and think they should guide us in those areas of our lives too.

They all think they should guide us in what we say, or when, or how; who we sleep with, or how; all think they should form an elite subject to different rules, paid for by the rest of us.

There's no groundswell of sentiment against them, not appreciably. There hasn't been since 1775, and before that 1642, and before that 1381. These groundswells are infrequent. The masters are in tune with their subjects, just as their forebears were when they sent our forebears to war.

We might not be able to win this argument. But if we assume we have a silent majority in our favour we don't stand a chance. There's a mountain to climb but the first step is seeing the mountain. The second step is recognising with humility, and with PJ, that most of the things people will associate with the advocates of freedom are profoundly tainted by Toryism.

Individual liberty has never been a conservative aim. It's deeply radical. As Friedman said, it's a state of affairs that man has almost never even approached. It isn't the thing people fought for in the past. It's the thing we need to fight for now.


wildgoose said...

Much the same warning was made by Hilaire Belloc in "The Servile State".

Anonymous said...

I don't know how much you've left out of the Fen story but something smells about it.

I'm not disputing the poverty and starvation. These are historic facts. But was every squire and every Bishop happy to eat themselves to obesity in these circumstances? Was every peasant happy to doff his cap?

We know from modern famines that they don't occur from NO food but rather from a percentage less than 100% of the requirement. We know that they don't affect everyone equally - there is a scale of hardship.

This tale is too black and white.

Which brings me to the political lesson. It's too simplistic to assume that ALL the peasants needed a master. It's quite likely that several understood the fact that there wasn't a utopian choice of action. That in the good times a peasant living on subsistence farming was unlikely to be as well off as a peasant who supplemented his income by working for the local landowner and that driving such people away was unlikely to improves prospects in the long term. Also he recognises that the average employer is suffering too. That knowledge gives our peasant rather different choices.

TDK said...

Incidentally, my objection to the story is just that. Your main point is surely correct. There is no mainstream movement demanding opposition to statism. "The state can solve it" is the unchallenged belief.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure people went to war to fight for the creation of the Welfare State.

I think they went to war (where they went willingly at all) because they didn't want to be bossed about by foreigners in their own country, and - particularly - to ensure that the kind of tyranny that existed in some European countries would never happen here.

This is why Worstall is so furious. He feels - and I agree - that we won the war, only to give up everything we fought to keep, after all the blood and treasure had been sacrificed.

Am I being too simple?

Peter Risdon said...

TDK, the Fen story is very specific - I can name the pub they were bought beers in by the Squire, and this pub is still open for business. The agitators did have some supporters locally. The Bishop of Ely was hated for centuries, other bishops might not have been. The Squires, though, did far worse than eat when others were hungry. If the water was high they'd go upstream and blow the banks of the drains to make sure it was someone else who got flooded.

But though the anecdote is very specific to a group of people and a place, it illustrates a more general point. There was no rebellion in Britain between 1770 and 1870 - but there was a hell of a lot of agitating for one. The Chartists were just one movement. Huge rallies were held around the country. Elsewhere, countries had revolutions. But in mainland Britain the tide turned and ebbed out again, round about the time this anecdote was set. It illustrates a larger truth.

The majority of people didn't want to lose their masters, as the American colonists did. They wanted better ones, or to replace the masters with some structure like a Party that would perform the function of the masters.

Anonymous, the evidence that people fought for a welfare state, if they fought for anything except patriotism (remember conscription), lies in the results of the General Elections following both world wars. In fact, it might be more accurate to say they felt that having been obliged to fight, they deserved the tender embrace of a welfare state.

What's your evidence they wanted to avoid being bossed around?