England's lost liberty


A couple of weekends ago I read an old paper I found on the Libertarian Alliance’s website – ‘How English liberty was created by accident and custom – and then destroyed by liberals’, which was written by Sean Gabb in 1998. I found its thesis fascinating.

To simplify somewhat, Sean contends that even as English liberalism reached its zenith in the Victorian era, it was being undermined from within. The reason for this was that English liberalism was not based on liberal philosophy so much as it was the fortunate result of a historical and cultural accident – the ‘administrative vacuum’ of the 18th Century, which followed the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

During this period, any growth of government was severely hindered by strict adherence to traditional customs and the rule of law, which allowed for no administrative discretion, and no assertion of administrative necessity. As Sean points out, England did not, at this stage, even have a professional civil service. Certainly, plenty of people were granted sinecures and fancy titles – but they didn’t actually do anything. It was, he says, close to ‘administrative anarchy’. The English people have never been freer.

The thing that brought an end to all this was that the late 19th Century liberals, in rationalizing and harmonizing the laws and administration of England, effectively undermining the reverence of common law and custom and the absence of administration that had sustained liberty for so long. In a sense, they created government as we know it today, and in doing so they unleashed “the greatest illustration that history affords of public choice economics". Government, once it had the means to do so at its disposal, started to grow. It hasn’t stopped since.

This error, Sean says, was compounded by three defects in the liberals’ reasoning: (1) they relied too much on economic arguments, and thus allowed liberalism to be caricatured as heartless and calculating; (2) the labour theory of value that Smith and Ricardo subscribed to played straight into collectivist hands; and (3) they were too quick to make exceptions to the general rule of laissez-faire.

I’m not a historian, so I’m not in a position to critically assess Sean’s analysis of 18th and 19th Century political history. Suffice it to say that I found his arguments convincing as I encountered them. I’d certainly recommend reading the whole paper.