Article published on the web only -- originally 2002, updated 2007
A LIBERTARIAN TRACT
By: John Ray
These days people generally think of the government as the only possible source of mass social welfare services. Like most things that government does, however, such services tend to be provided in an inefficient, wasteful and arrogant way. There are, however, alternatives to government-provided welfare.
Surprisingly, England in the Victorian era had a social welfare system that was both fairly comprehensive and independent of the government.
Most of us draw our impression of conditions in Victorian England from the novels of Charles Dickens -- and the situations that Dickens described were so bad that the word "Dickensian" has come to mean oppressive, uncaring and inhuman. Something that needs to be noted here, however is that Dickens was the Victorians called a "Social reformer" or what we would probably call a "socialist". His novels are, in other words, political propaganda that concentrates on the failures of the system rather than on its successes. And because they are such good novels, they have been very effective in discrediting the Victorian system.
In truth, however, even in the modern era of universal government welfare payments we can still find people living in "Dickensian" conditions -- for one obvious instance, the Australian Aborigines. All systems have some weaknesses and concentrating on the worst cases tells us nothing about how well the system works as a whole. Had Dickens been writing today, he would probably be describing terrible situations caused by the actions of heartless government bureaucrats.
So let us now look at what history tells us about the Victorian system rather than at what the novels of Dickens tell us about it:
There were two main sources of social security in Victorian England: The parish and the Friendly Societies. The parish system is the one Dickens concentrated on but it was in fact the Friendly Societies that were more important. We still have many of the Friendly Societies with us to this day. Most Australians will have heard of Manchester Unity, The Oddfellows, The Druids and various other societies. These days just about all they provide is health insurance but in the Victorian era their functions were much broader. They also provided unemployment insurance, widows benefits, funeral benefits and various social functions. In the Victorian era a skilled worker would normally join a Friendly Society associated with his work, his town or his religion. If no other Society suited him he could join the Oddfellows. When he joined, he signed up to pay a weekly subscription to the society out of his wages. In return the Society covered him for most of the problems of daily life. If he got sick he went for free to the Society's doctor or a doctor that the Society had an agreement with. If he got really sick he could be admitted for free to a hospital run or approved by the Society. If he became unemployed he would receive a weekly payment from the Society to keep him going. If he died, his widow would be looked after. So ordinary workers in the Victorian era in fact had quite a high level of social welfare benefits -- all privately provided without any involvement by the government.
Some people, however, fell outside the Friendly Society system by reason of being too poor or too foolish to join. For these there was the parish system. This was a system whereby the local parish of the Church of England gave charity to the poor so that nobody need be without shelter or food. It provided only the most basic food and shelter and did nothing to make poverty comfortable but it did make sure that everybody was provided for in some way. Such a system was often heartless and could be abused and it is on such heartlessness and abuse that Dickens focused -- and which he moved his middle-class readers to "improve"
Attempting to improve the Victorian system, however destroyed it. As one commentator acerbically observes:
In effect, the bourgeoisie declared war on their underlings, and tried to improve them out of existence. Their weapons in this war were 'a national system of education, a state system of welfare, public housing schemes and, later on, a state system of hospitals, a comprehensive system of National Insurance and much else besides.' These might not all sound like unmitigated evils to LRB readers, but Mount does a spirited job of pointing to the ways in which all of these structures were imposed on top of previously existing working-class vehicles for self-help. In one of the most original sections of Mind the Gap, he evokes a thriving culture of schools, Sunday schools, reading rooms, Nonconformist religion, collective insurance and trade unions. 'It is not too much to say that the lower classes in Britain between 1800 and 1940 had created a remarkable civilisation of their own which it is hard to parallel in human history: narrow-minded perhaps, prudish certainly, occasionally pharisaical, but steadfast, industrious, honourable, idealistic, peaceable and purposeful.'
And then this civilisation was dismantled. To take only one of a number of Mount's examples, the extensive culture of privately run working-class schools was destroyed by the board-schools founded by the 1870 Education Act, which were not free, but were effectively subsidised to a point where they put their private competitors out of business. All of this was part of a process in which 'the working classes are firmly tagged as the patients, never the agents.'
So any system can be abused and can fail and there is no doubt that the present system of government welfare that we have is also often heartless and is also often abused. The main difference between then and now is that the present system is more generous. Our unemployed get more spent on them. Our society today is however much richer than the England of Victorian times so the more generous provisions of the present era would probably have occurred under any system.
So there is after all a well-proven alternative to government welfare. And think of how much power the individual had back then. If he didn't like the way his particular Friendly Society was treating people, he could take his business elsewhere. Just try telling our Department of Social Security that you will take your business elsewhere!
The main reason why welfare provision has been taken over by Government is that for most of the postwar era (from 1945 on) people in general conducted this huge experiment of getting the government to do everything. In Russia they even got the government to run all the businesses. The theory was that government could do everything better than private organizations could. We now know how ludicrously untrue this is and around the world people are taking things out of the hands of government and giving them back to the private sector. The sooner this happens in the social welfare field too, the better off we all will be.
Victorian capitalism unfairly maligned
The plight of child labourers in Victorian Britain is not usually considered to have been a happy one. Writers such as Charles Dickens painted a grim picture of the hardships suffered by young people in the mills, factories and workhouses of the Industrial Revolution. But an official report into the treatment of working children in the 1840s, made available online yesterday for the first time, suggests the situation was not so bad after all.
The frank accounts emerged in interviews with dozens of youngsters conducted for the Children's Employment Commission. The commission was set up by Lord Ashley in 1840 to support his campaign for reducing the working hours of women and children.
Surprisingly, a number of the children interviewed did not complain about their lot -- even though they were questioned away from their workplace and the scrutinising eyes of their employers.
Sub-commissioner Frederick Roper noted in his 1841 investigation of pre-independence Dublin's pin-making establishments: "Notwithstanding their evident poverty ... there is in their countenances an appearance of good health and much cheerfulness."
A report on workers at a factory in Belfast found a 14-year-old boy who earned four shillings a week "would rather be doing something better ... but does not dislike his current employment". The report concluded: "I find all in this factory able to read, and nearly all to write. They are orderly, appear to be well-behaved, and to be very contented."
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