Wednesday, 27 November 2013


John Bright was a consistent individualist when he opposed the Factory Acts. It was the passing of those and similar measures which struck the first demoralising blow at the system of utilitarian individualism which the British nation, inspired by the philosophy of Bentham and his followers, had set up. Free-trade, in a fiscal sense, was only one of the pillars of that system, although, perhaps, the most important. In the evolution of human affairs, as we may view it through the clear glass of history, nations, as men, develop step by step in obedience to a law of adaptation of which, they are profoundly unconscious.

So, looking back, it is easy to perceive, as Professor Dicey points out in a volume of lectures recently published, that the period of individualistic thought and practice through which Great Britain passed was a necessary stage in the development of the national organism. The reign of Tory feudalism, whose characteristics are crystallised in the devotion of, say, the great Duke of Wellington to the British Constitution as it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as though to some embodiment of sacred belief and principle, ended when the propaganda of the rights of man had penetrated to the remotest hamlet of the United Kingdom. The revolt from aristocratic and sectional domination produced the movement which took the shape of extreme individualism. The rights of man became magnified or narrowed into the rights of a man. Combinations of all kinds were abhorred, not only in deference to a principle, but largely because the combinations of the past had been bad, corrupt, and oppressive. The doctrine of "every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost" was enlarged into a creed purporting to contain within itself the complete salvation of man. Abolish restrictions, remove the fettering hand of privilege, and you will attain the only possible millennium, in which every man has an equal chance. This was what the individualists said, and they carried their belief to such a point of fanaticism that even liberal-minded men of the type of the late Grant Allen expressed their disapproval of free libraries.

The individualists forgot that without free education it is impossible to give every man an equal chance. They forgot, too, the physiological results of generations of overcrowding, of poor feeding, and of excessive work. They had their day, however, and their achievement was notable. By reforming and widening political institutions they succeeded in removing some of the barriers that effectually prevented the free play of merit, but they sowed at the same time the seed of future commercial decay by setting up an illogical system of free imports. As Professor Dicey shows, however, the individualists have long since given place in practice to what he terms, for want of a better word, the collectivists; or rather, if, individualists have not given way, individualism has, for while the modern individualist has the voice of Jacob, his hand is often that of Esau. Factory Acts, Combination Acts, Arbitration Acts, Education measures, Employers' Liability legislation, Housing Acts, Allotment Acts, measures modifying the Poor Law, Free Libraries, &c, are named by Professor Dicey as the evidences of the new movement, and it is not, he believes, on the wane. It retains its pristine energy, and has much work yet to do. As a matter of fact, the doctrine that the State as the greater organism is frequently better able to determine what is good for the individual than is the individual himself, is gaining wider and wider acceptance, and it is certainly consistent with the whole theory of social evolution. Curiously enough, the average Englishman, having yielded up almost every other article in the creed of individualism, still clings tenaciously to free-trade in commodities.

But in order to do this he is compelled logically to detach this lingering belief from the complete system of philosophy of which it once formed a part. The British free importer has no longer a system of living philosophy on which to base his theory. It remains merely as a commercial expedient, for unless he is prepared to give up all that has been gained by the numberless sacrifices of the principle of laissez faire he can no longer claim to be a utilitarian individualist, as Bentham and Mill and Spencer understood the phrase, without doing violence to every canon of logic. The State is more and more overshadowing the individual, and the polity which was founded upon the relaxation of every regulation of personal conduct and every interference with personal liberty, except those which restricted crime, is doomed. That its last short blaze of assertion should resemble that of the expiring candle is but significant of the approaching end.

 The Advertiser 2 August 1905,

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