Freedom From The State

Liberty did once exist in the Anglosphere.

A marvelous passage from A.J.P. Taylor’s ‘English History; 1914-1945’.

‘Until August 1914 a sensible law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country forever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police.’

‘Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so.’ 

‘The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale; nearly $400 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8% of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13. Since 1 January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of 70. Since 1911, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness or unemployment.’ 

‘This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted ony to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.’ 

‘All this changed by the impact of the Great War.’

9 thoughts on “Freedom From The State

  1. The age before WW1 was called the Victorian Age. I wonder if you could call a party the Pro-Victorian Party, practicing Pro-Victorianism, trying to highlight the good parts of the Victorian Age, before the State became so overwhelming? the party symbol could be the “V” sign, which you reverse when you come across statists.

  2. The implication that life was freer in the ‘good old days’ may be true overall, but it certainly is not true in all the examples given.

    He could live where he liked and as he liked.

    Unless he went to the wrong school or had the wrong accent.

    He had no official number or identity card.

    Still doesn’t as far as I know.

    He could travel abroad or leave his country forever without a passport or any sort of official permission.

    Except for the passport, he still can. But the freedom to visit other countries has increased dramatically.

    He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit.

    Except there were very few currencies that were exchangeable. Most countries did not allow it then.

    He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home.

    But he couldn’t import and sell them. Professional guilds and exclusive franchises were invented by the English.

    a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police.

    I understand residents of EU countries can do that now.

    the state did not require its citizens to perform military service

    Still doesn’t.

    The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale

    I’ll concede that one.

    All this changed by the impact of the Great War

    The war merely accelerated an existing tendency. Europe was still overcoming feudal traditions and found social levelling theories fascinating. Bolshevism was one outcome, but the ideas spread to England too. The war just amplified perceptions of inequality and made welfare more acceptable.

    I think you need to go back to the 19th and perhaps the 18th century to find an environment in which individuals barely noticed the state. Imagine getting married and simply recording it in the back of the bible. Or the birth of a child.

  3. David

    I wasn’t inferring that life was perfect before WWI 🙂 for example, women still didn’t have the vote, and people were prevented from succeeding in life by virtue of their background rather than their ability.

    But folk were a lot less dependent on the state back then – and i loved the first line.

  4. “The age before WW1 was called the Victorian Age” – that ended in 1901, to be followed by the Edwardian Era with materially different cultural norms.

    He could live where he liked and as he liked Unless he went to the wrong school or had the wrong accent” – no, unless he didn’t have enough money. See Barney Barnato for someone with money but not the other two.

  5. I’ve often wondered at the effect of geography on politics. For example, all those Europeans who were doing military service were doing so because geography did not naturally protect their homelands. Britons, not just Englanders, were protected by the sea. And what a difference that has made! If there were a land bridge between Calais and Dover, so that the British Isles were the British Peninsula, they would have had a totally different philosophy!
    This does not mean that Geography is National Destiny, but it must be a component.
    We Australians, on an island, should guard our freedoms carefully.

  6. Pre-WWI, it wasn’t uncommon for an Englishman to go about his business armed with a pistol for self-defense. Prior to the Peel laws, policing wasn’t considered a vital part of the state, with the position of constable entirely voluntary. Anyone was capable of arresting and detaining a wrongdoer. By contracting out our civil law enforcement and defence, we have become dependent on the state and subject to its whims.

    Not having a professional police force didn’t stop England rounding up enough Irish troublemakers and English thieves to send to Botany Bay!

  7. “Prior to the Peel laws, policing wasn’t considered a vital part of the state, with the position of constable entirely voluntary”.

    Oh no it wasn’t. Serving as a constable was organised on the same compulsory basis as serving as a juror; there was a pool of the wealthier sort, i.e. householders, who were tapped for each of these.

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