Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author from an essay first published in the July 2007 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”
In 1800, fewer than 1 million people lived in London; a century later, well over 6 million. As the 20th century dawned, London had already been the most populous city on the planet for seven decades. Britain’s population as a whole soared from 8 million in 1800 to 40 million in 1900. In the previous 2,000 years, even a fraction of such population growth anywhere in Europe was usually nipped in the bud by famine, disease, falling incomes, and population retrenchment.
But Britain in the 19th century was a special place, the legendary “workshop of the world.” London had become the capital of capital, with private investment in agriculture and manufacturing burgeoning at a record-breaking pace in the latter half of the century. The year Victoria ascended to the throne, 1837, saw fewer than 300 patent applications for new inventions, but by the end of the century the number exceeded 25,000 annually. Per capita income on the eve of World War I was three times what it was a century before and life expectancy had risen by 25 percent. There were many more mouths to feed and bodies to clothe, but British entrepreneurship was feeding and clothing them better than the world had ever experienced. It was the greatest flowering of problem-solving creativity, ingenuity, and innovation in history.
Colin Pullinger, a carpenter’s son from Selsea, typified the 19th century British entrepreneur. He designed a “perpetual mousetrap” that could humanely catch a couple dozen mice per trap in a single night, and then sold 2 million of them. Perhaps Emerson had Pullinger in mind when he famously wrote, “If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbour, tho’ he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”
As the 1800s drew to a close, the framework that made possible these extraordinary achievements — capitalism — fell under assault. As poverty declined massively for the first time, the very presence of the poverty that remained prompted impatient calls for forcible redistribution of wealth. Around the world, Marxists painted capitalists as exploiters and monopolists. In Britain, Charles Kingsley argued that Christianity demanded a socialist order, and the Fabian Society was formed to help bring it about. Many unscrupulous businessmen turned to the state for favors and protections unavailable to them in competitive markets. Would anyone come to the defense of capitalism with as much vigor and passion as those who opposed it?
At least one group did: the Liberty and Property Defence League. Though its work has been largely forgotten, what the world learned about socialism in the following century surely vindicates its message. Its name derived from the members’ belief that liberty and property were inseparable and that unless successfully defended, both could be swept away by the beguiling temptations of a coercive state.
The founder of the League in 1882 was a pugnacious Scot by the name of Lord Elcho, later the 10th earl of Wemyss as a member of the House of Lords and thereafter known simply as “Wemyss.” Originally elected to parliament in 1841 as a protectionist Tory, he eventually embraced free trade and repeal of the Corn Laws by 1846. He later evolved into a full-throated advocate for what we today would call “classical liberal” ideas. At the organization’s third annual meeting in 1885, he expressed his hope that its efforts to educate the public would “cause such a flood as will sweep away, in the course of time, all attempts at state interference in the business transactions of life in the case of every Briton of every class . . . . No nation can prosper with undue state interference, and unless its people are allowed to manage their own affairs in their own way . . . .”
Wemyss and his friends rounded up spokespersons and financial support. They enlisted writers and public speakers. They published and circulated essays and leaflets. The organization operated as an activist think tank with a lobbying arm. The League attempted to mobilize public opinion against specific bills, functioning as a “day-to-day legislative watchdog” in the view of historian Edward Bristow. It even arranged testimony before parliamentary hearings. One League pamphlet attacked the introduction of “grandmotherly legislation” as a transgression against the freedom of contract. Armed with arguments provided by League members and sympathizers, Wemyss’ allies in Parliament killed hundreds of interventionist bills in the 1880s and 1890s.
Opponents often accused the League of being motivated by its members’ bottom line drive for profits, but in actuality its philosophical ideals were paramount. Among its members were some of the brightest intellects of the era, Herbert Spencer being perhaps the most notable. Author of the libertarian classic, “The Man Versus the State,” Spencer was the best-selling philosopher of his day and was nominated for a Nobel in literature.
Spencer saw liberty as the absence of coercion and as the most indispensable prerequisite for human progress. The ownership of property was an individual right that could not be morally infringed unless an individual first threatened the property of another. Spencer has been demonized as an apostle of a heartless “survival of the fittest” Darwinism by those who choose to ignore or distort his central message, namely that individual self-improvement can accomplish more progress than political action. One creates wealth, the other merely takes and reapportions it.
Auberon Herbert was a Spencer acolyte whose championship of voluntarism found fertile soil among fellow League members. His now century-old warning about the danger of state intervention is positively prophetic: “No amount of state education will make a really intelligent nation; no amount of Poor Laws will place a nation above want; no amount of Factory Acts will make us better parents . . . . To have our wants supplied from without by a huge state machinery, to be regulated and inspected by great armies of officials, who are themselves slaves to the system which they administer, will in the long run teach us nothing, (and) will profit us nothing.”
In a 1975 essay in The Historical Journal from Cambridge University Press, historian Bristow contended that the Liberty and Property Defence League changed the language in one important, lasting way. Prior to the 1880s, “individualism” was a term of opprobrium in most quarters, referring to “the atomism and selfishness of liberal society.” The League appropriated the word and elevated its general meaning to one of respect for the rights and uniqueness of each person.
But was the League successful in its mission to thwart the socialist impulse? In the short run, lamentably, no. By 1914, socialists had convinced large numbers of Britons that they could (and should) vote themselves a share of other people’s property. Two world wars and a depression in between seemed to cement the socialists’ claim that their vision for society was inevitable.
Good ideas, however, have a way of resisting attempts to quash them. Bad ideas sooner or later fail and teach a valuable lesson or two in the process. Britain and most of the world gave socialism in all its varieties one hell of a run in the 20th century. The disastrous results now widely acknowledged underscore the warnings of those who said that we could depart from liberty and property only at our peril.
The warriors of the Liberty and Property Defence League may have lost the battle in their lifetimes, but a hundred years later they offer prophetic wisdom to those who will listen.