D.G. Ritchie’s Philosophical Justification for State Interference

Okay, this is going to be a long extract, but bear with it. It all needs to be said. One of the arguments I’ve seen Libertarians use to defend their ideology of a minimal state and absolute laissez-faire free enterprise and zero state welfare, is that liberals and socialists don’t have any philosophical arguments to justify their position beyond pointing to the practical, positive effects. I’ve seen this line stated by one of the more notorious Libertarians, Vox Day. Not only is Day a supporter of the miserable and immiserating economics of vons Hayek and Mises, but he has extreme right-wing views on feminism and race. You can tell just how far right he is by the fact that he calls Donald Trump ‘the God Emperor’ and refers to Anders Breivik, the man who called 70 odd children at a Norwegian Young Socialists’ camp, a saint. He really is despicable.

In fact, the philosophers of the New Liberalism, which appeared in Britain in the 1880s, like T.H. Green, D.G. Ritchie, J.A. Hobson and L.T. Hobhouse, produced philosophical defences of state interference to justify the new change in direction taken by the Liberals. These had broken with the stance of the old Radicals, who were firmly against state legislation. Instead, these philosophers argued that state interference, rather than reducing human freedom, actually enlarged it by empowering the individual. Ritchie, in the piece below, attacks the simplistic notion of the state versus personal liberty expressed by Herbert Spencer, the founder of Social Darwinism, and provides a philosophical justification for collective ownership not just in nationalization but also municipalization. In his The Principles of State Interference of 1891 he wrote

Underlying all these traditions and prejudices there is a particular metaphysical theory-a metaphysical theory which takes hold of those persons especially who are fondest of abjuring all metaphysics; and the disease is in their case the more dangerous since they do not know when they have it. The chief symptom of this metaphysical complaint is the belief in the abstract individual. The individual is thought of, at least spoken of, as if he had a meaning and significance apart from his surroundings and apart from his relations to the community of which he is a member. It may be quite true that the significance of the individual is not exhausted by his relations to any given set of surroundings; but apart from all these he is a mere abstraction-a logical ghost, a metaphysical spectre, which haunts the habitations of those who have derided metaphysics. The individual, apart from all relations to a community, is a negation. You can say nothing about him, or rather it, except that it is not any other individual. Now, along with this negative and abstract view of the individual there goes, as counterpart, the way of looking at the State as an opposing element to the individual. The individual and the State are put over against one another. Their relation is regarded as one merely of antithesis. Of course, this is a point of view which we can take, and quite rightly for certain purposes; but it is only one point of view. It expresses only a partial truth; and a partial truth, if accepted as the whole truth, is always a falsehood. Such a conception is, in any case, quite inadequate as a basis for any profitable discussion of the duties of Government.

It is this theory of the individual which underlies Mill’s famous book, Liberty. Mill, and all those who take up his attitude towards the State, seem to assume that all power gained by the State is so much taken from the individual, and conversely, that all power gained by the individual is gained at the expense of the state. Now this is to treat the two elements, power of the State and power (or liberty) of the individual, as if they formed the debit and credit sides of an account book; it is to make them like two heaps of a fixed number of stones, to neither of which you can add without taking from the other. It is to apply a mere quantitative conception in politics, as it that were an adequate ‘category’ in such matters. the same thing is done when society is spoken of as merely ‘an aggregate of individuals.’ The citizen of a State, the member of a society of any sort, even an artificial or temporary association, does not stand in the same relation to the Whole that one number does to a series of numbers, or that one stone does to a heap of stones. Even ordinary language shows this. We feel it to be a more adequate expression to say that the citizen is a member of the body politic, than to call him merely a unit in a political aggregate…

Life Mr. Spencer defines as adaptation of the individual to his environment; but, unless the individual manages likewise to adapt his environment to himself, the definition would be more applicable to death.

It must not be supposed that we wish to blind ourselves to the many real difficulties and objections which there are in the way of remedying and preventing evils by direct State action. If assured that the end is good, we must see that the means are sufficient and necessary, and we must be prepared to count the cost. But, admitting the real difficulties, we must not allow imaginary difficulties to block the way. In the first place, as already said, State action does not necessarily imply the direct action of the central government. Many things may be undertaken by local bodies which it would be unwise to put under the control of officials at a distance. ‘Municipalisation’ is, in many cases, a much better ‘cry’ than ‘Nationalisation’. Experiments may also be more safely tried in small than in large areas, and local bodies may profit by each other’s experience. Diffusion of power may well be combined with concentration of information. ‘Power’, says J.S. Mill, ‘may be localized, but knowledge to be most useful must be centralized.’ Secondly, there are many matters which can more easily be taken in hand than others by the State as presently constituted. Thus the means of communication and locomotion can in every civilized country be easily nationalized or municipalized, where this has not been done already. With regard to productive industries, there may appear greater difficulty. But the process now going on by which the individual capitalist more and more gives place to enormous joint-stock enterprises, worked by salaried managers, this tendency of capital to become ‘impersonal,’ is making the transition to management by government (central or local) very much more simple, and very much more necessary, than in the days of small industries, before the ‘industrial revolution’ began. The State will not so much displace individual enterprise, as substitute for the irresponsible company or ‘trust’ the responsible public corporation. Thirdly, and lastly, be it observed that the arguments used against ‘government’ action, where the government is entirely or mainly in the hands of a ruling class or caste, exercising wisely or unwisely a paternal or ‘grandmotherly’ authority-such arguments lose their force just in proportion as government becomes more and more genuinely the government of the people by the people themselves. The explicit recognition of popular sovereignty tends to abolish the antithesis between ‘the Man’ and ‘the State’. The State becomes, not ‘I’ indeed, but ‘we.’ The main reason for desiring more State action is in order to give the individual a greater chance of developing all his activities in a healthy way. The State and the individual are not sides of an antithesis between which we must choose; and it is possible, though, like all great things, difficult for a democracy to construct a strong and vigorous State, and thereby to foster a strong and vigorous individuality, not selfish nor isolated, but finding its truest welfare in the welfare of the community. Mr. Spencer takes up the formula ‘from status to contract’ as a complete philosophy of history. Is there not wanting a third and higher stage in which there shall be at once order and progress, cohesion and liberty, socialistic-but, therefore, rendering possible the highest development of all such individuality as constitutes an element in well-being? Perhaps then Radicalism is not turning back to an effete Toryism, but advancing to a further and positive form, leaving to the Tories and old Whigs and to Mr. Spencer the worn-out and cast-off credd of its own immaturity.

In Alan Bullock and Maurice Shock, eds., The Liberal Tradition: From Fox to Keynes (Oxford: OUP 1956), pp. 187-90.

Libertarianism was discredited long ago, when 19th century governments first started passing legislation to clear slums and give the labouring poor proper sanitation, working hours and education. Its philosophical justification came later, but I think also effectively demolished it. The people promoting it, such as the Koch brothers in America, are big businessmen seeking to re-establish a highly exploitative order which allowed industry to profit massively at the expense of working people. It became popular through aligning itself with left-wing ideas of personal liberty that emerged in the 1960s, such as the drug culture, and in the ’90s produced the illegal rave scene. In the form of Anarcho-Capitalism, it also appealed to some of those who were attracted to anarchism, while attacking the communist elements in that philosophy. Its adherent also try to justify it by calling it Classical Liberalism.

But it’s still just the same old reactionary ideology, that should have finally gone out with end of the Nineteenth Century. I think that as more people become trapped in poverty as a result of its policies, it’ll lose whatever popularity it once had. And perhaps then we can back to proper political theories advocating state intervention to advance the real, practical liberty of working people.

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One Response to “D.G. Ritchie’s Philosophical Justification for State Interference”

  1. Mark Catlin Says:

    Reblogged this on Declaration Of Opinion.

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