The Tory is the classical conservative in whose traditional view of society the common good can only be achieved through the alliance of royal and ecclesiastical authority. He accepts capitalism, the economy in which business is privately owned and operated and goods and services are bought and sold in an open market, with the qualifications that the market can only perform its function of converting self-interest into the common good, when set in the context of the social and civil order and of a moral and cultural tradition which supplies the brakes on our tendency to take the basic human appetite for acquisition to excess in the vice of Avarice that the market itself lacks. He rejects socialism, the utopian dream of achieving greater justice and happiness through the collective ownership of productive property, as something unfit for men as they actually are and which in practice could only increase injustice and misery and, worse, as being the sin of Envy trying to hide its ugly face behind the masks of charity and compassion.
The topic of socialism raises the question of social legislation, by which name we designate laws passed and programs operated by the state for the purpose of ameliorating the human condition by alleviating suffering and want. Today such legislation is usually regarded as falling under the province of socialism. Indeed, there are many people, who would think first of this, rather than collective ownership, when they hear the word socialism. Yet historically, it was Tories who introduced several key elements of social legislation. (1) Furthermore, they did so with the explicit motivation of combating socialism.
The most important figure in the history of Tory social legislation was Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield, who served under Queen Victoria as Prime Minister briefly in 1868, then again from 1874 to 1880. In the 1870s his government passed multiple reform acts aimed at improving the conditions of the lower and working classes, but more importantly he put forward a theoretical justification for these bills, grounded in Tory principles. Decades before he became Prime Minister he wrote the novel Sybil which illustrated his arguments. From the sixteenth century until his own, he argued, a series of factors including the confiscation of the church lands under Henry VIII, the enclosure of the commons, industrialization, and the growth of the cities, caused the lower classes to lose so much security and so many of their traditional rights as to make the rich and the poor in effect, “two nations”. The Tory must seek to re-integrate these into “one nation” that secures the rights of rich and poor alike, lest the latter become the followers of some demagogue or socialist bent on revolution. He appealed to the traditional Tory principle of noblesse oblige – that those in high social, political, and economic positions have duties to those in lower positions – to make his case.
In Disraeli’s “one nation conservatism” we see the fundamental difference between the Tory and socialist arguments for social legislation. The Tory and socialist both have additional motivations to pass social legislation apart from its internal purpose of alleviating human misery. These motivations are diametrically opposed to each other. The Tory introduced such legislation to unite the country. Socialism, however, wants to level the classes and create social, political, and economic equality. This is not a unifying doctrine, but a divisive doctrine, aimed at organizing the masses of “have nots” against the hated “haves” class. For socialism, social legislation is a weapon of aggression in its war against the “haves”.
Such radically different ends, at cross-purposes with each other, cannot help but produce differences in the nature and scope of the social legislation approved by the Tory and that advocated by the socialist.
The differences in nature are easier to illustrate than to explain. To give one example, the Tory has historically preferred unemployment insurance over outright handouts. Canadian Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, in a radio address defending the unemployment insurance legislation his government was proposing eighty years ago, said “If he [the workman] is able and willing to work, but can get no work, provision must be made for his security in a decent way. By this I do not mean the dole. The dole is a rotten thing. It is alike an insult to the worker and to those who profess to have control of our industrial system.“ (2) Unemployment insurance preserves the dignity of everybody involved in a way that relief handouts – the dole - do not.
The difference in scope is simple to explain. Socialism’s view of social legislation is expansive, with no internal boundaries or limitations on how far it can expand. This must necessarily be the case, because socialism has set an unattainable end, equality, as its goal. The Tory, on the other hand, is inclined to a minimalist view of social legislation. He sees that the realities of modern existence are such that it is necessary that there be some degree of public policy to guarantee that help is available to the aged, infirm, and those for whom no gainful employment can be found, but insists that we must strive to limit that policy to what is absolutely necessary. (3) He recognizes what the socialist does not, that social legislation taken too far, does more harm than it does good.
The socialist would say that theirs is the more charitable and generous approach. This, however, is nonsense. Social legislation is not about charity or generosity, virtues that can only be cultivated by individual persons, but about the security and stability of the social and civil order. “The supreme function of statesmanship”, Enoch Powell said, “is to provide against preventable evils.” (4) Unrest and revolution, due to misery and want, are the preventable evils that social legislation provides against.
In a different speech from that quoted in the previous paragraph, Enoch Powell explained how when given too large of a scope, social legislation can produce the very unrest it is supposed to prevent. He distinguished between two meanings of the phrase “welfare state” (5), which correspond to the Tory and socialist visions of social legislation. The first, he said, was that “the state is the agency by which the community discharges its responsibility to ensure a tolerable livelihood to all its members.” (6) The second is that “the state undertakes on behalf of its members the responsibility for meeting whatever needs of theirs it chooses to recognize.” Observing that there had been a rapid transition since WWII from the first to the second meaning, he remarked that:
The state which undertakes, and is accepted as undertaking, the obligation to meet the general needs of the citizens is particularly vulnerable to violent agitation, for one simple reason – the obligation it has accepted is by its nature unlimited. It follows that the material for dissatisfaction is likewise unlimited.
There are plenty of other evils attendant upon the growth of the welfare state from the basic security net envisioned by Disraeli and Bismarck into the Santa Claus state. Created by democratic assemblies, administered by arrogant bureaucrats, and paid for out of obscenely high taxes, the Provider State works against the end for which the ancients saw the state as being established, by discouraging rather than facilitating the cultivation of habits of virtue. “One of the worst effects of national welfare systems”, Dr. Thomas Fleming wrote, “is that they diminish our capacity and our desire to perform voluntary works of charity.” (7) Worse, they allow us to pride ourselves on our “charity” and “generosity”, not for giving alms to the poor out of our own pocket, but for voting them out of all of our neighbours’ pockets. Which is to say nothing of the deleterious effects that this kind of social legislation has been observed to have had on its recipients. (8)
Ultimately, social legislation, in its expansive, Provider State form, is a repudiation of the good principles upon which Tories like Disraeli stood when introducing their more modest version. These Tories hoped to redress evils that had been brought about by industrial capitalism having uprooted the organic relationships of pre-modern society. It is in our social nature to form such relationships, and to reform them should they be destroyed, but it is the nature of the socialist Provider State to impede the reforming of the organic relationships uprooted by liberal capitalism. Consider again how Powell defined the original meaning of the welfare state “the agency by which the community discharges its responsibility to ensure a tolerable livelihood to all its members.” In the pre-modern order, that agency was the church not the state, (9) and one of the obvious effects of the Provider State has been to reduce the influence of the church in society, not to restore it to its pre-modern place at the heart of the community, a restoration for which the Tory longs.
Unfortunately, it seems to be the nature of social legislation to expand into its socialist form (10), and so the Tory will be fighting an uphill battle as he strives to roll it back and contain it in the form where it does the most good and the least evil.
(1) “English socialists claim credit for the ‘heroic struggle’ against the evils of industrial production. They prefer to forget that the Factory Acts, the legalization of trade unions, even the welfare state, were either Conservative inventions, or made possible by conservative forces that had long been striving to bring such things into being.” Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, Rev. 3rd Edition, (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 1980, 2002), p. 109.
(2) R. B. Bennett, January 4, 1935, the second address in The Premier Speaks to the People, (Ottawa: Dominion Conservative Headquarters, 1945)
(3) Anthony Burgess, the eccentric, High Tory, novelist, playwright, and composer who, commenting on his first visit to East Berlin in his memoirs remarked “If ever I wavered in my acceptance of Western capitalism, I had only to return to that grimness unenlivened by the gaudy posters of commercialism to wish to scuttle back to nudes and Mammon” described this as “minimal socialization” in an interview with John Cullinan that appeared in the Spring 1973 issue of The Paris Review.
(4) Enoch Powell, speaking in Birmingham, April 20th, 1968.
(5) Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn preferred the term “Provider State”, pointing out that “It should not be called the Welfare State for, after all, every state exists for the welfare of its citizens.” Leftism Revisited: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Pol Pot (Washington D. C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990), p. 28.
(6) Enoch Powell, speaking in Portadown, Amragh County, Northern Ireland, February 7, 1970.
(7) Thomas Fleming, The Morality of Everyday Life: Rediscovering an Ancient Alternative to the Liberal Tradition, (Columbia and London: The University of Missouri Press, 2004), p. 77.
(8) Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984, 1994).
(9) “What we might now call welfare –food, clothing, shelter, medicine—was distributed by the Church to members of the local parish. The monasteries, on the other hand, gave emergency relief to strangers and beggars.” Thomas Fleming, op. cit., p. 78.
(10)“The trouble with state welfare is that it grows and grows, until the economy - which supports both forms of parasite, its beneficiaries and its bureaucrats – collapses.” Auberon Waugh, The Spectator, May 13, 1995.