Front Page Titles (by Subject) Victorian England and Laissez-faire - Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4
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Victorian England and Laissez-faire - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Victorian England and Laissez-faire
“L'Angleterre victorienne: paradigme du laissezfaire? A propos d'une controverse.” [“Victorian England: Paradigm of Laissez-faire?”] Revue historique 26 (No. 1, 1979): 79–98.
Historians of the past twenty-five years have repeatedly challenged the traditional view of Victorian England as the “age of laissez-faire.” In his article, Prof. Bédarida describes the nature of this revisionist reevaluation and then seeks to assess its accuracy for the period between 1830 and 1870.
First of all, historians such as O. MacDonagh and H. Parris have pointed to growing state concern during the Victorian period with public assistance to the poor, work conditions, railways, mines, public health, and education. They further emphasize that regulatory activities in such widely varying areas of British life engendered an expanding, bureaucratic apparatus, belying the usual picture of a skeletal and largely powerless Victorian government.
Indeed, MacDonagh discerns a “revolution in government” during this period—a governmental expansion brought about by growing urbanization, industrialization, and pauperization in Britain. Exposure of abuses gave rise to Parliamentary studies which, in turn, resulted in elaborate regulatory legislation.
Revisionist historians differ, however, in defining the intellectual base of this revolution in government. MacDonagh, (along with D. Roberts and G. Kiston Clark) sees it as the triumph of British empiricism. Without theories or preconceived notions, lawmakers and administrators sought the most efficient solutions to the problems at hand and gropingly evolved the bureaucratic system which was firmly in place by the end of the nineteenth century. According to this view, the revolution occurred simply by “muddling through.”
On the other hand, historians such as H. Parris and J. Hart view the change as the direct result of the political and social doctrines of Benthamite utilitarianism, which, while distrustful of government, saw its function as that of a rational
organizer—harmonizing divergent interests, propogating the spirit of progress, and promoting the happiness of the greatest number. Prof. Bédarida concurs in this latter view. He adds that Adam Smith and Victorian economists such as John Ramsay McCulloch (1789–1864) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) all admitted interventions by the state in the name of general utility. The door to expanding government had thus been opened by theorists of the limited state.
Furthermore, Bédarida warns against exaggerating the powers of the Victorian central government. While undoubtedly expanding, the growth of bureaucracy was considerably restricted by a budgetary frugality which held sway throughout the nineteenth century. Limited resources, in turn, significantly hampered the implementation of reform legislation. In addition, an individualist ethic undoubtedly pervaded English thinking of the period. Voluntary associations, not government, assumed the larger part of the responsibility for social services, while the aristocratic and upper-middle classes frequently acted out of a sense of duty for the common good.
Thus, Prof. Bédarida warns against substituting one myth for another. While certainly not a laissez-faire skeleton, neither was Victorian government a Welfare State giant. In Bédarida's view, the firm and disciplined Victorian State should be understood according to a simpler model. It was not the benevolent “Etat-Providence” seemingly assumed by revisionists, but instead the resolute “Etat-Gendarme.”