All Commentary
Thursday, April 1, 1965

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1965/4

The institute of Economic Af­fairs in Great Britain, which is a nonparty group of economists “held together by a common inter­est in the working of free eco­nomic institutions,” has put out a remarkable paperback book, Re­birth of Britain (Pan Books, Ltd., 8 Headfort Place, London S.W.I.; 5 shillings). Eighteen au­thors have contributed to it, and some of their essays would per­plex any classical liberal of the nineteenth century. The key to both the tone and the strategy of the papers is the fact that a na­tion which is far gone in state welfarism gives its citizens very little room in which to maneuver in their efforts to restore individ­ual freedom of action. Because of the situation in Britain, the con­tributors to this book do not ar­gue for an immediate restoration of free capitalist institutions. In­stead, they concentrate on taking their adversaries on the flank, proposing only “a drastic pruning of unnecessary state welfare ser­vices.” The key to that statement is the word “unnecessary.” Who is to say?

Well, an “unnecessary” state service in our various authors’ estimation is one that does not permit a voluntary choice between private and public welfare agen­cies. This implicit definition con­trols the strategy of the Rebirth of Britain authors. They don’t really advocate dismantling any of the features of the welfare state. But they do suggest the idea of “contracting out,” presum­ably on a basis that would still compel all people to maintain some form of insurance protec­tion against such things as sick­ness and old age.

In this book we find Arthur Sel­don advocating enough govern­ment welfarism to provide some state support to “people with low incomes.” But he would not pro­vide this support through free services. Instead, he would have the government give to the poor “generous cash money grants or vouchers to enable them to assert themselves in the market place by exerting a choice between state and private welfare services.” The idea would be to put the welfare agencies of the state into renewed competition with private insurance agencies, private schools (or “pub­lic,” as they are called in Eng­land), and private businesses.

The voucher idea has been ad­vanced in the United States by Professor Milton Friedman, who thinks it could be adapted to aid to education without putting the government into the business of supporting colleges with grants of money that might corrupt the cur­riculum. Obviously, in America the creation of a system of higher educational vouchers would in­crease the sum total of state wel­farism. This is sufficient to raise the hackles of libertarians. But in the existing British context, a voucher system might very well represent an advance toward lib­ertarianism over what they now have.

This would seem to be especial­ly true in the case of the British health services. If a British citi­zen were to be permitted to “con­tract out” of dependence on the apparatus of the National Health Service, wouldn’t it be a net gain for freedom?

Counterbarrage to Planners

Rebirth of Britain was provoked by a special issue of Encounter magazine in which sixteen writers under the general editorship of Arthur Koestler wrote on econom­ic planning, education, state wel­farism, and related topics. The Koestler group, a bunch of latter-day Fabians who lamented the coming “suicide” of Britain sim­ply because the state hadn’t man­aged to conscript more than a fifth of the national wealth for com­pulsory welfare schemes, advocat­ed a far greater direction of the national energy from the top. This so appalled the economists who are banded together in the Insti­tute of Economic Affairs that they decided to let go at the Koestler total planners with a counter barrage advocating as much of a re­treat from state compulsion as can be made plausible to Britons who have forgotten that there ever was a classical tradition in economics.

Well, what in Rebirth of Britain is deemed a plausible retreat toward freedom in the current British context? Graham Hutton would curb the unions but contin­ue “a national minimum wage plus locally negotiated supplements differing between industries, firms and regions.” Jack Wiseman would relate payments for TV entertain­ment to “quantity consumed,” which would not necessarily put the government-owned British Broadcasting Company out of business but would force it to compete more directly for favor with commercial broadcasting. Mr. Wiseman would return some gov­ernment monopolies (coal, trans­portation) to private ownership, but remains doubtful about gas and electricity. Gwyn James would decrease the government supports to British agriculture, but finds a good word to say for the Swed­ish Land Acquisition Act of 1945 which prevents “unsuitable amal­gamations” of farm property and keeps nonfarmers from acquiring farm and forest land.

Denis Thomas, like Jack Wise­man, would not do away with the BBC, but would hold it “in check by competition.” Colin Clark would reduce the structure of state wel­fare by limiting the sum total of taxation to twenty-five per cent of the national income. (He quotes John Maynard Keynes as saying to him that “your figure of twen­ty-five per cent” is “the maximum tolerable proportion of taxation.”)

Arthur Seldon would let schools be “sold in stages to private in­dividuals, partnerships, companies or trusts,” and he would permit “doctors’ private lists” to “in­creasingly replace National Health Service lists,” but he would also create a “Permanent Commission on the Social Services” to “advise which state services should be run down and which expanded.” E. G. West would increase the amount of private education, but would give all parents a basic annual sixty pounds in state vouchers “spendable on schooling.”

Getting from Here to There: The Gradualist Approach

It is apparent from the fore-going recital that not even those who are “held together by a com­mon interest in the working of free economic institutions” dare propose in England a whole hog reversion to the world of Adam Smith. Some of the contributors of Rebirth of Britain—notably John Jewkes, John Brunner, John Carmichael, and Jossleyn Hen­nessy—make a general case for economic freedom, but when it comes to “getting from here to there” the vast majority of the authors represented in this book would be content to cut the wel­fare state back by slow degrees.

What the whole business adds up to is a sort of Fabianism-in­reverse-gear, approaching free­dom as a limit in much the same manner that Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb used in approaching social­ism as a limit back in the eighteen nineties. It is the “inevitability of gradualism” all over again, but with the arrows pointing in a dif­ferent direction.

Well, maybe such gradualism toward freedom as a limit is the only viable program for an Eng­land in which a socialist-minded Labor Party still insists that the steel business would be national­ized. Of course, it all seems a la­mentably far cry from what was once preached in the land of Cob­den, Bright, Lord Acton, the early John Stuart Mill, Ricardo, and Adam Smith. But Americans, these days, can’t afford to feel very superior to British Fabian­ism-in-reverse. It won’t be long at the rate we are going before we, too, are saddled with state medi­cine and more government sup­ported colleges and heavy subsi­dies to depressed regions and all the other things that have made Britain so regressive. When we have gone down the garden path a bit longer, we, too, may be re­duced to putting our hopes on the idea of “contracting out” from all manner of state programs.

Cold Friday by Whittaker Chambers (New York: Random House, 1964), 327 pp., $5.95

Reviewed by Robert M. Thornton

If an intellectual may be de­fined as a person concerned with the things of the mind, Whittaker Chambers qualifies with flying col­ors. Widely read and conversant in several languages, he sought not knowledge alone but also wis­dom, the right use of knowledge. His joy and reverence for the wonder and mystery of life set him apart from those whose ultra-sophistication renders them in­capable of experiencing the higher emotions. This great difference—Chambers, a humble poet, seeking God, while his fellow-intellectuals too often were content to sit smug in the confidence that “God is dead”—helps explain the treat­ment accorded Chambers when he revealed his break with the Com­munist Party.

Chambers hated the notoriety of the Hiss Case. This was not a man eager for the plaudits of the world but a man forced by his own integrity to do what he believed was right regardless of consequences. His break with com­munism was not unlike the ex­perience of a narcotic addict or alcoholic “taking the cure.” It left a permanent scar.

Dr. Franz Winkler has said that Western civilization is breaking down because its spiritual founda­tion has been ignored or discard­ed, first several generations ago by the “intellectuals,” and now by the common man. Chambers docu­mented this with his life. He tells of his early college days when few professors, if any, advocated communism, but many teachers scorned religion and derided any­one who believed in the objectivity of transcendent reality. But since man must have some religion, be it good or bad, the vacuum left by the rejection of Christianity (a good religion) was sometimes filled by communism (a bad re­ligion).

Communism, then, is not the disease itself; it is a symptom. The “disease” is the denial of God. The world is not divided between good and bad nations, for good and evil are to be found in every nation. The problem for the West is not to “defeat” communism or “coexist” with com­munism but to achieve a rebirth of the spiritual life among its own people, and restore its value system. This is not a job for com­mittees, government or private, and no amount of money will bring it about. Rather, it is for each of us to look searchingly at his own life and at his spiritual heritage.

Cold Friday is a field in Cham­bers’ Maryland farm, deeded by Chambers to his son—a piece of the good earth as a heritage from father to son. Cold Friday, Whit­taker Chambers deeded to pos­terity.

Whittaker Chambers

It is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civili­zation. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once some­thing else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.

From a letter to National Review, July 29, 1961

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.