Book Review: An Economic History of England: The 18th Century by T. S. Ashton

New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. 257 pp. $4.00.

Despite the romanticism of folk tales, life was far from idyllic in the days when Jack-of-the-Beanstalk and his young contemporaries trudged along picturesque country lanes, leading the family cow or pigs to market.

Conditions changed slowly in those times. Before 1700 life was pretty much the same throughout the world. A long cold winter or an exceptionally wet season made life in the quaint cottages of fairy-tale renown so uncomfortable that mortality rates zoomed. Thousands of ragged and homeless beggars could find no employment in the rigidly protected industrial and social hierarchy of that era.

But in the eighteenth century, liberal ideas began to have a marked effect on everyday life in England. Gradually men realized that government should not be permitted to interfere with their private lives. They came to believe they should be free to use their property as they wished. With the spread of this philosophy, the initiative and ingenuity of industrious individuals began to affect the lives of all the citizens in the country. Men learned that by hard work and saving they could advance in the world, upsetting the rigid class structure of feudalism.

Professor T. S. Ashton of the London School of Economics deals with this period in An Economic History of England: The 18th Century. In the carefully documented words of a true historian, he describes the development of the factory system, a comprehensive network of roads and canals, new farming techniques, the banking and insurance industries, overseas trade, and the resulting improvements in economic conditions.

It has been estimated that there were about 51/2 million people living in England and Wales in 1695. Epidemics were frequent and infant mortality rates were high. As transportation improved, the people could enjoy a more varied and healthful diet. Soap and washable clothes became more common. Medical practice improved. And gradually the population increased to probably more than 9 million by the end of the eighteenth century.

This book is not light reading, but it is an important contribution to historical knowledge. Its countless references to original source material should prove valuable to the researcher of this period, not only to the academician but also to the novelist and the scenario writer.

His conclusions, however, are most reserved, befitting a careful historian:

Thoughtless writers have compared the semi-skilled operatives in the new factories with the small farmers and craftsmen of an earlier generation. If comparison is to be made at all it must be with the squatters of the country-side, and the paupers of the towns, from whose ragged ranks the factory workers were largely drawn.

Bettina Bien

From a Libertarian’s Library

It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.

No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.

In order to make plunder appear just and sacred to many consciences, it is only necessary for the law to decree and sanction it. Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them.

A selection from “The Law” by Frédéric Bastiat, 1850. Translated by Dean Russell. Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, N. Y. 76 pp: 65¢ paper-bound, $1.25 clothbound.

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