All Commentary
Monday, March 1, 1999

Life Imitates Gilbert

Gilbert Saw Government As Something to Be Knocked Down a Notch

In jolly old England Queen Elizabeth II has stripped the hereditary peers of their parliamentary power in the House of Lords. The act constitutes the leveling of the dukes, earls, marquesses, viscounts, and barons, some of whose titles go back to William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, who subdued England in 1066 and became William I.

For devotees of another William—William Schwenck Gilbert (1836–1911)—this all has a familiar ring. Gilbert, of course, was the liberal spirit and comic librettist who with Arthur Seymour Sullivan composed the greatest collaborative effort by Englishmen ever—Monty Python, Lennon and McCartney, and Churchill and Bomber Harris included. Mencken called Gilbert “even above Mark Twain, the merrymaker of his generation.”

Gilbert’s arsenal of jibe and joke and quip and crank was reserved almost exclusively for men of rank. As his alter ego, Jack Point, put it in The Yeomen of the Guard:

At peer or prince—at prince or peer,

I aim my shaft and know no fear!

Gilbert played with the idea of radical change in the House of Lords in his and Sullivan’s opera Iolanthe. In synopsis, a band of fairies casts a spell on the Lords for coming between a young shepherd and his betrothed, Phyllis. Magically, Strephon is seated in Parliament and “carries every bill he chooses.” But the fairies go further. Speaks the Fairy Queen:

Peers shall teem in Christendom,

And a Duke’s exalted station

Be attainable by Competitive Examination!

Gilbert had no more mercy for the Peers than the Fairy Queen did. His Lord Mount-ararat explains that an undistinguished group of noblemen had never barred England from greatness in the past.

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,

As every child can tell,

The House of Peers, throughout the war,

Did nothing in particular,

And did it very well:

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

Even a lowly sentry knew the score. Private Willis points out that members of Parliament, “if they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too,” leave their brains outside Westminster Hall “and vote just as their leaders tell ‘em to.” Not that that’s a bad thing:

But then the prospect of a lot

Of dull M.P.’s in close proximity,

All thinking for themselves, is what

No man can face with equanimity.

All ends well, of course. Each Lord marries a fairy—happily exchanging House of Peers for House of Peris.

No moral here, just an observation: Gilbert saw hereditary rank, and government in general, as something to be knocked down a notch. It’s good to see the world catching up with him.

* * *

It cannot be said too many times: Property is the key to liberty, justice, and prosperity. Which is why Tom Bethell’s new book, The Noblest Triumph, is such a welcome addition to the literature of freedom. In the excerpt reprinted herein Bethell examines the crucial connection between property and justice.

Speaking of justice, more than a few people think the gap between what corporate CEOs and workers are paid is a scandal. The gap is real; the injustice is illusory, as Charles Baird demonstrates.

Since the atrocious murder of a young homosexual man in Wyoming last year, the push for a national “hate crimes” law has been renewed with vigor. Not so fast, writes Melissa Suarez, who finds good reasons to be wary about well-meaning legislation aimed at states of mind.

In 1943 the great classical liberal Ludwig von Mises wrote a book about Mexico’s economic problems. The manuscript lay forgotten in his papers until our own Bettina Bien Greaves found it in 1997. It was translated into Spanish and published in Mexico. Eduardo Turrent discusses the significance of Mises’s work.

The cost of government regulation is not merely the money spent but the untold things we must do without because innovation is stifled. Eric Nolte provides a glimpse of what we would be enjoying were the federal government not regulating aviation.

The Western idea of limiting government power—and clearing a large space for individual creativity—is the product of a long, complex, and unplanned historical process. Tom Palmer takes us on the consequential journey from servitude to freedom and back.

Everyone knows that Americans save too little. Too few know why. John Hood puts the idea of saving into historical perspective and comes to some provocative conclusions.

Remember the last time the government declared some problem solved and disbanded the agency charged with solving it? Neither do we. Harold Jones, Jr., says it’s not our memory that is failing.

To win someone over to the freedom philosophy, it helps to connect with the intuitions he already possesses. James Otteson sets out a game plan for persuading philosophers that liberty is indivisible. It’s not just for philosophers.

In columns this month, Lawrence Reed inveighs against “living wage” legislation, Dwight Lee expounds on opportunity costs, Doug Bandow revisits the stupidest war of the twentieth century, Mark Skousen ponders the millennium bug, and Russell Roberts, our newest contributor to “The Pursuit of Happiness,” looks for the unseen. Lawrence White mulls over Jagdish Bhagwati’s nod to capital controls, and counters, “It Just Ain’t So.”

Books that come under review this month deal with the war on tobacco, the ten “worst” presidents, the post-communist world, judicial corruption, and Paul Johnson’s history of America.

—Sheldon Richman

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.