Paul Marks on Moral Puritanism and the Left in England

Paul Marks

Most (although not all) of the upper classes, the gentry and aristocracy were not pro censorship and stuff. As for party politics even in the late 19th century such things as the Personal Rights Association contained at least as many Conservatives as Liberals. As the old saying goes “do not ban it – unless it frightens the horses”.

The backbone of the most “Reform” movements (such as temperance) came from lower down the social scale, and it had its positive side. People who had cleaned up their own lives (so they could not look after, rather than neglect, their own families – and other people), but SOMETIMES made the mistake of thinking that force should be used to make other people clean up their lives.

There are two mistakes (not one mistake) to be avoided here. Firstly the mistake that vice is not vice – the idea that it does not matter if someone, for example, spends their wages down the pub and lets their children go hungry. But the other mistake (pointed out even by party leaders – such as Gladstone and Lord S.) is thinking that trying to force virtue by state action is the way to go – a mistake as old as Plato, and (sadly) not rejected by his pupil Aristotle.

As for religion – some statists were Dissenters (radical Protestants) certainly – but some other Dissenters were voluntarists (such as the Leeds Mercury people) and opposed them.

Also many “reformers” were actually atheists (open or disguised – such as J. Bentham) who believed that the state could see long term “pleasure” better than ordinary people could. As for any idea that there were limits of PRINCPLE to state power (natural justice) this was rejected as “nonsense” or “nonsense on stilts”.

Even Epicurus (indeed especially Epicurus – who was a sensible man, and a great defender of human agency, i.e. the ability of human beings to make real choices “free will” although “will” may be the wrong word as Ralph Cudworth warned) had warned that some pleasures had bad long term consequences, and (therefore) should be avoided. What some people, such as Bentham (in his later years – in his youth he was more free market in his approach) did was to push state intervention for the “happiness” of people, judging that the state, if under the guidance of wise experts (such as himself and his followers) was better able to judge long term pleasure and pain than ordinary people were – the people should be guided for their own good, the good that “only the wise could see” (to quote Saruman from the Lord of the Rings).

Actually various German thinkers had got there long before Bentham, as had some French thinkers (such as Rousseau) – the happiness of the people should be the goal of state policy and the state (if under the correct guidance) was better able to judge long term happiness than ordinary people are, in this the state (at least according to Rousseau) does what the people really want – even if they do not know it (Hegel and others would agree with that position – as would the German “Cameralists” of the 17th century onwards whom Oakeshott, rather unkindly, compares to the British Fabian Sydney Webb).

For the American experience see “Liberal Fascism” by J. Goldberg, or unintentionally “Nudge” by “libertarian paternalist” Cass Sunstein.

I say “unintentionally” as the later work reads like a satire – but the author is utterly unaware of this.

Other utilitarians rejected this sort of thinking – for example Ludwig Von Mises.

Mises even defended the position that state action to combat personal vices would be harmful – which allowed statists such as Galbraith to attack him (rather hypocritically attack him).

As for theatre and other censorship – there is indeed a religious element (Catholic as well as Protestant), but Cato the Elder needed none and neither do modern feminists and other such.

In Britain Sir Robert Walpole introduced it for cynical political reasons – as a way of preventing attacks upon him in the theatre.

He got the most horrible gut churning vile play he could find (indeed he actually had it written himself – no profit seeking theatre owner would have put on such a thing) and showed it to Members of Parliament (in the early 18th century mostly part time country members who knew little of London) as if it was the normal product of the London stage.

The Victorians could be fooled – but so could people more than a century before the Victorians.


  1. Thanks for the useful historical summary.
    Coupla points: 1) You say “there are 2 mistakes to be avoided here” and obviously on this platform you are preaching to the choir, but how would you or readers here set about explaining to young statists that these ARE indeed mistakes? People who have never known anything else and who live in a society which has been run on the “philosopher-king” principle for over a 1,000 years?
    2) Why did Mises’ position ALLOW Galbraith to attack him? On what grounds? Simply because Mises was saying there should be a limit to state power or oversight?
    3) Presumably, “it does not matter if someone spends their wages down the pub and lets their children go hungry” is not a mistake, in your opinion (the sentence structure left it a little ambiguous). The mistake is to think it DOES matter and wiser heads should step and DO something about it.

  2. Three questions.

    Question one – I do not know, but things are a lot less bad as people with a tendency to depression (such as me) often suppose. Most people are actually rather cynical about the state and its ability to improve people morally – at least that is my impression, and I have spent almost 40 years knocking on doors about political matters (not just at election time) and spent my non political life interacting with the public (both as security guard, in all sorts of places, and at an amusement park). I think I can say with some confidence that most ordinary people, at least in this part of the world, are NOT in love with the state (something I forget in my black moods – when thoughts of suicide, or just no thoughts at all, seek to control me). The academic elite, and so on, are of course different – what to do about them is a problem to which I have no solution (I would love to “defund” them – but how to get that through…….).

    Question Two – a bad use of language by me (I always type whatever is in my head – and never stop to check). “Allow” was the wrong word – but Galbraith did use the standard collectivist tricks…….

    Pretend that someone who says X should not be punished by the state is in favour of X. A viciously dishonest tactic, but one that is used all the time and has been for ages. For example when Edmund Burke said that homosexual acts (he used different language) were punished with cruelty in England – he was, at once, smeared as a homosexual (by people who knew perfectly well that he was not).

    Against the laws on drugs and so on? You must be in favour of people being drug addicts. Against “anti discrimination” laws? You must be a racial bigot – did you leave your white hood at home? You know the drill – the statists do it all the time (and Galbraith was a master of it).

    Question Three.

    Of course it is a vice to spend your wages down the pub and neglect your children – I apologise if I did not make that clear (I was writing a comment at the time – but that is no proper excuse).

    The question is what is meant by “do something about it”?

    If you mean, like John Wesley, appeal to people to be better – then I agree 100%. Ditto all practical efforts to help the parents, the children or both.

    But if you mean “smash the pubs up – or get the government to close them down” – then I disagree (fundamentally disagree).

    As Gladstone put it – of one thing I am certain, in is not by the action of the state that we will get moral improvement (quite the contrary – for the use of force and fear degrades and corrupts, both the victims of that force and fear, and those who use these weapons).

    Edmund Burke complained that the Penal Laws in Ireland corrupted both the people who used them – and the population they were used against. And he was right.

    And if the abuse goes so far that the lives of the children are threatened?

    Then YES it is a moral act to intervene – for a private individual as much as the state.

    But it is the job of the moral pressure (moral help – not force and fear) of the community to prevent things from getting to such a point.

  3. Paul,

    Excellent piece, superb answers (why am I not surprised).

    I wrote a longish question about the meaning of “coercion” in light of the “moral pressure … of the community.” It may or may not appear, in due course. :>)

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