A Reviewer's Notebook - 1978/5
MAY 01, 1978 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
Ole-Jacob Hoff, a Norwegian devotee of Leonard Read’s "freedom philosophy" who is a frequent speaker at Mont Pelerin Society meetings, has a recurrent bad dream. He sees his country becoming wealthy on State-owned North Sea oil. The income, he fears, will be used by the government to buy the controlling shares of what is left of free enterprise in an already heavily socialized country.
It’s a sobering thought, but maybe Ole-Jacob Hoff s nightmare about Norway’s future will also come true in a slightly different way for England. Leslie Lenkowsky, a contributor to a fine little book, The Future That Doesn’t Work: Social Democracy’s Failures in Britain, that has been edited by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. (Doubleday, 245 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017, $6.95), raises the possibility that North Sea oil may make "social spending" in England "as manageable as it was a decade ago." If this is to happen we will have more confusion. For, on Lenkowsky’s own evidence, "social spending" even where it seems to be working is accompanied by a channeling of energies into "less productive endeavors." Thus, to bail Britain out in its cradle-to-grave welfarism would do Britons themselves a vast disservice.
Oil may postpone the day of reckoning in Britain, but Mr. Tyrrell’s contributors have no illusions about mitigating circumstances when it comes to Britain’s future. The trouble with British welfarism is that it destroys the incentive that is needed to create the surplus to pay doctors and teachers, to provide for insurance, and to renovate deteriorating physical plant. As Mr. Tyrrell, who is the bright editor of The American Spectator, notes in his introduction, the whole business of welfarism, when it becomes a matter of State guarantee, must result in a contradiction in terms. Britain has paid for its cradle-to-grave security with high inflation, a straitened rate of productivity, high unemployment, and a steadily increasing crime rate.
The ironies connected with the British drive for equality are delicious. Instead of supporting a landed aristrocracy, or a funded upper middle class, Britons are now supporting the "new lads on top"—i.e., an overweeningly arrogant bunch of trade union leaders. Peregrine Worsthorne describes the new labor aristocracy for Mr. Tyrrell in some chortling prose that recalls H. L. Mencken at his best. The British trade unions "have a cause that excuses excess . . . just as Popes in the Middle Ages got away with murder, claiming to be doing God’s work, so today do trade union leaders enjoy a comparable kind of immunity and protection, because they are doing the modern equivalent of God’s work."
Dull Dogs of Fabianism
"Liberal squeamishness," says Mr. Worsthorne, lets the union bosses get away with it. Colin Welch in another essay, traces this squeamishness back to "dull dogs like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Harold Laski, John Strachey, R. H. Tawney and Anthony Crosland."
These "dull dogs" did not "see poverty and toil as the natural or original state of affairs, in which capitalism found nearly everybody and from which it has rescued many." No, they were profoundly ignorant of their forebears’ "struggles, skills, services, and achievements." The dull dogs of Fabianism thought the wealth had been there just for the taking, and all they could contribute was a guilt complex that tried to explain their ancestors’ enterprise as simple expropriation, not as plain hard work.
Welch is just as amusing as Peregrine Worsthorne in the ways he lays about him. His "dull dogs," the intellectuals, are wide open to the charge of hypocrisy. George Bernard Shaw, for example, was a "vast and greedy acquisitor." John Strachey, a "Stalinoid Marxist" before he simmered down and became a Labour Minister, was "rich throughout." The patrician Tawney "sneered at the common vulgarity and bad manners of businessmen, though when shopgirls were rude he applauded."
None of the Fabian intellectual pioneers was capable of "grasping the role of risk-taking and profit- or loss-making in the maintenance of economic efficiency and above all in innovation." The Fabian ideal was to substitute for the enterprising individual a society dominated by "swarming hives of bureaucrats and busybodies and experts, their snowstorms of paper, their echoing wastes of gassing and boredom, their pandemonium of ceaseless but sterile controversy."
Aneurin Bevan, who piloted the National Health Service legislation through Parliament, was neither a dull dog nor a hypocrite, but his handiwork has misfired. Harry Schwartz, in his contribution to Mr. Tyrrell’s symposium, leaves no doubt about that. "The potential demand for care," says Mr. Schwartz, "can bankrupt any nation that attempts to provide it free of charge." Mr. Schwartz says Aneurin Bevan never understood that "if patients need not pay directly for medical care, they will resort to it for the trivial indisposition as well as for the serious illness." Enoch Powell formulated it in "Powell’s Law" when he said the "demand for ‘free’ medical care" must quickly outrun "any possible provision for it." The consequence of "Powell’s Law" is that England now has 26,000 doctors trying to administer to tens of millions of patients. The waiting time for surgery has steadily lengthened, and the chances of getting a hospital bed in an England that has ceased to build hospitals diminish year by year.
Instead of producing a more moral society, welfarism has encouraged envy, grabbing and a cheap exaltation of Robin Hood as a national hero. James Wilson, in his contribution to the Tyrrell volume, notes that the crime trends in London, while they are not comparable to the increase in violence in American cities, are nonetheless "ominous." Muggings in London went from 674 in 1968 to 1,544 in 1972. The totals, by American standards, may be small, but the increase, in a society celebrated for its respect for the person, is nonetheless disconcerting.
Are we about to have a conservative revival in England? The intellectual atmosphere would suggest that the day of the Fabians is done. The Worsthornes and the Colin Welches are doing the most vigorous polemical writing in contemporary London. But the "British disease," sometimes known as "Englanditis," hangs on. Irving Kristol, in the final essay in Mr. Tyrrell’s book, writes an "obituary" for the idea of socialism, but he still sees the "dead idea" of the Fabians as something that "has to be removed and buried."
Only liberal capitalism, says Kristol, can perform the funereal task. The trouble is that liberal capitalism regards such a task as an essentially "private affair." It will have to change its attitude if the death of socialism is to mean something more than "general disintegration."