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Republicans' Victorian Roots: Laissez-Faire and Trickle Down Welfare

by JJ Wellings, published


Laissez-faire capitalism and self-reliance, minimal government regulation and welfare left to charity. Little tax burden and low labor costs, industrialization to turn the country into the workshop of the world and create a thriving middle class. Promote and safeguard trade through a bullish foreign policy and create a consumer's empire. Striving for an epoch wherein wealth creation spurs civic virtue. Making our people prosper so they can use their independence and initiative to prosper others, not compulsion by the state. Sound familiar? To most Republicans that is the blueprint that made America the dominant world power it is. But does it still work?

These were actually the prevailing political principles of Victorian Britain during the 1800s. To which party each of them is attributable is not easily ascertainable. Policies were not distinguished along party lines in the way we see today. In the shifting political landscape after the Reform Act of 1832, the old party loyalties of Whig and Tory took on new colors.

At best, the Whigs were beginning to be seen as the party of reform. During the 1830s they acquire a new name: Liberals. Respectively, the Tories began to be known as the Conservatives. In practice, however, the two parties were rarely predictable in their attitudes to the great issues of the century. The era is best described not under a succession of prime ministers of one party or the other, but in terms of the major issues of the day.

Regardless of who heralded which policies, Great Britain dramatically changed with the Industrial Revolution, where an island nation stepped out of serfdom and feudalism to become an empire covering a third of the world’s land mass. So there it is, easy, that is how you make America grow again. Well, that leaves the theory incomplete. They say those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The story in Britain does not end there, and it is this caveat that is crucial.

The Republican's promotion of Victorian values might be well intentioned. After all, self-reliance is preferable to welfare feudalism, and the dynamic capitalism of the 1800s did push Britain to new heights of economic and cultural achievement. But nostalgia without nuance is dangerous. Unregulated Victorian Britain was a country of dreadful poverty and moral hypocrisy.

The dark streets of London thronged with anarchist bomb-throwers, child prostitutes and drug addicts. The empire was sustained with cold steel. Industrialization uprooted old communities and patterns of life. Many contemporary conservatives mourned the death of rural England and resented the callous materialism of the free market. The 19th century Conservative party was only rescued from electoral annihilation by Benjamin Disraeli, a one nation Tory who won working-class votes by embracing social reform.

This is the subtle point Republican ‘Victoriaphiles’ miss about public services. The welfare state was the 20th century's answer to the social problems created in the 19th. Successful individuals started out as private philanthropists, but they dreamed that one day free schools and hospitals funded by taxation would become national policy. The Victorian revolution enriched and enfranchised the people, just as these values once served the United States well in a period of industrial growth. The goal of prosperity though, was so public services could be created.

The Republican model is misconceived. It stops short of the finish line. Simply creating wealth at the top to trickle down is not enough. There is no guarantee it will. The final, and most important, step is to use that wealth to implement social services and reforms, to improve the quality of our lives.

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