Monday, 27 February 2012

Francis Wrigley Hirst: another notable but neglected liberal

I have come across a 'new' writer. Francis W. Hirst, a trenchent Cobdenite liberal and one-time editor of the Economist, until forced to resign due to his opposition to the then current Great War.

It is a shame such a man's work languishes in obscurity, and it seems beholden on us modern, true liberals to raise him and his ilk out of the dusty shadows, and put him on the pedestal he merits.

Some of his works can be found at the Internet Archive. I have been perusing a collection of essays, one of which his, another by Hilaire Beloc, which at the turn of the 20th Century, sounded the trumpet for liberty and laissez-faire, against the old enemy, the protectionist tories and the new enemies, the liberals-in-name-only and their socialist chums.

To explain and justify the guiding principles of Liberal economics is becoming more and more necessary as each day carries us further away from the period of Com Law Repeal Free Trade was taught to the people in those days, firstly by argument, secondly, when argument had succeeded, by the comparison which experience afforded. Then for twenty or thirty years the arguments were forgotten, but belief in Free Trade was regarded as a condition of mental sanity. It was an axiom of English commerce and politics. The few Tory Protectionists who sat for agricultural constituencies were crotchety persons who gave considerable amusement but no uneasiness. Only within the last five years of trade depression has the real Protectionist agitation set in. However well advertised, a quack medicine will not sell in a healthy community. The inventor of a panacea will never make his fortune unless the variety of diseases which he engages to cure is indisputable. For certainty of the disease creates in the human mind a vague presupposition in favour of the promised remedy. The same consideration applied to Economics explains why the quack remedies of Bimetallism and Protection were able to make some head in the lean years of 1890- 1894.
However, alas, the protectionists are back, with happy visions of the past and future ...
"Merrie England " shows plainly enough that the modern monopoliser has the same idyllic cant in reserve ready to be produced for the benefit of the poverty-stricken State employee of the future. The present tactics of these amiable friends of the working man are to disguise from him the steady improvement which his condition is undergoing, and the solid comforts which year by year are being added to his lot. They attempt to distract his reason and excite his imagination by vulgar and overdrawn pictures of the squalor and wretchedness in the worst quarters of our great cities. Here we detect a temper worthy of the revolutionist who wants to upset society to its own certain misery, and then strut over the ruins he has himself created. On the other side stands the true social reformer, who nowadays frankly recognises the splendid progress of the last half century. Like the revolutionist, he refuses to acquiesce in inaction. Unlike him, he acknowledges with gratitude what he has learnt from his predecessors, and regards their conspicuous success as an earnest of that which will attend future efforts, if only they proceed from the same great principles towards the same desired goal.
It is sometimes asserted that there are quite new conditions to face. Society is so totally different to what it was in the days of Cobden and Bright. Humanity itselt has undergone some violent change. Burns was wrong : a man is not a man " for a' that" We are wonderfully in advance of our fathers. The up-to-date ephebe is a Socialist, an Evolutionist ; he can talk about the organic Unity of the State, and he professes an imperial instinct. Let us admit it at once: there has been a change — in terminology. The young man is deceived by the long Latin and Greek words, and so equipped thinks he means something different from what his father thought under more homely terms.
The organic unity of the State is one of those pretentious metaphors transferred from biology to politics, which suggest one kind of unity by another and totally different kind. The good of the community, the danger of sacrificing the whole to the part, and the greatest happiness of the greatest number, were conceptions perfectly understood by'the Corn Law Repealers and by those who abolished the Test Acts. Similarly, evolution is a long and somewhat stupid substitute for progress. Improvement in the common run of mankind depends upon the occasional "eccentricity " of individuals. Where free play is possible an individual will here and there strike out new adaptations to meet new wants. It was not the State or Society that made the steam engine but Stephenson and Watt, though without the State or Society the steam engine would have been an invention in vacuo. But the organised monotony and mechanical unity of a Socialistic State is the negation of free play, and consequently its appropriate motto should be not evolution and progress, but degradation and decay.


Anonymous said...

Excellent discovery, thank you.

If you've not already read Hilaire Belloc's 'The Servile State' I highly recommend it!

Trooper Thompson said...

Thanks, I haven't read it, though it's on my radar. I was listening to a little of it yesterday, as there is an audio version on YouTube.