The Long Debate on Poverty


The Long Debate on Poverty—Eight Essays on Industrialization and the Condition of England, by Professor Hartwell, Professor Coates and others. Second Impression with a new introduction by Professor Norman Gash on The State of the Debate. Published December 1974 by the Institute of Economic Affairs, 2, Lord North Street, London, S.W.1., United Kingdom, 280 pp. £2.50 ($6.00).

It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter in Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty person. And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many…

Thus Thomas Babbington Macaulay in his History of England, published in 1848. Such acute prediction of the evaluation of the effects of capitalism and industrialization is remarkable. It was not always so. In Macaulay's own day, and after, before the full effects of the phenomenon had become apparent, historians and economists held that poverty and social distress had been alleviated by the process of industrialization at the beginning of the 19th century, whatever the unfortunate social side-effects may have been. Where conditions had worsened since the mid-18th century, it was thought, such was due to the dislocation caused by the ending of the long Napoleonic Wars.

This view did not remain unchallenged for long. The almost opposite view, that the poverty of the working-class during the 19th century had been caused by the Industrial Revolution and capitalism, was propagated by Marxist historians and others, with inspiration from the works of Arnold Toynbee. It remains the popular view, aided no doubt by the "Condition of England" novels of Eliot, Trollope, Kingsley, Dickens and others. And this is not only the "popular" view. Dr. E.P. Thompson, formerly of Warwick University, England, continues this tradition in his Making of the English Working Class, (1963), the most recent long study of the subject.

But more recently economists are challenging the now orthodox view in academic journals, although the results of their scientific researches have not yet penetrated to the general public, or indeed to the school and university textbooks.

The Long Debate on Poverty attempts this task. It is a lively discussion of many of the issues involved in industrialization, with some fine essays on particular aspects of the general problem. (Dr. Rhodes Boyson, now a Conservative Member of Parliament, on the life of the Lancashire factory worker and Thomas Jefferson on the influence of fiction are interesting examples.) But mainly it is a work of correction. As an introduction to the long debate there is much to recommend it; it is well-edited, with a fine balance between the general problem and particular illustrations. There are two essays on the relief of poverty, but one important aspect of the problem, the social unrest which followed industrialization, is not mentioned, and this is a piece missing from the general picture. We can learn much about contemporary thoughts on the causes of poverty by a study of such unrest.

There is much however that is good about this book, and not only in the text itself. There are good bibliographies after all the chapters and most are well-annotated. A comprehensive index would, however, have been useful.

If, then, poverty generally decreased as a result of the Industrial and Capitalist Revolutions, why then do so many hold the contrary view? Two reasons come out of this study. "The truth," wrote Macaulay, "is that the evils are, without exception, old. That which is new is the intelligence which discerns and the humanity which remedies them." The factory system, by replacing the domestic industrial system of the 18th century, did not create poverty; but it did formalize, dramatise and publicize it.

The second major reason is, ironically, much to the credit of the new system. Up until the Industrial Revolution economic growth was virtually nil at all times, material progress was alien to experience for most members of society. There was a most uneven distribution of the nation's resources in what was a static society. "But," A.L. Bowley reminds us in his "Wages and Incomes in the United Kingdom since 1860," "the idea of progress is largely psychological and certainly relative; people are apt to measure their progress not from a forgotten position in the past, but towards an ideal, which like an horizon, continually recedes. The present generation is not interested in the earlier needs and successes of its progenitors, but in its own distresses and frustrations considered in the light of the presumed possibility of universal comfort or riches." The Victorian Age was an age of great expectations, founded, ironically, on the very industrialization which was blamed for society's ills, and given vent by the democracy which followed in the train of that industrialization.

Of course, in discussing industrialization we refer also to the "laissez-faire" system, so greatly misunderstood and maligned. Economic freedom, its historical origins having been deservedly re-examined in The Long Debate, comes out with a clean bill of health. Libertarians are often accused of concentrating overly on economic issues. Referring to the classical economists, Professor Coates in his contribution to The Long Debate, writes "they were less interested in political than economic freedom, mainly because they considered this was the indispensable pre-requisite to personal freedom in other spheres of life." How right they were!

"Meanwhile," writes Professor Norman Gash in his essay "The State of the Debate," a new introduction for the second impression of this book, "the old stereotypes of dark satanic mills, half-naked women dragging tubs of coal along mine tunnels, miserable children in work-houses, and starving, riotous working classes, maintain a tenacious existence.

"If 'The Long Debate' has at least helped to convince a wider public that the last word has not been spoken on poverty and the Industrial Revolution, that many current generalisations are misleading, that many popular concepts are false, and that we need to continue with research and discussion, it will have achieved its purpose."

Adrian Day is a graduate of the London School of Economics, where he majored in history. From 1972 to 1974 he was assistant director of England's Society for Individual Freedom.