A Plea for Liberty, edited by Thomas Mackay, foreword by Jeffrey Paul, Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1981, 528 pp., $13.50/$6.00.
In a half-century of reviewing, I have never encountered a more sobering book than A Plea for Liberty, a collection of essays first published in 1891 by a now-forgotten English organization called the Liberty and Property Defense League. Written to combat the interventionist propaganda of the Fabian Society, and assembled by a successful wine merchant, Thomas Mackay, who had been an incisive critic of the English Poor Law, it presented a baker's dozen of absolutely first-rate demolitions of the welfarist arguments that were, in the previous decade, already being hawked by George Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb.
Yet, despite the book's excellence, it failed utterly to halt a trend. The authors chosen by Mackay have, with the single exception of Herbert Spencer, been gathering dust for decades. English history has been written by the Fabian victors, who lived to see their cradle-to-grave socialist philosophy adopted by Tories no less than by Liberals and Labourites.
The mystery, today, is how such an intelligent band as Thomas Mackay's collaborators could have been so ineffective. They had a superior command of logic; they showed a deep understanding of the marketplace; and, with an intellectual ancestry going back to John Locke, Edmund Burke, and Adam Smith, they were in what everybody supposed was the mainstream of British tradition. Yet, for what is now close to a century, their names (Spencer's excluded) have meant nothing save to a few scholars such as Jeffrey Paul of Bowling Green State University, who provides the foreword for a new edition of a book that should never have been allowed to go out of print.
Following a general introduction by Herbert Spencer, which more or less recapitulates his Man versus the State, there is Edward Stanley Robinson's essay, "The Impracticality of Socialism." "The fallacy of Socialism," says Mr. Robinson…appears to lie in the assumption that labour has a value of its own, in and for itself. It has no such value. No material thing is valuable because of the labour expended in producing it.…Material things are valuable because they satisfy wants.…Commodities are exchanged for other commodities because some people have what other people want.…"
It does not detract from the value of Ludwig von Mises's classic Socialism and Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, to say nothing of the contributions of the Austrian school of economics in general, to realize that Robinson had mastered all the arguments long, long ago about the inability of socialism to establish a workable exchange system. His criticism of the socialist idea that production can be planned in a system that does not permit private ownership, which is the necessary antecedent to individual choice in trading, is as devastating as anything written by von Mises 30 years later.
Robinson questioned the efficiency of the monopolistic post office, which the socialists of his day offered as an example of successful state trading. In a separate essay in Mackay's volume, Frederick Millar wondered why millions of samples of English merchandise were sent from London to be posted in Belgium back to every town in England at half the rates charged in England itself. The Millar article could easily be rewritten to apply to modern American postal service conditions.
Other essays in the book could as easily be updated to run in our modern magazines supporting individual freedom. The inanities—and insanities—of OSHA are foreseen in George Howell's essay, "Liberty for Labour." Though pitched to English realities of the 19th century, B.H. Alford's "Free Education" might easily have been adapted for an essay in a recent American symposium, The Public School Monopoly, published by the Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research. And the grand concluding article in the Mackay volume, "The True Line of Deliverance," by Auberon Herbert, with its justification for the claims of voluntary association, might, with changes in idiom, be passed off as an article by Robert Poole or Tibor Machan.
In reading a book written 90 years ago about individual freedom and the free market, it is sobering to realize that truths which should be obvious can be sidetracked for a century, leaving the jobs of exposition and explanation to be done all over again. A Plea for Liberty should have routed the British Fabians and forestalled cradle-to-grave Beveridge plans. But it didn't. Beginning with the revival of libertarian thought and Austrian marginal economics in the 1940s, we have picked up where Mackay's forgotten collaborators left off when Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells shouted them down in the 1890s. But our own Fabians are devilishly persistent. It will be a terrible thing for the Western world if history repeats.
John Chamberlain is a syndicated writer.