George Walford: -Alism and -Ty

Liberalism is frequently thought to be associated with a belief in unrestrained competition in economic affairs; “Every man for himself and God for us all” as the elephant said, dancing among the chickens. [1]

There is a good deal of evidence indicating that conservatism comes closer than liberalism to a belief in unrestrained freedom of economic action, and one more item has just come to hand. William Gladstone, liberal Prime Minister, introduced legislation to prevent people brewing beer without a licence. Reginald Maudling, conservative Chancellor, did away with these licences, restoring freedom of home brewing. [2]

For a more substantial statement, consider this:

The history of Victorian Liberalism has often been written as though it is to be equated with laissez-faire. Clearly much of its drive derived from an industrial middle class bent upon levelling the privileges of the aristocracy and eliminating restrictions upon individual enterprise. Yet ‘economic liberalism’ was always distinct from party Liberalism whose primary achievement was political democracy in Britain. In practice the period from the 1830s to the 1880s [from 1846 to 1881 the Conservatives won a majority at only one general election GW] was one of continuous experiment with state intervention in the economic and social affairs of individuals whose actions were restrained in the interests of the community; in the process the Victorians laid the foundations for the huge central bureaucracy of the Twentieth Century. Particularly at the municipal level, where Liberalism was often the party of expenditure and interference not of retrenchment and abstention, the notion gained ground that certain economic functions, ranging from water and gas to parks and libraries, were better performed by the community than by the private entrepreneur… Confidence in the virtues of the free play of individual energies and talents was qualified by knowledge of the consequences and also by an appreciation that the terms of competition must not be too unequal; when they were, the state might legitimately adjust them even though infringing the rights of some individuals in the process. [Martin Pugh, The Making of Modern British Politics 1867 – 1939 Oxford: Blackwell. 1983 pp 111 – 112.]

1. Bernard Shaw, quoted by Ken Smith in Free is Cheaper.
2. Stephen Pile, in SUNDAY TIMES 23 July.

from Ideological Commentary 41, September 1989.