Radicalism and Ransom.
Published at the Central Offices of the Liberty & Property Defence League, 4, Westminster Chambers, London, S.W.
Radicalism and Ransom.
A lecture, with the above alliterative title, was delivered by Mr. M. J. Lyons, of the Liberty and Property Defence League, in the large Lecture Hall of the North London Working Men's Club, one of the largest, if not the largest, club in this district of the metropolis. The spacious hall was well filled, and the lecture was listened to throughout with the most rapt attention by this exceptionally intelligent and respectable assembly of working men. A brief discussion followed at the close of the lecture, but as the points raised were on minor issues and did not affect the main argument, we confine ourselves to the following report of the lecturer's address, omitting, also, the frequent bursts of applause with which the telling points, and they were not few, were hailed.
Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen,—I was met on the threshold of this lecture by a difficulty which at first seemed to me well-nigh insurmountable, viz.: the difficulty of a definition. Modern Radicalism is a creed so Protean in shape, so chameleon-like in hue, that I was placed in a similar state of perplexity to that of the poor English peasant who had lived to see all his old associations uprooted, and the firm ground on which he had fixed himself take life and move off into unknown seas. The few thoughts page 4 he had were all entangled in the revolving wheels of change, and his last words were these: "What wi' faith, and what wi' works, and what wi' the engines a-buzzin and a-fuzzin, and what wi' one thing, and what wi' another, I'm clean astonied and fairly bet." Twenty years ago I fondly believed I knew what Radicalism meant. I imagined that it meant, not merely the cutting down the Upas tree of ascendancy or privilege; but actually, as well as etymologically, a tearing up by the roots of all the baneful growths which hampered and embarrassed men in their march through life. I took as my guide the writings of Bentham, the elder Mill, the philosophical radicals of the Manchester school, the speeches and writings of Cobden, Bright, and Molesworth.
But since their time a race has arisen, calling themselves Radicals, whose objects I find it difficult, nay impossible, to reconcile with the doctrines of the eminent men whose names I have just given. Those looked upon liberty as the panacea for all social ills, and strenuously, vehemently protested against grandmotherly, protective and restrictive legislation. Their one demand was "Let us alone;" and they had their triumphs; the great victory of 1846, the subsequent simplification of the tariff, the freedom of trade-unions, the removal of burdens on the press, and numberless other acts, enlarging the area of liberty. These (i.e., the modern Radicals) have ornamented or disfigured the statute book by a series of acts which restrict freedom of contract, and are all framed with the benevolent intention of protecting men and women against the punitive results of their own folly.
"There is nothing new under the sun," said the philo- page 5 sopher; and whatever exception may be taken to this as a general statement, it is clearly applicable in this case. Writing fifty years ago Macaulay said:—" They conceive that the business of the magistrate is not merely to see that the persons and property of the people are secure from attack, but that he ought to be a jack-of-all-trades, architect, engineer, schoolmaster, merchant, theologian—a Lady Bountiful in every parish, a Paul Pry in every household, spying, eavesdropping, relieving, admonishing, spending our money for us, and choosing our opinions for us. Their principle is that no one can do anything for himself as well as his rulers, be they who they may, can do it for him; and that a government approaches nearer and nearer to perfection in proportion as it interferes more and more with the action of individuals."
I would now ask:—Is this an unfair or over-drawn picture of the policy of the Radical party of to-day? No candid man who has made himself at all acquainted with the huge congeries of legislation, effected or projected, can deny that although Macaulay had in his mind the Tory of his day, the Radical of to-day might have sat for the picture, photographic in its fidelity. And it is this curious rapprochement of the two parties which constitutes the strangest political phenomenon of our time. And yet it would appear, at least so Mr. Herbert Spencer thinks, to admit of philosophic explanation. His theory is that all animals, man not excepted, have a tendency to "throw back," as breeders call it; "a reversion of type," as naturalists call it; in man it is designated "atavism." To give an instance:—the numerous varieties of rabbits obtained by artificial selection would, if unattended to, it is known, speedily revert to the wild type page 6 still existent in England. And what is true in the animal world, has its analogue in the political. State aid, State management, State regulation, State control, State guidance, were for hundreds of years the peculiar appanage of the court and court party, of whom the Tories were and are the descendants in direct line. The party known successively by the names Whig, Liberal, and Radical, after having been for ages the champions of freedom, the apostles of liberty, have begun to retrace their steps, and to substitute for the tyranny of an individual or a class the tyranny of the majority. There is scarcely one of the restrictive, sumptuary and other laws enacted by the Plantaganet and Tudor kings, which cannot be paralleled in the recent legislative history of the Radical party. As for me, if I am to be tyrannised over, to be governed that is, I should immensely prefer one tyrant to six hundred and fifty. The reason is obvious. A single tyrant can be removed, six hundred and odd cannot. The hand of a weak woman, Charlotte Corday, ridded a horrified world of Marat; there was no possibility of crushing the Convention in a similar manner. A monarch may be deposed, or a dictator banished. It was, for instance, comparatively easy to cut off the head of a Stuart king when his rule became intolerable. But it will require a force not yet developed and perhaps itself too terrible to be invoked except as a last resort, to cut off the hydra head of a vast bureaucracy whose thousand eyes and hands are in every place at every moment, and which, as in France it does at this day, defies the very power which created it.
There is no more vicious political superstition than this childish belief in the power of Parliament to do whatever it wills. This positively pathetic reliance on page 7 the omnipotence of Parliament was not shared in by the robust Cobden when he demanded that all government control should be removed. Mr. Bright opposed the Factory Acts; so did Harriet Martineau; and at one time dissenters objected to State education; now they are its most active supporters, and clamour, not only for free education, but free food, and I doubt not in a very short time free clothing. The working man must not now take his wages in goods nor in a public-house; the sailor cannot be trusted to ascertain whether a ship is or is not seaworthy; the housewife is not supposed to be able to detect sand in the sugar, or alum in the bread; the farmer is not to be a free agent, he cannot sell or dispose of his right to shoot ground game; girls must not eat their dinners in a warm workshop, though their homes may be miles distant, and the day bitterly cold; and Irish tenants, ultimately perhaps English tenants, are safe-guarded against their own needs or their own extravagance.
The men of the Manchester school were believers in a more manly faith. They argued, that left to themselves the people either were or would become too intelligent to purchase adulterated goods, or to occupy insanitary dwellings. They argued that the evil of unwholesome buildings would cure itself under the influence of the natural economic law of competition. But no, the army of State socialists, miscalled Radicals, were too numerous, and the soldiers of Freedom were doomed to see outwork after outwork carried, and in possession of the enemy, who, unimpeded in his onward march, uses each vantage point as a base for fresh attacks. "The whole tendency," says a writer in the Edinburgh Review," of the extreme party, both in foreign coun- page 8 tries and at home, is socialistic, and their object is to subvert and subdue those independent powers which check and counterpoise each other, and to create in the State a common master of the votes, the property, and the lives of the community."
And what is most ominous, is the rivalry which obtains between the two great parties, each vieing with the other when they do not actually coalesce, rendering it anything but a pleasant task for the friends of freedom to look into the next few years. They see around them forces at work, silent, apparently disconnected and independent, the one of the other, but all tending in the same direction, the destruction of individuality. When these scattered guerilla bands are united under one master mind as leader, the crisis is not far distant. I have no fear as to the ultimate result, though it may and can only be reached through suffering and sorrow. The pessimism of this creed may seem to some worthy of mockery; but to any such I would say, look around and note the signs of the times. What but evil can come of the unholy alliance of Mr. Broadhurst and Lord Randolph Churchill, united on what they call the enfranchisement of leaseholds in towns? Sir Richard Cross and Sir Charles Dilke we find uniting in the socialist effort to provide, at the cost of the nation, dwellings for the poor. Mr. Jesse Collings claims votes for labourers who have had medical relief, and Sir Michael Hicks-Beach trumps his trick by bringing in a bill of his own. Lord Salisbury and Mr. Chamberlain dispute as to whom is due the credit of initiating a system of local government.
No good can come from this partnership, a partnership of men whose every act seems to be directed in page 9 opposition to the maxim, axiom rather, that centralisation educates a nation to political incapacity, and who seem to be unaware that this perpetual coddling is accomplishing a slow and silent work of social disorganisation, winding round society like the shirt of Nessus, consuming its forces and kindling in its veins a devouring fire. If, as has been said, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, then it is to be feared that for this generation at least history has been written in vain: or if not, is history then a mere barren record, or is it not rather a chart on which are plainly marked the shoals, the rocks, and the quicksands on which former "tall admirals" have been wrecked? This craze for restrictive legislation shows no signs of abatement. This tide is still on the flood; and the fact seems to be altogether overlooked that by the multiplication of laws you necessarily multiply offences, though these offences may be only of a technical kind, and that you thus necessarily also multiply the agents whose duty it is to see that these laws are obeyed, and to bring up for punishment those who infringe them. It tends also to increase the criminal classes by creating new offences and breeding a spirit of despondency and sullenness in the people, and a want of respect for the law. Further, it blocks the path of all proper and constitutional progress, it alarms the right-minded as well as the timid, and it impairs, if it does not destroy, the prosperity of the whole community.
It would be perhaps an impertinence to inquire how far or how much this rage for legislation is stimulated by the knowledge that zeal may be rewarded by office. If the multiplication of officials only proceed at its present rate of increase, the time is not far distant when the regulators shall be as numerous as the reguiated; and the Millennium will page 10 only be reached when every man shall be provided with his special inspector, though there must be necessarily a want of finish about the arrangement, unless indeed, they mutually inspect each other. Society has to be equally on its guard against the insidious advances of cool, calculating selfishness, and the blind thoughtlessness of passionate enthusiasts. But of the two classes the former is most to be dreaded.
A brief enumeration of recent socialist measures will satisfy the most thoughtless of the great, the portentous revolution which is being silently accomplished in our very midst, almost without notice. We have got so accustomed to them that our feelings, our perceptions, are blunted. The Industrial Dwellings Act is but in its infancy, but it will grow rapidly. Mr. Arch's Compulsory Cultivation Bill has not yet become law; but with the new electorate, who have a firm faith that the Liberal Government is pledged to give every man "three acres of land, and the grass of a cow," what wonders may not be achieved? State ownership of railways is more than talked about; the Democratic Federation claim to have settled even the minor details. Then there are the numerous industries connected with the railways; all these will have to be taken over by the Government when the railways are purchased or confiscated—the latter for preference. The Government is already exclusive letter-carrier, has the telegraph in its possession, and is in a fair way to become exclusive carrier of goods. It builds harbours, docks, and breakwaters; it builds ships, casts cannon, makes ammunition, clothing, boots, &c.; and it requires no strong imagination to picture the time when the State shall own all the houses, land, factories, steamships, in a word, to use the comprehensive expression of the Democratic Federation, "all the instruments of production."page 11
If you now place each of these propositions singly before the typical Radical, there is not one which he does not think would be better managed by Government than by private persons, sole or corporate. If this be so, wherein does he differ from a Socialist? This will, I trust, have in some measure accounted for the perplexity to which I pleaded guilty at the beginning of this lecture, a perplexity which increases the more I study the subject. I will therefore conclude this, the first part of my address, by quoting a passage, the authorship of which I have for the moment forgotten: "Those who would interfere by Acts of Parliament are deaf to the grand harmony of nature, which no one ever interrupts with impunity."
If there is one thing more than another calculated to impress the careful student of history—the man who, not satisfied with the mere barren record of the births, loves, marriages, wars, and deaths of kings and rulers, pursues his researches into the social and economic condition of the nation—it is the marvellous power of adaptability to altered conditions which the English people have exhibited preeminently in the present century. With the boundaries of their country sharply defined, incapable, as in America, of indefinite expansion, the population has yet increased at a rate of which no mere bald array of figures will give us any but a shadowy notion; and speaking generally, the means of subsistence have increased, if not more rapidly, at least pari-passu, with this increment. Let me endeavour to put before you in a popular and striking form the wonderful results of this self-adjustment. In the last ten years this country has added to the population, exclusive of those who emigrated in that period, a number page 12 greater than the increase of the population for the period extending from the Norman Conquest to the beginning of the eighteenth century; or, to put it in another form, we are now adding to our population every year more than was added every century during the period alluded to.
The marvel is, that the evil of over-crowding, which I deplore as much as anyone, is not more intense than it is. For the purposes of my argument this almost fabulous increase of a population—better fed, better clad, and better housed than any preceding generation—may be compared to a rush for gold to new diggings. The hardy miners do not waste time in useless supplications to Jupiter or his incarnation, the Government; but manfully make light of the inevitable hardships at the first, and strenuously set themselves to work to provide accommodation. The simile will be all the closer when we remember that there is not only this increase throughout the whole country, but that the difficulty of making provision for it is intensified and exacerbated by that which can only be described as a "rush" towards the great towns from the rural districts. And yet private enterprise—which quietly, unostentatiously, with no flourish of trumpets, adds every year to this already overgrown metropolis, accommodation for a population equal to that of Bristol—does its work, if not perfectly, at least indifferently well. That slums exist, cannot and ought not to be laid to the charge of the present generation. Sanitary science was not only in its infancy, indeed it may be said it was not born at the time of the erection of most of these dwellings, called slums; and men are no more to be blamed for their erection, than for page 13 travelling by mail coach before the introduction and expansion of railways between 1830 and 1850. But forgetting all this, Messrs. Chamberlain and Dilke, to whom must now be added Lord Salisbury, have recently been moved to righteous indignation by the "Bitter Cry of Outcast London;" and are emulous, one with the other, to assist this natural growth by artificial means. But of this more later on.
For the present, I am most concerned with the first-named of the trio; and his famous if not notorious doctrine of "Ransom." Let me give the passage in extenso. The speech, you will remember, was delivered at Birmingham on January 5th, of this year, and is as follows: "If you will go back," says Mr. Chamberlain, "to the earlier history of our social system, you will find that when our social arrangements first began to shape themselves, every man was born into the world with natural rights, with a right to a share in the great inheritance of the community, with a right to a part of the land of his birth; but all these rights have passed away. The common rights of ownership have disappeared; some of these have been sold; some of them have been given away by people who had no right to dispose of them; some of them have been lost through apathy and ignorance; some have been destroyed by fraud; and some have been acquired by violence But then I ask what ransom will property pay for the security which it enjoys? What substitute will it find for the natural rights which have ceased to be recognised? Society is banded together in order to protect itself against the instinct of those of its members who would make very short work of private ownership if they were left page 14 alone. That is all very well; but I maintain that society owes to these men something more than toleration in return for the restriction which it places upon their liberty of action."
Mr. Chamberlain is an able man and a shrewd, and one is lost in wonderment for what object these wild and whirling words were given wing. Was it to promote the prosperity of England, or the rule of the Birmingham caucus, or the ambition of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain? Let us examine the Ransom theory first, bearing in mind the fact, that at Ipswich he altered the word "ransom" to "insurance;" but it is the first word which has become, and will remain historic; and it is with that I propose to deal here this morning.
Nature brings not back the mastodon, nor do sensible men dream of restoring the Heptarchy; but if Mr. Chamberlain's words have meaning, they point to a return to the tribal system, when wild in woods the noble savage ran; when, also, the principal clothes of the same respected progenitor were a ring through the nose, and a patch of blue paint on the forehead. Private ownership of land seems to be anathema maranatha in Mr. Chamberlain's eyes. It may be only a coincidence; but I have heard it stated that this gentleman's wealth is not invested in land. Be this as it may, all history proves that no progress is possible without private ownership, and that in proportion as the title to land is secure, in the same proportion is all property secure, and the prosperity of the country assured. Every school boy knows that in the infancy of every country the natural occupation of man is that of hunting; next the pastoral condition obtains; and finally page 15 he settles down, as population increases, to a life of agriculture, and its concomitant manufactures. But as soon as ever agriculture commenced, private ownership of land began, for this most excellent of all reasons, that no person would take the trouble to cultivate, drain, protect from the inroads of wild beasts a tract of land of which he was not to reap the fruits. If a man will not work neither shall he eat; but if he does work, he likes to be certain of the result of his labour, and this can only be secured by private ownership. Indeed so universally true is this rule, that civilisation has never in any country advanced beyond the rudimentary stage till private ownership in land began to be recognised by law or custom. Look round the world to-day; among the aborigines of Australia, the native tribes of North America, the Abyssinians, the Zulus, the Turcomans; private property in land does not obtain, and everywhere in these countries do we find a degraded, brutalised, and savage population. And yet this appears to be the golden age to which Mr. Chamberlain looks back with fond lingering regret; although he does allude, in passing, to the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of reversing the present order of things.
All our social ills, poverty, crime, ignorance, in so far as they exist, would seem inferentially, according to Mr. Chamberlain, to arise from private ownership in land. The exact opposite is the truth; human misery and degredation are more intense where private property in land is unknown, and the sum of human happiness greatest where it is most recognised and respected. It may be urged that Mr. Chamberlain does not nakedly, and in terms, urge a return to the tribal system; but if his words have any meaning at all, they either point to this page 16 conclusion or to a resumption by the State of the ownership of the soil. The universal consensus of civilised man ought surely to have as much weight in our councils as the threadbare theories of expediency politicians. In only one country, so far as I am aware, has the experiment been tried, and the result is far from reassuring. In India the State has always owned the land; even under the rule of the Company this was so, the State being the universal provider. But I can scarcely think the advocates for its introduction will care to quote the example of India, one of the poorest, if not the poorest country in the world. In America, a country in which the boldest experiments on humanity have been tried, so far from the State being desirous of retaining the soil of the country in its possession, it has all along been anxious to rid itself of its ownership with all possible haste, conferring its gifts of land alike on foreigner as well as native.
Thus we see that as barbarous nations progress towards civilization, the absolute right to private property in land becomes correspondingly recognised; while when a civilised state, like the Americans, become suddenly seized of an immense and fertile territory, they forthwith proceed to parcel it out to individuals, obeying in each case an instinct so universal that it may be regarded as a law of our nature.
But, says Mr. Chamberlain, much of the land of this country has been acquired by fraud, much by force, or by gifts from those who had themselves no right to it. True. And, it may be added, that the process is still going on in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, the Fiji Islands; and our page 17 American cousins have all but dispossessed the original owners or occupiers. Although we may, as humanitarians deplore the cruelty and suffering which these displacements wrought, yet the student of history cannot but admit that they are inseparable accidents of the process by which a weak race is supplanted by a more robust, energetic one, whenever or wherever they come in contact. But to argue that because the process was not conducted in more kid-glove fashion the land ought to be restored to its original possessors is to trifle with our patience. The gentlemen of the Land Restoration League seldom go back beyond the Conquest; but they and Mr. Chamberlain seem inclined to invalidate the title to all lands acquired since. In ordinary commercial affairs men have found it necessary to introduce a statute of limitations. Should not, à fortiori, the statute apply in the case on which the stability of all industries depends? "If Time destroys the evidence of title, the laws have wisely and humanely made length of possession a substitute for that which has been destroyed. He comes with his scythe in one hand to mow down the muniments of our rights; but in the other hand the law-giver has placed an hour-glass by which he metes out incessantly those portions of duration which render needless the evidence he has swept away." Not more than six years ago the period of limitation was shortened from twenty years to twelve, and now we are told that centuries of undisputed possession will not suffice.
Mr. Chamberlain, rumour has it, is a wealthy man-and I am sure, I hope Dame Rumour does not exaggerate; but his wealth is not expressed in land. In whatever form invested it is the stored-up savings of the results of labour. I assert page 18 that the productiveness of the soil, which gives agricultural land its value, is also the stored-up savings of the results of labour, the result of ages of painstaking cultivation. If we could get at the prairie value of the land, it would form but an infinitesimal part of the whole value, and the national treasury would not be very much the richer if that were confiscated. Indeed, when discussing the amount of burden which the land ought to bear, this prairie value seems in strict justice to be all to which the State is entitled, in the present state of our knowledge, our unknown and insoluble quantity.
"All rent is robbery," says the Socialist. Is it? Let us take an illustration. Dissatisfied with the condition of things in this country, where population presses closely on, if it does not overtake the means of subsistence, we determine to seek fresh fields and pastures new; and disposing of our household goods and gods, we emigrate. Separating ourselves from all the associations which made life tolerable if not enjoyable; turning our backs upon "the ashes of our fathers, the temples of our gods," we, with our wife and children, plunge into the trackless forests of the far west, and there in the wilderness, after years of patient unremitting toil, we succeed in rearing ourselves a habitation, rude, it may be, but comfortable; and the land over which, previous to our coming, "wild in woods the naked savage ran," has been won from the wilderness and brought to a condition in which, if you tickle it with a plough, it laughs with a harvest. In the meantime, our children, the young birds, have left the nest; have taken to themselves mates and are building nests for their own broods in similar page 19 fashion. Only the parent birds are left now, alas, grown old and feeble and incapable of superintending, much less working, the farm. But the tried and trusty "help," who has assisted me through many trying seasons, is still strong and vigorous. To him I say that I am about to spend the remainder of my days quietly; and I suggest to him that I could not desire to see the old place in better hands than his. He knows that invested in that land is the labour of a lifetime, and it never occurs to him that he is likely to obtain it as a free gift. He knows that its market value now is, say £3,000; and he also knows that as he has only saved £500: it is beyond his reach. The situation would be tantalising, did I not point out to him that I do not want the whole of the purchase-money down. I shall be satisfied with the the interest. Interest on £3,000, at the rate of five per cent., will leave him £350 for working expenses. He jumps at my proposal and forthwith rent is created. I become that enemy of the human race, a landlord, according to Messrs. Chamberlain and Co., and my quondam servant blooms into a tenant. Where is now the injustice? Does any one imagine that I should ever have emigrated, and spent the best years of my life in laborious toil, if at the end I were not free to dispose of and enjoy the fruits of my labour?
This is no fancy picture. We see the process going on; and this is just the process by which our, and all civilised countries were settled centuries ago. Well might Lord Salisbury retort that although the word page 20 "Ransom" was new in English politics, it was not unknown among the picturesque personages who requisition travellers in the mountain passes of Greece and the Abruzzi.
But the land is not the only form of property from which, as it appears, "Ransom" is to be exacted. The nation, it seems, is to be asked to provide industrial dwellings for the poor at less than cost price. A Royal Commission has collected, I cannot say collated, evidence bearing on the housing of the poor, and has presented its report in a form which irresistibly reminds us of Mr. Samuel Weller, who, we are told, "folded his newspaper with neatness, so as to bring the police reports under his eye.'" The Royal Commission appears to have entered on its duties with a view, not to find out the truth, but to give prominence to all facts in favour of, to suppress all facts militating against, their preconceived theory. Much hearsay, for instance, was accepted as evidence; though we know, on the authority of that memorable case, Bardwell v. Pickwick, that "what the soldier said" is not evidence at all. This parish of Clerkenwell, where I have resided for the last four years, has been specially singled out for animadversion. I am not in any way connected with the government of the parish, and I may, therefore, claim to have my opinion considered, and treated as unbiassed. I have visited or resided in nearly every considerable town in the three kingdoms, and I unhesitatingly declare that Clerkenwell is better paved, lighted, watered, scavenged, than the vast majority of those towns. But what will be the inevitable result of the socialist legislation proposed in one House by Lord Salisbury—in the other page 21 by Sir Charles Dilke. They propose that the sites of the two prisons should be made available for the erection of dwellings for the poor, wherein sanitary rooms can be rented at less than market value. This proposal has struck dismay into the breasts of the struggling artisans and shopkeepers of the neighbourhood. There will be either a process of selection or there will not. If there be, and tenants be chosen, as in the Peabody and other buildings, for their comparative respectability, the benevolent intention will fail in its object, and the very poor be still unprovided for. If they are taken haphazard as they present themselves, then it needs no prophet to foresee that there will be an inrush of the camp followers of the great industrial army whose means are never a week in advance of their needs, and who, at the first check will fall as an additional burden on the already overladen ratepayer?
Yes. This is the further "Ransom" which men are now called upon to pay for the crime of being and continuing respectable. These conclusions lie so apparently on the surface that I can only credit the advocates of this scheme with sincerity when it can be proved that they are deficient in intelligence.
In conclusion let me say that if history proves anything, it is the folly of attempting to resist the operation of economic laws by legislative enactments, and in this age of progress and enlightenment it is truly pitiable to see so many old world fallacies revived—they were not dead, it seems, but hybernating—and not only believed in by the unthinking page 22 masses but fostered and encouraged by men in high place, who ought to and do know better, and who should be made to walk the plank of civilised society, which they have so shamefully disgraced, into the penal solitude they so richly deserve.page break
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