Saturday, May 31, 2014

Victorian community organizers

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge write in the Wall Street Journal about how Gladstone can inspire the US Republicans --

Imagine that the world's superpower reduces the size of government by a quarter over the next 30 years, even as its population grows by 50%. Imagine further that the superpower performs this miracle while dramatically increasing both the quality of public services and the nation's diplomatic clout. And imagine that the Republican Party leads this great revolution while uniting its manifold factions behind one of its favorite words: liberty. 

Impossible? That is exactly what Britain, then the world's superpower and pioneer of the new economy, did in the 19th century. Gross revenue from taxation fell from just under £80 million in 1816 to well under £60 million in 1846, even as the population surged and the government helped build schools, hospitals, sewers and the world's first police force. The Victorians paid for these useful new services by getting rid of what they called "Old Corruption" (and we would call cronyism) and by exploiting the new technology of the day, like the railway. For these liberal reformers were the allies of the new commercial classes who were creating the industries that were transforming the world.

The problem is that the era of massive quality of life improvements in Victorian Britain was not financed by central government taxation but by local government property taxes ("rates") and aggressive local government takeovers of the utility companies of the day -- leading to the expression "gas and water socialism" as applied for example to Joe Chamberlain in his Birmingham years. It's hard to think that Republicans would find such a reform vision inspiring, when had they been around at the time, they would have opposed it.

UPDATE: Note that their trough year for British taxation, 1846, was right around when London decided that the government couldn't do a whole lot about ... the Irish potato famine!