Edmund Burke, Welfare King

by Corey Robin on October 24, 2013

Some day someone should write an essay on the struggles of Edmund Burke in his final years to overcome his considerable debts—some £30,000—by securing a peerage and a pension from the Crown.

Throughout his career, Burke’s financial state had been precarious. Much to his embarrassment, he was periodically forced to rely upon well timed gifts and loans from his wealthier friends and patrons.

So terrified was he of dying in a debtor’s prison that he struggled in his retirement to learn Italian. His hope, claimed one of the many visitors at his estate, was to flee England and “end his days with tollerable Ease in Italy.” (He also floated, apparently, the possibility of fleeing to Portugal or America.) “I cannot quite reconcile my mind to a prison,” he  told a friend.

Thanks to the interventions of his well connected friends, in August 1795 Burke secured from Pitt two annuities that would wipe out his debts and a pension that, along with an additional pension and the income from his estate, would enable him and his wife to live in comfort into their old age.

Three months later, when Burke took up his pen against a proposal for the government to subsidize the wages of farm laborers during bad harvest years (so that they could sustain themselves and their families), he wrote, “To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government.”

(Thanks to David Kaib for this post’s title.)

{ 87 comments }

1

Chris Mealy 10.24.13 at 8:56 pm

So that’s why Burke is so popular on the right.

2

MPAVictoria 10.24.13 at 9:02 pm

“Three months later, when Burke took up his pen against a proposal for the government to subsidize the wages of farm laborers during bad harvest years (so that they could sustain themselves and their families), he wrote, “To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government.””
Brilliant. Conservative hypocrisy started early.

3

Chris Armstrong 10.24.13 at 9:07 pm

But perhaps providing our luxuries is what government is for. And the poor wouldn’t know what to do with luxuries, would they?

4

TW Andrews 10.24.13 at 9:25 pm

“Conservative sucks the government teat while decrying ‘those’ people getting just enough to scrape by.” is a very “dog bites man” story.

5

Leon 10.24.13 at 9:56 pm

Thank goodness e.g. Marx was no hypocrite.

6

mpowell 10.24.13 at 10:18 pm

That is an amazing story.

7

Brett 10.24.13 at 10:27 pm

He probably rationalized it the same way that present-day conservatives like Steve King of Iowa rationalize the hand-outs that sustain their commercial farms. Giving him money was rewarding his hard work and service to the Crown as a writer and former MP – an Important, Special Person. But those tenant farmers, why, they’re just a bunch of self-destructive parasites, the equivalent of people burning down mills in a form of class warfare.

8

In the sky 10.24.13 at 10:43 pm

Hypocritical of Burke? Somewhat, yes. But he was (presumably?) receiving a pension for his time as MP. That’s quite different to subsidizing private farmers. This is only slightly above mud-slinging, Corey.

9

rea 10.24.13 at 10:48 pm

But he was (presumably?) receiving a pension for his time as MP

No0, that’s not how things worked in the 18th Century. He was receiving a pension for being politically well-connected.

10

Corey Robin 10.24.13 at 10:53 pm

In the sky: No he wasn’t receiving a pension. These were 18 century MP’s we’re talking about, not 20th century public employees. Also the Speenhamland system wasn’t about subsidizing private farmers. It was about supplementing the wages of farm laborers, who worked other people’s farms, so that they could earn subsistence wages.

11

Nine 10.24.13 at 10:54 pm

That’s a good 3Mil in today’s pounds. How on earth did he acquire so much debt ?

12

Corey Robin 10.24.13 at 11:11 pm

The old-fashioned way: living beyond his means.

13

DrDick 10.24.13 at 11:21 pm

Nice to know that conservative hypocrisy never changes.

14

Alex K. 10.24.13 at 11:40 pm

“These were 18 century MP’s we’re talking about, not 20th century public employees.”

Nevertheless, it would be misleading to say that pensions were never granted for services to the government, or that expectations of such payments were never justified.

Here is a summary of a memorandum made on behalf of Burke, as quoted by one J. Holland Rose, in “The English Historical Review,” in an article called “Burke, Windham, and Pitt”:

“Burke understands that Pitt is so obliging as to think that his public services during thirty years may be recommended to HM s gracious consideration. Burke has never solicited or suggested a reward he has done nothing beyond his strict duty. But if he may compare his services with those of certain contemporaries he will refer to his arduous duties before and during the ministry of Lord Rockingham at the conclusion of which it was generally expected that some provision would be made for him. On the other hand the services of Colonel Barre and Dunning though no more conspicuous were rewarded by annual pensions of 3,000 and 4,000 respectively the latter gentleman gaining also a peerage. Burke’s reform of the pay office has led to important savings of public money and in general his work for the state has been far greater than that of Barre and Dunning who were amply rewarded twelve years ago. Many others whose careers have been shorter and less arduous than Burke’s have secured full recognition and pecuniary rewards. Lord Auckland being a prominent instance Mr Burke does not conceive that whatever HM may be graciously pleased to do for Mr Burke in the present temper of the public mind would be more unpopular or ill received in the nation than what has been done for any of these gentlemen. “

Note the phrase “it was generally expected that some provision would be made for [Burke].”

15

Chris Mealy 10.24.13 at 11:42 pm

I’m pretty sure parliamentarians weren’t even paid until the 1900s.

16

Alex K. 10.24.13 at 11:51 pm

“The old-fashioned way: living beyond his means.”

I don’t know how Burke accumulated all his debts, but in the same article I mentioned, J. Holland Rose claims that part of the reason for his pecuniary troubles was his financial support of “distressed French exiles:”

” Of late [Burke] had helped indirectly to bring about the accession of the Portland whigs; for, while disclaiming any direct part in the negotiations, he informed Windham that he had spared no pains to produce the dispositions which led to it. Further, his succour to the distressed French exiles had strained his scanty resources to the breaking point.”

17

Corey Robin 10.25.13 at 12:06 am

Alex K.: I never said they were never granted, but they were rare; they were considered to be a reward (more like a gift of the Crown than a payment for service), but they also had a bit of a stigma attached to them — that one couldn’t subsist without them (as opposed to the ideal of the independent country gentleman) and, in Burke’s case, that they were tied to some kind of quid pro quo (a charge that had dogged him ever since Paine and Wollstonecraft accused him of writing his *Reflections* as a way of securing a pension from the Crown). As for “it was generally expected that some provision would be made for [Burke]” that was a reference to the fact that he was so impecunious, so in need, and everyone knew it.

As for his debts, yes, he was generous, but the overwhelming source of those debts had little to do with his generosity, as every one of his biographers, even the most sympathetic, has acknowledged. He lived the style of a wealthy gentleman, even if he couldn’t afford it. That was the great source of his debts. Even with all his gifts from his patrons, he couldn’t hack his mortgages on his estate at Beaconsfield, which were considerable, or his carriages and servants, as well as his house in London, the education of his son, and so on.

18

Warren Terra 10.25.13 at 12:11 am

30,000 late-eighteenth century pounds is a simply staggering amount of money. Think of all those Trollope novels (written a half-century after Burke’s death!), in which genteel middle-class people struggle mightily to acquire an income of a few-hundred pounds a year (resorting to every possible means other than working for the money); out of this few-hundred-pounds-a-year they expect to marry, have a pleasant home, raise and educate children, and employ at least one full-time servant, plus occasional labor.

19

Dr. Hilarius 10.25.13 at 12:13 am

“Distressed French exiles,” is this a euphemism for French women who live off of the kindness of strangers?

20

Lee A. Arnold 10.25.13 at 12:31 am

What a story!

It reminds me of Hayek coming to the U.S. and one of the Koch brothers encouraging him to sign up for Social Security and Medicare.
http://www.thenation.com/article/163672/charles-koch-friedrich-hayek-use-social-security

In related news, today Dean Baker reports that Senator Ted Cruz’ own private healthplan has most likely been allowing him an $8000 tax deduction, i.e. a public subsidy. That is a much larger subsidy than anyone will be able to get on the Obamacare exchanges.
http://www.cepr.net/index.php/blogs/beat-the-press/senator-cruzs-health-care-plan-costs-taxpayers-8000-a-year

21

Alex K. 10.25.13 at 1:05 am

Perhaps rare, and perhaps with stigma associated with it in circles of rich farts, but the payment was a reward for remarkable services rendered to the government for a significant part of his life.

To quote J. Holland Rose again:

“Probably Pitt desired to make use of this memorandum in order to overcome the dislike with which George III regarded the champion of the American colonists and of economical reform. It is inconceivable that services so splendid as those of Burke should hitherto have failed to secure recognition, had not the king continued to nurse feelings of resentment.”

22

CK MacLeod 10.25.13 at 1:13 am

A cheap shot. There’s nothing hypocritical about Burke’s statement. His point is not that government, and certainly not that government officials, cannot adopt policies more or less materially beneficial either to needy individuals, or needy groups, or to society as a whole, but that the government itself does not produce the wealth over which society disposes.

To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of Government. It would be a vain presumption in statesmen to think they can do it. The people maintain them, and not they the people.

It’s a seemingly obvious point, but one that not only conservatives by any means frequently find themselves having to recall for people – especially in government and also among the rich, as Burke also points out. Would any self-respecting socialist, or any reasonable person at all, disagree? Does government by regulating health care or agriculture or industry actually care for the sick or grow crops or make things?

The problems presented to economic and political theory by the experiences and reaction to the Speenhamland system, which Burke was addressing, should not be underestimated. Polanyi, for example, uses them as his central lesson in understanding the “free market”: its socially highly disruptive and even catastrophic effects; its need for systematic governmental action and protection, entirely contrary to its laissez-faire self-understanding; but also the eventual general adoption even by the Christian churches of what amount to capitalism’s key ideological prerequisites, based on an ancient logic. It is no small thing that the general development in relation to the Speenhamland system has been replicated throughout the world to this day, and is repeated periodically wherever “the market” comes to reign – in other words, virtually everywhere.

23

Corey Robin 10.25.13 at 1:13 am

“Remarkable services rendered to the government.” Yes, indeed. As George III declared to Burke upon the publication of his *Reflections on the Revolution in France*: “There is no Man who calls himself a Gentleman that must not think himself obliged to you, for you have supported the cause of the Gentleman.”

24

dn 10.25.13 at 1:16 am

Lee Arnold @20 –

I can’t really hold it against Hayek, since unlike Rand and her ilk, he wasn’t really a dogmatic opponent of social insurance. How many libertarians remember this passage from Road to Serfdom?

There is no reason why, in a society which has reached the general level of wealth ours has, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom; that is: some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health. Nor is there any reason why the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.

The Kochs, of course, are another story…

25

Corey Robin 10.25.13 at 1:23 am

“His point is not that government, and certainly not that government officials, cannot adopt policies more or less materially beneficial either to needy individuals, or needy groups.”

The entire point of Burke’s *Thoughts on Scarcity* is precisely that government should not attempt — should do absolutely nothing — to help poor laborers, that they are entirely at the mercy of the market, and that the best they can hope for, in terms of succor, is private charity. Burke’s position, in fact, is way out in front of Adam Smith, who thought it was imperative that wages provide a sustenance to workers. Burke says the opposite here. Wages should be set in such a way as to secure a profit for capital or at least to compensate capital for the risks it takes. That’s all. Any contract agreed to by both parties is by definition a contract that its in both of their interests (again, a position way out in front of what Smith says in the Wealth of Nations).

26

Corey Robin 10.25.13 at 1:25 am

And while you’re right about the Speenhamland system and the challenge it poses, you do realize that Burke argues exactly the opposite of the position you’re taking here, yes? He takes an ultra-laissez faire position, shows zero awareness of the market’s disruptiveness, and polemicizes continuously against any notion of the embeddedness of markets.

27

Warren Terra 10.25.13 at 1:27 am

@CK MacLeod, #22
Not a cheap shot in the slightest. Burke had “necessities” in need of a provider, and found his in the government – and then insisted that others should not feel entitled to look in the same place. It is much of a piece with our modern conservatives, who so frequently richly enjoy the benefits our government offers to them, while denouncing as lazy and grasping those unlike themselves who seek benefits from the government – even those who seek the same benefits from the government.

As to that phrase you so celebrate:

The people maintain them, and not they the people.

Of course the government is the instrument of the people, the mechanism by which they pool, regulate, and coordinate a part of their efforts in order to achieve the society they envision. The people on the left envision a society that does its best to abolish at the very least the worst ravages of want and to ensure opportunity, and acknowledge the burden this vision imposes on them; the people on the right deny any such vision even as they are eager to enjoy what it offers them, and hypocritically denounce any acknowledgment of the burden involved.

28

Keith 10.25.13 at 1:29 am

So Burke was the first tea party icon; I have mine fuck off poor people.

29

CK MacLeod 10.25.13 at 2:08 am

@Robin 25-6, @Terra 27

I’m quite aware what Burke was arguing, and for my own part I wouldn’t take his position as some fits-all rule of governance or social policy (which’d be rather un-Burkean, actually), but I’ll continue to maintain there is no hypocrisy in his seeking a particular provision for himself while specifically arguing against a system of provision for the “poor laborer” (which term he goes on to reject), and while pointing out that it is not within the government’s own power actually to provide material aid, since the “material” originates outside of government. Speaking precisely, in accordance with Burke’s argument, even the pension that Burke received did not originate in “government,” and even less in a general policy of relieving the debts of public intellectuals.

At other points in his career, Burke was quite famously cognizant of the disruptive force of certain forms of “progress.” He was also almost as famously able to take seemingly contradictory positions and never to have attempted a truly systematic social or economic philosophy. If he had, he might have understood that laissez-faire or market ideology was as or more “revolutionary,” in what for him would have been a very bad sense, than Jacobinism. Addressing Speenhamland, however, he was adopting, for better or for worse, a winning position that is very difficult merely to wish away.

30

Brian E Baxter 10.25.13 at 2:23 am

The position of Edmund Burke is analogous to that of the Tea Partiers who get insurance for themselves and their families while vigorously protesting against the Affordable Care Act. Most people don’t understand why the Tea Partiers were willing to default on the national debt in their attempt to prevent the AFHA from going into effect. I wrote a blog which traces it back to the fact that the Tea Party was forged in the whit-hot heat of the right wing lies about the AFHA. It also explains why all the right wing lies. See it at:
http://brianebaxter.com/2013/10/14/the-affordable-care-act-and-defaulting-on-the-national-debt/

31

Lee A. Arnold 10.25.13 at 2:36 am

C.K. MacLeod #29: “there is no hypocrisy in his seeking a particular provision for himself while specifically arguing against a system of provision”

C.K., Do you think that if each poor laborer sought and received a provision for himself, thereby amounting to a nationwide non-system of relief in bad harvests, that Burke would have approved?

32

Seth 10.25.13 at 3:07 am

dn @24

+1

I love that passage from The Road to Serfdom(/i>. Great to see it quoted. Keep doing it :)

Hayek Hearts ObamaCare

33

Glen Tomkins 10.25.13 at 3:08 am

I am far from an expert on British political history, but it is my understanding that for a good bit of George III’s reign, his favored Tories could only keep a majority by buying off odd factions of the disunited Whigs with govt sinecures and pensions. Perhaps it was a bit of an unusual break into sentimentality to retroactively pay for the services of a mere propagandist with cold hard, but in general the whole system at that time ran on payola that was legal only because His Majesty was the capo.

This is the system that, in its application to industrial and trade policy, Adam Smith, a professor of Moral Philosophy, wrote an entire book against. We’re not sure what he would have made of Socialism, but we do have his take on crony capitalism.

34

Herschel 10.25.13 at 3:25 am

Addressing Speenhamland, however, he was adopting, for better or for worse, a winning position that is very difficult merely to wish away.

The problem of the Speenhamland system was that it allowed employers to pay their laborers less than a living wage, with the deficiency being made up by the state. This was not a subsidy to the poor laborer, it was a subsidy to the agricultural owner class. What replaced it was a system that continued to subsidize the agricultural owner class, but only to the extent that the underpaid or unpaid laborer was willing to be imprisoned and humiliated. Winning position!

35

geo 10.25.13 at 5:10 am

CK @ 22: The passage you cite seems not only not “obvious” but entirely misguided. As Warren points out @27, a democratic government is not something distinct and apart from the citizenry, which can or cannot produce wealth and bestow or not bestow it on them. It is a mechanism, an arrangement, a scheme, a plan, decided on by all the citizens, for producing and distributing the common wealth. Burke’s conception of government as something wholly apart from “the people” is quite perverse, at least as a description of a democratic government. It only goes to show that Burke had no conception of democracy, or rather that his conception of it was simply mob rule.

36

gordon 10.25.13 at 8:16 am

Keith (at 28): “I have mine; fuck off poor people”

Or the traditional version: “The working class can kiss my ass/ I’ve got the foreman’s job at last!”

Maybe a better defense of Burke would be to point out that in many cases (most cases?) the British constitution of those days simply made no provision for rewarding people who had, maybe, made a real contribution to the State. Payments of pensions, awarding of honours, ex gratia payments all happened, but all in response to pressure, requests, who you knew, political connectedness etc. You had to ask, you had to write to your relatives and/or influential politicians, you had to put yourself forward or get somebody else to push your case, or you got nothing. That included people who had really made a contribution. And of course such a “system” was rorted; look at the Premiership of Walpole. The wonder was that deserving cases got anything at all.

Of course it is better for defined services to be regularly coupled with defined rewards, but, for the most part, that came later (though there were always some “places”, sometimes sinecures, which were associated – sometimes only by custom – with defined perquisites).

37

John Quiggin 10.25.13 at 9:24 am

As Corey says, pensions used to be a special gift, not an entitlement. From memory, I recall an opponent of Social Security (or maybe a precursor) objecting that “the pension list of the Republic would be degraded by wretches whose only achievement was to cheat death”.

38

John Quiggin 10.25.13 at 9:26 am

Google reveals it was Grover Cleveland, vetoing the Dependent Pensions Bill “I have conceived of the ension list of the Republic as a roll of honour”

39

John Quiggin 10.25.13 at 9:27 am

Dr Johnson, whom I generally admire, excoriated Hume for taking a pension, then accepted one himself

40

Manta 10.25.13 at 10:09 am

“A democratic government is not something distinct and apart from the citizenry, which can or cannot produce wealth and bestow or not bestow it on them. It is a mechanism, an arrangement, a scheme, a plan, decided on by all the citizens, for producing and distributing the common wealth”

Can you point out some examples of actually existing more-or-less democratic government (of nations)?

41

novakant 10.25.13 at 10:27 am

a democratic government is not something distinct and apart from the citizenry, which can or cannot produce wealth and bestow or not bestow it on them. It is a mechanism, an arrangement, a scheme, a plan, decided on by all the citizens, for producing and distributing the common wealth.

That’s a rather rosy view of the matter to say the least. One might also say that the government is a kleptocratic oligarchy in cahoots with high finance and multinationals, and that the election circus is basically a rubber stamping exercise designed to perpetuate this structure while giving gullible citizens the feeling that they have some say in these matters.

And no, one doesn’t have to be a crazy libertarian or tea-party conservative to hold this view, I certainly am not. Sometimes I think the rise of these groups is a devious ploy by mainstream conservatives designed to have so-called liberals uncritically support the status quo. I’m aware of the crazy political constellation in current US politics, but radical critique of the government has a strong and venerable tradition on the left.

42

Alex 10.25.13 at 11:04 am

On the pension, Dr. Johnson wasn’t being gratuitiously snarky when he defined “pension” as the reward to a hireling for treason to his country – he was voicing a deep truth about 18th century British politics and administration.

Also, with every year that passes I appreciate the achievement of Northcote-Trevelyan even more.

43

Alex 10.25.13 at 11:07 am

As usual, I’m misquoting. The Johnsonism is as follows:

An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.

44

Alex 10.25.13 at 11:10 am

It goes without saying that Johnson got one.

45

In the sky 10.25.13 at 2:39 pm

In the sky: No he wasn’t receiving a pension. These were 18 century MP’s we’re talking about, not 20th century public employees.

I agree that certain social circles in Westminster in the 18th Century were hardly a paragon of virtue nor a shining example of well-defined pension plans. But the point remains: he was receiving this, in the manner of the times, for his services rendered to the Crown. (The Crown was a theocratic imperialist. I wouldn’t expect well-kept Form 8880s.)

Let’s be honest here: you’re attacking the man not the ball, and in part that attack is because you oppose Burke’s political views. (So do I, fwiw.) For an admittedly stretched analogy, horrible segregationist types sometimes say “Oh yeah? Well MLK was an adulterer. Who is he to lecture us on morality and social norms?”

Not much above mud-slinging.

46

Rob in CT 10.25.13 at 2:44 pm

So familiar.

My public benefit is different because shut up, that’s why.

47

Rob in CT 10.25.13 at 2:47 pm

In the Sky: no, because MLK’s cheating had no connection to his arguments in favor of racial equality.

Burke was in financial trouble and got bailed out by his friends in government, and then turned around and immediately argued against governmental help for others in financial need. Attacking the man not the ball? Please. The man stuck the ball down his shorts.

48

Nine 10.25.13 at 3:52 pm

Corey Robin@12 – “The old-fashioned way: living beyond his means.”

Well, sure, but the amount suggests profligacy worthy of a Balzacian spendthrift. Or, idk, maybe this is normal for an 18th century “Gentleman”.

49

Jim Buck 10.25.13 at 3:55 pm

Burke’s fiscal irresponsibility is truly shocking; and especially so, if his debts were incurred molly-coddling penurious French immigrants.

50

CK MacLeod 10.25.13 at 5:51 pm

Geo http://crookedtimber.org/2013/10/24/edmund-burke-welfare-king/comment-page-1/#comment-491021

It only goes to show that Burke had no conception of democracy, or rather that his conception of it was simply mob rule.
Burke held to the same concept of democracy, a generally negative one, that had been traditional if not definitional for “gentlemen” or their equivalents in other social systems for most of recorded human history.

You may not like the concept or you may consider the concept obsolete, but it’s still a concept, and one whose key elements, or some might say insights, inform effectively all of our so-called democratic or liberal democratic constitutions worldwide. In such constitutions, “government” is less a “a mechanism, an arrangement, a scheme, a plan, decided on by all the citizens, for producing and distributing the common wealth,” than an impediment to the realization of just this economic democratist notion. (Or you might say that the “plan” or “mechanism” is an “anti-plan” or “anti-mechanism” that fulfills your concept by negating it.) The traditional argument that Burke likely read in the original Greek as a schoolboy would be that the so-called mixed regime or polity is desirable precisely because it offers more durable resistance to economic democratism, whose end result, it was widely believed (as it is still widely believed and as may be true), would be to impoverish all of society, and eventually to destroy it, in the name of justice. You’ll find comments along just these traditional lines elsewhere in the full context of Burke’s remarks as linked above. When I referred to Burke taking the “winning position,” I mean in relation to the larger argument, as taken in Britain to have been verified by the Speenhamland experience and aftermath, a critical moment in the birth of modern mass-industrial society or capitalism.

51

Harold 10.25.13 at 6:43 pm

I dislike Burke’s politics as much as anyone, but frankly, the practice of giving pensions to writers, artists, and others who have made signal contributions to society doesn’t seem to me a completely bad.

I don’t know if Burke is recorded as having had the same scruples about receiving his pension as Samuel Johnson did. Nor, as far as I know, had Johnson ever had, like Burke, a habit of racking up huge debts from living beyond his means.

From wikipedia:

By 1762, however, Johnson had gained notoriety for his dilatoriness in writing; the contemporary poet Churchill teased Johnson for the delay in producing his long-promised edition of Shakespeare: “He for subscribers baits his hook / and takes your cash, but where’s the book?” The comments soon motivated Johnson to finish his Shakespeare, and, after receiving the first payment from a government pension on 20 July 1762, he was able to dedicate most of his time towards this goal.[118] Earlier that July, the 24-year-old King George III granted Johnson an annual pension of £300 in appreciation for the Dictionary. While the pension did not make Johnson wealthy, it did allow him a modest yet comfortable independence for the remaining 22 years of his life.[119] The award came largely through the efforts of Sheridan and the Earl of Bute. When Johnson questioned if the pension would force him to promote a political agenda or support various officials, he was told by Bute that the pension “is not given you for anything you are to do, but for what you have done”.
***

52

Bill in Section 147 10.25.13 at 7:26 pm

Run up a huge debt, perform a ‘service’ to the leaders of your country, and have the debt excused at tax-payer’s expense. Sounds like a role model.

Work hard in a system that prevents you from access to opportunity or redress, at wages which allow you to just avoid starvation, every moment of your working life is a direct service to your nation, when you cannot get enough work to sustain yourself –

Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

53

nick s 10.25.13 at 7:36 pm

It goes without saying that Johnson got one.

In acknowledgement of the Dictionary, in fact. It was £300, awarded in 1762, and more or less kept him financially secure (if not wealthy) for the rest of his life. Boswell spends a fair bit of time arguing that it was the result of the young and newly-crowned George III asserting his credentials as a patron of the British arts and science, and that it never came with political strings attached:

[Johnson] then told Sir Joshua [Reynolds] that Lord Bute said to him expressly, ‘It is not given you for anything you are to do, but for what you have done.’ His Lordship, he said, behaved in the handsomest manner, he repeated the words twice, that he might be sure Johnson heard them, and thus set his mind perfectly at ease. This nobleman, who has been so virulently abused, acted with great honour in this instance and displayed a mind truly liberal. A minister of a more narrow and selfish disposition would have availed himself of such an opportunity to fix an implied obligation on a man of Johnson’s powerful talents to give him his support.

54

geo 10.25.13 at 7:36 pm

CK@50:
“Democracy: 1b. A government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation.” Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. A fairly standard definition, I suspect, and certainly what Paine, Godwin, Mill, Morris, Russell, Dewey, and all other serious democratic theorists meant by the word. To Burke, as I said, and you apparently agree, “democracy” meant rule by the swinish multitude, the bovine herd who were meant to graze contentedly under the great monarchical/aristocratic oak. Yes, his view of that was, as you delicately put it, “negative.” He simply could not imagine self-government by the many. He had, like (in this respect) all conservatives, a defective moral imagination. In fact, I would say that the inability to imagine a cooperative, non-hierarchical commonwealth is the most useful definition of political conservatism, at the philosophical level.

Manta@40: Can you point out some examples of actually existing more-or-less democratic government (of nations)?

No. Certainly neither 18th-century Britain nor (for the reasons novakant eloquently expounds @41) late-19th-, 20th-, or 21st-century America was a democracy. Elections are a necessary but by no means sufficient condition of democracy — surely everyone here at CT knows that. 18th-century American towns may have been democratic (at any rate, if there were any that allowed p0litical participation by women). Democratic socialism (again, as its serious exponents — Mill, Marx, Morris, Wilde, Russell, Dewey, Harrington, Walzer — conceive it) is the extension of popular sovereignty, universal participation, non-hierarchy — democracy — to the whole of social (not personal) life, including production. It is as yet only an ideal, but its time will surely come — around the 25th century is my best guess.

55

Katherine 10.25.13 at 8:23 pm

but the payment was a reward for remarkable services rendered to the government for a significant part of his life.

As opposed to the schmucks who dug food out of the ground so the eighteenth century gentlemen could eat. Nothing deserving of reward or, say, basic recompense, there.

56

Mao Cheng Ji 10.25.13 at 8:30 pm

“power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly”

But what does it mean? I probably should go read Paine, Godwin, Mill, Morris, Russell, and Dewey, but in case you are able (and care) to explain this in a paragraph or two: what is “the people” and how is it capable of exercising power? and how does the concept of ‘individual’ fit into this? Thanks.

57

Consumatopia 10.25.13 at 8:38 pm

Does government by regulating health care or agriculture or industry actually care for the sick or grow crops or make things?

Do corporations managing health care, agriculture, or industry actually do any of those things? Do the people do the various information processing and paperwork associated with those tasks–the accountants, the lawyers, the software engineers, etc–actually care for the sick, etc? Does the Marketplace, as an institution, actually do any of those things?

58

geo 10.25.13 at 9:10 pm

Mao @55: A rough definition of effective democracy: the degree to which governments solicit and respond to popular sentiment rather than money in the formation of law and policy. I’m not sure such things are susceptible of more precise definition, though anyone else is welcome to take a crack at it.

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Mao Cheng Ji 10.25.13 at 9:56 pm

“popular sentiment” seems to presuppose some sort of constant direct member communications, like the Athenian assembly or a weekly townhall meeting. Otherwise, how is this sentiment going to form? And if that’s true, it imposes a serious limitation of the size of the group.

60

Alex 10.25.13 at 10:53 pm

“He for subscribers baits his hook / and takes your cash, but where’s the book?”

This must have been absolutely fucking maddening.

61

gordon 10.25.13 at 11:45 pm

“Remarkable services rendered to the government” means just that; services rendered to government, not ordinary working to make a living. Nobody thought about paying a pension (or any other allowance) for that. Patronage of sciences and the arts was also a motive for paying pensions and making gifts but again, that had nothing to do with poverty (except poverty of the artist). That sort of patronage was engaged in by wealthy individuals as well as by the Crown.

Relief of the poor had been a continuing issue since at least the time of Elizabeth I, but wasn’t considered a matter for central (Royal) government until much later. It was a matter for parishes and JPs.

62

gordon 10.26.13 at 12:10 am

It’s a pity Prof. Krugman doesn’t write in verse, or he could easily paraphrase Churchill’s jibe at Johnson when discussing the US fiscal apocalypse so often predicted but which never seems to actually happen:

http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2013/10/paul-krugman-addicted-to-the-apocalypse.html

63

Corey Robin 10.26.13 at 12:24 am

Gordon: Though in the 17th century b/c the bulk of the poor were old — pensioners — the idea of what we could call pensions had come about. Those benefits came to be distinguished at that time from poor relief for laborers who were temporarily down on their luck. By the late 18th century that idea of the old-age pension had somewhat disappeared b/c of the financial strain more generally associated with the poor laws.

64

gordon 10.26.13 at 1:11 am

Corey Robin (at 62) -

Thanks. I would distinguish between the payments made out of the Poor Rate and the sort of pension Burke received. You’re right in that the former was made within the legal architecture of National legislation (17th century), and to that extent my remark (at 60) that “Relief of the poor … wasn’t considered a matter for central (Royal) government…” is strictly wrong. But that legal architecture, so far as I understand it, did no more than authorise the collection and expenditure of money at a local (parish and county) level. No money was spent on pensions for poor relief per se by the Royal (National) government. But the Royal government did pay Burke’s (and Johnson’s) pension.

65

Corey Robin 10.26.13 at 1:18 am

Yes, agreed.

66

geo 10.26.13 at 1:39 am

Mao @59: Democracy in a nation-state will require an aroused, determined populace and a modest amount of technical ingenuity, much less (I would guess) than the hundred or so most complicated technologies at present. I don’t have a blueprint — it will be a collective product, and will undoubtedly follow rather than precede the determination of the populace to govern itself. There are interesting suggestions in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia and a couple of paragraphs in an essay of mine: http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/plutocratic-vistas/.

67

Hector_St_Clare 10.26.13 at 1:57 am

Geo,

socialism will come, eventually, but it won’t be democratic. It will be run by tough men who are prepared to do what it takes to suppress their enemies.

68

geo 10.26.13 at 2:17 am

Hector, if socialism is ” the extension of popular sovereignty, universal participation, non-hierarchy — democracy — to the whole of social (not personal) life, including production” (my definition @54, following the theorists I named, from Mill to Walzer), then what you’re describing is, by definition, something else. I know it’s customary to identify “socialism” with Marxism-Leninism, but that’s a lazy, foolish, intellectually disreputable custom.

69

gordon 10.26.13 at 7:41 am

Having cleared that up (64, 65) we can now move on to consider whether Burke actually made any real contributions to the govt. and/or the country which would justify a govt. payment, or whether he was just another political hack getting on the gravy train.

We can also ask whether his opposition to welfare was in any way hypocritical given his willingness to be rewarded for “services”. Actually, there are probably other ways of formulating this question, but for the moment I’m unwilling to spend time on it.

Opinions on both issues are likely to differ.

70

Mao Cheng Ji 10.26.13 at 8:18 am

Geo, I read the piece.
It seems to me that these days the word ‘democracy’ describes a market economy with private ownership of productive assets and with a large middle class. Ruled by the business elite, feedback by elections. Its success or failure is measured by whether the middle class is growing or shrinking, and prospers or declines on average.

What you propose, I can imagine it on the scale of a village or town, a section of a city. Beyond that, it becomes more and more problematic. On the scale of millions, tens and hundred of millions people living in radically different environments, government powers would have to be reduced further and further, upholding only the most basic, commonly agreed upon principles, and a very limited interpretation of those. Something like the Swiss model or the original US constitution (with much smaller States). But of course that would create its own problems. The current plague is money corruption, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only possible trouble.

71

a different chris 10.26.13 at 12:59 pm

Sadly Burke didn’t have the smarts to “Go Galt” and withhold his services until the gov’t came to him upon bended knee. Homie should have made sure to get paid up front.

Or maybe he knew fat chance of that.

72

Hector_St_Clare 10.26.13 at 2:18 pm

Geo,

Your bs about ‘universal participation’ and ‘popular sovereignty’ sounds fairly revolting to me, but if you want to call it democratic ‘socialism’ I suppose I can’t stop you. the socialism *I* support is the one that involves vanguard parties, tough men with guns, and compulsory labor requirements, not your wussified ‘democratic’ kind.

In any case, resource shortages in the next century are going to make democracy as a form of government, whether the democrats call themselves capitalists or socialists, unsustainable. all future forms of government, I think, will be regimented, authoritarian, and based around rationing scarce goods.

73

Mao Cheng Ji 10.26.13 at 3:29 pm

There are always scarce goods. Caviar is scarce; why aren’t the current governments based around rationing it?

74

geo 10.26.13 at 3:33 pm

Mao and Hector: “Democracy” and “socialism” are just words. Arguments about usage are interesting but not fundamental. What matters is: what are the possibilities for self-government? The obstacles you point out — scarcity, coordination, selfishness — to a radical solution are very plausible. I think those obstacles can be overcome, but of course it will take a long time and a sea change in the political culture. L’histoire jugera.

75

praisegod barebones 10.26.13 at 4:07 pm

Corey Robin @63: Didn’t Thomas Pain argue in favour of Old Age Pensions?

76

Lee A. Arnold 10.26.13 at 5:06 pm

Geo #74: “of course it will take a long time and a sea change in the political culture”

Geo, hi, I’m not so sure about the “long time”. If inequality continues to worsen as it has done for around 40 years or so, then we are going to see new initiatives of propaganda and programs to explain it away and/or ameliorate its most dangerous aspects. If inequality accelerates, which is quite possible, this will come to a tipping-point rather sooner. Of course it depends on the various factors causing the inequality, and which one is most salient, in any given time or conversation. But it is important to remember that lots of people have already come to this conclusion, people as different as Mill, Marx, Keynes, Schumpeter, all the way through Michael Harrington (I am reading The Accidental Century, 1965) and now the growing number of economists looking at “capital-biased technological change” (and its likeliest outcome, “robot socialism”).

Harrington points out that it was Schumpeter who wrote on the two possible routes to socialism: the men with guns, vs. bottoms-up democracy. I would venture to guess that the “men with guns” route is now most likely to come from within the ranks of the current “corporate socialists” who command the megacorps and Wall Street, hoping to protect their elite positions in bleeding the public.

77

geo 10.26.13 at 5:50 pm

Lee: two possible routes to socialismat : the men with guns, vs. bottoms-up democracy

In that sentence, what does “socialism” mean? If it simply means “state control of the economy,” then it’s true, of course, that control by an undemocratic state, serving a corporate elite or a vanguard party — which I prefer to call “pseudo-socialism” — is more likely in the foreseeable future than control by a democratic state, fully accountable and responsive to an engaged and informed citizenry. I’ve been using the term in the latter sense, which I think is Mill’s, Marx’s, Harrington’s, et al’s usage. That blessed condition does seem to me a long way off.

78

Lee A. Arnold 10.26.13 at 6:39 pm

Geo, “a long way off”? Why is that? Do you think that it is because individuals naturally fail to have enough brains to comprehend the complexity of the system, i.e., there are inherent cognitive limits (of both reason and memory) in the individual? Or is it because the concentration of private ownership always manages somehow to remain a step ahead of the game, and can pay for the muscle to enforce it? Or is it a combination of these two? Either way, I see these games changing. Or is there another different reason, or set of them?

79

geo 10.26.13 at 7:01 pm

The latter, Lee. Money never sleeps; the ruling class has brought the mechanisms of social control to an extraordinary degree of development. Anyway, that’s the argument of the essay I mentioned above: http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/plutocratic-vistas/.

80

Hector_St_Clare 10.26.13 at 7:16 pm

Geo,

Now your the one redefining words, with your ‘pseudo socialism’.

Rule by a vanguard party, involving state control of the economy in the service of the common good, is certainly one kind of socialism, nothing pseudo about it.

81

Tim Wilkinson 10.26.13 at 9:51 pm

Well that seems quite straightforward – it’s the difference between in the service of the common good and serving a corporate elite or a vanguard party.

82

Hector_St_Clare 10.26.13 at 11:04 pm

It would be pretty hard to argue that the Cuban economy is run ‘in the service of the Communist Party’ rather than ‘in the service of the common good.’

Of course, the usual suspects are no doubt going to do some crybaby whining about the loss of ‘freedom’ or whatever , but I’m sure most Cubans, outside of the exile malcontents, are happy to pay the price.

83

wkwillis 10.27.13 at 7:50 am

Please keep in mind that Burke’s estate was producing food that was sold at twice it’s real price because of tariffs against cheap American food imports. He couldn’t even live on the welfare he was already getting!

84

Fu Ko 10.27.13 at 4:11 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @73

In socialism scarcity is handled through rationing; in capitalism scarcity is handled through auction.

85

Mao Cheng Ji 10.27.13 at 4:21 pm

Fu Ko, is ‘democracy’ the same as ‘capitalism’? Serious question. I want to understand how people define ‘democracy’ to themselves.

86

Mercy 10.27.13 at 4:39 pm

@82 That must be why they aren’t allowed out. They love it so much, you see, that anyone who’d want to emigrate must be a lunatic; they are just saving us the hassle of dealing with them by arresting them at the gate. And as for that business with the children of defectors well, with the adults being so cruelly deprived of the joys of submission to authority, the egalitarian instincts of the party can only be satisfied by gifting the children with a double dose.

Dare I ask why, in your opinion, virtually the entire Jewish population decamped for Israel as soon as they were given the opportunity? Do they just not appreciate the pleasures of tough men with guns and compulsory labour requirements?

87

Guido Nius 10.28.13 at 10:47 am

I had some time so I read all comments. Started well (and: thanks, Corey, this bit of info is going to do fine if ever somebody sings praise of the tough love principle) but Burke is probably quite happy with how it ends up: saying that what we have (which – as bad as it may be – certainly would be downright hellish for Burke) is so deficient that it is beyond repair. It’s good we have the internet for fighting between the polarized, keeps the streets more pleasant.

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