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Winston vs. the Webbs

A century-old precursor to the Obamacare debate

Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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The debate over Obamacare may remind a student of British history of the debate in Britain over the National Insurance Act of 1911, which was in effect until the initiation of the welfare state after World War II. The protagonists in that debate (like ours, not formally a debate, but implicitly that) were Winston Churchill and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Churchill, a rising star in the Liberal party and a member of Herbert Asquith’s cabinet, heartily promoted the act. The Webbs, prominent members of the Fabian Society and vigorous polemicists (“public intellectuals,” we would now call them), sharply criticized it.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb

Sidney and Beatrice Webb

Fabianism is generally described as a moderate, reformist form of socialism, achieving its ends not by class war and revolution but by persuasion and “permeation.” Yet in a sense it was more radical than Marxism because it sought control not so much of the economy or polity as of society itself. It is fitting that the Fabian Society should have been founded, in 1884, as a society, not a party, for its primary focus was the “social organism,” and its ultimate purpose “the regeneration of society,” “the reconstruction of the Social System.” (If we now speak of it in the past tense, it is because, although it still exists, it has been largely absorbed into the Labour party.) Sidney Webb was not literally a founding father of Fabianism, but he was very nearly that. A 26-year-old civil-service clerk (admitted to the bar but not practicing law), he joined the society a year after its establishment and quickly became one of its leading figures. His marriage in 1892 to the no less talented and energetic Beatrice made the couple something like the First Family of Fabianism.

Sidney Webb’s contribution to Fabian Essays in Socialism (published in 1889, the book sold over 25,000 copies in two years) followed the lead essay by the editor, George Bernard Shaw. Where Shaw focused on private property, “the economic action of Individualism,” as the nemesis of socialists, Webb made individualism itself the archenemy. Just as the “anarchy” of laissez-faire must be corrected, he argued, so must the “anarchy” in society. The “social organism,” once a union of individual men, had evolved, so that the individual is now “created” by the social organism of which he is a part. It is the social organism, therefore, not the individual, that must be cultivated and perfected.

The perfect fitting development of each individual is not necessarily the utmost and highest cultivation of his own personality, but the filling, in the best possible way, of his humble function in the great social machine. We must abandon the self-conceit of imagining that we are independent units, and bend our jealous minds, absorbed in their own cultivation, to this subjection to the higher end, the Common Weal.

Beatrice carried the argument further by extending the case against individualism to a case against democracy as well. In her diary she compared herself and Sidney with her brother-in-law Leonard Courtney, a Liberal member of Parliament and a “democrat at heart.”

Possibly he is more of a democrat than we are ourselves; for we have little faith in the “average sensual man,” we do not believe that he can do much more than describe his grievances, we do not think that he can prescribe the remedies. .  .  . We wish to introduce into politics the professional expert—to extend the sphere of government by adding to its enormous advantages of wholesale and compulsory management, the advantage of the most skilled entrepreneur.

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