Clement Attlee is, with little doubt, one of the more notable of Britain’s former Prime Ministers. Apart from the long lasting effects of his legacy he was, in 2004, voted the “Greatest British Prime Minister of the Twentieth Century” in a poll of 139 academics. Needless to say, with such a high ranking in academic circles, almost every “accomplishment” of the post-war government that he led (with the possible exception of decolonisation) is likely to be an anathema to libertarians. Not only did he nationalise key industries such as the railways, canals, road haulage, coal mining, gas, electricity, telephones and steel manufacturing, he practically created the “cradle-to-grave” welfare state, the jewel in the crown of which was the now untouchable sacred cow, the National Health Service. Furthermore, he successfully entrenched the “Keynesian consensus”, the idea that full employment would be maintained by Keynesian fiscal policy, that was to unite all parties of any stripe for another three decades until the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

With such profound and fundamental changes to British society, many of which are still felt today, it is important to have an insight into Attlee’s motivations towards the legislation that his government passed. His own background, (not unlike that of most left wing intellectuals) was decidedly non-working class. The son of a solicitor, he was raised in Putney, an area of London populated by the professions. He was educated at an independent school and later read Modern History at University College, Oxford. He was not exactly born with a silver spoon in his mouth but neither was he consigned to life working in factories or in the coal pits. According to Wikipedia, his original political leanings were conservative. It was after he spent three years managing a charitable institution for working class boys in Stepney, East London, that he “came to the view that private charity would never be sufficient to alleviate poverty and that only direct action and income redistribution by the state would have any serious effect”. Thereafter, he became a “full-fledged supporter of socialism”. Which such self-assuredness, can we expect Attlee’s post-war government (to borrow a phrase from the infamous Beveridge Report that influenced his government’s policies) to have come close to completely “abolishing want”? Unfortunately, the facts speak otherwise:

  • Coal production in 1947 fell seven million tons below the output of privately owned mines ten years earlier, resulting in a three week industrial power cut in London and the Midlands;
  • The government constructed 134,000 fewer homes per year at a higher cost per unit than were built in either of the two years preceding the war;
  • Wages were frozen to wartime levels while the cost of groceries soared as their supply declined;
  • When US and IMF loans dried up, the costs had to be borne by the British working man, leading to the “taxation and tears” budget of 19491.

And summing up the welfare state:

The [Beveridge] plan merely furnished a thin cushion against total disaster for the most impoverished third of the population. True, every citizen (whether or not he needed it) was entitled to prenatal care, a birth subsidy, hospitalization and medical care of sorts, unemployment insurance, an old-age pension, funeral costs, and an allowance for his widow and dependent orphans. The subsidies and allowances were tiny, and, with mounting inflation, barely sufficed for the poorest – sixteen dollars at birth and eighty dollars for a pauper burial. Medical services were spread so thin that even at the price of nationalizing the existing medical profession, it was impossible to guarantee first-rate care. With food rations hovering near the starvation level, sickness became more frequent and national; production fell still lower. So poverty was not eliminated but increased to plague proportions, and life was a nightmare for everyone but the most dedicated bureaucrats. A man might have “social security,” yet he could not go out and buy a dozen eggs. After four years of Socialist government, he was only entitled to an egg and a half per week, as decreed by Marxist No.1, John Strachey, Fabian Minister of Food and Supply2.

The origin of Attlee’s political views betrays his belief in a common economic error, a belief that can clearly have disastrous consequences if its holder happens to one day become the leader of his country. This view of either private charity or forced redistribution as the solution to poverty is based on the flawed notion that there is a fixed pool of wealth for everyone – that when one person possesses wealth it necessarily results in another person being without it. From this false premise it follows that the alleviation of the poverty of one person requires wealth to be disgorged from another. The solution to poverty, however, is that wealth is created and not simply redistributed – the pie gets bigger and not just chopped up in a different way. Capitalism and the free market, far from creating haves and have-nots, involves the progressive accumulation of capital that produces more products at cheaper prices that everyone can buy. More factories, more machines, and more tools that produce a greater supply of goods for less and less effort serve to alleviate material poverty. All of us become better off as a result. If, on the other hand, wealth is to be confiscated from some and redistributed to others, it retards this very process of wealth creation. While a specific redistribution may allow the beneficiaries to afford to purchase a bit more in the short term, in the long run there will be less work, less saving, and less capital investment and accumulation. The number of products produced will fail to increase and thus their prices will remain high and out of the reach of the poor. Redistribution is, therefore, a temporary solution at best. At worst, it traps the people permanently in the stagnant poverty that you are trying to get rid of.

Let us imagine ourselves, for one minute, as employees of the charitable institution of which Attlee was manager. How do we interpret that which we may see every day? From some kind of absolute standard, the poverty and destitution of the slums in the East End of London may have been “terrible” or “bad”. No one would ever seek to deny this. It is important to realise, however, that poverty, fundamentally, is not caused by humans but by nature. The earth is and never has been the Garden of Eden, full of delicious goodies that are ripe for our picking. The first person who trod the virgin soil of the Earth was in a position of absolutely crippling poverty by our modern standards. All he had was himself and his bare hands – no shelter, no food, no clothes, no tools, absolutely nothing. (Indeed, we might ask, how on Earth would “redistribution” have helped him when there was nothing to distribute!). But from the moment he dug the soil with his hands, from the moment he picked up the first plank of wood to build into a shelter, from the moment he fashioned a tool from basic materials such as a rock and a stick, so began the long, slow process of capital accumulation and wealth creation, a process that only really began to accelerate in the early 1800s. Humans, in other words, have to work to overcome the natural state of poverty in order to build up a civilisation as prosperous as the one we have today. To view a snapshot of this process at any one moment in history and to declare self-righteously that “those people over there are in poverty!” is to judge this march of progress against an ideal – as if earth should be the Garden of Eden. The appropriate standard against which to make a judgement however, is the best that can be done given the eternal condition of scarcity. If one cries “something must be done” it ignores the possibility that something is already being done and has currently reached its best possible stage before moving forward to bring greater things. Wealth creation and capital accumulation takes time – we did not get refrigerators and cars the very moment the first person on earth decided to get off his backside and start working. But this process has caused the percentage of people living on one dollar a day to fall from 85% to 20% in two hundred years – and that achievement has been accomplished while the population has multipled five or six times.

The only way, then, by which we can judge that there is “too much poverty” at any one time is to ask a single question – is there anything that is slowing down or causing an artificially imposed constraint upon the process of wealth creation? The answer can only be what Franz Oppenheimer referred to as the “political means” for an individual to gain wealth – that, rather than work oneself to use unowned resources, or to trade goods voluntarily with others, one confiscates them violently from people who already own them. Although we can see that Attlee’s solution – redistribution through the welfare state – is a major part of this, so too is any restrictive and regulatory encroachment upon private property. In Attlee’s day, we can point to the fact that the decade of his birth, according to historian David Cannadine, marked the peak of aristocratic power and influence in British society. Today, it is the power of the privileged financial barons of Wall Street that benefit from cheap, freshly printed money, robbing the poor of the their purchasing power and ploughing it into assets, causing bubbles, malinvestments, booms, busts, unemployment and misery. If we really want to solve poverty, we should be removing these barriers to wealth creation that favour the privileged elites rather than compounding the entire sorry state of affairs with further economic evils.

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1Rose L Martin, Fabian Freeway – Highroad to Socialism in the USA 1884-1966, Ch. 7.

2Ibid. p. 76.