Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 per cent. of the national income. … broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.
As Pipes adds, “In 2011, one can only dream of such a limited state.”
That passage also dovetails with a quote, from a possibly surprising source, remembered by the late Robert L. Bartley of the Wall Street Journal. In the last chapter of his 1992 book, The Seven Fat Years, his wonderful treatise on economics, written while America was in the midst of a recession far milder than today’s, Bartley looked at the then-recent fall of the Berlin Wall and wondered if it had finally meant the conclusion of a series of events that radically reshaped the world, beginning with World War I. Bartley had a remarkable flashback to Europe just before the lamps went out, as Sir Edward Grey was quoted as saying on the eve of WWI:
Against the temptation to fantasize the past, this exciting age did not bring happiness to everyone. Its denizens suffered pain from too much change, too much progress. In his [1986 book] France: Fin de Siècle, Eugen Weber explains, “This is what caught my eye about the circumstances: the discrepancy to between material progress and spiritual dejection reminded me of our own times. So much was going right, even in France, as the nineteenth century ended; so much was being said to make one think that it was all going wrong.”
Still, World War I changed mankind’s life and outlook, in ways by no means confined to France but throughout a common trans-Atlantic civilization and beyond. By now, we have forgotten the spirit that was swept away in 1914, and also the extraordinary economic underpinnings of the efflorescence of science and culture. These were once described from the perspective of London by an old friend, John Maynard Keynes:
What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August 1914! The greater part of the population, it is true, worked hard and lived at low standard of comfort, yet were, to all appearances, reasonably contented with this lot. But escape was possible, for any man of capacity or character at all exceeding the average, into the middle and upper classes, for whom life offered, at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages.
The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighbouring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable.
And the Heinlein quote that Glenn Reynolds has referenced several times recently fits in well to cap all this off:
Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
This is known as “bad luck.”
Somehow, we keep forgetting how freedom and good economic “luck” are remarkably intertwined.
(Bumped to top.)