William Beveridge: A Biography

By Jose Harris | Go to book overview

13
LIBERALISM, SOCIALISM, AND ECONOMIC PLANNING

I

SOME indication has already been given of the changing pattern of Beveridge's ideas on politics and society in the 1920s and 1930s. It has been shown that his administrative experiences in wartime had sown seeds of doubt in his mind about just how far it was possible to proceed with government- inspired social reforms. Opposition to control of the civilian labour-market had shown him, perhaps for the first time, just how strong was popular hostility to bureaucratic regulation. The resistance of workers to the extension of compulsory insurance and the subsequent introduction of the 'civilian out-of-work donation' threw him for a time into a state of cynical despair about what he perceived as the selfishness and short-sightedness of the labour movement and the negligent indifference of governments towards rational social planning. The contrasting regimes of Devonport and Rhondda had made him more than ever suspicious of piecemeal policy-innovation, and had convinced him that state intervention should be thorough and all-embracing if it was to occur at all. He had himself no objection in principle to a wide degree of government control; but he came to the conclusion that in many spheres of policy such control was neither politically acceptable nor pragmatically desirable in time of peace. These views seem to have been reinforced during the 1920s and early 1930s. 'I think there is perhaps a tendency,' he told the Royal Commission on Unemployment Insurance in 1931, 'to think that the Government has greater responsibilities than the Government or any Government can possibly fulfil.'1 As his faith in the processes of government waned, he turned more and more to social science -- and in particular to economics -- as the tool that would solve the problems of society. He was increasingly influenced by orthodox political economy, and for a time in the late 1920s and early 1930s a belief in the laws of the 'free market' at least partially displaced his earlier belief in a benevolent administrative state.2 This faith in free market economics was in turn shattered by certain historical events of the 1930s, and Beveridge went through a period of prolonged political

____________________
1
RC on Unemployment Insurance, Minutes of Evidence, Q. 5,944.
2
BP, IIb, WHB to Lionel Robbins, 3 Oct. 1930.

-302-

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