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22 January 2001

Back to the workhouse for America

The US Presidency - Tristram Hunton how historians of Victorian England influenced George W

By Tristram Hunt

On Saturday 20 January, George W Bush will raise his hand, lock his jaw and hide his trademark smirk to become the 43rd president of the United States. Conventional wisdom holds that Bush is the most intellectually challenged figure in US public life, a man for whom Grecians are a race and “wings take dreams” – a politician with minimal political programmes beyond big oil and even bigger defence contracts. The truth is that Dubbya’s anodyne mantra of “compassionate conservatism” hides a dangerously developed political agenda.

At the heart of the Bush doctrine lies the obvious commitment to rolling back the frontiers of the state. While most Republicans are content to slash bureaucracy and let the individual sink or swim, Bush wants civil society to cushion the blow. Hence the compassion. The most successful component of civil society after the family is, in Bush’s eyes, the church. Faith-based welfare provision is his answer to poverty. Unlike the state – which does more harm than good by alleviating poverty – churches, charities and other voluntary associations teach the poor to help themselves. Churches can tell the difference between the deserving and undeserving poor. They can help those who need it, and help those who don’t simply by not helping them. More compassion.

Dubbya did not come up with this himself. A two-year trawl of the right-wing think-tanks – the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute – helped him develop some public policy. But the core idea is the product of a small group of New York-based historians.

At the forefront is Gertrude Himmelfarb – a tenured professor at the City University of New York with more than 30 years’ worth of carefully argued right-wing historical polemic behind her. Himmelfarb’s work centres on the idea of poverty in Victorian England. She seeks to explain how Victorian institutions such as the churches, friendly societies and voluntary associations were able to address poverty because they understood that it was a product of morality. To go bankrupt was a crime; to produce an illegitimate child was wrong. There were deserving poor and undeserving. Victorian society understood that.

Her foreword to a recent reprint of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Memoir on Pauperism warmly recommends the text as a paradigm for welfare reform. De Tocqueville was a fan of arbitrary charity and noblesse oblige. “Any measure which establishes legal charity . . . and gives it an administrative form thereby creates an idle and lazy class, living at the expense of the industrial and working class,” he wrote.

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In the Himmelfarb schema, things started to go wrong in the early 1900s, when objective definitions of income and subsistence began to determine notions of poverty. Social responsibility replaced moral responsibility as the basic category of thought. From that flowed a confused understanding of compassion, which had more to do with the middle classes feeling good about themselves, rather than actually doing good. The Fabian Society in general and Sidney and Beatrice Webb in particular are regarded as especially guilty of propagating false compassion. The 20th-century welfare state operated on precisely such a debilitating principle – and the consequence was the underclass.

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Himmelfarb’s 1991 book, Poverty and Compassion, begins with a chapter called “Compassion ‘Properly Understood’ “. It does not encompass helping the “undeserving poor”. Himmelfarb continued the theme with her book The De-moralisation of Society: from Victorian virtues to modern values. There, she argued for the reintroduction of stigma and Victorian notions of virtue to tackle the fundamental causes of poverty. The welfare state, she contended, had transformed the idea of virtue into little more than one value among many others. Churches and civil society had to redress the balance.

In the mid-1990s, Himmelfarb happily defended Newt Gingrich’s claim that orphanages should supplant the welfare system. In a celebrated piece in the New York Times, she championed the great Victorian tradition of moral prurience and sexual repression. The zealous professor also worked with Reagan’s former education secretary, William Bennett, when he attacked the decaying liberalism of the modern American university.

Her ideas have been championed by another Victorian historian, Dr Myron Magnet. Based at the Manhattan Institute, the think-tank that published Charles Murray’s work on the underclass in the 1980s, Magnet is a Dickens scholar with a doctorate in Victorian literature.

Magnet is equally despairing of the moral relativism of contemporary America. He made his name by publishing a diatribe against the 1960s entitled The Dream and the Nightmare, which Bush has praised for “containing the formula for compassionate conservatism”. In 1997, Magnet travelled down to Austin, Texas, to give the young governor a quiet tutorial on the benefits of faith-based welfare provision and the glories of the Victorian minimalist state. The fruits can be seen in Bush’s plan for a tax credit that would go to charities and churches, which could then decide on the moral worthiness of the claimant.

As with many flawed political ideologies, Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” is based on distorted history. Victorian civil society did not alleviate poverty. Churches were arbitrary and incompetent; friendly societies often went bankrupt and, until the arrival of national insurance, pauperism was rife. The crux of Victorian social policy was the new Poor Law and a desperate old age spent in the workhouse. As a Dickens expert, Magnet will need no reminder of Our Mutual Friend and Betty Higden’s fearful lament: “Kill me sooner than take me there. Throw this pretty child under carthorses’ feet and a loaded waggon, sooner than take him there. Come to us and find us all a-dying, and set a light to us all where we lie, and let us all blaze away with the house into a heap of cinders, sooner than move a corpse of us there!”