Video: Steve Davies’ History of Individualism

The brief summary below is derived from the above video of the inaugural Counting House lecture by Stephen Davies.

The civil war undermines and blasts apart political and spiritual authority, and a radical movement develops. By the end of the first part of the war in 1646 Richard Overton is imprisoned at Newgate from where he fires his Arrow Against All Tyrants, effectively a libertarian pamphlet. Notably it is a property rights respecting right-wing form of individualism, not an anarcho-communist screed as might be expected for a “Leveller” as Overton was falsely described.

The Levellers’ Agreement of the People (the third version in particular published 1 May 1649) was a draft constitution for England that sketched out a radically minimal system of Government. The third draft contained compromises, though they did inititially extend the offer of liberty to catholics and the Irish. The document delegated broad powers to the state, but carved out a long list of very extensive exceptions that the state did not have power over, for example, all commerce. The document was not adopted as the constitution of England (an enormously significant decision) and the tradition went underground through the 1700s.

First, by the time of the 1688 Glorious Revolution a new Ancien Regime was established. A highly religious oligarchy, authoritarian, and corrupted by self-serving laws. Offices of State are bought and sold as commododities, slavery is openly supported as a mutually beneficial moral good, and the function of the state is, and is seen to be, and is accepted to be, the maintenance of the true religion (Anglicanism). It is (still) common for religious minorities to be excluded from public life.

During that century the Commonwealth Men targetted the Ancien Regime. The movement was associated with religious minorities, Congregationalists and Unitarians (more on them later) and on the American Colonies, and twards the end of the centrury and into the 1800s a new self aware “freedom movement” develops to reform the law and social norms of the country. They were not conservatives and would not have agreed that liberty had existed, apart from perhaps in fairytales from the times of the (already ancient) Saxons or as far back as Troy. Bentham comes into play with a individualist hedonic psychology. The success of this movement was enormous. The confessional state was largely dismantled, although leaving the present monarchy. Catholics were emanicipated (and in Ireland permitted to ride horses, carry weapons, and own land), and so were minority protestants. That assumption about the role of the state was underminded. The slave trade was abolished in 1806 then slavery itself in 1832.

Total Ideological Victory

Let’s be clear about how enormous those achievements were. Modern libertarians want to make a fundamental change to the role of the state in this country. The dismantlement of the confessional state, consisting of a reduction in the power of the Anglican church; and the emancipation of minority religions represented just such a change.

Modern libertarians must fight entrenched interests with massive incentives to preserve the status-quo. Public choice theory says this is difficult or impossible, but the abolition of slavery also flies in the face of public choice theory.

I find it enormously encouraging to hear that the challenges we face today have been overcome by past generations with similar views to our own. In the case of slavery, a total ideological victory was won. The moral assessment of slavery was that it was good for those enslaved and was divinely sanctioned. Ten people in a pub totally changed that view to the extent that nobody would now knowingly endorse slavery, and must now conceal their views beneath the soluable veneer of “redistribution”.

Somewhat to the contrary, Stephen also talks about how interlinked the various campaigns are. The network of groups fighting slavery, religious freedom, militarism and imperialism, fighting for free-trade, against the poor-laws, in favour of women’s rights, parliamentary reform and peace all shared a basic individualist analysis. They had a common individualist philosophy, a shared view of government policy and a drive to preserve and expand personal autonomy. They also shared members in common, and together acheived successes in many of the areas mentioned above.


There is, Stephen says, a popular libertarian narrative that there was a tradition of liberty that had established itself spontaneously in Britain and which was undermined by the Benthamites. Stephen did not refer to Hayek specifically but here is a quote in that vein from Ch. 4 of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty:

The two traditions [of institutional design vs empirical observation and evolution] became finally confused when they merged in the liberal movement of the nineteenth century and when even leading British liberals drew as much on the French as on the British [evolutionary] tradition. It was in the end, the victory of the Benthamite Philosophical Radicals over the Whigs in England that concealed the fundamental difference which in more recent years has reappeared as the conflict between liberal democracy and “social” or totalitarian democracy.

Stephen appears to call this “nonsense” because the individualists of this period had in fact acheived many victories against the Church and local oligarchy and also believed that threats to personal autonomy come not just from politics but also from church, “strong local communities” and even oppressive public opinion. Stephen suggests that if you do not also reject those sources of coercion you cannot call yourself an individualist, but only a libertarian, in doing so Stephen appeared to make a distinction between cultural and political coercion and to reward an additional positive label to those that opposed both, and it is the folks with this broader label that are mentioned in the title of his talk.


Stephen pauses to consider one Manchester based victory that demonstrated the benefits of intransigence. Rejecting compromises and promises the movement for the repeal of the Corn Laws, the largest movement ever seen, succeeded in getting their repeal and rendering protectionist policies unpopular for 100 years, especially in the Labour Party. Interestingly free-trade (if not free-markets in a general sense) still enjoys majority support. Also, it was noted, that because protectionist tariffs were a major source of revenue this campaign also completely changed how tax is collected and used, another goal of modern libertarians.

Peak and Collapse

Later, in the second half of the 19th century (~1850 onwards) there is a revival of imperialism, militarism, jolly heroic wars and also the rise of the collectivist movements. This latter group claimed the modern state would offer liberty to the people through the means of “collective liberty” (!). In response however, from 1870-1905 the self-aware individualism reaches a peak. Institutions are formed and individualist thinkers were widely read, and the individualist bourbon democrats in the US were strong. Then, suddenly, from 1914 the strong and self-aware individualist movement collapses. They had failed to recruit a new generation of activists and the individualist focus had narrowed to free-market economics.

Recent times

From the 1920 more and more people switch focus to economic liberty in this way. Stephen argues, rightly in my view, that this is misjudged for the specific reason that free-market economics is a consequence of the individualist and small governement analysis. Favouring a small state and personal autonomy due to a preference in free-markets is arguing in the wrong direction. It isn’t wrong, but you are holding the the picture upside down. I would only add that one needs to consider an individualist analysis of ethics as well.

In the middle of the century institutions form to fight the good fight against the welfare state and in favour of economic liberty. He discusses Ernest Benn as one of the heroes and founder of the Society of Individualists, and a rare example of someone who fought on non-economic issues. Overall, however the war for economic liberty has been gradually lost. State spending rose from 12% in 1900, down to 10% in 1910, up to 43% and now 52%, a catastropic loss only momentarily halted by Thatcher.

However, there have been improvements in personal agency. This is especially true for females, who’s rights and recognition have obviously grown but is true to some extent for everybody, though not as a policy and only as an accident of rapid economic growth. This growth means that now the 48% of your money you are permitted to control is actually much larger than the 90% you were permitted to keep in 1910. I can’t help wondering if this is a clue as to why the collectivists have gotten away with so many morally corrupt and destructive policies.

The future

To conclude Stephen points out that fundamental re-alignments in politics happen every 40 to 50 years, so we are due for a big one. Through the last 50 years the political argument has been one between economically authoritarian liberals and economically liberal conservatives, and this has carried on without the presence of a significant self-aware movement fighting consistently for liberty. Therefore, it seems likely that a self-aware group of consistent liberals will come to a confrontation with consistent authoritarians, of the smoking banning, internet censoring, journalist detaining sort. This is a clear battle between good and evil with blue water between the two. It is also a good clean fight that we can look forward to, without the confusion of tribal inconsistency; but the most encouraging thing about Stephen’s talk was hearing that similar battles have been won before and several times over and by people a lot like us.

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