The Collapse of Free Association

WHILE CENTRAL GOVERNMENT was little noticed in the 1850s, the tendrils of the state were everywhere to be seen a century later, from the local surgery to the unemployment office on the High Street. Translated into quantitative terms, British government spent less than 8 percent of gross national product in the 1900s and over 50 percent in the 1960s (Jose Harris, “Society and state in twentieth-century Britain,” The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950, ed. F.M.L. Thompson, (Cambridge 1990), vol. 3, p. 64). Victorians held government in esteem, but expected little from it on social issues. In a national culture dominated by Christianity, they commonly believed that poverty was ineradicable, yet they sought its amelioration through voluntary service. A century later, most Britons believed poverty could be abolished, but that responsibility for welfare provision resided in the political process. With collectivism in the ascendant, the payment of taxes had become the primary civic duty.

To the Victorian mind, democracy was immanent in institutions. Before the advent of universal suffrage, the nation’s charities, societies for mutual aid, voluntary schools and various other bodies represented the most effective way for disparate groups to have an influence in their communities and integrate into the wider society. Self-governing, voluntary institutions gave a voice to those who were excluded, or felt excluded, from the political nation: dissenters, minorities, women and the working classes. Through the culture of free association, which had its origins in the Reformation, the most obscure sects could prosper in their own enclave of belief. Voluntary societies not only made life more bearable and human, but propelled those traditions of free association that were thought essential to the creation of a vibrant democracy.

Associations, it was often said, were the nurseries of democracy, which provided opportunities for grassroots participation, a moral training, and lessons in decision-making and organization. In the nineteenth century there were literally millions of them in Britain, from the humble mothers’ meeting and burial club to the great missionary societies and charitable hospitals.

By the twentieth century, however, voluntarists were increasingly on the defensive. In an age of social science, mass politics and national priorities, they looked increasingly parochial. In a culture growing more urban and diverse, they had difficulty rebutting criticisms that charity and mutual aid were patchy and inadequate. Unemployment and two world wars, which accelerated government controls, pushed the voluntary sector to the margins of social reform. The extraordinary circumstances of the Second World War had boosted Labour’s planning mentality, and its leadership paid scant heed to the democratic impulses and good offices of voluntary societies with their ethic of contributory citizenship. By the end of the Second World War, the citizenry looked to government, not to self-governing institutions, for redress. The representative principle, which developed a magical hold on the citizenry after the extension of the suffrage in 1918, had trumped the principle of duty.

The vast expansion of state-directed health and welfare services after the war threw voluntarists into disarray. Central government largely displaced the vast array of voluntary institutions in the provision of health and social services. Politicians of all parties, transfixed by the role of the welfare state in their election prospects, narrowed discussion of social policy down to government action. So did civil servants in the expanding welfare departments, who jealously guarded their new authority. In the heyday of centralized bureaucratic administration, social policy shifted from the local to the national and from the religious to the secular. Indirect, representative democracy, expressed through Cabinet government, now reigned supreme in educational and social policy over the spontaneous form of democracy inherent in voluntary institutions. To put it another way, the ministerial, civil service state had routed civic pluralism, whose foundations lay in Christian and humanistic notions of individual responsibility.

As a consequence of the state’s ascendancy in welfare, the public and the surviving voluntary institutions generally dealt less directly with social issues, leaving the individual disconnected. Individuals were in some ways more impotent in an age of universal suffrage and parliamentary democracy than their disenfranchised ancestors had been under an oligarchic system. Those self-governing local institutions, which connected citizens to their communities, gave them a measure of direct control over their own affairs. But the nationalization and professionalization of the social services made such institutions look provincial and amateurish. Clearly, something fundamental had happened to British culture, once so voluntarist, in which the burden of care shifted so radically to government, in which volunteering became characterized as a frill and faceless officials doled out the nation’s capital in the name of progress and “the people.”

In compensation for the decline of rival sources of democracy, politicians and social commentators sought to replace the sense of community, which people had built up in the past out of family life and self-governing institutions, with a sense of national community, built out of central bureaucratic structures and party politics. In passing social legislation, government acted in the name of freedom, progress and social justice. The beauty of such abstractions perhaps blinded the public to the dangers of overburdening the state. But the more the government expanded its role into areas that were formerly the responsibility of families and voluntary institutions, the more it reduced the scope for individual service and social interaction. With the years, the notion that a representative government had tutelary power over the citizenry took hold, and with it the concept of ministerial responsibility for social provision from the cradle to the grave.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a rearguard campaign to counter the effects of an impersonal state devastating traditional allegiances and local institutions, but the public in general seemed content to queue up for their false teeth and child benefits. A few social critics, often Christian in background, complained of a bloodless takeover of civic responsibility by anonymous bureaucrats. Tocqueville, who believed that Christian charity was essential to social well-being, had argued that without a culture of association, democratic nations became prey to overbearing government prone to a benign form of despotism, in which the citizenry exchanged freedom for benefits. As he put the case forcefully in Democracy in America:

Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Dr. Frank Prochaska is Lecturer in History, Yale University. A version of this article originally appeared on the Web site of the Social Affairs Unit,