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18 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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Laissez-faire and the Victorians

By Professor Eric Evans
The growth of the state

Victorian cycle machine shop
Victorian cycle machine shop 
Another influential ideology, Utilitarianism, developed in the early 19th century alongside laissez-faire. Associated primarily with the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1749-1832), its central belief was that a well ordered society should seek to secure 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'.

In theory, laissez-faire could deliver that happiness for the greatest number. Free trade stimulated economic growth. Economic growth created more jobs. More jobs meant more opportunities for people to consume, which in turn meant new market opportunities for producers and traders. A virtuous circle was thereby created and 'the greatest number' duly benefited.

However, what happened when large population growth was not matched by substantial economic progress was horrendously demonstrated in Ireland in the late 1840s. The potato famine killed one million people, and induced still more to emigrate in search of a better life.

'Without state intervention ... the whole Victorian economic miracle might be undermined.'

In Britain the evidence of JP Kay, Edwin Chadwick and the other Victorian social commentators also demonstrated the fragility of this supposedly virtuous circle. Without state intervention, they argued, it was clear that the whole Victorian economic miracle might be undermined. The solution adopted was central government intervention to mitigate the most damaging effects of unrestrained industrial capitalism.

Even before Victoria came to the throne, Parliament had passed the first Factory Act (1833), with government inspectors to ensure that its terms were met. Employment of very young children in textile factories was forbidden, and that of adolescents restricted. Employers had to provide at least two hours' education a day for child employees. Factory legislation was progressively extended to other branches of industry, beginning with mines legislation in 1842.

Published: 2004-11-04

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