Jonathan Sacks
Jonathan Sacks
The Home We Build Together

One of the remarkable features of Victorian England was the huge growth in volunteering and philanthropy. Frank Prochaska tells us that most communities would have 'various schools for the poor, visiting societies, working parties, mother's meetings, and temperance societies'. There were voluntary groups for everything: 'soup kitchens, maternity charities, creches, blanket clubs, coal clubs, clothing clubs, boot clubs, medical clubs, lending libraries, and holiday funds'. Charity was not a middle-class preserve. Workers formed societies for mutual aid in times of sickness or unemployment or injury. Navvies created sick clubs and visiting societies. Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx's colleague, was struck by the kindness of the poor to the poor: 'although the workers cannot really afford to give charity on the same scale as the middle class, they are nevertheless more charitable in every way'. People were involved in the fate of their neighbours and co-workers. The historian A. J. P. Taylor called them, not unkindly, 'a great army of busybodies'.

Much of this sense of responsibility had religious roots. William Wilberfbrce called it 'Practical Christianity'. Anglicans fought slavery and distributed Bibles. The Unitarians and Quakers favoured educational projects. Baptists and Congregationalists promoted temperance. Methodists pioneered in district visiting, going out to the poor in their homes. And they were all involved in education through charity schools, ragged schools, Sunday schools and Bible classes. The Victorians knew that there was something special about this. The Nonconformist declared in 1842: 'In no other kingdom under the sun is there such a periodical gathering of benevolence and piety.'

There was more at stake here than alleviating poverty and ignorance. The Victorians, like their American contemporaries, had a strong sense of freedom. They did not like excessive government intervention. They preferred to exercise responsibility themselves. They believed, as Samuel Smiles put it in 1859, 'in helping and stimulating men to elevate and improve themselves by their own free and independent individual action'. They recognized that there is a limit on what governments and laws can achieve. They can provide services, but they cannot change lives. For that you need education, moral ideals, and networks of support. Far from being content with the status quo, the Victorian volunteers championed the cause of those who lacked a voice: the poor, minorities, women, neglected or abused children and the working class. Charles Dickens drew attention to many social injustices through his immense literary power.

John Stuart Mill realized that one of the best defences of freedom was to get people involved in solving their own problems through collaborative activity at a local level. He argued that governments should encourage citizens 'to manage as many as possible of their joint concerns by voluntary co-operation' rather than relying on the state. They should restrict 'to the narrowest compass the intervention of a public authority in the business of the community'. Excessive state intervention, he believed, anaesthetizes the spirit of liberty. Collective self-help energizes it:
In proportion as the people are accustomed to manage their affairs by their own active intervention, instead of leaving them to the government, their desires will turn to repelling tyranny, rather than to tyrannizing: while in proportion as all real initiative and direction resides in the government, and individuals habitually feel and act as under its perpetual tutelage, popular institutions develop in them not the desire of freedom, but an unmeasured appetite for place and power.
The man who saw this most clearly was Alexis de Tocqueville, the French diplomat who made a study of American society in the 1830s. Tocqueville believed that democracy was vulnerable to individualism. People might prefer private satisfaction to public service. The one antidote was local civic engagement. This taught people the 'habits of the heart' necessary to protect freedom. Otherwise there was a perennial danger that people might leave everything to government, and find eventually that they had lost the power to govern themselves. In a famous passage he draws a picture of how liberty could be killed by kindness on the part of the state:
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
By taking on itself ever more responsibilities, democratic government gently, benignly, imperceptibly robs citizens of the exertions of altruism and self-help that are essential to the maintenance of a free society.

Victorian England understood the difference between state and society, contract and covenant. There are things that can be achieved by government action and others that can only be achieved by patient face-to-face voluntary engagement with people.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.