While such ringing declarations of a cleavage between the political economists and laissez faire may be a bit hyperbolic when applied to such figures as Adam Smith or David Ricardo, these assertions seem far less controversial when directed at John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, or J. E. Cairnes. Those critics who take a dynamic rather than a static view of the Classical School of economics agree that as the nineteenth century progressed the allegiance of leading economists to laissez faire became more and more attenuated. Whether one focuses upon the death of Ricardo in 1823, or the influence of Bentham's principle of utility, or John Stuart Mill's flirtation with socialism as constituting the definitive turning point toward a more activist, interventionist state, contemporary revisionist scholars concur in their assessment of the Classicals as deviationists from doctrinaire laissez faire.
Since its publication, Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist has evolved from being criticized as a social commentary and a work of art, to a literary and artistic composition.
Before completing the revisionist case, we would be woefully remiss not to mention some of the key pieces of intrusive legislation that were passed in the period and repeatedly cited to buttress the revisionist case. This anti-laissez-faire legislation included: the Poor Law Reform Act of 1834 which established central inspectors (as did the Prison Act of 1835); the various Educational Acts from the 1830s on, which eventually culminated in 1880 in compulsory education at state expense; the prohibition of women, apprentices, and children under thirteen working in the coal mines in 1841 (and other acts extensively regulating the mines); the various Factory Acts which from 1833 on limited the hours of work for women and children; the inspection of asylums; the extensive regulation of railroads; the creation of the Metropolitan Building Act empowering the Board of Works to set building specifications (all this in the 1840s inspired by the Tory Paternalists); the Public Health Act of 1848; the Mining Inspection Act; Merchant Shipping Act; and Burial Ground Act of 1850; and other acts of the 1850s designed to regulate London's common lodging houses, to suppress smoke in London, to regulate lighthouses, to aid juvenile reformatories, to establish a permanent charity commission, to regulate the merchant marine, and to create a department of science and art in order to promote new technology. The list could go on, and every authority who makes such a compendium adduces somewhat different examples; there are certainly an abundance to choose from.
MacDonagh argues that it was these coterminous forces that created a partial collectivism upon which the government could build in the last quarter of the century. Once one understands both the mechanism at work in the earlier period and the momentum it generated, Britain's "very general collapse of political individualism" becomes comprehensible. The model MacDonagh offers for explaining this phenomenon of the growth of Britain's administrative state is compelling; although critics have found fault with its detail, they have by and large displayed little desire to dispute its perception of a profound administrative revolution.
Brebner categorically denied such an era, branding it as a fallacious "myth." The supposed perpetrators of a laissez-faire ideology, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, in Brebner's eyes, turn out to be the very opposite: apostles of state interventionism for collectivist ends. And while the state did remove its regulations from commerce in the early part of the century it simultaneously extended them to industry. Almost year by year a parallel development of laissez faire and state intervention can be documented, as competing political interests vied for power. Occasionally one interest triumphed, but usually the battle terminated in an uneasy compromise. To Brebner, the "engine of change" in the nineteenth century was neither laissez faire nor state interventionism, but rather the basic forces of industrialization. Yet, there was from 1832 on, that is, from the year of the first Reform Act, a snowball effect of one intervention leading to the next.
There is a higher purpose to this quibble over the identification of Smith as either a naturalist or a Utilitarian. If one fails to distinguish between Adam Smith as a philosophical naturalist and the subsequent Utilitarianism of his economic successors, then one can only explain the gradual transition from quasi-laissez faire to quasi-statism as the result of social forces, the press of events, the blistering attacks of their critics, or some other equally weak or partial explanation. It is only when we pierce below the veil of their actual policy pronouncements, and examine this awesome shift from naturalism to utilitarianism that we can adequately comprehend the attitude of members of the English Classical School towards the state.
Dickens' work of social reform is not limited to Oliver Twist for "a great and universal pity for the poor and downtrodden has been awaken in him which is to provide the
driving power behind his pen in book after book" (Neill 168).
Download essays reviewing the works of Charles Dickens or read essays filled with critical commentary of such infamous works as A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Hard Times, The Pickwick Papers, A Tale of Two Cities, and more! even features comparative literary analyses, which compare and contrast themes, symbolism, and Dickens' style with other novels, past and present.
The subsequent controversy has focused upon the extent to which laissez faire prevailed in the political arena and—if it did prevail—during which part of the century; and whether Bentham and his followers influenced the course of events in an individualist or collectivist direction. The weight of opinion seems to fall on the side contesting against an "age of laissez faire," while the contending forces seem to be arrayed about equally on the question of the influence of Benthamism upon the political landscape. There is, however, near universal agreement that, at least in theory, Benthamism had a strongly collectivist tinge, as evidenced by the Utilitarian philosopher's penchant for reform schemes necessitating the creation of new administrative bodies with centralized inspectors empowered to oversee compliance. Numerous examples of this proclivity are enshrined in Bentham's
Oliver Twist shows Dickens' perspective of society in a realistic, original manner, which hope to change society's views by "combining a survey of the actual social scene with a metaphoric fiction designed to reveal the nature of such a society when exposed to a moral overview" (Gold 26).
In 1830 the despotic or authoritarian element latent in utilitarianism was not noted by the statesman of any party. The reformers of the day placed, for the most part implicitly, faith in the dogma of and failed to perceive that there is in truth no necessary logical connection between it and the "greatest happiness principle" which may with equal sincerity be adopted by either believers in individual freedom, or by the advocates of paternal government... The Liberals then of 1830 were themselves zealots for individual freedom, but they entertained beliefs which, though the men who held them knew it not, might well under altered social conditions, foster the despotic authority of a democratic State.... Somewhere between 1868 and 1900 three changes took place which brought into prominence the authoritative side of Benthamite liberalism. Faith in laissez-faire suffered an eclipse; hence the principle of utility became an argument in favour, not of individual freedom, but of the absolutism of the State. Parliament under the progress of democracy became the representative, not of the middle classes, but of the whole body of householders; parliamentary sovereignty, therefore, came to mean, in the last resort, the unrestricted power of the wage-earners. English administrative mechanism was reformed and strengthened. The machinery was thus provided for the practical extension of the activity of the State.... Benthamites it was then seen, had forged the arms most needed by socialists.