The Providential State

‘There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the various systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. . . . With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch.’ —A. N. WHITEHEAD, Science and the Modern World


IN the violent conflicts which now trouble the earth the active contenders believe that since the struggle is so deadly it must be that the issues which divide them are deep. They may be mistaken. Because parties are bitterly opposed, it does not necessarily follow that they have radically different purposes. The intensity of their antagonism is no measure of the divergence of their views. There has been many a ferocious quarrel among sectarians who worship the same god.

For though the partisans who are now fighting for the mastery of the modern world wear shirts of different colors, their weapons are drawn from the same armory, their doctrines are Variations of the same theme, and they go forth to battle singing the same tune with slightly different words. Their weapons are the coercive regulation of the life and labor of mankind. Their doctrine is that disorder and misery can be overcome only by more and more compulsory organization. Their promise is that through the power of the state men can be made happy.

Throughout the world, in the name of progress, men who call themselves communists, socialists, fascists, nationalists, progressives, and even liberals, are unanimous in holding that government with its instruments of coercion must, by commanding the people how they shall live, direct the course of civilization and fix the shape of things to come. They believe in what Mr. Stuart Chase very accurately described as ’the overhead planning and control of economic activity.’ This is the dogma which all the prevailing dogmas presuppose. This is the mould in which are cast the thought and action of the epoch. No other approach to the regulation of human affairs is seriously considered, or is even conceived as possible. The recently enfranchised masses and the leaders of thought who supply their ideas are almost completely under the spell of this dogma. Only a handful here and there, groups without influence, isolated and disregarded thinkers, continue to challenge it. For the premises of authoritarian collectivism have become the working beliefs, the self-evident assumptions, the unquestioned axioms, not only of all the revolutionary régimes, but of nearly every effort which lays claim to being enlightened, humane, and progressive.

So universal is the dominion of this dogma over the minds of contemporary men that no one is taken seriously as a statesman or a theorist who does not come forward with proposals to magnify the power of the government and to extend and multiply its intervention in human affairs. Unless he is authoritarian and collectivist he is a mossback, a reactionary, at best an amiable eccentric swimming hopelessly against the tide. It is a strong tide. Though despotism is no novelty in human affairs, it is probably true that at no time in twenty-five hundred years has any western government claimed for itself a jurisdiction over men’s lives comparable with that which is officially attempted in the totalitarian states. There have been despotisms more cruel than those of Russia, Italy, and Germany. There have been none which were more inclusive. In these ancient centres of civilization, several hundred millions of persons live under what is theoretically the absolute dominion of the dogma that the state is their master and that only under its orders may they live, work, and seek their salvation. But it is even more significant that in other lands where men shrink from the ruthless policy of these régimes it is commonly assumed that the movement of events must be in the same general direction.

Nearly everywhere the mark of a progressive is that he relies at last upon the increased power of the state to improve the condition of men. Though the progressives prefer to move gradually and with consideration, by persuading majorities to consent, the only instrument of progress in which they have faith is the coercive agency of government. They can, it would seem, imagine no alternative, nor can they remember how much of what they cherish as progressive has come by emancipation from political dominion, by the limitation of power, by the release of personal energy from authority and collective coercion. For virtually all that now passes for progressivism in countries like England and the United States calls for the increasing ascendancy of the state: always the cry is for more officials, more power over more and more of the activities of men.

Yet the assumptions of this whole movement are not so self-evident as they seem. They are, in fact, contrary to the assumptions bred in men by the whole long struggle to extricate conscience, intellect, labor, and personality from the bondage of prerogative, privilege, monopoly, and authority. For more than two thousand years, since western men first began to think about the social order, the main preoccupation of political thinking has been to find a law which should be superior to arbitrary power. Men have sought it in custom, in the dictates of reason, in religious revelation, endeavoring always to set up some check upon the exercise of force. This is the meaning of the long debate about natural law. This is the meaning of a thousand years of struggle to bring the sovereign under a constitution, to establish for the individual and for voluntary associations of men rights which they can enforce against kings, barons, magnates, majorities, and mobs. This is the meaning of the struggle to separate the Church from the State, to emancipate conscience, learning, the arts, education, and commerce from the inquisitor, the censor, the policeman, and the hangman.

Conceivably the lessons of this history no longer have a meaning for us. Conceivably there has come into the world during this generation some new element which makes it necessary for us to undo the work of emancipation, to retrace the steps men have taken to limit the power of governments, which compels us to believe that the way of enlightenment in affairs is now to be found by intensifying authority and enlarging its scope. But the burden of proof is upon those who reject the ’cumenical tradition of the western world. It is for them to show that their cult of the providential state is in truth the new revelation they think it is, and that it is not, as a few still believe, the gigantic heresy of an apostate generation.


Like the man who said he knew the earth was flat because it had looked flat to him in all the places he had ever visited, each generation is disposed to regard its main assumptions as self-evident when in fact they have merely been adopted uncritically. Generally this disposition is fortified by some large interpretation of experience supplied by the learned men of the age. The doctrine of the divine right of kings stands as a classic example. The claim of the king to unlimited power was removed from the field of debate — that is to say, was made axiomatic — by the assumption that he ruled by the grace of God. The men who might question the king were silenced because they did not dare to question God, who had appointed the king.

The current return to the authoritarian principle in politics finds its principal sanction in the belief that the new machine technology requires the control of an omnipotent state. There are many versions of this basic idea. By some it is said that only the strong arm of government can protect men against the brutal oppression of their machines; by others that only the power of the government can realize the beneficent promise of the machines. But all agree that in the recent progress of technology there is some kind of deep necessity which compels mankind to magnify the scope of political authority and to intensify its intervention in affairs. The modern state holds its sovereign powers by grace of the gods of the machine.

‘As industry advances in mechanization,’ says Mr. Lewis Mumford, ‘a greater weight of political authority must develop outside than was necessary in the past.’1 It is from this thesis that the intellectual leaders of the modern world have derived their belief that the liberal conception of the state belongs, as President Roosevelt put it, to a ‘horse and buggy’ era, that in the age of automobiles, dynamos, and highly mechanized industry a much stronger government must, in Mr. George Soule’s words, prescribe more ‘suitable ways of behaving.’

Yet this thesis, which our generation has come to think of as self-evident, involves an extraordinary paradox. Thus Mr. Mumford, using a scheme invented by Professor Patrick Geddes, suggests that ‘looking back over the last thousand years, one can divide the development of the machine and the machine civilization into three successive but overlapping and interpenetrating phases: the eo-technic (based on water-and-wood), the paleo-technic (based on coal-and-iron), and the neotechnic (based on electricity-and-alloy).’ This is a convenient and illuminating classification. But what must interest us here primarily is Mr. Mumford’s deduction that in the neo-technic phase — that is, the phase we are now in — the state must regulate production and consumption, that at least in the field of what he calls the ‘basic requirements’ of food, clothing, shelter, and ‘necessary luxuries’ the state must impose ‘rationed production,’ ‘communized consumption,’ and ‘compulsory labor.’

Is it not truly extraordinary that in the latest phase of the machine technic we are advised that we must revert to the political technic — that is, to the sumptuary laws and the forced labor, which were the universal practice in the earlier phases of the machine technic? I realize Mr, Mumford hopes and believes that this time the omnipotent sovereign power will be as rational in its purposes and its measures as are the physicists and chemists who have invented alloys and harnessed electricity. But the fact remains, he believes the beneficent promise of modern science can be realized only through the political technology of the pre-scientific ages. For the whole apparatus of a politically administered economy, the fixed prices and fixed wages, the sumptuary laws, the forced labor, the communized consumption, the directed production, not to speak of the censored and managed opinion in the totalitarian states, is a reversion to the political technic which had to be rejected in order that the industrial revolution could take place. It is therefore by no means self-evident that men must once again adopt an archaic technic in order that the promise of the industrial revolution may be realized. For the regulation of industry by the state was never more minute than in the century before the great technological innovations.

Think for a moment what that regulation meant. Take, for example, the famous system of règlements whereby Colbert, the minister of Louis XIV, sought to codify and generalize the industrial law.2 From the year 1666 until 1730 the regulations of the textile industry alone are contained in four quarto volumes of 2200 pages and three supplementary volumes. The rules for Burgundy and four neighboring districts, covering the manufacture of woolens, specify that the fabrics of Dijon and Selongey are to be put in reeds 1¾ ells wide, a warp is to contain 44 x 32 (or 1408) threads, including the selvedges, and when it comes to the fulling mill the cloth is to be exactly one ell wide. But in Semur and four other places the warp is to have 1376 threads, whereas Châtillon is to use 1216 threads. Somehow the town of Langogne seems to have been overlooked until 1718, when an edict was published stating that ‘His Majesty is informed that no règlement specifies from how many threads those cloths are to be composed; a matter which must be attended to without fail.’

If we ask how His Majesty was to know how many threads he should call for in Dijon, Semur, or Langogne, the answer is, of course, that he found this out from the established manufacturers and that his règlements were essentially a device for protecting their vested interest against the competition of enterprising innovators. This is the inevitable method of authoritative regulation, for no king and no bureau can hope to imagine a technic of production other than the technic which happens to exist. Occasionally the government may have a bright idea, but its normal procedure must inevitably be to throw the weight of its authority behind established interests. What Colbert did under Louis XIV was precisely what General Johnson and Secretary Wallace did under President Roosevelt. Colbert regulated industry and agriculture by fortifying and subsidizing the established producers, and he tried to be thorough. The manufacturers of Saint-Maixent ‘had to negotiate for four years before they could secure permission to use black warp.’ They never were allowed to weave in black weft.

Naturally the system did not work very well. The more the règlements were violated, the more they were multiplied. Lawsuits were endless, smuggling and bootlegging omnipresent, and every so often the government set out to prove that it not only issued regulations but meant them. It was particularly aroused over printed calicoes, for the French printing industry was backward and the textile producers demanded protection. Certainly the government did its best. ’It is estimated,’says Heckscher, ‘that the economic measures taken in this connection cost the lives of some 16,000 people, partly through executions and partly through armed affrays, without reckoning the unknown but certainly much larger number of people who were sent to the galleys, or punished in other ways. On one occasion in Valence, seventy-seven were sentenced to be hanged, fifty-eight were to be broken on the wheel, six hundred and thirtyone were sent to the galleys, one was set free, and none were pardoned. But even this vigorous action did not help to attain the desired end. Printed calicoes spread more and more widely among all classes of the population, in France as everywhere else.’

Authoritative regulation of an economy is not a modern invention. On the contrary, it was practised by the Pharaohs in Mr. Mumford’s eo-technic phase of machine civilization. Under Diocletian it was the recognized method of government, under the Byzantine emperors, under Louis XIV, under Hapsburgs and Romanoffs. Far from being something new, deduced from what Mr. Soule calls ‘the growth of technical civilization,’ it has been from immemorial antiquity the practice of governments in a pre-technical civilization. As a matter of fact, it was the polity of the Ancien Régime.

Now there is a very good reason why the authoritative regulation of industry is appropriate to a primitive economy and inappropriate to one in which technical change is continual and radical. Rules of law must by their very nature be general. Only occasionally can they be changed. They are suited, therefore, to a well-established routine which has to be altered only at rare intervals. But the very essence of the industrial revolution is its constant technical change, due to continual invention. The best machines of yesterday will be old-fashioned machines tomorrow. The legislator cannot legislate as fast as the inventors can invent. If he bases his law on yesterday’s process, he must either suppress to-morrow’s process or he must give up the law. The introduction of new methods cannot be legally regulated. For until the new methods have been tried out no one can know what to legislate about. Men learned in the eighteenth century that they must either forbid new inventions, as the French monarchy did when confronted with printed calicoes, or they must give up the attempt to stabilize by law the processes of production. It is, therefore, no coincidence that minute regulation has always been found in a relatively unprogressive economy and that the lack of regulation is characteristic of a technical progress.

The truth would appear to be this. The absence of the regulation of production is a necessary condition of the continuation of experimental science. The new inventions are made in a laboratory by trying out all sorts of schemes to find out whether they work. But the experiment does not end at the laboratory door. It goes on. The next step is to install one or two of the new machines in a factory or to build a small experimental factory which is something between a laboratory and a commercial concern. Even then the experimentation is not ended. For if the new scheme is to work, the process of adopting it throughout an industry must be carried on experimentally over and over again in relation not merely to the technic but to all the other factors, such as the cost of capital, the wages and skill of labor, the aptitude of the managers, and the like. That is why directive laws which are by their nature static and inert are technically unsuited to the highly dynamic character of an industrial revolution.


Those who argue that the advancing industrial technic requires increasing political authority have probably been misled by certain phenomena of modern industrialism. They see, for example, that in some branches of production a few large concerns — or even one alone — control the industry, fixing prices and wages. They then assume that this concentration of industrial power is the result of machine production, that it does not regulate itself in a competitive market, and that therefore it must be regulated by a very strong government.

But in this argument the basic assumption is a fallacy. The concentration of control does not come from the mechanization of industry. It comes from the state, which began about a hundred years ago to grant to anyone for a nominal fee what had hitherto been a very special privilege. That was the privilege of incorporation with limited liability and perpetual succession. President Nicholas Murray Butler has said of this momentous policy, ‘I weigh my words when I say that in my judgment the limited liability corporation is the greatest single discovery of modern times, whether you judge it by its social, by its ethical, by its industrial, or, in the long run, — after we understand it and know how to use it, — by its political, effects. Even steam and electricity are far less important than the limited liability corporation, and they would be reduced to comparative impotence without it.‘

This is no exaggeration. For, without the privileges and immunities of the corporate form of economic organization and property tenure, the industrial system as we know it could not have developed and could not exist. So fundamentally true is this that we should do well to follow the suggestion of Messrs. Berle and Means and speak not of the capitalist system but of the corporate system. If that system exhibits a high degree of concentrated control, the cause is not to be found in the technic of production, but in the law.

What, to take obvious examples, has the machine technology to do with the chain store or with the United States Steel Corporation or the General Motors Company? They exist because of a special and recent development of the law which permits one limited liability corporation to own other limited liability corporations. There may be some small industry, perhaps one based on a secret process or an exclusive patent, where control is concentrated without use of the privilege and immunities of the corporate device. But it would be neither representative nor significant. The concentration of control in modern industry is not caused by technical change, but is a creation of the state through its laws. This is obviously true of public utilities, which hold a franchise for a monopoly. It is no less true of all other industries which approach monopoly.

We must not let ourselves confuse monopolistic control with the largescale production required by expensive machinery. The scale on which factories have to be organized in order to make the most efficient use of new inventions and labor-saving machinery may look big. But it is practically never as big as the industry. In other words, while large factories may, up to a point, be more efficient than small ones, no factory need or can be big enough to supply the whole market. Mass production does not require monopoly. When the Steel Corporation enlarges its business it does not necessarily enlarge its plant in Pittsburgh. It builds another somewhere else. What holds together these various plants is not the technic of mass production but the legal devices of incorporation.

The assumption that great corporate capitalism is in some mysterious way the inexorable consequence of machinery is an illusion. What is more, it is by no means certain that the highest development of technology is favored by this concentrated corporate control. It is a matter of common knowledge that beyond a certain point increasing size yields a diminishing return, that many of the biggest corporations are too big to be well managed, and that they become rigid and opposed to change. There is sound reason for thinking that the laws which foster concentrated control are from the point of view of technological progress reactionary, that they retard rather than promote it, and that industrial laws suited to the genius of modern technology would vary in important respects from the laws which exist. Such laws would almost certainly seek to discountenance a scale of production beyond the point of technical efficiency, to discourage concentrated control inimical to the incentives and the criteria of competition, to prevent the erection of great and rigid capital structures which make technical change ruinously expensive.

The collectivists who think that business must grow bigger and bigger until only the government is big enough to dominate it would pile Ossa on Pelion. They are not interpreting the inward principle of the modern industrial revolution. They are ascribing to the technicians results which have been produced by lawyers and politicians. They are proposing as a remedy for the evils resulting from the mistakes of the lawmakers political measures which long ago had to be abandoned in order that the technicians could do their work.

There is no doubt as to the evils of corporate concentration. But those very evils the collectivists accept, sanctify as necessary, and then propose to multiply a thousandfold by effecting a super-concentration in the state. They are not necessary evils. Concentration has its origin in privilege and not in technology. Nor does technology require high concentration. For technical progress, being in its essence experimental, calls for much trial and error. This means that if industry is to advance technically, it must be flexible, not rigid; change must be possible because it is not too costly; managers must be free, as technicians are free, to make many mistakes in order to achieve a success.

Those who do not like such a programme, who would prefer to have industry stabilized into routine and administered by bureaucrats, are entitled to their preference. But they must not pretend that they are the spokesmen of modern science seeking to make more effective man’s mastery of nature. If what we are seeking is an economy in harmony with the genius of the scientific method, we must look with the profoundest skepticism upon the claims of the collectivist movement. Whatever form collectivism takes, whether the great corporate structures of private enterprise or the national collectivism of the fascist, the communist, or gradualist parties, its adherents claim to be adapting the organization of industry to the progress of technology. Against that claim there is a strong presumption. For these great centralized controls which have to be governed authoritatively by corporate officials or by public officials are of their nature unsuited to a system of production which can profit by new invention only if it is flexible, experimental, adjustable, and competitive. The laboratories in which the technic is being developed cannot produce their inventions according to a centrally directed plan. The future of technology cannot be predicted, organized, and administered, and it is therefore in the highest degree unlikely that an elaborately organized and highly centralized economy can adapt itself successfully to the intensely dynamic character of the new technology.

It is not probable, therefore, that ‘as industry advances in mechanization a greater weight of political authority must develop outside than was necessary in the past.’ There is, on the contrary, a strong presumption that the collectivist movement is a tremendous reaction in human affairs, that on the main line along which western society has advanced it is carrying mankind backward and not forward. The collectivists generalize from an interpretation of a relatively short historical epoch. They have confused the phenomena of the latest phase of the corporate system with the consequences of modern technology. They have come to think of these phenomena as fatally determined, when in fact, without foreseeing the consequences, the nineteenth-century states permitted and provoked them. This was done, as I hope to demonstrate, because the liberal democrats who created them, mistaking the privilege of corporate bodies for the rights of man, the immunities of artificial persons for the inviolability of natural persons, the possession of monopolies for private property, failed to develop their own intuitions and their own doctrines.

Because they have assumed that the development of concentrated corporate capitalism is the natural and necessary outcome of the new technology, the collectivists, whether they be big business men or socialists, have turned from the liberal to the authoritarian conception of society. Had they taken a longer view, they would have questioned their basic premise, remembering that the scientific achievements which they now regard as compelling the establishment of authority became possible only as scientific inquiry was emancipated from authority. However pleasant its promises, they would have hesitated to revive the absolute state. They would have remembered that before modern society could be created the state had to be subjected to a constitutional system. They would have been slow to return to compulsion as an instrument of ‘synthesis, coördination, and rational control,’ and as the specific for private acquisitiveness and antisocial behavior. They would have recalled the long experience of mankind with the corruption of personal power. They would not have talked so easily about socializing and unifying nations by commands from the government had they remembered that the ascendancy of national kings over local barons, the unification of national states from discordant tribes, were a revulsion against vexatious, exclusive, and intimately despotic authority. They would never have forgotten that modern technology and the greater abundance which have come from the division of labor followed the emancipation of men from the elaborate restrictions of the guilds and the mercantilist policies of landed interests and of ecclesiastical and dynastic power.

But these things have been forgotten by the teachers and leaders to whom this generation listens. In the past sixty or seventy years it has become the primal premise of thought and action that human progress must come not through a larger emancipation but through a revival of authority. The plain fact of the matter is that under the dominion of this doctrine progress has been arrested gradually but cumulatively, until at last there is a spectacular regression to lower standards of life and to a more degraded level of civilization. Though the apparatus of government was never more elaborate, the world economy has been disintegrating into diminishing fragments. Even in the United States there has been a notable tendency to set up within the highly protected national economy all kinds of covert regional and occupational barriers by means of which special interests use political power to obtain exclusive advantages. It is unnecessary to do more than point to the atomization of Europe, where the separatist tendencies not only among states but within them are everywhere provoked by the exercise of authority and with difficulty suppressed by the exercise of more authority.

But it should be noted particularly that the intensification of government is not only aggravating the disunion which it seeks to prevent; it is arresting that very advance in science which is the reason given for the magnified state. In several great nations, proclaiming themselves the advance guard of human progress, free inquiry, which is the condition of scientific discovery, has been abolished in order that government may be more effective. Thus the naïve interpreters of the modern world who have justified the increase of authority in order to realize the promise of science find themselves facing the awkward fact that science is being crushed in order to increase the authority of the state.


The events we are witnessing should not allow us longer to remain blind to the truth that our generation has misunderstood human experience. We have renounced the wisdom of the ages to embrace the errors the ages have discarded. The road whereby mankind has advanced in knowledge, in the mastery of nature, in unity, and in personal security, lies through progressive emancipation from the bondage of authority, monopoly, and special privilege. It has been through the release of human energy that men have lifted themselves above the primeval struggle for the bare necessities of existence; it has been by the removal of constraints that they have been able to adapt themselves to the life of great societies; it has been by the disestablishment of privilege that men have risen from the status of slaves, serfs, and subjects to that of free men inviolate in the ways of the spirit.

And how else, when we pause to ponder the matter, can the human race advance except by the emancipation of more and more individuals in everwidening circles of activity? How can new ideas be conceived? How can new relationships, new habits, be formed? Only by increasing freedom to think, to argue, to debate, to make mistakes, to learn from those mistakes, to explore and occasionally to discover, to be adventurous and enterprising, can change be more than the routine of a recurrent pattern. If those who happen by inheritance, election, or force to achieve the power to govern are not the sole originators of new ways, it follows that the energy of progress originates in the great mass of the people as the more gifted among them are released from constraint and stimulated by intercourse with other free-thinking and free-moving individuals.

This was the faith of the men who made the modern world. Renaissance, Reformation, Declaration of the Rights of Man, Industrial Revolution, National Unification — all were conceived and led by men who regarded themselves as emancipators. One and all these were movements to disestablish authority. It was the energy released by this progressive emancipation which invented, wrought, and made available to mankind all that it counts as good in modern civilization. No government planned, no political authority directed the material progress of the past four centuries, or the increasing humanity which has accompanied it. It was by a stupendous liberation of the minds and spirits and conduct of men that a world-wide exchange of goods and services and ideas was promoted, and it was in this invigorating and sustaining environment that petty principalities coalesced into great commonwealths.

What reason, then, is there for thinking that in the second half of the nineteenth century the tested method of human progress suddenly became obsolete, and henceforth it is only by more authority, not by more emancipation, that mankind can advance? The patent fact is that soon after the intellectual leaders of the modern world abandoned the method of freedom the world moved into an era of intensified national rivalry culminating in the Great War and an era of intensified domestic struggle which has racked all nations and reduced some to a condition where there are assassination, massacre, persecution, and the ravaging of armed bands such as have not been known in the western world for at least two centuries.

We belong to a generation that has lost its way. Unable to develop the great truths which it inherited from the emancipators, it has returned to the heresies of absolutism, authority, and the domination of men by men against which the progressive genius of the western world is one long increasing protest. The spirit of man is rent, and those who by their deepest sympathies seemed destined to be the bearers of the civilizing tradition have turned against one another in fratricidal strife.

What could be more tragically and more preposterously confused than this choice? Must men renounce all that their ancestors struggled to achieve, or abandon the hope of making the world a better place for their children? Must they disregard as so much antiquated nonsense the principles by which governments were subjected to law, the great made accountable, the humble established in their rights? Shall they not remember the experience by which the violence of civil factions was subdued? Must they forget how their forefathers suffered and died in order that tyranny should end and men be free?

It is the choice of Satan, offering to sell men the kingdoms of this world for their immortal souls. And as always, when that choice is offered, it will be discovered after much travail that on those terms not even the kingdoms of the world can be bought.

  1. Technics and Civilization, p. 420
  2. Eli F. Heckscher, Mercantilism, Vol. I, p. 157