Paul Marks on Moral Puritanism and the Left in England
Most (although not all) of the upper classes, the gentry and aristocracy were not pro censorship and stuff. As for party politics even in the late 19th century such things as the Personal Rights Association contained at least as many Conservatives as Liberals. As the old saying goes “do not ban it – unless it frightens the horses”.
The backbone of the most “Reform” movements (such as temperance) came from lower down the social scale, and it had its positive side. People who had cleaned up their own lives (so they could not look after, rather than neglect, their own families – and other people), but SOMETIMES made the mistake of thinking that force should be used to make other people clean up their lives.
There are two mistakes (not one mistake) to be avoided here. Firstly the mistake that vice is not vice – the idea that it does not matter if someone, for example, spends their wages down the pub and lets their children go hungry. But the other mistake (pointed out even by party leaders – such as Gladstone and Lord S.) is thinking that trying to force virtue by state action is the way to go – a mistake as old as Plato, and (sadly) not rejected by his pupil Aristotle.
As for religion – some statists were Dissenters (radical Protestants) certainly – but some other Dissenters were voluntarists (such as the Leeds Mercury people) and opposed them.
Also many “reformers” were actually atheists (open or disguised – such as J. Bentham) who believed that the state could see long term “pleasure” better than ordinary people could. As for any idea that there were limits of PRINCPLE to state power (natural justice) this was rejected as “nonsense” or “nonsense on stilts”.
Even Epicurus (indeed especially Epicurus – who was a sensible man, and a great defender of human agency, i.e. the ability of human beings to make real choices “free will” although “will” may be the wrong word as Ralph Cudworth warned) had warned that some pleasures had bad long term consequences, and (therefore) should be avoided. What some people, such as Bentham (in his later years – in his youth he was more free market in his approach) did was to push state intervention for the “happiness” of people, judging that the state, if under the guidance of wise experts (such as himself and his followers) was better able to judge long term pleasure and pain than ordinary people were – the people should be guided for their own good, the good that “only the wise could see” (to quote Saruman from the Lord of the Rings).
Actually various German thinkers had got there long before Bentham, as had some French thinkers (such as Rousseau) – the happiness of the people should be the goal of state policy and the state (if under the correct guidance) was better able to judge long term happiness than ordinary people are, in this the state (at least according to Rousseau) does what the people really want – even if they do not know it (Hegel and others would agree with that position – as would the German “Cameralists” of the 17th century onwards whom Oakeshott, rather unkindly, compares to the British Fabian Sydney Webb).
For the American experience see “Liberal Fascism” by J. Goldberg, or unintentionally “Nudge” by “libertarian paternalist” Cass Sunstein.
I say “unintentionally” as the later work reads like a satire – but the author is utterly unaware of this.
Other utilitarians rejected this sort of thinking – for example Ludwig Von Mises.
Mises even defended the position that state action to combat personal vices would be harmful – which allowed statists such as Galbraith to attack him (rather hypocritically attack him).
As for theatre and other censorship – there is indeed a religious element (Catholic as well as Protestant), but Cato the Elder needed none and neither do modern feminists and other such.
In Britain Sir Robert Walpole introduced it for cynical political reasons – as a way of preventing attacks upon him in the theatre.
He got the most horrible gut churning vile play he could find (indeed he actually had it written himself – no profit seeking theatre owner would have put on such a thing) and showed it to Members of Parliament (in the early 18th century mostly part time country members who knew little of London) as if it was the normal product of the London stage.
The Victorians could be fooled – but so could people more than a century before the Victorians.