Thomas Babington Macaulay
A Great Champion of Liberty
OCTOBER 01, 2000 by DONALD BOUDREAUX
Karol and I named our son Thomas Macaulay Boudreaux in honor of some truly inspiring classical liberals. Two of these are our dear friends Hugh and Pinky Macaulay. Hugh taught economics at Clemson University from the late 1940s until 1983 and was instrumental in shaping that school’s economics department into one of the finest in the nation.
The other inspiration for Thomas’s name is the great English historian, essayist, and poet Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859). October 25th of this year is the bicentennial of his birth. It is a date that all friends of liberty, prosperity, and progress should celebrate. Macaulay was truly one of the greatest champions of liberty ever to breathe.
While his most famous work is his massive History of England, I reproduce below some of the key passages from a far shorter and less famous—but no less impressive—product of his pen: Macaulay’s 1830 essay “Southey’s Colloquies on Society.” Reading this essay is a lavish intellectual experience. It comes closer to perfection than perhaps any essay I’ve ever read.
Robert Southey was Britain’s poet laureate, who as a young man was a radical Jacobin and who as an older man became a conservative of the most wicked sort. Southey loathed commerce and capitalism. He longed for the pre-industrial age in which peasants worked the land and lived in cottages—an age not marred by factories, an extensive division of labor, and the audacity of ordinary people choosing their own paths in life rather than submitting to the authority of political elites.
The brilliance of Macaulay’s dissection of Southey’s political and economic musings takes the breath away! As you read the following selections from Macaulay’s essay, note two of its features. The first is the characteristic clarity and directness of his style. The second is the appropriateness of Macaulay’s 170-year-old themes to the policy debates currently raging in America.
Southey’s Colloquies on Society by Thomas Babington Macaulay
As to the effect of the manufacturing system on the bodily health, we must beg leave to estimate it by a standard far too low and vulgar for a mind so imaginative as that of Mr. Southey, the proportion of births and deaths. We know that, during the growth of this atrocious system, this new misery, to use the phrases of Mr. Southey . . . there has been a great diminution of mortality, and that this diminution has been greater in the manufacturing towns than anywhere else . . . .
He confesses that he is not versed in political economy, and that he has neither liking nor aptitude for it; and he then proceeds to read the public a lecture concerning it which fully bears out his confession . . . .
He conceives that the business of the magistrate is not merely to see that the persons and property of the people are secure from attack, but that he ought to be a jack-of-all-trades, architect, engineer, schoolmaster, merchant, theologian, a Lady Bountiful in every parish, a Paul Pry in every house, spying, eavesdropping, relieving, admonishing, spending our money for us. His principle is, if we understand it rightly, that no man can do anything so well for himself as his rulers, be they who they may, can do it for him, and that a government approaches nearer and nearer to perfection in proportion as it interferes more and more with the habits and notions of individuals . . . .
The maxim, that governments ought to train the people in the way in which they should go, sounds well. But is there any reason for believing that a government is more likely to lead the people in the right way than the people to fall into the right way of themselves? . . . .
But we see no reason for thinking that the opinions of the magistrate on speculative questions are more likely to be right than those of any other man. None of the modes by which a magistrate is appointed, popular election, the accident of the lot, or the accident of birth, affords, as far as we can perceive, much security for his being wiser than any of his neighbors. The chance of his being wiser than all his neighbors together is still smaller . . . .
Government, as government, can bring nothing but the influence of hopes and fears to support its doctrines. It carries on controversy, not with reasons, but with threats and bribes. If it employs reasons, it does so, not in virtue of any powers which belong to it as a government. Thus, instead of a contest between argument and argument, we have a contest between argument and force . . . .
Nothing is so galling to a people not broken in from birth as a paternal, or, in other words, a meddling government, a government which tells them what to read, and say, and eat, and drink and wear . . . .
It is indeed a matter about which scarcely any doubt can exist in the most perverse mind that the improvements of machinery have lowered the price of manufactured articles, and have brought within the reach of the poorest some conveniences which Sir Thomas More or his master could not have obtained at any price . . . .
But in the old world we must confess ourselves unable to find any satisfactory record of any great nation, past or present, in which the working classes have been in a more comfortable situation than in England during the last thirty-years. When this island was thinly populated, it was barbarous; there was little capital; and that little was insecure. It is now the richest and most highly civilized spot in the world; but the population is dense . . . .
It is not by the intermeddling of Mr. Southey’s idol, the omniscient and omnipotent State, but by the prudence and energy of the people, that England has hitherto been carried forward in civilization; and it is to the same prudence and the same energy that we now look with comfort and good hope. Our rulers will best promote the improvement of the nation by strictly confining themselves to their own legitimate duties, by leaving capital to find its most lucrative course, commodities their fair price, industry and intelligence their natural reward, idleness and folly their natural punishment, by maintaining peace, by defending property, by diminishing the price of law, and by observing strict economy in every department of the state. Let the Government do this: the People will assuredly do the rest.
So true. Happy 200th birthday, Mr. Macaulay!