Remembering Thomas Babington Macaulay

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One of the
best writers of the old liberal school was Thomas Babington, Lord
Macaulay (1800–1859), the Whig historian, essayist and statesman.
He was an unashamed advocate of economic freedom and a writer
who excelled at pointing out the errors of logic and abuses of
power he saw at work around him, who, according to Walter Olson,
“has a fair claim to being the most influential of the British
classical liberals.”

On his October
25 birthday, it is worth remembering his work.

is most famous for his History of England, the most popular book
of its kind ever published in that country. Its very first paragraph
sets forth what much of his life was devoted to defending: “the
authority of law and the security of property were found to be
compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action
never before known…from the auspicious union of order and
freedom, sprang a prosperity from which the annals of human affairs
had furnished no example.”

And as Thackaray
described Macauley in his obituary, "He is always in a storm
of revolt and indignation against wrong, craft, tyranny. How he
cheers heroic resistance; how he backs and applauds freedom struggling
for its own…"

expressed the value of freedom no uncertain terms:

end of government is the happiness of the people…"

trade [is] one of the greatest blessings which a government
can confer on a people…"

politicians of our time are in the habit of laying it down as
a self-evident proposition that no people ought to be free till
they are fit to use their freedom…If men are to wait for
liberty till they become wise and good in slavery, they may
indeed wait forever."

is only one cure for the evils that newly acquired freedom produces,
and that cure is freedom."

Perhaps nowhere
does Macauley put forth his beliefs about paternalistic government
meddling more forcefully than in response to Sir Thomas More;
or Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society, by Robert
Southey (England’s Poet Laureate). “Southey’s Colloquies
on Society,” in the January 1830 Edinburgh Review,
delivered a devastating attack on the statist presumptions in
that work.

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…spying, eavesdropping,
relieving, admonishing, spending our money for us, and choosing
our opinions for us. His principle is…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."

seems to be fully convinced that it is in the power of government
to relieve all the distresses under which the lower orders labor."

Southey entertains as exaggerated a notion of the wisdom of governments
as of their power…To maintain police is, according to him,
only one of the ends of government. The duties of a ruler are
patriarchal and paternal."

is, therefore, says Mr. Southey, the first rule of policy, that
the government should train the people in the way in which they
should go…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 themselves? Have there not been governments
which were blind leaders of the blind? Are there not still such
governments…And to say that society ought to be governed
by the opinion of the wisest and best, though true, is useless.
Whose opinion is to decide who are the wisest and best?"

Southey and many other respectable people seem to think that,
when they have once proved the moral and religious training of
the people to be a most important object, it follows, of course,
that it is an object which the government ought to pursue. They
forget that we have to consider, not merely the goodness of the
end, but also the fitness of the means… There is surely no
contradiction in saying that a certain section of the community
may be quite competent to protect the persons and property of
the rest, yet quite unfit to direct our opinions, or to superintend
our private habits."

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…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. Now we cannot understand
how it can be laid down that it is the duty and the right of one
class to direct the opinions of another, unless it can be proved
that the former class is more likely to form just opinions than
the latter."

duties of government would be…paternal, if a government were
necessarily as much superior in wisdom to a people as the most
foolish father, for a time, is to the most intelligent child,
and if a government loved a people as fathers generally love their
children. But there is no reason to believe that a government
will have either the paternal warmth of affection or the paternal
superiority of intellect…Mr. Southey would have the rulers of
a country prescribe opinions to the people, not only about politics,
but about matters concerning which a government has no peculiar
sources of information, and concerning which any man in the streets
may know as much and think as justly as the King, namely religion
and morals."

are never so likely to settle a question rightly as when they
discuss it freely. A government can interfere in discussion only
by making it less free than it would otherwise be. Men are most
likely to form just opinions when they have no other wish than
to know the truth, and are exempt from all influence, either of
hope or fear. 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. Instead of a contest in which truth, from
the natural constitution of the human mind, has a decided advantage
over falsehood, we have a contest in which truth can be victorious
only by accident."

is so galling to a people…as a paternal, or, in other words,
a meddling government…"

is not by the intermeddling of…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."

The statist
presumptions that Thomas Babington Macaulay exposed, particularly
in Southey’s
Colloquies on Society
, still infect the beliefs and arguments
of many today, despite an absence of logic or evidence in support
of them.

That is a
tragedy, but it is also an argument for revisiting Macaulay’s
insights. Bad ideas may never die, but for those who, unlike those
in government, refuse to rely on coercion to force their will
on others, the power of decisive counter-arguments and evidence
are the only weapons that can win such a war.

25, 2005

Gary M.
Galles [send him mail]
is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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