• 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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