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Remembering Thomas Babington Macaulay

Remembering Thomas Babington Macaulay

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 tomorrow, it is worth remembering his work. Macaulay 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...” Macaulay expressed the value of freedom no uncertain terms: “The end of government is the happiness of the people...”

“Free trade [is] one of the greatest blessings which a government can confer on a people...”

“Many 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.”

“There 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.

“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...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.”

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

“Mr. 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.”

“...it 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?”

“Mr. 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.”

“...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...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.”

“The 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.”

“Men 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.”

“Nothing is so galling to a people...as a paternal, or, in other words, a meddling government...”

“It 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.

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