David R. Henderson  

Macaulay on Southey

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Don Boudreaux reminds us to read, or reread, Thomas Babington Macaulay's classic, "Southey's Colloquies on Society." In it, Macaulay skewers Southey's reasoning or, more typically, lack of reasoning, about modern society. This is the first time I've read it all the way through, rather than just reading excerpts, and it's marvelous. Liberty Fund, as usual, has done a great job, numbering each paragraph to make discussion easier.

I confess upfront to a certain guilty pleasure. I am not a proponent of using sarcasm in argument. I think doing so makes it less likely to convince those on the other side and even those on the fence whom we would like to convince. More important, sarcasm is cruel. But I enjoy it occasionally when done by a master. And on that, Macaulay is a master--kind of the 19th century's Dorothy Parker. Two excerpts:

Mr. Southey brings to the task two faculties which were never, we believe, vouchsafed in measure so copious to any human being, the faculty of believing without a reason, and the faculty of hating without a provocation. [SC.1]

Now in the mind of Mr. Southey reason has no place at all, as either leader or follower, as either sovereign or slave. He does not seem to know what an argument is. He never uses arguments himself. He never troubles himself to answer the arguments of his opponents. It has never occurred to him, that a man ought to be able to give some better account of the way in which he has arrived at his opinions than merely that it is his will and pleasure to hold them. It has never occurred to him that there is a difference between assertion and demonstration, that a rumour does not always prove a fact, that a single fact, when proved, is hardly foundation enough for a theory, that two contradictory propositions cannot be undeniable truths, that to beg the question is not the way to settle it, or that when an objection is raised, it ought to be met with something more convincing than 'scoundrel' and 'blockhead.' [SC.5]

Now to the substance.

I won't reprint the whole thing here because it is long, but his paragraphs SC.20 and SC.21 are a beautiful use of evidence, something much tougher to do in 1830 than now, on how manufacturing, contra Southey, was making people better off. Also in SC.23, he takes on Southey's view that the way to measure well-being is to stand on an imaginary hill and survey imaginary buildings below. SC.31 is probably the best pure economics in the piece. In it, Macaulay points out that debts owed by A to B are wealth to B if he trusts A. You might wonder why he thinks he needs to point that out. If so, read the paragraph.

In paragraphs SC.34 to SC.43, Macaulay lays out beautifully the mistake in thinking that government debt is real wealth to the society. In this, he reminded me of Jan Helfeld's masterful interview of Congressman Pete Stark. [Unfortunately, Mr. Helfeld has gated the interviews.]

There are so many things to like in this 25-page article, but I'll settle on three more. First, in paragraph SC.84, Macaulay writes:

The people,' says Mr. Southey, 'are worse fed than when they were fishers.' And yet in another place he complains that they will not eat fish. 'They have contracted,' says he, 'I know not how, some obstinate prejudice against a kind of food at once wholesome and delicate, and everywhere to be obtained cheaply and in abundance, were the demand for it as general as it ought to be.' It is true that the lower orders have an obstinate prejudice against fish. But hunger has no such obstinate prejudices. If what was formerly a common diet is now eaten only in times of severe pressure, the inference is plain. The people must be fed with what they at least think better food than that of their ancestors.

Revealed preference, anyone?

Finally, in paragraph SC.95, he imagines a better world in 1930 Britain. Although Britain was at that time well into its depression, even with depression Macaulay's predictions were very good.

One personal note: When I was going through my father's estate in 1997, I found a number of books by Macaulay that, going by the binding, he probably had bought in the 1920s. He had once mentioned being a fan but I didn't follow up. My father loved FDR, hated Ronald Reagan, and disliked the fact that I became an American, and so I wonder what he liked about Macaulay. I'll never know.

Update: I found Helfeld's ungated interview of Stark. It's priceless.


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CATEGORIES: Economic History



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Marcus writes:

"Liberty Fund, as usual, has done a great job, numbering each paragraph to make discussion easier."

The link you provided doesn't work. I've gone to the Liberty Fund website but they don't show Macaulay as one of their authors. At least, not that I see.

Evan writes:

Heres a working link.

David R. Henderson writes:

Link fixed. Thanks, Marcus and Evan.

Æternitatis writes:

Macaulay's Review of Southey's turned me into a fan of the man, eventually led me to read pretty much his entire voluminous writing, and give my first-born son Macaulay as a middle name.

It is an amazing essay, stylistically, in political economic sophistication, and in the remarkable way that Macaulay's argument with Southey continues to closely resemble the arguments we are having today.

Please indulge me while I quote a few more favourite bits and pieces.

“I do well to be angry,” seems to be the predominant feeling of his mind. Almost the only mark of charity which he vouchsafes to his opponents is to pray for their reformation; and this he does in terms not unlike those in which we can imagine a Portuguese priest interceding with Heaven for a Jew, delivered over to the secular arm after a relapse.— Thomas Babington Macaulay, Review of Southey’s Colloquies par. SC.II
He very often attempts to be humorous, and yet we do not remember a single occasion on which he has succeeded farther than to be quaintly and flippantly dull. In one of his works he tells us that Bishop Spratt was very properly so called, inasmuch as he was a very small poet. And in the book now before us he cannot quote Francis Bugg, the renegade Quaker, without a remark on his unsavoury name. A wise man might talk folly like this by his own fireside; but that any human being, after having made such a joke, should write it down, and copy it out, and transmit it to the printer, and correct the proof-sheets, and send it forth into the world, is enough to make us ashamed of our species.— Thomas Babington Macaulay, Review of Southey’s Colloquies par. SC.9
In the preface, we are informed that the author, notwithstanding some statements to the contrary, was always opposed to the Catholic Claims. We fully believe this; both because we are sure that Mr. Southey is incapable of publishing a deliberate falsehood, and because his assertion is in itself probable. We should have expected that, even in his wildest paroxysms of democratic enthusiasm, Mr. Southey would have felt no wish to see a simple remedy applied to a great practical evil. We should have expected that the only measure which all the great statesmen of two generations have agreed with each other in supporting would be the only measure which Mr. Southey would have agreed with himself in opposing. He has passed from one extreme of political opinion to another, as Satan in Milton went round the globe, contriving constantly to “ride with darkness.” Wherever the thickest shadow of the night may at any moment chance to fall, there is Mr. Southey. It is not everybody who could have so dexterously avoided blundering on the daylight in the course of a journey to the antipodes.— Thomas Babington Macaulay, Review of Southey’s Colloquies par. SC.14

But if there be in his political system any leading principle, any one error which diverges more widely and variously than any other, it is that of which his theory about national works is a ramification. 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, eaves-dropping, relieving, admonishing, spending our money for us, and choosing our opinions for us. His principle is, if we under-stand 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.— Thomas Babington Macaulay, Review of Southey’s Colloquies par. SC.53
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.— Thomas Babington Macaulay, Review of Southey’s Colloquies par. SC.96
The Puritan hated bearbaiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. Indeed, he generally contrived to enjoy the double pleasure of tormenting both spectators and bear.
— Thomas Babington Macaulay, History of England
[Fredrick the Great] did not, it is true, intend to act unjustly. He firmly believed that he was doing right, and defending the cause of the poor against the wealthy. Yet this well-meant meddling probably did far more harm than all the explosions of his evil passions during the whole of his long reign. We could make shift to live under a debauchee or a tyrant; but to be ruled by a busybody is more than human nature can bear.
— Thomas Babington Macaulay, Review of Fredrick the Great and His Times
The doctrine which from the very first origin of religious dissensions, has been held by all bigots of all sects, when condensed into a few words, and stripped of rhetorical disguise is simply this: I am in the right, and you are in the wrong. When you are the stronger you ought to tolerate me; for it is your duty to tolerate truth. But when I am the stronger, I shall persecute you; for it is my duty to persecute error.
— Thomas Babington Macaulay, Sir James Macintosh
We will not at present inquire whether the doctrine which is held on this subject by English lawyers be or be not agreeable to reason and morality; whether it be right that a man should, with a wig on his head, and a band round his neck, do for a guinea what, without those appendages, he would think it wicked and infamous to do for an empire; whether it be right that, not merely believing but knowing a statement to be true, he should do all that can be done by sophistry, by rhetoric, by solemn asseveration, by indignant exclamation, by gesture, by play of features, by terrifying one honest witness, by perplexing another, to cause a jury to think that statement false.
— Thomas Babington Macaulay, Francis Bacon
Mr. Montagu cannot believe that so extraordinary a man as Bacon could be guilty of a bad action; as if history were not made up of the bad actions of extraordinary men, as if all the most noted destroyers and deceivers of our species, all the founders of arbitrary governments and false religions, had not been extraordinary men, as if nine-tenths of the calamities which have befallen the human race had any other origin than the union of high intelligence with low desires.
— Thomas Babington Macaulay, Francis Bacon
The true philosophical temperament may, we think, be described in four words, much hope, little faith; a disposition to believe that anything, however extraordinary, may be done; an indisposition to believe that anything extraordinary has been done.
— Thomas Babington Macaulay, Francis Bacon
There was created in the minds of many of these enthusiasts a pernicious and absurd association between intellectual power and moral depravity. From the poetry of Lord Byron they drew a system of ethics, compounded of misanthropy and voluptuousness, a system in which the two great commandments were, to hate your neighbour, and to love your neighbour’s wife.
— Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lord Byron

[paragraph links added--Econlib Ed.]

Troy Camplin writes:

Sarcasm, indeed satire, most certainly has its place. There is a long, strong literary tradition of it, to which I made this modest contribution:

http://zatavu.blogspot.com/2004/12/milton-wilcains-intelligence.html

Bob Murphy writes:

David,

With any other blogger I wouldn't have thought anything of it, but since you are so careful with using words properly... It occurred to me that the two examples you gave aren't really sarcasm, are they? They seem more like exaggeration.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bob Murphy,
Seems like sarcasm. What's your definition of sarcasm?

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

The definition of sarcasm seems rather vague to me, but as I understand it, a dry listing of the alleged faults of the accused, the form which this prose takes, is about as far as one can get from sarcasm.

Bob Murphy writes:

David,

I always thought sarcasm meant something you didn't believe. E.g. "Oh I *really* liked Southey's writings. They're like an ice cream sundae with a cherry on top."

So the above quote is clearly sarcastic (though not funny). In contrast, the quotes you list are saying things that the writer believes, or at least, are in the spirit of what he believes.

Æternitatis writes:

I agree that "sarcasm" isn't quite the right word to describe Macaulay's rhetorical style on display above. I'd call it hyperbole and ad hominem, which aren't exactly stylistic virtues, but are easily forgiven when done as well as Macaulay pulls it off. And of course most of the essay does not fall under either of these categories.

GinSlinger writes:

Sarcastic and sardonic are very often confused anymore. Macaulay appears to be employing the latter.

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