If I’d known about this section on “The Delusion of Overrating the Happiness of Our Ancestors” in Thomas Macaulay’s History of England (1848), it definitely would have made it into The Myth of the Rational Voter:

[I]n spite of evidence, many will still image to themselves the England
of the Stuarts as a more pleasant country than the England in which we
live. It may at first sight seem strange that society, while constantly
moving forward with eager speed, should be constantly looking backward
with tender regret…


[W]e are under a deception similar to that which misleads the
traveler in the Arabian desert. Beneath the caravan all is dry and
bare; but far in advance, and far in the rear, is the semblance of
refreshing waters… A similar illusion seems to haunt nations through
every stage of the long progress from poverty and barbarism to the
highest degrees of opulence and civilization. But if we resolutely
chase the mirage backward, we shall find it recede before us into the
regions of fabulous antiquity. It is now the fashion to place the
golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts
the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when
farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which
would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt
once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry,
when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the
most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the
lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana.

The highlight, though, is his retro-futurism:

We too
shall in our turn be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may
well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may
think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the
carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that laboring
men may be as little used to dine without meat as they are now to eat
rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added
several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous
comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may
be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty workingman. And yet
it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the
progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many,
and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was
truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly
sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when
the poor did not envy the splendor of the rich.

“We too
shall in our turn be outstripped, and in our turn be envied.”  I’ll bet on it!

HT: Don Boudreaux