Macaulay on Southey
By David Henderson
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.