Macaulay on Pessimistic Bias
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:
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.
shall in our turn be outstripped, and in our turn be envied.” I’ll bet on it!
HT: Don Boudreaux
Dec 9 2009 at 2:05pm
Excellent quotation, and one I’ll have to save for future discussion. Thanks for posting this.
Dec 9 2009 at 2:06pm
Yeah, I saw Don’s post on that and was blown away. It’s the most presciently cynical thing I’ve ever read.
How constant must Man be, that 170 years of time passes, and we’re still bitching about the same concepts.
Except that now, the fashion (or mode) is to claim that the prehistoric past is the golden age, and everything since then has gone downhill
Dec 9 2009 at 3:40pm
Brilliant! I am going to save this.
Dec 9 2009 at 6:43pm
“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”
— Marcus Tullius Cicero
Dec 9 2009 at 9:44pm
Good one. I like it!
Dec 9 2009 at 10:50pm
“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.”
Putting aside that I really do think that things are different this time because of our bloated financial system, that’s an unbelievable quote.
Dec 10 2009 at 4:46am
Without inflation – just considering decimalization – twenty shillings is one pound.
Dec 10 2009 at 9:40am
Excellence. This goes on my book list.
Dec 10 2009 at 6:12pm
And the highest current $ value for 1 GBP 1848 was $211.95 (from http://www.measuringworth.com/exchange/)
Dec 10 2009 at 6:56pm
At the time MacAulay was writing, 20 shillings a week was the typical pay of a well skilled laborer, such as a specialist carpenter, and it was a lot more than what a peasant of Dorsetshire was making.
Dec 11 2009 at 3:04pm
Of course, England has lost her empire, lost her religion, become a puppet of the United States, been colonized by her former colonies, and seen her crime rate rise by 4700%.
But not to worry! Meat is cheap! Whig history, proven correct again!
If you’re going to evaluate predictions, you need to evaluate them by the standards of the people who made them. The England of today would strike Macaulay as a disaster area. (In fact, the England of Macaulay’s day might strike the Englishmen of the Stuart era as a disaster area.) By this standard, much better 19th-century predictions can be obtained from, say, Carlyle…
Dec 13 2009 at 11:30pm
Also, Macaulay himself has some more pertinent predictions for the 20th century here…
Dec 16 2009 at 4:41pm
Here is perhaps the Macaulay’s best (and best-known) riff on this theme:
If we were to prophesy that in the year 1930 a population of fifty millions, better fed, clad, and lodged than the English of our time, will cover these islands, that Sussex and Huntingdonshire will be wealthier than the wealthiest parts of the West Riding of Yorkshire now are, that cultivation, rich as that of a flower-garden, will be carried up to the very tops of Ben Nevis and Helvellyn, that machines constructed on principles yet undiscovered will be in every house, that there will be no highways but railroads, no travelling but by steam, that our debt, vast as it seems to us, will appear to our great-grandchildren a trifling encumbrance, which might easily be paid off in a year or two, many people would think us insane. We prophesy nothing; but this we say: If any person had told the Parliament which met in perplexity and terror after the crash in 1720 that in 1830 the wealth of England would surpass all their wildest dreams, that the annual revenue would equal the principal of that debt which they considered as an intolerable burden, that for one man of ten thousand pounds then living there would be five men of fifty thousand pounds, that London would be twice as large and twice as populous, and that nevertheless the rate of mortality would have diminished to one-half of what it then was, that the post-office would bring more into the exchequer than the excise and customs had brought in together under Charles the Second, that stage coaches would run from London to York in twenty-four hours, that men would be in the habit of sailing without wind, and would be beginning to ride without horses, our ancestors would have given as much credit to the prediction as they gave to Gulliver’s Travels. Yet the prediction would have been true.
— Thomas Babington Macaulay, Review of Southey’s Colloquies (1830)
Dec 16 2009 at 5:07pm
Upon re-reading my previous post, it occurs to me that it might have contained a slight element of the ad hominem against Mr. Carlyle. For this, I apologize.
[Apology accepted, but the offending comment has been deleted, more on grounds of crudity than the ad hominem. Macaulay’s rout of Carlyle was a bit more elegant, eh?–Econlib Ed.]
Dec 16 2009 at 6:01pm
[Apology accepted, but the comment has been deleted, more on grounds of crudity than the ad hominem.–Econlib Ed.]
My only defense is that, if called upon, I would have been ready to cite chapter and verse on every adjective, noun, and sub-clause applied to Mr. Carlyle. Instead, let me just cite to a book by a colleague of EconLog. David M. Levy, How the Dismal Science Got Its Name: Classical Economics and the Ur-Text of Racial Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. xv + 320 pp. $52.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-472-11219-8.
Dec 16 2009 at 11:34pm
Interesting matter, that Mill-Carlyle debate. You’d think, in the 21st century, that someone might actually care who was right…
Dec 17 2009 at 10:23am
I am not quite sure what proposition Mr. Moldbug is trying to advance here.
He points to arguments that there is a non-trivial, genetic difference in average intelligence between blacks and whites. This is of course a highly controversial propositon, which even to mention in certain polite circles is to commit social suicide.
But let’s try to be more rational and scientifically minded. Let’s even assume arguendo that Mr. Moldbug’s point is correct and these differences are real and persistent.
It seems an understatement to say that it does not follows that Mr. Carlyle was right about the merits of chattel slavery and Mr. Mill and many other economists were wrong to call for its abolition.
Even if these difference are real and as large as posited, the distributions of intelligence between black and white individuals would still be vastly overlapping. Such dsitributions do not support a legal regime in which one group is only and can only ever be chattel and the other is conclusively presumed to consist out of persons fit for the freedoms and responsibilities of a liberal order.
I agree that at the extreme low end of the intelligence distribution, there are individuals who will be better off if their freedom and responsibility was limited and benignly supervised. However, this is surely only a tiny fraction of the population and–again even if Mr. Moldbug’s racial hypothesis is correct–would only be a slightly larger fraction of blacks than whites. Even if one were inclined to draw the cut-off at higher levels of intelligence, it would be impossible to capture a substantial fraction of any racial group without also capturing a significant fraction of all others.
Finally, even if the intelligence distributions were much, much more separate than anybody has ever plausibly alleged, the idea that the best guardian of the interest of African slaves were their owners–as would be required to support Mr. Moldbug’s apparent argument in favor of Mr. Carlyle’s support of slavery–seems so bizarre that it is hardly even worth putting the counter argument to electronic ink.
Dec 17 2009 at 8:28pm
Wherever the expressions “controversial” and “social suicide” nestle together, the topic is controversial only because it is social suicide…
I won’t go as far into the cane fields as has Mr Moldbug – but that’s just because I want to stay on the topic, which is of predictive power. I will make this aside: we are not in polite circles here. This is the Internet and here, we have an unmoderated comment thread.
The trend I have noticed is for in-home entertainment to improve as it becomes less and less safe to venture out of doors. Medicine has also improved, to the extent that our largest diseases today are the result of entertainment (obesity, HIV, lung cancer… and let’s throw in melanoma, for those private-beach and ski trips).
Is this good? Bad? If it’s bad, then how do we keep the streets safe, on the assumption that letting community-organisers rule the roost doesn’t work? Do we want that debate at all?
James A. Donald
Dec 17 2009 at 10:08pm
Carl Edman writes:
Future orientation, for example debt slavery, is a morally better basis for slavery than intelligence, and the difference in future orientation between Americans blacks and whites is on average about two standard deviations. Suppose that most people more than two standard deviations below the white mean were enslaved, and most people better than that were not enslaved. Then half of the blacks would be enslaved, and one in fifty whites.
Dec 18 2009 at 6:01pm
I would love to continue this conversation, but frankly I’m not sure the discussion is really welcome to our host. Even if I’m wrong, I would feel inhibited.
Suffice it to say that most peoples’ narratives of slavery, both American and otherwise, are caricatures. If you’ve never seen any primary sources on the matter – I like Nehemiah Adams, for instance; the slave narratives are also worth reading – you are almost certainly getting your picture of American slavery from Mrs. Stowe. Ie, your history is straight out of a propaganda novel. (If you must have a modern academic source – Eugene Genovese.)
Anyway, there is more discussion of this fascinating subject at the blog I linked earlier: Liberal Biorealism. I’m not afraid to compare slavery to welfare – I am just too polite to do it here.
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