All Commentary
Thursday, October 25, 2018

“Southey’s Colloquies on Society”: Lord Macaulay’s Reprimand of Government Do-Gooders

While most famous for his History of England, nowhere did Lord Macaulay rebut the idea of domineering government more effectively than in his 1830 “Southey’s Colloquies on Society.”

For years, Americans have been bombarded with assertions that government should control, direct, or nudge everyone in everything (e.g., Obama’s 2012 “Life of Julia” ad and a plethora of boondoggle-in-waiting health care proposals). However, that mindset is generations old.

That lets us learn from those who fought similar battles before us. One of the best such tutors, who Don Boudreaux called “truly one of the greatest champions of liberty ever to breathe,” was Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800-1859). While most famous for his History of England, nowhere did Macaulay rebut the idea of domineering government more effectively than in his 1830 “Southey’s Colloquies on Society,” which devastated the statist presumptions of Robert Southey, England’s Poet Laureate, in Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society. On Lord Macaulay’s October 25 birthday, his argument merits reflection.

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…spending our money for us, and choosing our opinions for us…that no man can do anything so well for himself as his rulers…can do it for him.

Mr. Southey entertains as exaggerated a notion of the wisdom of governments as of their power.

Says Mr. Southey…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?

Many…[believe] 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.

Consider, not merely the goodness of the end, but also the fitness of the means…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…are more likely to be right than those of any other man.

The duties of government would be…paternal, if a government were necessarily… superior in wisdom…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…any man in the streets may know as much and think as justly.  

A government can interfere in discussion only by making it less free… Government…carries on controversy, not with reasons, but with threats and bribes…Thus, instead of a contest between argument and argument, we have a contest between argument and force…a contest in which truth can be victorious only by accident.   

[Civilization]…is not by…the omniscient and omnipotent State, but by the prudence and energy of the people…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.   

Despite Thomas Babington Macaulay’s evisceration of the paternalistic illogic displayed in “Southey’s Colloquies on Society,” many today still assert that people’s liberty to make their own choices with their own resources must give way to coercive government “improvements.” That is reason enough to revisit Macaulay’s insights. Bad ideas may never die, but for those who refuse to force their will on others, the power of decisive arguments and evidence are the only weapons that can ever prevail. And if we recognize, with Macaulay, that “There is only one cure for the evils that newly acquired freedom produces, and that cure is freedom,” we will be well-armed for that contest.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).