Thoughts on economics and liberty

A misunderstood liberal: Thomas B. Macaulay #3

"It would be, on the most selfish view of the case, far better for us that the people of India were well governed and independent of us, than ill governed and subject to us; that they were ruled by their own kings, but wearing our broadcloth, and working with our cutlery, than that they were performing their salams to English collectors and English magistrates, but were too ignorant to value, or too poor to buy, English manufactures. To trade with civilised men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages." (Macaulay's speech entitled, "Government of India", delivered in the House of Commons on 10 July 1833).

"We are free, we are civilised, to little purpose, if we grudge to any portion of the human race an equal measure of freedom and civilisation." (ibid)

In 1833 this man, so vilified and reviled today in India (particularly by those who NEVER CARE TO VERIFY THEIR VIEWS), was talking about full independence of India at a time when British rule had barely begun, in parts of India. There were not many takers in India for such thoughts. India was then a "country" whose petty kings sought favours with the British, seeking advantage over other petty kings. A divided house, India actively sought out British expertise (and, of course, the British happily obliged – for potential profit). But do read this Macaulay's speech (on India). Very enlightening in many ways.

It is crucial that Macaulay be contextualised for his times. At a time when mercantalism was still rife, when socialism (Marxism) was on the ascendent, when USA still had slavery, when women were treated as chattel even in England, when India was considered by many in the West to have barely anything of value to contribute at the intellectual level, Macaulay was a leader in free thought and freedom, more generally. Despite that much if not most of what he wrote and said stacks up to the rigours of time. 

An opponent of colonialism

He consistently opposed colonies and demanded freedom for all. Thus, in January 1925 he wrote an article, "The West Indies", attacking slavery and ridiculing the view that a colony could be a source of wealth, since they are costly to administer. (paraphrase of Jim Powell, cited above, p.263).

A VIGOROUS opponent of racism

In his 1827 essay, "Social and Industrial Capacities of Negroes" he "attacked one Major Thomas Moody who had issued a British Colonial Office report claiming that blacks were inferior to whites. Macaulay explained that economics, not genetics, accounted for the apparent laziness of blacks, and he denounced the Major's view that compulsion was needed to get the work done" (ibid, p.263).

A brilliant economic historian

While Karl Marx FALSELY claimed that the standard of living in England were declining with increased freedom, he repeatedly and emphatically proved that greater freedom leads fastest to prosperity. "We see in almost every part of the annals of mankind how the industry of individuals, struggling up against wars, taxes, famines, conflagrations, mischievous prohibitions, and more mischievous protections, creates faster than any government can squander… We see the wealth of nations increasing, … in spite of the grossest corruption and the wildest profusion on the part of rulers." 

A brilliant orator

"[A]lmost from his first speech in the House, something resembling a rush from the smoking rooms to the benches took place whenever it was whispered that Mr. Macaulay was on his legs". (Richmond Beatty cited in Jim Powell, Triumph of Liberty, p.262)

A brilliant writer

People like Lord Acton and Winston Churchill, among many others, raved about his literary skills. Lord Acton considered him "very nearly the greatest of English writers"

I downloaded the first the first volume (57MB) of The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay (1876), by George Otto Trevelyan. Among the few letters I had time to scan through today, I found a few written when Macaulay was 13 years old. These contained sentiments of exceptional quality that bely his age – I would be challenged to write with the fluidity with which he wrote at age 13! Something like a Rabindranath Tagore with his exceptional mastery of the language at a very young age. Macaulay was a cut well above the ordinary.  (By the way, this volume contains the extracts from the ORIGINAL Minute on education, once again confirming once again that the "quotation" from Macaulay that is circulating on the internet in India and is being used to vilify him is totally false). 

A RELENTLESS advocate of freedom

A Whig, he had a deep love of liberty, promoting things which were often quite radical for his times. Even J.S. Mill did not think that all people are fit for liberty but, like Paine, Macaulay insisted they were (although he didn't think democracy was a great thing – which, by the way, was a view often held by many classical liberals till relatively recently – not even Hayek, though, agrees the currently designed democracies work well). In many ways Macaulay preceded J.S. Mill by many years on the conceptions of freedom of the press and freedom for women

He fight relentlessly against big government, calling it "the all-devouring state". It is almost as if Bastiat comes through in some of his writings, so vigorously he opposes controls on the people. 

I'll discuss his contributions to India in a separate blog post.

A few quotations 

I've mostly picked up these from the internet, so not well cited, but they match his character, so these are genuine:

  • Many politicians are in the habit of laying it down as a self-evident proposition that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story who resolved not to go into the water till he had learned to swim. (from On Milton, 1825)
  • The maxim, that governments ought to train the people in the way in which they should go, sounds well. 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 of themselves?
  • Men are never so likely to settle a question rightly as when they discuss it freely.
  • And to say that society ought to be governed by the opinion of the wisest and best, though true, is useless. Whose opinion is to decide who are the wisest and best?
  • As freedom is the only safeguard of governments, so are order and moderation generally necessary to preserve freedom.
  • Nothing is so galling to a people not broken in from birth as a paternal, or, in other words, a meddling government, a government which tells them what to read, and say, and eat, and drink and wear.
  • The great cause of revolutions is this, that while nations move onward, constitutions stand still. (Speech on Parliamentary Reform, 1831)
  • Reform, that we may preserve. (Debate on the First Reform Bill, March 2, 1831)
  • Thus, then, stands the case. It is good, that authors should be remunerated; and the least exceptionable way of remunerating them is by a monopoly. Yet monopoly is an evil. For the sake of the good we must submit to the evil; but the evil ought not to last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good. (Speech on the Copyright Bill, delivered February 5, 1841).
  • The highest proof of virtue is to possess boundless power without abusing it.
  • Free trade, one of the greatest blessings which a government can confer on a people, is in almost every country unpopular.
  • Nothing is so galling to a people not broken in from the birth as a paternal, or, in other words, a meddling government, a government which tells them what to read, and say, and eat, and drink and wear.
  • We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.
  • "To punish public outrages on morals and religion is unquestionably within the competence of rulers. But when a government, not content with requiring decency, requires sanctity, it oversteps the bounds which mark its proper functions. And it may be laid down as a universal rule that a government which attempts more than it ought will perform less."

More later!

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