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Macaulay’s Lessons On ‘Coercive Paternalism’ Still Relevant Today

For years, Americans have been bombarded with assertions that government should control, direct or nudge everyone about everything. But given the many abuses, not to mention boondoggles and boondoggles-in-waiting, that mindset — the nemesis of liberty — has led to today, there is hope more Americans might re-awaken to truths our founders knew well.  

In that, we can 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.

The rebuttal to Southey of Lord Macaulay, born 221 years ago this week, 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.” But that is a hugely “exaggerated…notion of the wisdom of governments.”

“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 may believe “that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom,” but “If men are to wait for liberty till they become wise and good in slavery, they may indeed wait forever.”

“Consider…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.” And logic and history give us “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.”

In other words, such paternalism runs aground on the fact that you know yourself and your goals better than government, you care about yourselves more than government and you cannot violate other’s rights to benefit yourself, unlike government.

Further, the freedom of thought and speech necessary for us to discover how we wish to live our lives is also undermined, by government. “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.”  

“Consequently, we do not achieve civilization 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,” almost two centuries later, many today seem to even more loudly 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 in the absence of coercion to bend others to one’s will, the power of decisive arguments and evidence are the weapons that will 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 professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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