Macaulay’s “Southey’s Colloquies on Society” (the abridged version)

by Don Boudreaux on May 15, 2011

in Cleaned by Capitalism, Complexity & Emergence, History, The Future, The Profit Motive

A friend reminded me that, back in 2000, I published (as a column in The Freeman) this heavily abridged version of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s 1830 essay “Southey’s Colloquies on Society.”  I highly recommend that you read the entire essay, but – short of reading that remarkably eloquent essay in full – my humble, abridged version will do.

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DG Lesvic May 15, 2011 at 4:53 pm

I had known nothing of MacAulay before you mentioned him, and was blown away by this piece of his. I hope you’ll offer it up again, for useful as your abridgment of it is, it is no substitute for the original in its entirety.

John Alcorn May 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Dr. Boubreaux, Macaulay makes the following point in the excerpt that you cite in your linked column: “As to the effect of the manufacturing system on the bodily health, we must beg leave to estimate it by a standard far too low and vulgar for a mind so imaginative as that of Mr. Southey, the proportion of births and deaths. We know that, during the growth of this atrocious system, this new misery, to use the phrases of Mr. Southey . . . there has been a great diminution of mortality, and that this diminution has been greater in the manufacturing towns than anywhere else . . . .” However, modern studies of a wider range of body measures paint a mixed picture of the early effects of the industrial revolution on bodily health. See, e.g., Roderick Floud, “Height, Weight, and Body Mass of the British Population Since 1820.” (NBER Historical Working Paper No. 108, November 1998). Here is the abstract:
“The average height of a population has become a familiar measure of that population’s nutritional status. This paper extends the use of anthropometric data in the study of history by exploring published evidence on the weight, as well as the height, of British populations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and by computing the Body Mass Index of those populations. The results confirm a fall in mean height in the middle of the nineteenth century and show that this was paralleled by a fall in weight. Subsequent increases in weight and BMI lagged behind those in height. The data show no evidence of inequalities in nutritional status within families. Earlier findings of a period of declining height in the mid-nineteenth century have been attacked because of an apparent inconsistency with real wage data. The evidence for decline is now confirmed by further anthropometric and mortality data, while recent research into real wages has confirmed that a check to growth occurred and has thus removed the apparent inconsistency.”
I should mention that I have not read yet the latest findings in R. Floud, R. W. Fogel, et al., _The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700_ (Cambridge U. Press, 2011). Perhaps the 1998 paper is out of date. Whatever the case in the mid-19th century, Macaulay’s optimism was vindicated in the long run.

DG Lesvic May 15, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Mr. Alcorn,

Surely the statistics for mortality were easier to compile and more reliable than those for bodily size. So why would you switch the discussion from the one to the other, if not to falsify the evidence?

Like all great arguments in Political Economy, Macauley’s was both empirical and theoretical. But the empirical is always secondary to the theoretical, window dressing for the theory. It is the theory itself on which the argument stands or falls. And you cannot refute it by attacking its window dressing only. You must attack the theory itself. You must explain why industrialization resulted in lower nutritional well being and stunted growth.

And then you must explain why I shouldn’t be allowed to decide for myself what was better for me and my children.

John Alcorn May 15, 2011 at 7:48 pm

I didn’t mean to suggest that Macaulay had neglected evidence – Only that recent scholars have assembled and analyzed a wider range of evidence that Macaulay didn’t have. Let me also say that I agree with your defense of liberty. Any mixed effects of the industrial revolution on well-being in the mid-19th century may be kept in perspective. I trust that R. Floud and R. W. Fogel are working in Macaulay’s spirit, even if they find some shades of gray.

DG Lesvic May 15, 2011 at 8:02 pm

What “mixed effect?”

Did the peasants leave the farms for the factories to get a lower standard of living? Were they afraid their children were getting too much to eat on the farm, and wanted to get them on a diet?

DG Lesvic May 15, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Did they look at conditions in the towns, see a lower standard of living, and say, that’s what I want for my family?

Sean May 15, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Perhaps people were willing to give up nutrition in order to achieve other ends which they deemed more valuable. Nutrition is one good among many (I say as I ingest a hot dog and rum and Coke).

There is also the (theoretical) possibility that some people were forced out of property that was rightfully theirs (rightful in libertarian terms) and therefore considered factory work the best option under those circumstances. Whether that happened is an empirical question.

Also, increasing life expectancy could effect nutrition, since this would make food relatively more scarce as population increased unless food consumption for those people rose in proportion to the population increase such that an identical average nutritional intake was maintained Prior to this people would have died instead of being relatively malnourished. Food production must have increased, or population could not have increased, but given the choices people made at the time, this could have resulted in lower average nutrition.

At any rate, I agree with you that data are meaningless without theory.

Ben May 15, 2011 at 9:34 pm

The emergence of one social order entails the destruction of another. It would be surprising if there weren’t some drawbacks to the emergence of modern capitalism, even if these are temporary effects heavily outweighed by other positive ones.

Slocum May 15, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Wonderful stuff. It’s a bit depressing that there are still so many Southeys among us — statists eager to have government officials micromanage citizens lives and wanting to preserve picturesque rural poverty for remaining modern-day peasants. On the other hand, it’s encouraging that although this vision still sells to some intellectuals now as it did in the 19th century, the actual peasants escaping lives of subsistence agriculture are having none of it and are voting with their feet (just as they did during the industrial revolution).

DG Lesvic May 15, 2011 at 7:16 pm


You’re absolutely right, and that is just the point. Nobody forced those peasants into the factories. They left the farms for the towns only because they found a better life in the towns.

But according to the socialists, we never know what’s good for us.

How do the the “liberals” telling us that we need “the adults” to tell us what to do differ from the openly socialist dictators declaring themselves the “mothers” and “fathers” of their unwilling subjects?

I saw it on TV May 15, 2011 at 10:07 pm

The peasants moved from their bucolic lives in country to work as slaves in factories and die young only because of advertising. Greedy corporations used propaganda to convince them that they needed more stuff, and we know that stuff doesn’t make people happier, and we know that people can’t be trusted to make their own decisions because they are notoriously bad at deciding what will make them happy.

The solution is to find enlightened leaders who will stop corporate greed and force everyone to make the right choices. And now that the planet is dying we must act quickly to enslave the world regulate C02 emissions.

Gil May 15, 2011 at 10:23 pm

I doubt the standard of living was higher rather the population had increased faster than the agricultural sector meaning the unemployed in rural areas went into the city for industrial work.

DG Lesvic May 15, 2011 at 11:14 pm


How could industrialization fail to raise the standard of living?

If there’s more machinery, and more production, how could not there not be more consumption?

And no more possibilites, no maybe this and maybe that.

Just give me reasonable assumptions.

dan May 16, 2011 at 2:35 am

Doesn’t the implementation of a new device or piece of innovation such as the ‘spinning ginny’ or the ‘washing machine’ give man/woman more opportunity to do another task, leisure or not? And, if the man/woman is no longer subject to that tedious task or the task is made so much easier or quicker, isn’t their standard of living raised?

Don Boudreaux May 16, 2011 at 7:11 am

You need to brush up on your history. No one – not even Marx and his followers – doubts that industrialization increased material standards of living.

Sam Grove May 16, 2011 at 2:12 pm

I higher standard of living allows the population to grow.

DG Lesvic May 15, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Sean wrote,

“Perhaps people were willing to give up nutrition in order to achieve other ends which they deemed more valuable.”

Should they not be allowed to do so?

Slocum May 16, 2011 at 4:04 pm

People still do give up some amount of nutrition for other things, as a matter of fact (and I would do the same in their position):

We asked Oucha Mbarbk what he would do if he had more money. He said he would buy more food. Then we asked him what he would do if he had even more money. He said he would buy better-tasting food. We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed the TV and other high-tech gadgets. Why had he bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat? He laughed, and said, “Oh, but television is more important than food!”

Sean May 16, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Of course they should be allowed to do so. I did not imply that they should not be. That is why I said that nutrition is one good among others.

Stone Glasgow May 15, 2011 at 9:51 pm

It’s interesting to see “diminishing the price of law” included in the list of legitimate activities for the state. I think it’s unfortunate that this is not included more often when speaking of government’s proper function.

DG Lesvic May 15, 2011 at 10:17 pm


Economics is not a science of possibilities, for anything is possible.

It is a science of reasonable assumptions.

Is it reasonable to assume that people left the farms for the towns for a poorer standard of living?

Sean May 16, 2011 at 6:18 pm

If you are trying to do economic history then you have to start from the basic principles of theory. The data must be interpreted in such a way that they do not contradict the theoretical constructs that are known to be true (such as that people act to improve their well-being). I never said that they moved to achieve a higher standard of living. I was trying to show how the data regarding height and nutrition, if in fact it was accurate, could be accounted for given the axiom that people do choose to improve their well-being.

Sean May 16, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Woops. Make that “I never denied that they moved to improve their well-being”

dsylexic May 15, 2011 at 11:34 pm

is this the same thomas macaulay who destroyed local schooling systems in India and replaced it with a central state funded education -to create an army of clerks,as it were,for helping run the british empire?
please read Beautiful Tree by James Tooley

Joshua May 15, 2011 at 11:36 pm

I’m very sorry to say, ,but the founding fathers are hardly worthy of this idol worship. They are as we are today, no more no less. They enshrined slvery in the constitution. Voting was only for landholders. An economic system that works in the end, but not through any particular virtue. It was a system and an ideology of the elites, by the elites and for the elites.

shawn May 16, 2011 at 1:00 am

yeah, sucks that it worked out that way; but it was a compromise…either get a pretty damn good republic with some flawed foundations, or nothing. tough trade-off.

Sam Grove May 16, 2011 at 1:07 am

Who’s worshiping founding fathers?
And how does your comment address the point of it all?

carlsoane May 16, 2011 at 1:10 am

I’m not sure why you’re commenting on the Founding Fathers here, but as long as we’re on the subject…The system they created was flawed no doubt, but its longevity and adaptability make a strong argument that they were a cut above Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid and Barack Obama. When I read the documents produced by the Federalists and anti-Federalists I am struck by how far-sighted our Founders were.

dan May 16, 2011 at 2:28 am

yeah, they slavery thing that the US created and kept going while the rest of the world was so progressive to have eliminated by the time the Founding Fathers were fighting for freedom. Those Bastards!!!
And, certainly, the Southern states would have caved in on the slavery thing had Adams and co. pushed a little harder. Not like it was a huge issue or anything. Even though, the document said ‘All men are created equal’, the author had no intent on forseeing a future without slavery. Jefferson never troubled himself with being torn by slavery.
Virtue in the economic system? explain. You mean equal distribution? That whole self-interest thing is really ……selfishness. Right?
Those Founding Fathers did pretty damn good at getting millions in agreement to some degree……How do you feel about bowing to a queen or A prince with commoner blood in him?

dan May 16, 2011 at 2:29 am

I dare you to read or listen to the Federalist Papers.

DG Lesvic May 16, 2011 at 3:57 am

This bears repeating.

Dan wrote,

“Doesn’t the implementation of a new device or piece of innovation such as the ‘spinning ginny’ or the ‘washing machine’ give man/woman more opportunity to do another task, leisure or not? And, if the man/woman is no longer subject to that tedious task or the task is made so much easier or quicker, isn’t their standard of living raised?”

Very very good, Dan!

DG Lesvic May 16, 2011 at 4:08 am

Can’t get over that piece by Dan. How elegant. So plain and simple. So obvious, after he laid it out for us. That was economics at its best, real economics, without the mystery, the curves, angles, tangents, and, dare I add, the pretension, that damned Public Choice!

DG Lesvic May 16, 2011 at 4:11 am

Now why did I have to say that?

Paul Marks May 16, 2011 at 7:44 am

When Macaulay was writing, interest on the national debt took up half of all tax revenue – so it was hardly a minor problem (as he implies). Taxes (mostly to fund the national debt) meant that the level of poverty in Britain was much higher than it would have been without this debt.

Without the industrial revolution (something that had never happened in history before – so it was hardly something that one could be expected to predict) the national debt would indeed have bankrupted Britain. So to (in an incredibly polite way) sneer at the people in the 18th century who were concerned about the level of debt, is not wise.

Certainly Macaulay looks good compared to Southey (so would just about anyone – if the comparision concerns Mr Southey’s opinions about economics), but we should not run away with the idea that Macaulay was perfect.

True by 1914 the national debt was not of huge importance in Britain – but by “1930″ (the future date he mentions) it was again a crushing burden, thanks to the First World War. Also the basic industries of the industrial revolution (that had saved Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries) were in deep decline by 1930 – including in the “West Riding of Yorkshire”.

Indeed there were signs of this decline even in 1914. It is true that Macaulay would have opposed one reason for this stagnation, union power,(fostered by such terrible mistakes as the Act of 1875 and that of 1906), but he was not a totally free market man.

For example, contrary to what might be thought by someone reading this essay, Macaulay was actually sometimes quite favourably inclined the idea of government financed education – even in the context of India (where the burden of a policy of “improvements” were a terrible burden upon the population).

Indeed it can be argued that Macualay inspired the schools in India that produced the “dragon’s teeth”, the seed that produced the endless westernized “intellectuals” who created the “Permit Raj” that so undermined the performance of India after independence in 1947.

Ken May 16, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Still, it was a famous victory. ;)

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