T.B. Macaulay – a True Liberal – on Progress

by Don Boudreaux on September 18, 2013

in Inequality, Standard of Living

My buddy James asks me to repost this Cafe entry from December 9, 2009.  I oblige.

Here’s a letter that I sent today to the Wall Street Journal:

Andrew Roberts’s review of Robert Sullivan’s biography of Thomas Babington Macaulay splendidly exposes the blinding biases that Sullivan brings to Lord Macaulay and his times (“An Eminent Victorian on Trial,” Dec. 7).  Persons interested in Macaulay should avoid Sullivan’s screed and instead study John Clive’s masterful 1973 biography, Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian.  Although Clive, like Sullivan, indulges in too much psychoanalysis for my taste, he paints a rich and compelling portrait of Macaulay.  This portrait reveals Macaulay to have been, if flawed, a truly great and good man – a man whose realism and genuine liberalism would serve us well today.

Macaulay was also prescient.  Writing in the 1840s, he refused to romanticize past times when (as he described matters) “to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry” and when “men died faster in the purest country air than now die in the most pestilential lanes.”  Macaulay foresaw that “It may well be, in the twentieth century … 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.”*

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

* From the chapter entitled “The Delusion of Overrating the Happiness of Our Ancestors,” in T. B. Macaulay, The History of England (1847).

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