Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Selection: Lord Macaulay’s History of England (plus Michael Lind vs. libertarians) Book Selection: Lord Macaulay’s History of England edited by John Burrow

I will celebrate Labor Day in part by reading Thomas Babington Macaulay during the impending thunderstorms.  He was one of the very first people in England to warn of the menace of the “reds” – way back in the mid-nineteenth century – even while promoting liberty, property, and progess.

The quintessential Whig historian, he – correctly – saw history as humanity’s fumbling progress in the direction of the Victorian English ideal of freedom, civility, morality, secure property rights, science, and rapidly-rising standards of living.  Anyone who calls that standard culturally arbitrary is as blinkered and inhumane as an egalitarian vegan who insists that human intelligence and penguin intelligence are of equal richness and moral worth, just different (like a mom who insists that her mentally retarded son is as smart as a Nobelist but smart at drooling and falling down instead of physics). 

This book is one section of a larger work meant to describe English history from the Glorious Revolution to Macaulay’s own time.  He begins here just before 1688, describing the public’s mounting fear under James II, who would be ousted in favor of imported Dutch monarchs, in what has to be seen as one of the greatest fusionist episodes in history from a traditionalist-libertarian perspective, cementing an English tradition of liberty by radically altering a traditional monarchy – and turning the then-dominant Dutch trading empire into an English trading empire in the process, in turn boosting financial prospects for English colonies such as the ones in the New World.

Macaulay was not shy about rhapsodizing about the moral and political lessons to be drawn from history, and one of his most valuable habits was reminding people – in a fashion after my own heart – what ingrates they are when they forget how greatly improved their material circumstances are compared to those of their ancestors.  Like a sci-fi author, he confidently predicted vastly increased wealth and technology in the future, too.  He was right – and inspiring.  Humanity would accomplish nothing listening to his arch-traditionalist foes alone.

(Yet I owe my possession of the book to a traditionalist, in way.  Justin Shubow gave away a collection of Macaulay books when he moved to DC to do things such as help run the National Civic Art Society.  I missed the giveaway but was left with a hankering for Macaulay, so I bought this book.)

Macaulay dealt in broad strokes and made mistakes, though.  Jeffrey Collins’ review last year in New Criterion of a biography of Macaulay notes that Macaulay viewed the Potato Famine as a “sharp and effective” remedy for Irish barbarity, and he was contemptuous of Catholics in general as an impediment to what we would now call libertarian and skeptical tendencies (then liberalism) among the Protestants and Whigs of Britain.


Just last month Macaulay was also the climactic villain in this grotesquely skewed smear-column likening libertarians to fascists, written by Michael Lind,
who has been absurd for decades but, I was hoping, could be safely ignored.

Lind is the loon who thinks that the right – the right – is a menace in large part because it is run by foreigners who threaten our ethno-cultural cohesion.  He is way, way out of his mind and long has been, and what he’s done here (repeatedly) is take out of context quotes and historical factoids that merely suggest libertarians, like everyone else, sometimes weigh in reluctantly on the perennial question “Is there a silver lining to be found in the latest despicable regime?”

Even if, say, Noam Chomsky said kind things about the Khmer Rouge, I’m happy to acknowledge that it is by no means his ideal of government.  He wants something akin to anarcho-socialism, and he’s hard-pressed to find it in the real world.  I know the feeling.

Lind neglects to mention that the very economists he paints as Nazi-lovers fled Europe to escape the Nazis.  That should be an indication they weren’t exactly unabashed fans of that particular regime.  When Mises (mistakenly) mused that the Nazis might be looked back upon as having their good points, he was merely saying, in effect – way the hell back in the 1920s! – “Well, maybe they’ll at least fend off the Communists.” 

Lind also neglects to mention the Founding Fathers when he offers a list, including Macaulay, of writers in the libertarian/classical liberal tradition who saw full democracy as a threat to property rights.  Perhaps Lind thinks the Founders aren’t historically significant.  More likely, he feared that his readers would be less easily suckered by his arguments if they knew that the Founders would have opposed him.

Lind is a transparent propagandist, a moron, and a loose cannon and always has been, and I don’t say that about just every pundit.  He also writes bad novels and a book-length epic poem about the Alamo.  I doubt he would fare well if quoted as badly out of context someday as the libertarians he targeted here. 

Macaulay, by contrast, despite over a century of harsh criticism, is a still-treasured fountain of pith.

1 comment:

Todd Seavey said...

One of the few people with a stranger political history than Michael Lind may be William Lind, by mere coincidence: