Thus it is that Mr. Southey reasons about matters with which he thinks himself
perfectly conversant. We cannot, therefore, be surprised to find that he commits
extraordinary blunders when he writes on points of which he acknowledges himself
to be ignorant. He confesses that he is not versed in political economy, and
that he has neither liking nor aptitude for it; and he then proceeds to read the
public a lecture concerning it which fully bears out his confession.
"All wealth," says Sir Thomas More, "in former times was tangible. It consisted
in land, money, or chattels, which were either of real or conventional value."
Montesinos, as Mr. Southey somewhat affectedly calls himself, answers thus:--
"Jewels, for example, and pictures, as in Holland, where indeed at one time
tulip bulbs answered the same purpose."
"That bubble," says Sir Thomas, "was one of those contagious insanities to which
communities are subject. All wealth was real, till the extent of commerce
rendered a paper currency necessary; which differed from precious stones and
pictures in this important point, that there was no limit to its production."
"We regard it," says Montesinos, "as the representative of real wealth; and,
therefore, limited always to the amount of what it represents."
"Pursue that notion," answers the ghost, "and you will be in the dark presently.
Your provincial banknotes, which constitute almost wholly the circulating medium
of certain districts, pass current to-day. Tomorrow tidings may come that the
house which issued them has stopped payment, and what do they represent then?
You will find them the shadow of a shade."
We scarcely know at which end to begin to disentangle this knot of absurdities.
We might ask, why it should be a greater proof of insanity in men to set a high
value on rare tulips than on rare stones, which are neither more useful nor more
beautiful? We might ask how it can be said that there is no limit to the
production of paper money, when a man is hanged if he issues any in the name of
another, and is forced to cash what he issues in his own? But Mr. Southey's
error lies deeper still. "All wealth," says he, "was tangible and real till
paper currency was introduced." Now, was there ever, since men emerged from a
state of utter barbarism, an age in which there were no debts? Is not a debt,
while the solvency of the debtor is undoubted, always reckoned as part of the
wealth of the creditor? Yet is it tangible and real wealth? Does it cease to be
wealth, because there is the security of a written acknowledgment for it? And
what else is paper currency? Did Mr. Southey ever read a banknote? If he did, he
would see that it is a written acknowledgment of a debt, and a promise to pay
that debt. The promise may be violated, the debt may remain unpaid: those to
whom it was due may suffer: but this is a risk not confined to cases of paper
currency: it is a risk inseparable from the relation of debtor and creditor.
Every man who sells goods for anything but ready money runs the risk of finding
that what he considered as part of his wealth one day is nothing at all the next
day. Mr. Southey refers to the picture-galleries of Holland. The pictures were
undoubtedly real and tangible possessions. But surely it might happen that a
burgomaster might owe a picture-dealer a thousand guilders for a Teniers. What
in this case corresponds to our paper money is not the picture, which is
tangible, but the claim of the picture-dealer on his customer for the price of
the picture; and this claim is not tangible. Now, would not the picture-dealer
consider this claim as part of his wealth? Would not a tradesman who knew of the
claim give credit to the picture-dealer the more readily on account of the
claim? The burgomaster might be ruined. If so, would not those consequences
follow which, as Mr. Southey tells us, were never heard of till paper money came
into use? Yesterday this claim was worth a thousand guilders. To-day what is it?
The shadow of a shade.
It is true that, the more readily claims of this sort are transferred from hand
to hand, the more extensive will be the injury produced by a single failure. The
laws of all nations sanction, in certain cases, the transfer of rights not yet
reduced into possession. Mr. Southey would scarcely wish, we should think, that
all endorsements of bills and notes should be declared invalid. Yet even if this
were done, the transfer of claims would imperceptibly take place, to a very
great extent. When the baker trusts the butcher, for example, he is in fact,
though not in form, trusting the butcher's customers. A man who owes large bills
to tradesmen, and fails to pay them, almost always produces distress through a
very wide circle of people with whom he never dealt.
In short, what Mr. Southey takes for a difference in kind is only a difference
of form and degree. In every society men have claims on the property of others.
In every society there is a possibility that some debtors may not be able to
fulfill their obligations. In every society, therefore, there is wealth which is
not tangible, and which may become the shadow of a shade.
Mr. Southey then proceeds to a dissertation on the national debt, which he
considers in a new and most consolatory light, as a clear addition to the income
of the country.
"You can understand," says Sir Thomas, "that it constitutes a great part of the
"So large a part," answers Montesinos, "that the interest amounted, during the
prosperous times of agriculture, to as much as the rental of all the land in
Great Britain; and at present to the rental of all lands, all houses, and all
other fixed property put together."
The Ghost and Laureate agree that it is very desirable that there should be so
secure and advantageous a deposit for wealth as the funds afford. Sir Thomas
"Another and far more momentous benefit must not be overlooked; the expenditure
of an annual interest, equaling, as you have stated, the present rental of all
"That expenditure," quoth Montesinos, "gives employment to half the industry in
the kingdom, and feeds half the mouths. Take, indeed, the weight of the national
debt from this great and complicated social machine, and the wheels must stop."
From this passage we should have been inclined to think that Mr. Southey
supposes the dividends to be a free gift periodically sent down from heaven to
the fund holders, as quails and manna were sent to the Israelites; were it not
that he has vouchsafed, in the following question and answer, to give the public
some information which, we believe, was very little needed.
"Whence comes the interest?" says Sir Thomas.
"It is raised," answers Montesinos, "by taxation."
Now, has Mr. Southey ever considered what would be done with this sum if it were
not paid as interest to the national creditor? If he would think over this
matter for a short time, we suspect that the "momentous benefit" of which he
talks would appear to him to shrink strangely in amount. A fund holder, we will
suppose, spends dividends amounting to five hundred pounds a year; and his ten
nearest neighbors pay fifty pounds each to the tax-gatherer, for the purpose of
discharging the interest of the national debt. If the debt were wiped out, a
measure, be it understood, which we by no means recommend, the fund holder would
cease to spend his five hundred pounds a year. He would no longer give
employment to industry, or put food into the mouths of laborers. This Mr.
Southey thinks a fearful evil. But is there no mitigating circumstance? Each of
the ten neighbors of our fund holder has fifty pounds a year more than formerly.
Each of them will, as it seems to our feeble understandings, employ more
industry and feed more mouths than formerly. The sum is exactly the same. It is
in different hands. But on what grounds does Mr. Southey call upon us to believe
that it is in the hands of men who will spend it less liberally or less
judiciously? He seems to think that nobody but a fund holder can employ the
poor; that, if a tax is remitted, those who formerly used to pay it proceed
immediately to dig holes in the earth, and to bury the sum which the Government
had been accustomed to take; that no money can set industry in motion till such
money has been taken by the tax-gatherer out of one man's pocket and put into
another man's pocket. We really wish that Mr. Southey would try to prove this
principle, which is indeed the foundation of his whole theory of finance: for we
think it right to hint to him that our hard-hearted and unimaginative generation
will expect some more satisfactory reason than the only one with which he has
yet favored it, namely, a similitude touching evaporation and dew.
Both the theory and the illustration, indeed, are old friends of ours. In every
season of distress which we can remember, Mr. Southey has been proclaiming that
it is not from economy, but from increased taxation, that the country must
expect relief; and he still, we find, places the undoubting faith of a political
Diafoirus, in his
"Resaignare, repurgare, et reclysterizare."
"A people," he tells us, "may be too rich, but a government cannot be so."
"A state," says he, "cannot have more wealth at its command than may be employed
for the general good, a liberal expenditure in national works being one of the
surest means of promoting national prosperity; and the benefit being still more
obvious, of an expenditure directed to the purposes of national improvement. But
a people may be too rich."
We fully admit that a state cannot have at its command more wealth than may be
employed for the general good. But neither can individuals, or bodies of
individuals, have at their command more wealth than may be employed for the
general good. If there be no limit to the sum which may be usefully laid out in
public works and national improvement, then wealth, whether in the hands of
private men or of the Government, may always, if the possessors choose to spend
it usefully, be usefully spent. The only ground, therefore, on which Mr. Southey
can possibly maintain that a government cannot be too rich, but that a people
may be too rich, must be this, that governments are more likely to spend their
money on good objects than private individuals.
But what is useful expenditure? "A liberal expenditure in national works," says
Mr. Southey, "is one of the surest means for promoting national prosperity."
What does he mean by national prosperity? Does he mean the wealth of the State?
If so, his reasoning runs thus: The more wealth a state has the better; for the
more wealth a state has the more wealth it will have. This is surely something
like that fallacy, which is ungallantly termed a lady's reason. If by national
prosperity he means the wealth of the people, of how gross a contradiction is
Mr. Southey guilty. A people, he tells us, may be too rich: a government cannot:
for a government can employ its riches in making the people richer. The wealth
of the people is to be taken from them, because they have too much, and laid out
in works, which will yield them more.
We are really at a loss to determine whether Mr. Southey's reason for
recommending large taxation is that it will make the people rich, or that it
will make them poor. But we are sure that, if his object is to make them rich,
he takes the wrong course. There are two or three principles respecting public
works, which, as an experience of vast extent proves, may be trusted in almost
It scarcely ever happens that any private man or body of men will invest
property in a canal, a tunnel, or a bridge, but from an expectation that the
outlay will be profitable to them. No work of this sort can be profitable to
private speculators, unless the public be willing to pay for the use of it. The
public will not pay of their own accord for what yields no profit or convenience
to them. There is thus a direct and obvious connection between the motive which
induces individuals to undertake such a work, and the utility of the work.
Can we find any such connection in the case of a public work executed by a
government? If it is useful, are the individuals who rule the country richer? If
it is useless, are they poorer? A public man may be solicitous for his credit.
But is not he likely to gain more credit by an useless display of ostentatious
architecture in a great town than by the best road or the best canal in some
remote province? The fame of public works is a much less certain test of their
utility than the amount of toll collected at them. In a corrupt age, there will
be direct embezzlement. In the purest age, there will be abundance of jobbing.
Never were the statesmen of any country more sensitive to public opinion, and
more spotless in pecuniary transactions, than those who have of late governed
England. Yet we have only to look at the buildings recently erected in London
for a proof of our rule. In a bad age, the fate of the public is to be robbed
outright. In a good age, it is merely to have the dearest and the worst of
Buildings for State purposes the State must erect. And here we think that, in
general, the State ought to stop. We firmly believe that five hundred thousand
pounds subscribed by individuals for rail-roads or canals would produce more
advantage to the public than five millions voted by Parliament for the same
purpose. There are certain old saws about the master's eye and about everybody's
business, in which we place very great faith.
There is, we have said, no consistency in Mr. Southey's political system. But if
there be in his political system any leading principle, any one error which
diverges more widely and variously than any other, it is that of which his
theory about national works is a ramification. 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 that he ought to be a jack-of-all-trades, architect,
engineer, schoolmaster, merchant, theologian, a Lady Bountiful in every parish,
a Paul Pry in every house, spying, eaves-dropping, relieving, admonishing,
spending our money for us, and choosing our opinions for us. His principle is,
if we understand it rightly, that no man can do anything so well for himself as
his rulers, be they who they may, can do it for him, and that a government
approaches nearer and nearer to perfection, in proportion as it interferes more
and more with the habits and notions of individuals.
He seems to be fully convinced that it is in the power of government to relieve
all the distresses under which the lower orders labor. Nay, he considers doubt
on this subject as impious. We cannot refrain from quoting his argument on this
subject. It is a perfect jewel of logic:
"'Many thousands in your metropolis,' says Sir Thomas More, 'rise every morning
without knowing how they are to subsist during the day; as many of them, where
they are to lay their heads at night. All men, even the vicious themselves, know
that wickedness leads to misery: but many, even among the good and the wise,
have yet to learn that misery is almost as often the cause of wickedness.'
"'There are many,' says Montesinos, 'who know this, but believe that it is not
in the power of human institutions to prevent this misery. They see the effect,
but regard the causes as inseparable from the condition of human nature.'
"'As surely as God is good,' replies Sir Thomas, 'so surely there is no such
thing as necessary evil. For, by the religious mind, sickness, and pain, and
death, are not to be accounted evils.'"
Now if sickness, pain, and death, are not evils, we cannot understand why it
should be an evil that thousands should rise without knowing how they are to
subsist. The only evil of hunger is that it produces first pain, then sickness,
and finally death. If it did not produce these, it would be no calamity. If
these are not evils, it is no calamity. We will propose a very plain dilemma:
either physical pain is an evil, or it is not an evil. If it is an evil, then
there is necessary evil in the universe: if it is not, why should the poor be
delivered from it?
Mr. Southey entertains as exaggerated a notion of the wisdom of governments as
of their power. He speaks with the greatest disgust of the respect now paid to
public opinion. That opinion is, according to him, to be distrusted and dreaded;
its usurpation ought to be vigorously resisted; and the practice of yielding to
it is likely to ruin the country. To maintain police is, according to him, only
one of the ends of government. The duties of a ruler are patriarchal and
paternal. He ought to consider the moral discipline of the people as his first
object, to establish a religion, to train the whole community in that religion,
and to consider all dissenters as his own enemies.
"'Nothing,' says Sir Thomas, 'is more certain, than that religion is the basis
upon which civil government rests; that from religion power derives its
authority, laws their efficacy, and both their zeal and sanction; and it is
necessary that this religion be established as for the security of the state,
and for the welfare of the people, who would otherwise be moved to and fro with
every wind of doctrine. A state is secure in proportion as the people are
attached to its institutions; it is, therefore, the first and plainest rule of
sound policy, that the people be trained up in the way they should go. The state
that neglects this prepares its own destruction; and they who train them in any
other way are undermining it. Nothing in abstract science can be more certain
than these positions are.'
"'All of which,' answers Montesinos, 'are nevertheless denied by our professors
of the arts Babblative and Scribblative: some in the audacity of evil designs,
and others in the glorious assurance of impenetrable ignorance.'
The greater part of the two volumes before us is merely an amplification of
these paragraphs. What does Mr. Southey mean by saying that religion is
demonstrably the basis of civil government? He cannot surely mean that men have
no motives except those derived from religion for establishing and supporting
civil government, that no temporal advantage is derived from civil government,
that men would experience no temporal inconvenience from living in a state of
anarchy? If he allows, as we think he must allow, that it is for the good of
mankind in this world to have civil government, and that the great majority of
mankind have always thought it for their good in this world to have civil
government, we then have a basis for government quite distinct from religion. It
is true that the Christian religion sanctions government, as it sanctions
everything which promotes the happiness and virtue of our species. But we are at
a loss to conceive in what sense religion can be said to be the basis of
government, in which religion is not also the basis of the practices of eating,
drinking, and lighting fires in cold weather. Nothing in history is more certain
than that government has existed, has received some obedience, and has given
some protection, in times in which it derived no support from religion, in times
in which there was no religion that influenced the hearts and lives of men. It
was not from dread of Tartarus, or from belief in the Elysian fields, that an
Athenian wished to have some institutions which might keep Orestes from filching
his cloak, or Midias from breaking his head. "It is from religion," says Mr.
Southey, "that power derives its authority, and laws their efficacy." From what
religion does our power over the Hindoos derive its authority, or the law in
virtue of which we hang Brahmins its efficacy? For thousands of years civil
government has existed in almost every corner of the world, in ages of
priestcraft, in ages of fanaticism, in ages of Epicurean indifference, in ages
of enlightened piety. However pure or impure the faith of the people might be,
whether they adored a beneficent or a malignant power, whether they thought the
soul mortal or immortal, they have, as soon as they ceased to be absolute
savages, found out their need of civil government, and instituted it
accordingly. It is as universal as the practice of cookery. Yet, it is as
certain, says Mr. Southey, as anything in abstract science, that government is
founded on religion. We should like to know what notion Mr. Southey has of the
demonstrations of abstract science. A very vague one, we suspect.
The proof proceeds. As religion is the basis of government, and as the State is
secure in proportion as the people are attached to public institutions, it is
therefore, says Mr. Southey, the first rule of policy, that the government
should train the people in the way in which they should go; and it is plain that
those who train them in any other way are undermining the State.
Now it does not appear to us to be the first object that people should always
believe in the established religion and be attached to the established
government. A religion may be false. A government may be oppressive. And
whatever support government gives to false religions, or religion to oppressive
governments, we consider as a clear evil.
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? Have there not been governments which were blind
leaders of the blind? Are there not still such governments? Can it be laid down
as a general rule that the movement of political and religious truth is rather
downwards from the government to the people than upwards from the people to the
government? These are questions which it is of importance to have clearly
resolved. Mr. Southey declaims against public opinion, which is now, he tells
us, usurping supreme power. Formerly, according to him, the laws governed; now
public opinion governs. What are laws but expressions of the opinion of some
class which has power over the rest of the community? By what was the world ever
governed but by the opinion of some person or persons? By what else can it ever
be governed? What are all systems, religious, political, or scientific, but
opinions resting on evidence more or less satisfactory? The question is not
between human opinion and some higher and more certain mode of arriving at
truth, but between opinion and opinion, between the opinions of one man and
another, or of one class and another, or of one generation and another. Public
opinion is not infallible; but can Mr. Southey construct any institutions which
shall secure to us the guidance of an infallible opinion? Can Mr. Southey select
any family, any profession, any class, in short, distinguished by any plain
badge from the rest of the community, whose opinion is more likely to be just
than this much abused public opinion? Would he choose the peers, for example? Or
the two hundred tallest men in the country? Or the poor Knights of Windsor? Or
children who are born with cauls? Or the seventh sons of seventh sons? We cannot
suppose that he would recommend popular election; for that is merely an appeal
to public opinion. 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?
Mr. Southey and many other respectable people seem to think that, when they have
once proved the moral and religious training of the people to be a most
important object, it follows, of course, that it is an object which the
government ought to pursue. They forget that we have to consider, not merely the
goodness of the end, but also the fitness of the means. Neither in the natural
nor in the political body have all members the same office. There is surely no
contradiction in saying that 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.
So strong is the interest of a ruler to protect his subjects against all
depredations and outrages except his own, so clear and simple are the means by
which this end is to be effected, that men are probably better off under the
worst governments in the world than they would be in a state of anarchy. Even
when the appointment of magistrates has been left to chance, as in the Italian
Republics, things have gone on far better than if there had been no magistrates
at all, and if every man had done what seemed right in his own eyes. But we see
no reason for thinking that the opinions of the magistrate on speculative
questions are more likely to be right than those of any other man. None of the
modes by which a magistrate is appointed, popular election, the accident of the
lot, or the accident of birth, affords, as far as we can perceive, much security
for his being wiser than any of his neighbors. The chance of his being wiser
than all his neighbors together is still smaller. Now we cannot understand how
it can be laid down that it is the duty and the right of one class to direct the
opinions of another, unless it can be proved that the former class is more
likely to form just opinions than the latter.
The duties of government would be, as Mr. Southey says that they are, paternal,
if a government were necessarily as much superior in wisdom to a people as the
most foolish father, for a time, is to the most intelligent child, 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. Mr. Southey might as well
say that the duties of the shoemaker are paternal, and that it is an usurpation
in any man not of the craft to say that his shoes are bad and to insist on
having better. The division of labor would be no blessing, if those by whom a
thing is done were to pay no attention to the opinion of those for whom it is
done. The shoemaker, in the Relapse, tells Lord Foppington that his Lordship is
mistaken in supposing that his shoe pinches. "It does not pinch; it cannot
pinch; I know my business; and I never made a better shoe." This is the way in
which Mr. Southey would have a government treat a people who usurp the privilege
of thinking. Nay, the shoemaker of Vanbrugh has the advantage in the comparison.
He contented himself with regulating his customer's shoes, about which he had
peculiar means of information, and did not presume to dictate about the coat and
hat. But Mr. Southey would have the rulers of a country prescribe opinions to
the people, not only about politics, but about matters concerning which a
government has no peculiar sources of information, and concerning which any man
in the streets may know as much and think as justly as the King, namely religion
Men are never so likely to settle a question rightly as when they discuss it
freely. A government can interfere in discussion only by making it less free
than it would otherwise be. Men are most likely to form just opinions when they
have no other wish than to know the truth, and are exempt from all influence,
either of hope or fear. Government, as government, can bring nothing but the
influence of hopes and fears to support its doctrines. It carries on
controversy, not with reasons, but with threats and bribes. If it employs
reasons, it does so, not in virtue of any powers which belong to it as a
government. Thus, instead of a contest between argument and argument, we have a
contest between argument and force. Instead of a contest in which truth, from
the natural constitution of the human mind, has a decided advantage over
falsehood, we have a contest in which truth can be victorious only by accident.
Critical And Historical Essays, Volume II
Critical And Historical Essays, Volume II, Thomas Babbington Macaulay,