The Corner

On the Brighter Side . . .

TBM over at HistoryofEngland.com puts the present discontents in useful perspective:

No ordinary misfortune, no ordinary misgovernment, will do so much to make a nation wretched, as the constant progress of physical knowledge and the constant effort of every man to better himself will do to make a nation prosperous. It has often been found that profuse expenditure, heavy taxation, absurd commercial restrictions, corrupt tribunals, disastrous wars, seditions, persecutions, conflagrations, inundations, have not been able to destroy capital so fast as the exertions of private citizens have been able to create it. It can easily be proved that, in our own land, the national wealth has, during at least six centuries, been almost uninterruptedly increasing; that it was greater under the Tudors than under the Plantagenets; that it was greater under the Stuarts than under the Tudors; that, in spite of battles, sieges, and confiscations, it was greater on the day of the Restoration than on the day when the Long Parliament met; that, in spite of maladministration, of extravagance, of public bankruptcy, of two costly and unsuccessful wars, of the pestilence and of the fire, it was greater on the day of the death of Charles the Second than on the day of his Restoration. This progress, having continued during many ages, became at length, about the middle of the eighteenth century, portentously rapid, and has proceeded, during the nineteenth, with accelerated velocity. 

Macaulay (could he see it) would undoubtedly deplore the profuse expenditure, heavy taxation, and absurd commercial restrictions under which we now suffer. But his Whig or classical liberal faith offers an antidote to despair:

In every experimental science there is a tendency towards perfection. In every human being there is a wish to ameliorate his own condition. These two principles have often sufficed, even when counteracted by great public calamities and by bad institutions, to carry civilisation rapidly forward.

True, Macaulay was less sensitive than the Coleridge-Wordsworth-Arnold-Ruskin crowd of the moral and spiritual costs of progress, and like many classical liberals he failed to reckon with the way the great expansion of commerce and industry, valuable as it has been, overwhelmed older forms of order in the West, particularly those associated with community and common institutions.

That said, the modern liberal attempt to portray new forms of government intervention in the lives of private individuals as an effort to revive “community” and recover the world we have lost is wholly spurious. True community, the most intimate and local of civic forms, can never be created by something as clumsy as the administrative machinery of an immense nation-state. What one gets instead are laughable programs such as those of the British Tories under David Cameron, with their proposals for “a powerful Office for Civil Society to fight for the interests of charities and community groups,” to be staffed by the usual social-scientific experts battening on the largesse of Whitehall. Memo to liberals: Rethink your complacent theories about the ability of government to foster desirable forms of community.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran, a lawyer and writer, is the author of Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861–1871 and Murder by Candlelight, among other books.

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