October 7, 2013


Book Review: 'The Memoirs of Walter Bagehot' by Frank Prochaska : A speculative autobiography of the "Greatest Victorian." (GEORGE SELGIN, WSJ)

In "The English Constitution" (1867), his insider's view of the workings of England's system of government, he dismissed as a "pompous conceit" the view, enshrined in our own founding document, that the success of England's electoral system rested upon a separation of powers. The separation that mattered, he said, was that between the government's "dignified" and its "efficient" components. The first, embodied by Queen Victoria, served to secure its power by commanding the reverence of the masses. The second , represented by Parliament, saw to that power's effective employment The monarchy's field of influence was the invisible world;.. Parliament's was the visible one To treat the monarchy as just another cog of government was to risk tampering with the very foundations of national stability. "We must not," Bagehot insisted, "let daylight in upon magic."

The importance he assigned to the romance of royalty derived from a view of the lower classes that was anything but romantic. "We have in a great community like England," he said, "crowds of people scarcely more civilized than the majority of two thousand years ago. "In a campaign speech, he noted that the appropriate reaction to the 1832 Reform Bill may have been" Register! Register! Register!, "but with the franchise being further widened in 1867, it must become" Educate! Educate! Educate! "He feared politics would otherwise degenerate into a contest over which party could most convincingly promise the moon to ignorant voters.

Bagehot's economics were of a piece with his politics. He knew that the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, which had made it prohibitively expensive to import grain into Britain and thus kept food prices artificially high, contributed much more to human happiness than any expansion of the vote through parliamentary reform ever could. Yet his distrust of both hurried reform and abstract speculation kept him from championing laissez-faire even when he recognized the harm done by government interference. Thus in "Lombard Street" (1873), in which he offered advice for dealing with financial crises that central bankers still honor, if mainly in the breach, Bagehot traced British financial instability to the Bank of England's special privileges, which, by restricting other banks' ability to issue circulating notes, caused them to employ Bank of .. England notes rather than gold as their cash-reserve medium Yet Bagehot was content simply to point out the Bank's duty to place the public interest ahead of its own As for withdrawing its privileges, he wrote: "You might as well try to alter the English monarchy and substitute a republic .... Nothing but a revolution would effect it, and there is nothing to cause a revolution. "

Bagehot's writings glow, not with zeal but with zest-a reflection of his keen interest in human affairs and relative indifference to abstract ideas. This is especially evident in his literary essays, in which, unlike so many modern and postmodern critics, he treated authors , not just their works, as interesting subjects.

That Bagehot is an interesting subject of his own works is the premise of Frank Prochaska's "The Memoirs of Walter Bagehot"-an ambitious "reconstruction" of a never-written book drawn from Bagehot's published writings with biographical details supplied by Mr. Prochaska in his role of "amanuensis."

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Posted by at October 7, 2013 5:34 PM

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