Mackay, Thomas (1849-1912)

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David M. Hart, Thomas Mackay (1849-1912)

Thomas Mackay (1849-1912) was a successful English wine merchant who retired early from business so he could devote himself entirely to the study of economic issues such as the Poor Laws, growing state intervention in the economy, and the rise of socialism. Mackay was asked by the individualist and laissez-faire lobby group, the Liberty and Property Defense League (founded in 1882 by the Earl of Wemyss), to put together a collection of essays by leading classical liberals to rebut the socialist ideas contained in A Policy of Free Exchange: Essays by Various Writers on the Economical and Social Aspects of Free Exchange and Kindred Subjects which appeared in 1894.

Two of the guiding intellectual lights of the Liberty and Property Defense League were Auberon Herbert (1838-1906), whose The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State had appeared in 1885). Both Spencer and Herbert were troubled by the direction in which the British Liberal Party was heading, away from strict adherence to policies of individual liberty and non-intervention in the economy and towards a "New Liberalism" which laid the intellectual foundations for the modern welfare state. The aim of Mackay and the members of the Liberty and Property Defense League was to use the occasion of the publication of a major defense of state interventionism in the economy, the Fabian Essays, as an opportunity to oppose all advocates of these policies whether from the "right" (the Liberal Party) or the "left" the Fabian socialists and the Labour Party. The result were the two volumes mentioned above. The strategy adopted was to argue against both the morality and the practically of socialism. The latter resulted in many essays showing how specific examples of state intervention or control, such as electrical distribution or public housing, led to unintended, harmfuil consequences.

The ideas expressed in the two volumes, A Plea for Liberty and A Policy of Free Exchange, are still still timely even after the passage of some 110 years. In spite of the fall of communism and the discrediting of the idea of a centrally planned economy, myriad government interventions in the operation of the economy are still with us, seemingly entrenched and impossible to remove. It is thus interesting to see the response to socialism by free market people who were present at is birth. We plan to publish online all three volumes involved in this intellectual debate - the Fabian defense of socialism which started the debate, followed by the two volumes containing the individualist and free market critique. We begin this month with the first volume published by the Liberty and Property Defense League, A Plea for Liberty.


Eric Mack, "Foreword" to Herbert Spencer, The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981).

Eric Mack, "Introduction" to Auberon Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, and Other Essays (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978).

Jeffrey Paul, "Foreword" to A Plea for Liberty: An Argument against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation, consisting of an Introduction by Hebert Spencer and Essays by Various Writers, edited by Thomas Mackay (1891) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).

Edward Bristow, "The Liberty and Property Defence League and Individualism," The Historical Journal, 1975, vol. XVIII, no. 4, pp. 761-789.

N. Soldon, "Laissez-Faire as Dogma: The Liberty and Property Defence League, 1882-1914", in Essays in Anti-Labour History: Responses to the Rise of Labour in Britain, ed. Kenneth D. Brown (Macmillan1974), pp. 208-233.

J.W. Mason, "Thomas Mackay: The Anti-Socialist Philosophy of the Charity Organisation Society," , in Essays in Anti-Labour History: Responses to the Rise of Labour in Britain, ed. Kenneth D. Brown (Macmillan1974), pp. 290-316.

J.W. Mason, "Political Economy and the Response to Socialism in Britain, 1870-1914," The Historical Journal, 1980, vol. XXIII, no. 3, pp. 565-587.