The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/Syme, David
Syme, David, the proprietor of the Melbourne Age, is the youngest son of George Syme, a Scotch State school teacher, and was born at North Berwick in 1827. He was intended for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church, but, having imbibed Liberal views whilst studying at a German university, abandoned the idea of pursuing an ecclesiastical career. Joining the press as a reporter, he did minor journalistic work until 1850, when, his health breaking down,he emigrated to California, whence, after an experience of some eighteen months on the gold fields, he proceeded to Victoria. He had been there about a year when his brother, Ebenezer Syme, and himself purchased the Age newspaper, which had been founded in 1854. The prospects of the paper at this time were not encouraging; in fact, it was believed to be moribund, and was not even the accredited representative of Liberal opinions, for though the Argus, alarmed by the Ballarat riots of Dec. 1854, was by this time veering round to Conservatism, it still enjoyed a reputation for Liberalism, which it had earned in the early days of the colony, when it was in fierce opposition to every Government. On the death of his brother in 1859 the sole management of the paper devolved on Mr. David Syme, in whose hands it has remained till the present time (1892). Under Mr. Syme's management the Age has been the pioneer of Liberalism in Australia, for, curiously enough, that paper has been more the organiser than the organ of Liberalism, and has therefore led rather than followed public opinion in this direction. It advocated the financial supremacy of the Lower House of Parliament, the opening of the public lands for agricultural settlement, the encouragement of native industries by means of discriminating import duties, free, secular, and compulsory education, and the hundred other measures which have now become embodied in the statutes, not only of Victoria, but of Australia. Whether owing to the promptitude with which it pronounces on the questions of the day, the judgment which it displays in its views, or the vigour of its advocacy, or all combined, one thing is certain: that there is no newspaper in Australia at the present moment that possesses such influence as the Age. Although Melbourne has only about a twelfth part of the population of London, the circulation of the Age is equal to that of leading London dailies. Mr. Syme is a singularly effective writer of English prose, and on a varied range of subjects. Outside the columns of his own paper he has from time to time contributed articles to the leading English reviews on social and economic subjects. Mr. Syme's first independent work of any magnitude was the "Outlines of an Industrial Science," published in 1870. Roughly described, this book is a vindication of Protection; more closely examined, it will be seen to be rather in the direction of State Socialism; and it takes this wider scope because it rejects the adequacy of a single motive for accumulation, and deals with society from the statesman's point of view quite as much as from the economist's. Mr. Syme shows that the English principle of competition is habitually inadequate to produce the effects aimed at, and is injurious to society. The system of selling the public land by auction in Australia has led to the monopoly of a large part of the State domains by a wealthy class at prices unremunerative to the State. Free Trade allowed the native industries of Victoria to be swamped by importations of cheap though inferior goods, with the result that the British manufacturer ultimately became master of the market and could sell at his own price. Then again the effect on the workman has to be considered. A fall in wages being the natural result of a fall in profits, the competition that reduces profits is bound to reduce wages. As, however, society "gives its sanction to appropriation, and thereby renders industry possible," it is entitled to show "a constant solicitude for the object appropriated." In other words, there is an art of industry which follows nature, and is known as industrial legislation. Is it good for the whole community to make roads? Then the State should make them or sanction and promote their being made. "Is it good for the whole community that the population should be fully employed and adequately renumerated? Then it may be necessary for the State to promote by such means as it has in its power the growth of manufactures." It will be seen that these views, however opposed to the general drift of the English school of economists, are strikingly supported in some particulars by the theories of Mr. Cliffe Leslie, of Professor Sidgwick, and of Mr. Jevons. In America, where Mr. Syme's book has been extensively circulated, they challenge comparison chiefly with Mr. Carey. Distinctly less popular than Mr. Carey in his treatment of a difficult subject matter, Mr. Syme is also distinctly more nervous in style and systematic in thought. Carey apologised for a Protectionist tariff in a commercial community; Mr. Syme indicates the Australian tendency to the organisation of labour in the interests of the whole community. Mr. Syme's second book on "Representative Government in England" is mainly an attack on government by party, and develops the doctrine that members should be more immediately responsible than they are to their constituencies, and Ministers to Parliament. Mr. Syme regards the body politic as a living organism, which is continually undergoing renewal, not as a piece of dead mechanism that must be set going from time to time, and he would therefore give the constituency the right of demanding its member's resignation at any moment, would have Ministers nominated in Parliament, and would let the Houses dismiss an offending Minister without disturbing his colleagues. Parties would still subsist, because such divisions as Liberal and Conservative are inherent in human nature; but when the power to obstruct useful measures was taken away, and Ministers stood or fell by their individual merits, "we should get rid of the bitterness of party feeling, the dishonesty of party tactics, and the evils inherent in the system of party government." One of the most suggestive and original parts of this book is the thesis that the stronger the Government under our present system, the less real work does it do. Mr. Syme's last book, "On the Modification of Organisms," is mainly a criticism of the Darwinian theory, and as such has provoked warm opposition and attracted great attention. To the general critic much of its interest lies in the fact that it is a curious direction of Mr. Syme's leading principle to an entirely new domain of thought. Having rejected Free Trade, the mechanical competition of blind forces like greed and want, as an adequate motive for the development of human society; having condemned the competition of selfish interests in the machinery of government, he proceeds in this volume to combat the theory of natural selection, the extermination of the unfit, the selection of the appropriate, as sufficient to explain the origin of species, and contends that all modifications of organisms originate in the cell, which is the psychological as well as the physiological unit. Mr. Syme has a great deal to say, which he says with effect, on all the leading views of Darwinism. Altogether the book is a very suggestive one. Mr. Syme is an evolutionist without being a Darwinian. Mr. Syme was married in 1859 to Miss Annabella Johnson, of Melbourne, and has a family of five sons and two daughters.