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David Hume (1711-76), Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (1758)


Author: Barry Stocker.

David Hume was a great figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, even more so than his friend Adam Smith. He was a great figure in the whole European movement and is one of the most influential philosophers who ever lived, as well as being a major historian, economist, and political thinker.

His contributions to political thought can be found particularly in the Essays, but also in sections of his two philosophical masterpieces, A Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and the Principles of Morals (1748-51), along with his 6 volume History of England (1754-62). His History of England was a best seller and the dominant history of England, or Great Britain, for decades. Despite these dazzling achievements Hume was not able to have a university career, due to his open religious scepticism. Fortunately his subsequent career as tutor to the aristocracy, embassy secretary, and freelance writer did not impede his great talents.

The general structure of Hume’s political thought was that human society progresses in history, though he was deeply aware of the great crimes and disasters of human history. He thought that human rationality makes us able to learn the benefits of cooperation, and to learn from those benefits in further cooperation. That is cooperation of a voluntary and dispersed kind, which starts with production and exchange within a small community, and which develops into a global human community based on trade, freedom of communication, and liberty.

The rationality in humans is very imperfect, but sufficient to learn how to cooperate in order to first make life more secure from hunger and violence; and then for human character, and society, to keep improving through better morals, finer tastes, and greater liberty. These capacities interact with a natural human morality of sympathy (that Hume thought some animals share), in which we naturally, and inevitably, see ourselves in other people, and find that our pleasure is improved by their pleasure.

We should not see Hume as a one sided optimist who only saw the best in people; he had a melancholic side underneath a sociable and optimistic manner, and his writings certainly show sensitive awareness, and even anger, at human cruelty and irrationality.

His overall achievement is that he had important explanations for why some human societies have become more prosperous, more moral, more sensitive, more free, and more governed by law and less by violence. On that basis, he had good reasons for expecting more progress of the same kind.

On the more detailed aspects of his political thought, he defended the British system of the time for achieving as good a balance as existed anywhere between ‘republican’ liberty and ‘monarchical’ institutional stability. Again this was not a result of complacency, he noticed for example how the state bought support from the upper class through a national debt which benefitted wealthy holders of government bonds, while others had to suffer from higher taxes and a stifled economy.

He certainly saw the need for some to become much more wealthy than others – preferably without state favours – as increased general wealth can only come from property rights and the possibility of individual self-enrichment.

In his economic essays, he argued against economic protectionism, then known as Mercantilism, and for free trade. He pointed out that the French state caused starvation when it banned the export of wheat. Farmers grow more wheat when there is a demand for it, from anywhere in the world, and that would benefit the poor and hungry in France more than trying to stop wheat being ‘lost’ to foreign countries. Freedom from want and increasing prosperity come from the widest possibilities of trade, not from governments trying to prevent supposedly valuable products from leaving the country.

He pointed out the error of thinking that accumulating more money – largely referring to the Mercantilist belief that governments should acquire gold – makes a country richer. Production stimulated by trade makes a country richer, not having more bits of gold currency. History shows that where countries suddenly acquire gold, or any kind of wealth, from conquest that it is all wasted on non-productive expenditure very quickly. Only freedom to buy and sell, under humane, rational and consistent laws, can lead to genuine increases in wealth.

Hume’s views on the politics of the time are determined by two somewhat contrary tendencies. As mentioned above, he valued both liberty and continuity of institutions. So on one side, he regarded radical change with extreme suspicion –including challenges to the British monarchy – as leading to war and social breakdown; while on the other side, he had a plan for a perfect British republic balancing different forms of representation and strong legal institutions. That republican idealism combined with a pessimistic belief that politics inevitably corrupts, as government has to find ways of buying off interest groups, ‘factions’, so that it can govern at all. Examples of how Hume’s rich personality, and thought, comprise many of the various impulses of liberal thought in his time, and ever since.