Hume, David (1711–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

5. Political and social philosophy

Nature and point of government. In the Treatise governmental authority is a social ‘artifice’, added to those of property, promise, and marriage. For it to come to exist, there must be a felt need that it satisfies, some ‘convention’ creating the right to govern, and bestowing it on some person or some group of persons. The need for government arises, Hume believed in the Treatise, only when other artifices, such as promise and contract, have enabled some people to accumulate so much property that they cannot adequately guard it against marauders, and to acquire it in ways suspected of fraudulence, so that others resent their possession of it. ‘Acts of injustice’ become frequent, and those who continue to respect property and promissory rights fear becoming ‘cullies of their integrity’. What becomes needed is some security for the ‘just’ against exploitation by the ‘unjust’. By creating a special job, that of ‘magistrates’, who will be responsible for ‘the execution and decision of justice’, such security is provided. The security is not only for the just against the unjust, but for the just impulses in any person against any temptation to injustice and inequity. Hume follows Hobbes in finding it a universal human weakness to see the attractions of the good that is close more easily than the attractions of ‘remoter’ goods, even when they are real and often greater. Without enforcement of property rules and contracts, ‘the consequences of every breach of equity seem to lie very remote, and are not able to counterballance any immediate advantage, that may be reap’d from it’ (Treatise: 535). The remedy, Hume writes, is to create rule-enforcers, so that there will come to be an immediate interest (avoiding punishment) as well as a remote interest (good character and reputation for it, social order and the benefits one gets from it) in avoiding acts of injustice. ‘We are, therefore, to look upon all the vast apparatus of our government as having ultimately no other object or purpose but the distribution of justice, or, in other words, the support of twelve judges’ (Essays: 27). These are Hume’s words in ‘Of the Origin of Government’, a relatively late essay. In the Treatise he gave magistrates an additional role, namely coordinating new beneficial cooperative schemes which private enterprise might have neither motive to embark on nor the needed supervisory ability to bring to completion. Hume became more of a prophet for limited government as he grew older, but even in his late works he saw it as the governors’ task not merely to declare and protect rights which pre-existed their own right to govern, but ‘to point out the decrees of equity, to punish transgressors, to correct fraud and violence, and to oblige men, however reluctant, to consult their own real and permanent interests’ (Essays: 38).

Who should govern. Hume is, of course, acutely aware of the difficulty of finding competent and reliable ‘magistrates’ or governors. In the History of England he praises the ‘mixed’ character of the English government, even in its earliest days providing some protection against tyranny. To avoid tyranny, powers must be balanced against each other, and the main tasks of politics as a ‘science’ are to find the best such balance, to design institutions that work well even when bad people are office-holders, and to provide for orderly transitions of power. The party system, the different roles of electorate, of the legislature, of monarch or other executive, of the judiciary, of the press, all should contribute to the goal of providing an ongoing government that really does serve the real interests of the governed.

Hume emphazises that there is some inevitable arbitrariness in the selection of governors. ‘The magistrate may often be negligent, or partial, or unjust in his administration’, and yet be a lawful magistrate, who is owed allegiance. The right to govern, like a property right, can be based on any of several different grounds. The hypothetical first magistrate might well have derived his authority from the consent of the governed, who might well have promised him allegiance:

But when government has been establish’d on this footing for some considerable time, and the separate interest, which we have in submission, has produc’d a separate sentiment of morality, the case is entirely alter’d.

(Treatise: 554)

The same interest, therefore, which causes us to submit to magistracy, makes us renounce itself in the choice of our magistrates, and binds us down to a certain form of government, and to particular persons, without allowing us to aspire to the utmost perfection in either. The case is here the same as in that law of nature concerning the stability of possession.

(Treatise: 555)

As the initial property rights were, Hume supposes, determined by ‘present possession’, to which in time get added ‘prescription’ or ‘long possession’, ‘accession’, ‘succession’, and ‘transfer by consent’ from former owners, so with governmental authority – a parallel plurality of grounds can be taken to establish it. What our ‘interest’ in government dictates is that the transitions from one governor to the next be smooth and nonviolent, and this paramount interest means that laws dictating how the next governor is to be selected are usually in place. ‘Positive law’, as well as ‘original contract’, ‘long possession’, ‘present possession’, and ‘succession’ can select the magistrates.

In his essay ‘Of the Original Contract’, in other essays, and throughout the History of England, Hume continues this Treatise discussion of the dangerousness and impracticality of being determined to ‘aspire to the utmost perfection’ in government, especially given widely different opinions of what method of selecting a magistrate is the more perfect. Consent or ‘original contract’ can get government started, but once any of the original contractors (subjects or sovereign), dies, or new subjects are born, it is wildly impractical and dangerous to demand renewed contracts. ‘Did one generation of men go off the stage at once, and another succeed, as is the case with silkworms and butterflies, the new race…might voluntarily, by general consent, establish their own form of civil polity, without any regard to the laws and precedents, which prevailed among their ancestors’ (Essays: 476). Hume has no quarrel with those who believe that ‘the consent of the people’ is ‘the best and most sacred’ of any claim to authority (Essays: 474), just as he has no quarrel with those who believe that equality would be the ideal distribution of property. In both cases, it is the means of trying to sustain the ideal state that pose the problems and the dangers. Even when nations do not aim so impossibly high as to found their governments on the consent of each and every subject, but appeal, as England did, to royal ‘succession’, disputes easily arise, and such disputes provide Hume with much of the storyline of the History of England. Hume’s political philosophy is realistic and pragmatic in character. Sympathetic though he is with the ideals of equality and government by consent, he sees the dangers of violence, disorder, and tyranny very vividly, and sees them to be the usual costs of aspiring to perfection in government. He did however write one very interesting essay on ‘The Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth’ in which his own republican ideals are developed, and he supported the cause of independence for the American colonies.

Hume’s later writings do not significantly alter his Treatise account of the function and authority of governments. They add mainly reflections on the relative wisdom of different governors and rebels against them, rather than any new points about the basis of governmental authority. The History of England tries to rebut the Whig claim that the English constitution, protecting their ‘ancient liberties’, dated from the Magna Carta. Hume describes a slow evolution of the ‘plan of liberty’ which eighteenth-century Britons enjoyed, with many periods of great but tolerated tyranny (under Edward III, under Elizabeth), some periods of lesser tyranny which nevertheless led to civil war and the king’s execution (the reign of Charles I), with rebellions occurring for all sorts of reasons and on all sorts of pretext, sometimes leading to improvements, sometimes to worse tyranny, sometimes to unintended advances in the direction of ‘a regular and equitable plan of liberty’. The study of English history, he wrote at the end of his discussion of the reign of Richard III, shows ‘the great mixture of accident which commonly concurs with a small ingredient of wisdom and foresight, in erecting the complicated fabric of the most perfect government’.

Social philosophy. There is virtually nothing that Hume wrote, after Book I of theTreatise that could not properly be classed as ‘social philosophy’. Even the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, mainly concerned with fairly ‘abstruse’ epistemological topics, keeps its eye on the social role of the epistemologist, and the social use made of, say, miracle reports. ‘Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being’ (Enquiries: 8), and Hume expresses the hope that even relatively abstruse philosophy may ‘diffuse itself throughout the whole society’, so that, among other effects, ‘the politician may acquire greater foresight and subtility, in the subdividing and balancing of power’ (Enquiries: 10). His essays on economics combine fairly detailed discussion of particular aspects of the then current economic policy in Britain with discussions of the highest generality about the role of money, the determinants of its value at a given time, the unimportance of what metal or non-metal is used as currency, the importance of a national debt. The History of England is crammed with interesting observations on such matters as the changing attitude to usury, what was being imported and exported, what taxes were being levied and with what purported authority, what role the church was playing, what the relationship was between canon law and civil law.

Citing this article:
Garrett, Don. Political and social philosophy. Hume, David (1711–76), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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