Front Page Titles (by Subject) Hume and Contract Theory - Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4
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Hume and Contract Theory - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Hume and Contract Theory
“David Hume, Contractarian.” Philosophical Review 88 (April 1979): 3–38.
David Hume's theories of property, justice, and government are best understood by regarding them as species of contractarianism. Specifically, his views of property and justice (but not of moral virtue) were Hobbesian. Although often portrayed as an opponent of contractarianism, Hume opposed only the prevalent Whig doctrines of his time. His views were in fact based on a form of hypothetical contractarianism leading to conservative conclusions.
Justice, in Hume's account, is a system of rules concerned with rights to physical objects, or property. Why should the obligations of justice be observed? One answer, sometimes used in interpreting Hume, is that to do so increases the total utility of society. This utilitarian answer, however, does not explain why an individual should support rules which may not be to his interest. Hume's position avoids this difficulty by claiming that it is in everyone's interest that rules of justice be instituted.
The question of which rules should be adopted is of lesser importance. It is much more important that some set of rules be established than that any particular set be accepted. Thus, the rules adopted should be the set most people in a particular society are likely to agree on. In most cases, this means that the existing rules of society should be accepted, since everyone knows them and expects them to be followed.
It may, however, be to someone's advantage to have everyone else obey the rules of justice while he himself does not. To avoid this, one can consider following the rules of justice as a moral obligation. That is, since for everyone to follow the rules is to each person's interest, the sense of sympathy will induce a feeling of obligation which inhibits the purely selfish reasoning prescribed above.
If everyone followed his self-interest, as supplemented by moral obligation, government would be unnecessary. Passion, however, often blinds people to what is necessary to their interests. A mechanism of enforcement is therefore necessary, although the tendency of government to expand its sphere of authority makes it dangerous. Like the rules of justice, it is more important to have a government than to have one of a particular form. Since people are used to the existing government, revolutionary change should be avoided. Prescriptive right, not democractic consent, provides the proper foundation for government. Accordingly, Hume was sympathetic to the royalist position in the English Civil War.