Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1: The Political Philosophy of Hume and Smith - Economic Liberalism, vol. 2 The Classical View
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1: The Political Philosophy of Hume and Smith - William Dyer Grampp, Economic Liberalism, vol. 2 The Classical View 
Economic Liberalism (New York: Random House, 1965). vol. 2 The Classical View.
Part of: Economic Liberalism, 2 vols.
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The Political Philosophy of Hume and Smith
The political doctrine of the classical economists was in fact liberal and consistent with their economic policy, despite its paradoxical relationship to the idea of a free market. Their standards of political practice—as distinct from doctrine—can be described as “utilitarian,” as that word is taken in its ordinary and limited meaning. The political structure they advocated was a representative government of a type common in the liberal tradition. In the way they viewed the objectives of political organization, the economists were in agreement with the political philosophers of the seventeenth century. The economists departed from them in certain practical, or utilitarian, matters. The economists gave less emphasis to the methods of government than to its end; they were less exacting about the organization of the state; and they believed that such matters were to be appraised by the success of any particular political organization in achieving the primary ends of liberalism. In this sense their standards of political practice were utilitarian. This latitude did not, however, make them wholly indifferent to the form of government: although they looked upon the organization or structure of the state less critically than upon its intentions and its effects, they did believe in keeping the structure within the limits of what Smith called “republicanism.”
A SUMMARY STATEMENT
To the eighteenth century, even more than to the liberal philosophers of the preceding century and a half, governments were a necessary evil at best and at worst were “engines of despotism.” They reflected unhappily on the imperfect constitution of human nature and existed only to serve very limited ends, ends that unfortunately could not be realized by agreement alone but needed a coercive agency. To the classical economists, the primary objective of political organization was the protection and increase of individual liberty, in which was included the liberty to accumulate property. The principal condition for realizing this end was the maintenance of peace and order through government by law. Among the things to be secured, a major item was private property. In establishing social peace as the great desideratum, the economists had in mind something more than merely preserving the status quo. They looked upon political stability as the condition for advancing the more important ends of individual liberty and the free use of wealth. But although they were not committed to the status quo—and were very clear in asserting the right of a people to rebel against authority—neither were they light-minded about revolution. This attitude is made plain by Smith in his Lectures on Police, Justice, Revenue and Arms, where, after stating that utility is the foundation of government, he declared that once a government loses its usefulness it no longer has any right to exist and should be overthrown; but, he continued, the people will do well to bear many inconveniences before taking on themselves the responsibility for revolution. These “inconveniences” may be no mere trifles; they may be major violations of individual liberty, to be endured by nothing short of heroic patience. So one may infer from The Wealth of Nations. The evils of government and governors are painted very black indeed, but at no point does Smith suggest that revolution is the remedy (as some of his American admirers did).
Although the classical economists wrote less about the form of government than about its objectives and seemed to think it less important, still almost all of them proposed limited representative institutions and an hereditary monarch as a stabilizing agency. Such a government was described in a variety of ways. To Hume, it was an aristocracy; to Smith, a republic; to James Mill, a system of checking bodies; to Nassau W. Senior, a mixed government. These descriptions were hardly more diverse than the party sympathies of the economists. Hume was a Tory while Smith was inclined to the Whigs; James Mill also was a Whig, and Ricardo sided with its radical wing on most of the issues that arose when he was in the House of Commons. But despite the differences in party attachment, the economists were pretty well agreed among themselves on political principles.
This summary statement of their politics seems to place them outside the political philosophy of the Enlightenment as it is stated in such works as Richard Hooker’s The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, The Leviathan of Hobbes, the second Treatise on Civil Government of Locke, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, and the pragmatism of Halifax (George Savile). These men differ in many ways, but they express some common suppositions about man and society. One is that man is by nature motivated by a desire for material gain and the motive has no natural limits. It leads him to grasp what he can in complete disregard for the rights of others. When expressed in a state of nature—i.e., in the absence of government—it leads men to war upon each other, to disrupt the peace essential to liberty, and to subvert liberty itself. A second assumption is that however badly man may behave in a state of nature, he nevertheless is reasonable enough to understand that his condition can be improved. That understanding directs him to form a political society, for which he fortunately is qualified by a natural gregariousness and a capacity for government. A third assumption is that each man possesses certain natural rights, the most fundamental of which are the security of his life, his liberty, and his property. Being natural, the rights are therefore inviolable, and no institution nor person legitimately can alienate them.
Man’s natural rights are the result of his natural behavior—its consequence or product. The philosophers of the Enlightenment assumed that each person sought to protect first his own life, liberty, and possessions, that he was by nature interested principally in his own welfare, that any other course of behavior was unnatural and hence uncommon. If men were so inclined, that was because they either were intended by the Deity to act in this way or were so constituted psychologically as to make any other form of behavior impossible. In either case, self-seeking had to be taken as the datum of politics. To guarantee to each man the right to seek his own interest became then the major purpose of government. In the language of the Enlightenment, the purpose of government is the protection of natural rights. Stated in summary fashion, the protection of a man’s natural rights simply meant the protection of his right to act naturally.
In a state of nature, these rights could not be secure, because individuals would not respect the natural rights of others. The problem of political organization was to find a way of bringing men together which would enable each person to seek his own interests without violating the interests of others. It perhaps needs underscoring that government did not have as its purpose the remaking of human nature in order thereby to eliminate self-interest as the cause of social discord. The classical liberals believed that the state should take men as it finds them and they would have been shocked (to say the least) by certain later writers on government who in the name of freedom wanted to refashion humanity in order to make it conform to their notions of the good society.
The classic liberals solved the problem of political organization—the problem of bringing men together and of their living usefully and peaceably—by means of the social contract. The social contract was an agreement between all members of society about the conditions on which they would combine and associate. As no man willingly would agree to any form of government which deprived him of his rights, and as the social contract could be concluded only through voluntary agreement, the kind of government so established would be necessarily one that represented every individual and promoted his welfare. The social contract occupied the central place in the political philosophy of the Enlightenment, because it represented the means whereby agreement was achieved and natural rights secured.
In the political remarks of the classical economists, the contract theory of government usually is rejected. Hume dismissed it as fanciful, and Smith believed it was unwarranted. Hume conceded that a contract once may have existed, but said that in the course of history it had become obliterated by violence and usurpation.1 Smith argued against the idea in his Lectures, and in The Wealth of Nations declared that government initially was established to enforce an unequal distribution of wealth, remarking dryly that only under the wing of the civil magistrate could the rich get a good night’s sleep.2
Yet even when the rejection of the social contract is given full weight, there will be found, I believe, an underlying consistency between the political philosophy of the Enlightenment and that of the classical economists. Behind the idea of an original contract, there was in classical liberalism a conception of human nature and a belief in natural rights. Though the economists rejected a literal interpretation of the contract and abandoned the idea of a providential force (the natural law) as the guiding force of men’s social behavior, they did not depart significantly from the seventeenth century’s view of human motives or from its ethical standards.
Hooker, Hobbes, and Locke, from whose work later liberal doctrine derives, may have meant to make a literal statement of the origins of government or they may have meant to describe the foundation on which government ought to rest. Whatever their intentions were, their writings were tracts for the times, and the times called for somewhat more freedom. The books performed their duty well, and we are richer today because of them. When Hume and Smith dismissed the assumption of an original contract, they were not disputing the idea that consent ought to form the basis of government but rather the belief that it actually did. Unfortunately they were not much more careful than the earlier philosophers in distinguishing between the actual and the ideal.
HUME AND THE IDEA OF OPINION
In his political essays, Hume observed that man by nature is factious, impulsive, ignorant of his best interests, and without sense enough to choose his own government. His intrinsic avarice, Hume declared, makes him covetous of the property of others and is the principal cause of social conflict (and also of progress).3 Yet Hume found that these deficiencies were not fatal when he came to consider whether man’s innate dignity was not more compelling than his meanness. Men are social creatures, he stated. Although they are not always rational (and not conspicuously rational ever) there is enough sense in the mass of them to make them capable eventually of self-government.4 Their dignity manifests itself in two ways: in the power to conceive of perfection and in the ability to discern, respect, and to create “general opinion.” The significance of this is made clear in the essay “Of the First Principles of Government.” In the place of the social contract as the origin of government, Hume substituted “opinion.” He said there are three “principles” (or beliefs) from which governments derive their authority: (a) individuals give allegiance to a government when they believe (i.e., are of the opinion) that it acts in their interest by providing certain general advantages, like the maintenance of law and order; (b) they believe a government that protects their property should be supported; (c) and they believe that a government of long standing has the right to rule simply because it is of long standing. In addition, there are secondary principles from which governments derive their authority. Individuals may support a government out of very narrowly regarded self-interest, in the expectation of a particular advantage, as distinct from the general advantage which comprises the first of the three principles noted above; or men may give their support to a government only because they are afraid to oppose it; or they may support it out of a personal devotion to the sovereign.5
Some of these principles (both “first” and “second”) are rooted in human traits that Hume thought were dignified and others in traits that he thought were mean. One may infer that Hume in this essay was explaining the actual foundations of government and not the ideal. The most desirable government would base itself on the dignity in human nature, which is shown in the first two of the leading principles: the desire for peace and the desire for the protection of private property. These desires are in no way inconsistent with those established by Hooker, Locke, and Hobbes, nor are the conditions which, according to Hume, make the objectives realizable: the gregariousness of man and his ability to conceive of an ideal society. The explicit difference between Hume and his predecessors is over the social contract. But the difference is not decisive. Much more important is their agreement that government should be based on the consent of the governed. This idea was at the heart of the political doctrine of the Enlightenment. Although it does not appear in this form in Hume’s essays, there does appear the idea of opinion, with the very strong suggestion that the ideal government draws its power from the opinion men hold of its ability to keep the peace and protect their property. And what is opinion, if it is not the idea of consent?
The classic liberals said that government ought to maintain peace and protect wealth. But that is not all it should do. When Locke wrote of the protection of property he clearly was interested in safeguarding more than the wealth of men. He meant “their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name—property.”6 Property, so conceived, comprehended all natural rights. The duty of government is to protect and advance them. Hume did not say much about natural rights and he did not emphasize, as Locke and Hobbes did, the government’s responsibility to protect them. But he certainly was not indifferent to freedom and security, which were the principal rights. The term “natural rights” appears rarely in classical economics except in The Wealth of Nations where, however, it usually applies to economic liberty. The political rights of the individual frequently are described but are not stressed as much as in the writings of the seventeenth century. The want of emphasis suggests that political freedom was so clearly and obviously a care of government that it did not have to be asserted as forcibly as a century earlier when its importance was not generally acknowledged. What called for more emphasis in the eighteenth century was the fostering of economic freedom. When one compares in the works of Hobbes and Locke the small part occupied by the doctrine of free exchange with the great emphasis given to political freedom and security, one can understand why in the works of Hume and Smith, writing in the next century, economic freedom receives the greatest attention while political rights are taken almost as data. The former are famous for their exposition of the political rights of man and are known hardly at all for their belief in a free market, while the latter are noted almost wholly for advocating free exchange and little at all for their political doctrine. Yet there is no essential difference in either the economic or the political doctrines of the two centuries.
UTILITY AND JUSTICE IN SMITH
The political doctrine of Smith does not depart from that of Hume in any important way. It deserves separate mention because of the emphasis utility receives and because of Smith’s specification of the just state. One may remark that Smith’s comments on government are permeated with a cynicism which by comparison makes the tracts of his skeptical friend, Hume, glow with sweetness and warmth. In The Wealth of Nations, the motive of political behavior (and most other) is self-interest, and self-interest operates with indifferent success. His statements about government here are fragmentary and must be taken with those in the Lectures in order to secure a fairly complete conception of his political doctrine. After a seemly acknowledgment of the idea of sympathy (the basis, it will be recalled, of The Theory of Moral Sentiments), Smith states in the Lectures that governments are established in order to provide justice and men learn that justice requires coercion—an idea which, I think, is subsumed in Hume’s principle of “general advantage.” Governments are founded, therefore, on utility, which is their usefulness in providing justice. Justice consists of religious freedom, freedom of speech, the free use of property, and representative government. A government which deprives men of these liberties cannot be tolerated, and if resistance to it evokes violence, that is to be considered regrettable but hardly a reason for submission. Smith once observed that “rebels and heretics are those unlucky persons, who, when things have come to a certain degree of violence, have the misfortune to be of the weaker party.”7 Perhaps because he warmly cherished “the pretious right of private judgment, for the sake of which our forefathers kicked out the Pope and Pretender,” and perhaps because he was less of the world than Hume, he could not become so agitated by the specter of revolution.8 Both, however, were agreed that so long as a government demonstrated “any degree of moderation” (in taxation and its other powers) wisdom dictated it be supported.9
One must note all of the kinds of things that Smith expected of a just government. A reading of only The Wealth of Nations is apt to suggest that governments are founded solely to protect property. That men are avaricious, Smith certainly did say. He said also that they at times subordinate all other interests to their passion for property and he clearly implied that cupidity is at the root of most social disorder. But these traits do not exhaust the register of things that urge men to action nor do they comprehend all of those considerations, psychological and ethical, that Smith believed were relevant to political doctrine. As with Hume’s politics, a distinction must be made between the actual and the ideal. Smith did say that governments came into existence in order to protect the wealthy from the poor. But he did not say that this was reason enough to support them. A government had to do much more. The kind he most desired was one that would protect those “pretious” rights for which his ancestors fought and which were declaimed so movingly by Locke, Hobbes, and Hooker. Although he did not believe (as they may have) that the English state was founded originally on a social contract, he did believe, when he stated that men seek justice through political association, that consent should form the basis of government.
A literal interpretation of the social contract was the only important issue that separated the political doctrine of the classical economists from that of the Enlightenment. The psychological and ethical assumptions of the two were the same. Indeed, the seventeenth century taught the eighteenth the elements of liberal political philosophy, namely, that men are avaricious, that they are mean and belligerent but that their rational faculty and gregarious instinct are strong enough to bring them together under a government that will protect their lives, liberties, and estates.
 David Hume, “Of the First Principles of Government,” and “Of the Original Contract,” Essays Moral, Political, and Literary in Philosophical Works, III (Edinburgh, 1826).
 Adam Smith, Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms, ed. Edwin Cannan (Oxford, 1896), pp. 11-13; and The Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (New York, 1937), pp. 670, 674.
 Hume, “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences,” op. cit., III, 126; and “Of Commerce,” ibid., III, 301.
 Hume, “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science,” op. cit., III, 24-25; “Of the First Principles of Government,” ibid., III, 32; “Of the Origin of Government,” ibid., III, 38-39; and “Of the Dignity or Meanness of Human Nature,” ibid., III.
 “Of the First Principles of Government,” op. cit., III.
 John Locke, Of Civil Government, Two Treatises (London, 1940), p. 180.
 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (London, 1892), p. 219.
 John Rae, Life of Adam Smith (London, 1895), p. 149.
 Smith, Lectures, p. 69. Hume, “Of Passive Obedience,” op. cit., III.