Liberty Matters

Hume a Hayekian?

There is much to praise and agree with in Nick Capaldi's overview of David Hume's thought, which, correctly in my view, connects his philosophy with his moral and political thought, his political economy, and his work as an historian. As someone who has been deeply influenced by Nick in my own thinking about Hume, it takes some effort to think about where I might have some minor disagreements with him. However, I have been able to come up with two. The first is his claim that the Hayekian notion of spontaneous order is foundational for Hume. The second is that I think Capaldi underestimates the degree to which Hume is setting the stage for probabilistic social science, which in turn can guide legislation and policy.
I am mostly in agreement with Nick's Thesis Three, in which he argues that for Hume, we cannot understand ourselves apart from human action, that there is no Archimedean point to step outside the world to understand it. Nick also argues that there is an implicit order in our inherent norms and customs that "is clearly an anticipation of or early expression of what Hayek termed  spontaneous order." I have no objection to seeing Hume as part of the intellectual genealogy leading to Hayek's conception of spontaneous order, along with Mandeville and Adam Ferguson. And Hayek, of course, has a splendid essay on Hume as the first true liberal thinker.[32] However, later on in Thesis Seven, Nick argues that spontaneous order is the foundation of the rest of Hume's philosophy, which I take to mean his moral and political philosophy and his political economy. While I would agree with Nick that custom, habit, and opinion are fundamental to Hume, I would hesitate to read Hayek back into Hume and describe this as spontaneous order. Hume is offering a description of social and political development that over time that involves intention, action, and reflection upon the effects of the intended acts. That is why I see Hume's political and economic thinking as primarily concerned with the unintended consequences of intentional human action. Sometimes things turn out the way we intend; sometimes they do not. We can reflect upon this and course-correct or leave things alone. Sometimes unintended consequences are harmful; sometimes they are beneficial, such as with commerce and free trade. If they are beneficial we do not want to interfere with them. I think unintended consequences are a better way to understand what Hume is up to than spontaneous order.
This also leads to a difference I have with Nick over seeing Hume as paving the way to modern social science. Hume was clearly concerned with using empirical evidence, which can be historical or quantitative (he used both), and engaging in probabilistic reasoning and making assessments about legislation and policy. Now there is real difference between Hume and Bentham, given Bentham's rationalism, but Bentham is part of the Humean legacy too, not just Hayek. And Hume did engage in what would now be termed rational choice political economy. His discussion of issues around draining a meadow in the Treatise[33] is typically seen as the one of first statements of collective action and free-rider problems. Finally, the American Founders' science of politics, which was used to construct a wholly new republic based on reflection and choice, was deeply influenced by Hume, at least in the cases of Hamilton and Madison. Madison's famous discussion of the problem of faction, as Nick mentions, is drawn from Hume's account of faction and typology. However,  Madison goes beyond Hume to argue that the solution to the problem of faction is to have a lot of them, something Hume, with his strong distaste for factional politics, could never bring himself to argue.
[32.] F.A. Hayek, "The Legal and Political Philosophy of David Hume," in V.C. Chappell, Hume (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966).
[33.] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 3, Part 2, Section 8. The passage reads:
Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because 'tis easy for them to know each others mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is the abandoning the whole project. But 'tis very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons shou'd agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it; while each seeks a pretext to free himself of the trouble and expence, and wou'd lay the whole burden on others. Political society easily remedies both these inconveniences. Magistrates find an immediate interest in the interest of any considerable part of their [539]subjects. They need consult no body but themselves to form any scheme for the promoting of that interest. And as the failure of any one piece in the execution is connected, tho' not immediately, with the failure of the whole, they prevent that failure, because they find no interest in it, either immediate or remote. Thus bridges are built; harbours open'd; ramparts rais'd; canals form'd; fleets equip'd; and armies disciplin'd; every where, by the care of government, which, tho' compos'd of men subject to all human infirmities, becomes, by one of the finest and most subtle inventions imaginable, a composition, which is, in some measure, exempted from all these infirmities.
In David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume, reprinted from the Original Edition in three volumes and edited, with an analytical index, by L.A. Selby-Bigge, M.A. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896). Book 3, Part 2, Section 8. </titles/342#Hume_0213_1112>.