Liberty Matters

Hume No Conservative

The suggestion that the politics of Hume, Smith and Burke may be divided up into concern with institutional arrangements of the polity and concern with the pursuit of policy and then put together as "conservative liberalism" has an attractive neatness. The question that Dan Klein's essay raises is whether the former kind of concern is properly characterized as "conservative" and the latter as "liberal". Since none of the three thinkers used either term in anything like the meaning that Dan invokes, I have considerable difficulties trying to capture the meaning of the three as this was expressed in their terms. Nevertheless, let me make an attempt, using Dan's manner of description.
So, can our three authors be described as "polity conservatives"? Encouraged by the need for brevity and the limitations of personal competence, I will speak only about Hume in this first comment and say that the description is at most a truth with modifications, and that the latter are more interesting than the truth.
In the grand perspective of European history Hume (and Smith) saw modern society as a prolonged process of liberation from the barbarism of feudalism and popery. And Hume was of course scathing about the ancients; as far politics was concerned they certainly had nothing to teach the moderns. Furthermore, the moderns were for Hume really quite modern: "The Oceana is the only valuable model of a commonwealth, that has yet been offered to the public."[1] Yet, James Harrington's insight – formulated in the middle of the previous century – that "property [is] the foundation of all government" was too simplistic.[2] It could not capture the multiple factors that made modern government unique; instead Harrington's suggested re-modeling of the government of England was a utopian fantasy. Further evidence of Hume's focus on "modernity" may be taken from the fact that when he began to plan his history of Great Britain – which eventually became The History of England – he at first saw no reason to go back further than the Stuart monarchs. In so far as conservatism has anything to do with respect for olden times, the label fits Hume very poorly.
Hume's central ambition as a political author was to achieve a science of politics that could explain how far modern government had achieved what he saw as the highest goal for the constitution of a polity, namely a proper balance of liberty and authority. He thought that "all kinds of government, free and absolute, seem to have undergone, in modern times, a great change for the better, with regard both to foreign and domestic management", by which he meant external and internal security.[3] But, he went on to stress:
though all kinds of government be improved in modern times, yet monarchical government seems to have made the greatest advances towards perfection. It may now be affirmed of civilized monarchies, what was formerly said in praise of republics alone, that they are a government of Laws, not of Men. They are found susceptible of order, method, and constancy, to a surprizing degree. Property is there secure; industry encouraged; the arts flourish; and the prince lives secure among his subjects, like a father among his children.[4]
The great strides of the European monarchies and especially of France meant that Hume thought it appropriate to talk of them as "civilized monarchies" comparable in many respects to Great Britain. Nevertheless, the British government was the most modern in the sense that it had gone the furthest in balancing authority with liberty. This was in the main the unintended and unforeseen outcome of the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-9.
Like Smith after him, Hume saw this event as a decisive moment for the English and Scottish polities. For Hume the Revolution was something entirely unexpected and new. Neither of the rival party-political ideologies of Tories and Whigs had an adequate explanation of the event or assessment of the settlement that was its outcome. In order to explain it, you had to lay aside both absolute monarchism and ancient constitutionalism, let alone the more recent fancies of an original contract, and instead understand the mixed motives arising from either in particular situations. And in order to assess what the Revolution had brought, you had to understand that the constitutional settlement as such could not be the subject of party politics. The settlement was a framework within which party politics could be conducted. This was an understanding that Hume sought to convey through his Essays and his History. But irrespective of how "scientifically" balanced his explanation and how even-handedly "sceptical" his assessment, it was clear that Hume endorsed the outcome of the Revolution.
In the wake of the Revolution the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707 came about. Although Hume decided to end his History of England with the Revolution, it is clear that he was a unionist. His basically Whiggish outlook led him to endorse the new constitutional arrangement and to pursue his personal career very much within this new polity. And despite his limitless contempt for the English, he was a vigorous promoter of the Anglicization of Scottish culture, especially as far as language and literature were concerned.
In sum, Hume was a distinct progressivist and modernist in his view of European politics and culture. He endorsed a revolution that brought about a truly novel government, as he saw it. And he supported the dissolution of the political sovereignty of his own country, which led to another constitutional novelty, the incorporating Union. These well-known broad features of Hume's political thought frankly do not seem to be well described as "polity conservatism."
As mentioned, Hume's fundamental approach to politics (and much else) was balance. That is to say, he wanted to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of competing political views in such a way that his audience would learn to accept that opposites had to be – and could be – lived with. The balancing counterweight to the progressivism and modernism indicated above was an array of suggestions for what could go wrong and was going wrong with modern polities understood in this way. Two of his greatest fears were the national debt and what he saw as the abuse of individual liberty.
The modern method of deficit financing of warfare to protect trading interests considered as matters of national safety, or "reason of state", had led Britain into a spiraling debt that Hume feared would lead to national bankruptcy. The suggested remedy was to lay aside an economic policy based upon "jealousy of trade" in favour of one of competitive markets characterized by peaceful emulation. In this we might see a case of "policy liberalism", but it should be noted that the malaise that had to be cured was the doing of the most liberal polity yet seen, that of British Whiggism.
Hume's other great fear was that the balance of authority and liberty that was the outcome of the constitutional settlement after the Revolution was tottering. This had been a theme from the earliest essays, but it became an obsession for several years late in his life as he reacted to the civil unrest in connection with John Wilkes. The principle was that:
In all governments, there is a perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between Authority and Liberty; and neither of them can ever absolutely prevail in the contest. A great sacrifice of liberty must necessarily be made in every government; yet even the authority, which confines liberty, can never, and perhaps ought never, in any constitution, to become quite entire and uncontroulable. … liberty is the perfection of civil society; but still authority must be acknowledged essential to its very existence.[5]
The way in which governments had conducted policy in Britain had seriously undermined the "essential" authority, as Hume summarized his view of the situation a decade into the reign of George III:
Only consider how many Powers of Government are lost in this short Reign. The right of displacing the Judges was given up; General Warrants are lost; the right of Expulsion the same; all the co-ercive Powers of the House of Commons abandon'd; all Laws against Libels annihilated … the revenue of the civil List diminish'd. For God's sake, is there never to be a stop put to this inundation of the Rabble?[6]
This call for action does not seem to be unambiguously one for "liberal policy".
My conclusion is that Hume's idea of politics is far too "English", as it were, to be adequately analyzed by means of a distinction between "polity" and "policy" so rigid that it makes sense to characterize his view of one as "conservative", the other as "liberal". This might work for polities with a fixed (written) constitution, but Hume's genius was to capture the fluidity of structure and action in English politics.
[1.] David Hume, "The Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth", in Essays Moral, Political, Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller, Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1987, pp. 512-29, at p. 514.
[2.] "Of the First Principles of Government", in Essays, pp. 32-36, at pp. 33-34.
[3.] 'Of Civil Liberty' in Essays, pp. 87-96, at p. 93.
[4.] 'Of Civil Liberty', p. 94.
[5.] "Of the Origin of Government", Essays, pp. 37-41, at pp. 40-41.
[6.] Hume to William Strahan, 25. June, 1771, in The Letters of David Hume, ed. J. Y. T. Greig, 2 vols., Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1969, vol. II, p. 244-45.