David Hume believes we should assume all men are self-interested knaves when it comes to politics (1777)

David Hume

Found in Essays Moral, Political, Literary (LF ed.)

The Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776) believed that when thinking about politics we should assume that every man and every institution pursues their own self-interest often at the expense of the public good:

Political writers have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest. By this interest we must govern him, and, by means of it, make him, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition, co-operate to public good. Without this, say they, we shall in vain boast of the advantages of any constitution, and shall find, in the end, that we have no security for our liberties or possessions, except the good-will of our rulers; that is, we shall have no security at all.

Two hundred years before the Public Choice School of Economics founded by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, David Hume was thinking similar thoughts about the self-interested behaviour of politicians in Parliament. In his quite realistic and sometimes cynical understanding of politics Hume argued that, when designing constitutional rules to govern the behaviour of politicians and bureaucrats, we must assume the “worst”, namely that these people will act like “knaves” unless prevented from doing so. Hume’s solution was that a division of powers might check one branch of government by putting it into competition with and oversight by the other branches. Perhaps his cynicism didn’t go far enough as a tripartite division of government, instead of checking state power, might in fact create three bodies of knaves pursuing their own interest at the expence of taxpayers.