Portrait of David Hume

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

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:

Politics & Liberty

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.