A Skeptic's Guide to the Perfect Commonwealth

david hume utopias commonwealth great britain

Christy Lynn for AdamSmithWorks

Hume’s plan for the perfect commonwealth is elaborate and probably impossible to implement but he gives us much to think about how divided powers might work to serve the good of the people. 
David Hume is not thought of as someone who believes in achieving perfection. But in a recent OLL virtual reading group, “The Idea of Federalism and Its Application to the United States,” participants got to ponder what Hume’s ideal form of government might be.  There were also readings from The Articles of Confederation and Federalist 40 but they were quite overshadowed.

The Essay XVI from Hume’s Essays Moral, Political, Literary is entitled, “The Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth.”  The essay was published posthumously in 1777 (Hume died in 1776).  Hume’s plan for the perfect commonwealth is elaborate and probably impossible to implement but he gives us much to think about how divided powers might work to serve the good of the people. 

Hume begins with a caution: 
It is not with forms of government, as with other artificial contrivances; where an old engine may be rejected, if we can discover another more accurate and commodious, or where trials may safely be made, even though the success be doubtful. An established government has an infinite advantage, by that very circumstance of its being established; the bulk of mankind being governed by authority, not reason, and never attributing authority to any thing that has not the recommendation of antiquity. To tamper, therefore, in this affair, or try experiments merely upon the credit of supposed argument and philosophy, can never be the part of a wise magistrate, who will bear a reverence to what carries the marks of age; and though he may attempt some improvements for the public good, yet will he adjust his innovations, as much as possible, to the ancient fabric, and preserve entire the chief pillars and supports of the constitution.
And yet….
As one form of government must be allowed more perfect than another, independent of the manners and humours of particular men; why may we not enquire what is the most perfect of all, though the common botched and inaccurate governments seem to serve the purposes of society, and though it be not so easy to establish a new system of government, as to build a vessel upon a new construction? The subject is surely the most worthy curiosity of any the wit of man can possibly devise. And who knows, if this controversy were fixed by the universal consent of the wise and learned, but, in some future age, an opportunity might be afforded of reducing the theory to practice, either by a dissolution of some old government, or by the combination of men to form a new one, in some distant part of the world? In all cases, it must be advantageous to know what is most perfect in the kind, that we may be able to bring any real constitution or form of government as near it as possible, by such gentle alterations and innovations as may not give too great disturbance to society.

Hume’s propositions at times include quite specific instructions: A country the size of Great Britain should be divided into 100 counties, each county into 100 parishes. County freeholders of twenty pounds a-year and householders in town worth 500 pounds meet annually and choose a county representative. The 100 county representatives chose (from themselves) ten county magistrates and one senator. Senators have the authority of county magistrates and county magistrates have authority over county representatives.

But, at other times, he leaves the reader wondering if he’s being more speculative than serious. For example, he says: 
Every county is a kind of republic within itself, and the representatives may make bye-laws; which have no authority ’till three months after they are voted. A copy of the law is sent to the senate, and to every other county. The senate, or any single county, may, at any time, annul any bye-law of another county.

The bold italics are mine. Anyone with any familiarity with state or local governments would be hard pressed to imagine how to operationalize this law and what sort of monstrous unintended consequences would rear up as coalitions formed and reformed. The intention is to create lots of vetos to keep laws small in number but is it possible to suggest that Hume should be more skeptical here? 

But the seemingly utopian construction does eventually come to concrete suggestions for the British government including restoring Cromwell’s plan for parliament, removing Bishops and Scotch Peers, and more. And the piece ends with a more familiar Humean note about the temporary nature of all things, even good governments. 
It is needless to enquire, whether such a government would be immortal… The world itself probably is not immortal. Such consuming plagues may arise as would leave even a perfect government a weak prey to its neighbours. We know not to what length enthusiasm, or other extraordinary movements of the human mind, may transport men, to the neglect of all order and public good. Where difference of interest is removed, whimsical and unaccountable factions often arise, from personal favour or enmity. Perhaps, rust may grow to the springs of the most accurate political machine, and disorder its motions. Lastly, extensive conquests, when pursued, must be the ruin of every free government; and of the more perfect governments sooner than of the imperfect; because of the very advantages which the former possess above the latter. And though such a state ought to establish a fundamental law against conquests; yet republics have ambition as well as individuals, and present interest makes men forgetful of their posterity. It is a sufficient incitement to human endeavours, that such a government would flourish for many ages; without pretending to bestow, on any work of man, that immortality, which the Almighty seems to have refused to his own productions.

The reading group will turn away from Hume as following sessions focus harder on the US. The remainder of the readings include the Constitution, The Virginia Plan, Hamilton’s Plan, more Federalist papers, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, “Exchange on State Sovereignty and Majority Rule,” James Buchanan’s State of the Union Address, and several Supreme Court cases (teachers might be interested in the entire list with links and in a Northwestern University Lesson Plan on the Articles of Confederation). But, the idea of a perfect commonwealth, as Hume says, is a good place to start. Although the end may be far away.  

You can take a look at Upcoming Liberty Fund Virtual Reading Groups - several were just added taking us through the end of the year. 

Want to Read More?