Unexpected Insights of David Hume

international trade classical liberalism specialization balance of trade

Edwin van de Haar for AdamSmithWorks


His ideas were like those of his younger friend
Adam Smith, but Hume did not write a huge and influential book such as Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776). Nevertheless, it should not be overlooked that his economic ideas were put in print long before Smith’s. 
Classical liberals are keen supporters of specialization in the labor market. Yet sometimes it is a pity this idea has been so broadly embraced by academics. David Hume is often known for his philosophical writings, but he was a polyglot, just like so many of his contemporaries. Besides philosophy, he wrote about religion, was an historian and an essayist. His biggest work was the widely popular, six-volume The History of England (also published by Liberty Fund), while his Essays went through 11 editions, —under different titles, —between 1741 and 1777. The last version he worked on was published posthumously, after his death in 1776. Sixteen years earlier, Hume remarked about all his works: ‘“the copy-money given to me by the booksellers much exceeded anything formerly known in England; I was become not only independent, but opulent’”. Surely another difference with modern academia!    

If one picks up David Hume’s Essays there is an enormous variety and richness in topics. The subtitle Moral, Political and Literary gives away clues, but this hardly does justice to its contents. To read in one book, by one writer about, ‘“the delicacy of the taste and passion’,” the ‘“liberty of the press’,” a range of constitutional matters, ‘“the rise and progress of the arts and sciences,” ‘“of polygamy and divorces’”, different issues concerning trade, commerce and finance, ‘“of Tragedy’,” ‘“of Eloquence’”, international politics, ‘“the Protestant Succession”’ or ‘“the populousness of Ancient Nations”’ is mouth-watering.

In this piece it is impossible to provide even the beginning of a synopsis of all essays. Therefore, the focus will be on just two essays, which the average visitor of AdamSmithWorks will find surprisingly topical, I suspect. The short but powerful Of the Jealousy of Trade was published around 1760 and is one of the last additions to Hume’s published ideas on economic thought, editor Eugene Miller notes. Hume was a serious economic thinker, another fact that is easily overlooked nowadays. His ideas were like those of his younger friend Adam Smith, but Hume did not write a huge and influential book such as Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776). Nevertheless, it should not be overlooked that his economic ideas were put in print long before Smith’s. 

The main argument in this particular essay is that there is no reason to be afraid of the positive effects of trade on the prosperity and development of other countries. It is understandable, yet groundless, to be suspicious about the growing richness that trade provides one’s trading partners. Instead, the increase of richness in one country commonly promotes the richness and commerce of all its neighbours. ‘“A state can scarcely carry its trade and industry very far where all the surrounding states are burried in ignorance, sloth, and barbarism’,” he wrote. Therefore, anyone convinced by the alleged necessity of ‘“trade wars in the name of the balance of trade” should definitely read Hume.      

This also applies to people interested in international politics, certainly those who self-label “liberal” or ‘“classical liberal’.” They are known for their dovish ideas in international politics, eschewing the centrality of power in international politics. In the essay ‘“Of the Balance of Power”’ Hume argues (and again Adam Smith after him) that it is erroneous to deny the usefulness of this spontaneous ordering mechanism in international politics. The essay comprises a lengthy search for the sources of the idea, from the Ancients to this own time. Concerning the Greeks and Romans, Hume concludes ‘“the maxim of preserving the balance of power is founded so much on common sense and obvious reasoning that it is impossible altogether it could have escaped antiquity’.” As Frederick G. Whelan remarks in Hume and Machiavelli. Political Realism and Liberal Thought (2004), for Hume the international balance of power reduces disorder and prevents universal tyrant among states. Again, an idea with topical application.

These are just the main ideas of two of Hume’s essays. Make sure to grab the wisdom encapsulated in the others as well! 




Related Links:
Edwin van de Haar, Adam Smith and International Relations
Sarah Skwire, In Praise of Luxury: Hume's 'Of Refinements in the Arts'
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