David Hume contributed significantly to political and economic thought through his vast collection of writings, including. “Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary” and was one of the leading figures in the emerging Scottish version of the same period of Enlightenment that was sweeping Europe. Hume had a number of revolutionary ideas about issues such as the military, private property, the role of the state, and the nature of industry and superfluidity of the labor force. Even still there are a number of elements in his thoughts that appear in his collection of essays collected in “Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary” most notably in the short tract, “On Commerce.”
This analysis and more general summary of “Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary” by Hume will attempt to define David Hume’s ideas both within his own time period and far into the future as it is inevitable for a modern reader not the see connections between his ideas and counteract them with Marx as well as others. In one of Hume’s political essays contained within “Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary” called, “Of Commerce” his views about politics and economy overlap as he describe the ideal conditions of the state by comparing this ideal with the days of ancient Sparta and Rome.
In general, his thesis in this essay is that a country’s peace as well as its ability to defend itself is only possible through industry. During times of peace, the workers who normal labor in agriculture would have time to indulge in luxury and become well-versed in the arts and fine culture. However, if the peace was shattered, these same laborers would comprise the military. He goes on to discuss these ideas as they relate to issues of foreign trade and assumes that vital trade across borders will not only allow for better culture and luxuries (to be employed during the time of peace) but foreign trade would have the added benefit of increasing the possibility for industry (which is obviously not being used here in the 19th-century sense of factories and the like) and thus this would also strengthen the military by adding more members. Through his careful analysis of agricultural labor, culture, military pursuits, and economics, Hume is constructing an interesting paradigm for this imagined society.
Before beginning an in-depth discussion about the essay entitled, “On Commerce,” it is useful to look at the way Hume was both incredibly forward-thinking about the economic future of industrial society before looking at the ways in which some of his theories may be flawed, especially for practical 21st century purposes. For instance, Hume had a thorough vision of the way an economic system should function, especially when it comes to internal finances. In his essay that follows his discussion “Of Commerce” entitled, “Of Money” he suggests that a country’s wealth was not how much money it had accumulated but rather its potential—its possible wellspring of commodities as well as “superfluous hands” to serve as labor.
While this is a simple enough concept, it should be remembered that he is not arguing that money is not important, but rather that it remains in a state of flux and the government should be responsible for monitoring this. He suggests that the economy and labor are only in danger when the prices are raised and industries at home cannot keep pace with less expensive products and labor. As David Hume puts it in one of the important quotes from “Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary” , “manufacturers gradually shift their places, leaving those countries and provinces which they have already enriched, and flying to others, whither they are allured by the cheapness of provisions and labor; till they enriched these also, and again banished by the same causes” (II.ii.4). In other words, this would be a vicious cycle, which should sound very familiar to us the 21st century with all of the debates about corporate outsourcing. In some ways, Hume foresaw this danger and in order to prevent it from happening he eschewed the idea of credit since it would give countries access to more money, thus they could begin to increase their prices and start the cycle.
The above segment has set forth at least some idea of the cause and effect processes of Hume’s political and economic thought. Although the essay “Of Money” follows “Of Commerce” it was useful as a foregrounding to the ensuing debate as it shows both the progressive and now, the conservative sides of the thinker. In “Of Commerce,” Hume begins his essay with the limiting notion that all men are comprised of two distinct classes—those who are “shallow thinkers who fall short of the truth; and that of abstruse thinkers, who go beyond it” (II.i.1). While this opening to the essay seems to have little basis in the coming content on economy, labor, and the military, after one finishes the essay it is clear why he set forth such a distinction among the classes. It is clear that he believes that are a large number of agricultural workers and these people obviously do not fit into the category of the great thinkers—they are merely the instruments of the great thinkers, the men that will enact “higher plans” such as leaving off to their duties to go to fight for the country, for instance.
While there are some enlightened aspects to this essay, it is not entirely clear what his statement is on class and one cannot help but the impression that he is an essentialist and believes in the idea that the educated class should form a ruling elite. Without delving into this subject too much, it is important to take note of how the essay begins by setting two classes apart from one another on the basis of ability. What this discussion ultimately leads up to is a comment about politics in all of its spheres—locally, internationally, and economically. He uses his foregrounding to state to cryptically conclude that, “it is the chief business of politicians; especially in the domestic government of the state, where the public good, which is, or ought to be their object, depends on the concurrence of a multitude of causes, not, as in foreign politics, on accidents and chances, and the caprices of a few persons” (I.i.2). In other words, it should be this class of thinkers that makes a whole sound decision for the good of the people who do not posses their abilities, to determine what the best course if for everyone.