New light on Hume’s reflections on the economy
Mark G Spencer |
April 22, 2021, 8:49 p.m.
“There is not yet a monograph in English devoted to a comprehensive study of Hume’s economics, much less one that links this body of thought to its philosophical principles,” our authors write in their Preface to A Philosopher’s Economist. “This book fills this gap” (xii). They are right; their exceptional study is a welcome contribution. A Philosopher’s Economist fills a gap in David Hume’s scholarship and accomplishes so much more. Along the way, many long-held interpretations are called into question.
Margaret Schabas and Carl Wennerlind approach their task in a monograph divided into seven chapters. The first chapter sets the scene for the biography, highlighting “the direction in which ideas and economic policies permeated Hume’s adult life, in his publications and correspondence as well as in his actions” (30). Their approach suggests that Hume’s’ stays in Bristol [as a merchant’s assistant] and on the Continent as a young man, and government service in Paris and London in his fifties, which served as bookends for his life of letters, were in fact integral to his long-standing identity as that an economist and not, as many commentators have supposed, tangential or idiosyncratic ‘(8). Hume’s youth – one might add – were not exempt from commercial concerns either, as Roger L. Emerson has shown. Hume’s biography is important.
Chapters two and three flesh out Hume’s “economics”. Hume, we find, was less Newtonian than some have argued. He also believed that “we are more likely to detect spurious inferences in the moral sciences than in the physical sciences” (63). Hume’s evidence has often been gleaned from the pages of history, we learn in chapter two. “A man acquainted with history can, in some respects,” wrote Hume in a passage our authors quote, “it can be said that he has lived since the beginning of the world and that he has continually enriched his stock of knowledge over each century. ‘(68). Chapter three, “Hume on Property and Commerce,” unwraps Hume’s conclusion that trading nations tended to be “both the happiest and the most virtuous” (89).
Chapter four places Hume’s economic thought in the context of his broader concerns about moral improvement. As Hume put it in “On the rise and progress of the arts and sciences”:
It is in this context that Hume’s praise of average merchants takes on its full meaning. And this is why he was able to write that “The same age, which produces great philosophers and politicians, generals and famous poets, is generally full of skilled weavers and shipwrights” (132). “We cannot reasonably expect, postulated Hume in another memorable sentence, that a piece of woolen cloth will be worked to perfection in a nation which ignores astronomy or where ethics are neglected.”
Chapters five and six present Hume’s treatment of money, banking, international trade and public finance. On these subjects, the man of letters wrote “a theory with concrete policy recommendations in mind” (142), including for Scotland. Hume discovered the “cash flow mechanism” (144), drawing on Thomas Mun and others. He “was firmly attached to all methods which would promote the” universal diffusion and circulation “of money” (162). And he argued for low interest rates, while acknowledging that money was a “complex phenomenon”; he had “a will of his own” (176). Hume believed, like his American friend Benjamin Franklin, that free trade between countries – not “jealousy of commerce” – would increase wealth and promote world peace. However, unmanageable public debt puts everything at risk.
A seventh concluding chapter provides an overview of Hume’s “imprint” on the economy in his day and later. Part of Hume’s impact was secondary, through his best friend’s book – An Investigation by Adam Smith into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Hume’s influence is attributed to economists of the 19th and 20th centuries as divergent as John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman, among others.
Few readers of this book will dispute that Schabas and Wennerlind “demonstrate that Hume engaged in thinking and writing about economics throughout his adult life and that his contributions are vast and significant.” At the heart of the textual evidence in the volume are Hume’s fifty moral, political, and literary essays, including the twelve essays in Political Discourses (1752). But all of Hume’s major philosophical and historical writings are referenced. Some scholars may resist the authors’ strongest assertion: “An inquiry into the ideal economic conditions for promoting political stability and peace more strongly links Hume’s entire body of writing, from his Treatise to his History of England and his posthumous Dialogues, than anything that has been drawn specifically from his epistemology or his metaphysics. We do not make this assertion lightly ”(13). Their book also shows that Hume’s stories were central – more than his abstract philosophy – to Hume’s goals.
Most of Hume’s relevant writings are used. One overlooked is the critique Hume suppressed from volume two of Robert Henry’s History of Britain (1774). There Hume drew attention to Henry’s account of Anglo-Saxon “commerce, shipping, and money.” He even reproduced Henry’s comparative table of the names of Anglo-Saxon denominations of real money and coins; with the weight of each of them in grains of Troy, and the value in present currency of Great Britain ”. Noting this piece – one of Hume’s last – may not have altered the interpretations offered in A Philosopher’s Economist. But, it could have bolstered some of them while adding extra color to Hume’s keen interest in commodities and currencies. Other relevant sources from Hume’s Scottish context also go unnoticed. Revising his History of England, Hume found reason to quote – on several occasions – that of Adam Anderson (1692? -1765) An Historical and Chronological Deduction of the Origin of Commerce. . . containing a history of the great commercial interests of the British (2vols, 1764). Thus, Anderson’s “history of commerce” merits mention in this account of Hume’s economic thought.
As with any study that covers so much, A Philosopher’s Economist has occasional slips. Listing a few, in the order in which they appear in the book: first, it is claimed that Hume “befriended” (28) with historian Catharine Macaulay. It’s a stretch. Hume was courteous in the only letter he was compelled to write to her. He neither admired nor supported his History, and did not become a friend. Second, the American Revolution became a “full-fledged war” in 1775, not 1773 (42). Third, Hume’s friend and historian colleague William Robertson is described as a “fellow philosopher-economist” (117). He was neither a philosopher nor an economist. Fourth, our authors write that “David Raynor makes a compelling case” for Hume’s authorship of Sister Peg, “a work that had been wrongly attributed to John Millar” (246, note 19). Adam Ferguson, not John Millar, was the previously attributed author. Fifth, we are also told that “the first volume of Hume [of history] on the early Stuarts was titled The History of Britain (1754). Because sales were low outside of Edinburgh, he changed the title ”(251, note 57). This reason given for the change of title is highly speculative. Also, the original title was The History of Great Britain. Maybe in a new edition, the authors might want to revise some of these imperfections and others that spoil their endnotes and bibliography. Fuss aside, it’s a good book.
A Philosopher’s Economist is a serious, well-researched and artfully written work of scholarship. A charming feature of the volume is that its two authors sometimes clash with each other. Why did Hume think that economic output increased when money flowed into a country from abroad? “We will consider two different interpretations,” they write. “One, favored by Carl Wennerlind” (154) and “Another interpretation, favored by Margaret Schabas” (156). What are the authors’ competing interpretations? Readers curious to know should consult this beautiful volume. When they do, they can only walk away with a much richer understanding of David Hume, his world, and ours.
Mark G. Spencer is Professor of History at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada.
The article is taken from the London School of Economics blog.