Thomas Hobbes's Influence on David Hume: The Emergence of a Public Choice Tradition

By Moss, Laurence S. | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Thomas Hobbes's Influence on David Hume: The Emergence of a Public Choice Tradition


Moss, Laurence S., The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


In an article that appeared in this journal more than a decade ago, I named the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes a pioneer-founder of "public choice economics." (1) Both Hobbes and contemporary public-choice theorists are interested in finding institutional methods for overcoming the free-rider problem which makes collective action often difficult and sometimes impossible to accomplish. I suggested that Hobbes's interest in decision making in large group situations colored many of his specific ideas about political and social organization.

The purpose of this new article is to extend that research by tracing Hobbes's influence on David Hume and documenting that Hume also analyzed the prospects for social cooperation in terms of group size.

Hobbes's influence is especially apparent in book 3 of Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, where the basic organizing principles of commercial society are analyzed. (2) There we find that the problem of enforcing rules about property, contract performance, and collective action requires government involvement and, indeed, that it is the intervention of ministers and politicians that transforms rules first adopted for convenience and expediency into rules that promote both prosperity and moral virtue in large prospering societies. (3)

It is not usual to consult Hobbes for insights about the structure and content of Hume's thought. Among historians of philosophical thought it is more common to contrast Hobbes, "the egoist," with Hume, a proponent of the "moral sense school," thereby suggesting that the two philosophers had little in common. (4) I shall not overturn these categorizations but rather establish a different web of connections by concentrating my attention on the problem of social and economic organization. Here Hobbes's influence on Hume is quite unmistakable. (5)

I build on Paul Russell's work. In 1985 Russell established that Hobbes was one of the most important influences on Hume. (6) Inasmuch as some of Hume's strongest admirers seldom mention Hobbes at all, Russell's argument now opens a new chapter in Hume scholarship. Perhaps the boldest of Russell's claims is that Hume consciously patterned his Treatise of Human Nature after Hobbes's Elements of Law and that an "important and unique" relationship exists between the two masterworks. (7) Indeed the parallels between the two are both significant and obvious enough to raise the puzzling question why other Hume scholars have missed the Hobbes link so completely. (8) Russell attributes the oversight to Hume himself, who was not writing at the most tolerant of times in history and probably thought it prudent not to flaunt the Hobbes connection too openly among his contemporaries. (9) Hume did, however, openly declare his debt to Bernard Mandeville, and by this a link to Hobbes was no doubt suspected. (l0)

In discussion below I identify the closeness of reasoning that exists between Hobbes's and Hume's respective accounts of (1) the origin of property-rights structures, (2) the strategic problems inherent in contracting and the salutory role played by government in promoting contracting, and (3) the positive role that collective action backed by the coercive power of the state can play in promoting material welfare.

At the outset, let me distinguish my thesis from the one Milton Myers developed in his stimulating study The Soul of Modern Economic Man. (11) Myers describes late seventeenth- and eighteenthcentury intellectual thought as a reaction to the extreme reductionist view of human nature advanced by Hobbes. As is typical among political scientists, he treats the writers of the "moral school" as adversaries of Hobbes. Hume is mentioned only incidentally, but Smith is accused of backsliding toward Hobbes and the "jaundiced view" of human nature. An earlier study by the economist William Allen also contrasts Hobbes with Hume. Allen argues that Hobbes raised certain problems that Hume, using alternative methods of reasoning, was better able to solve. …

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