Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on February 4, 2018

in Doux Commerce, History, Philosophy of Freedom

… is from pages 92-93 of David Hume’s essay “Of Civil Liberty” as this essay is reprinted in the beautiful 1985 Liberty Fund collection of some of Hume’s essays, edited by the late Eugene F. Miller, Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary) (original emphasis):

It has become an established opinion, that commerce can never flourish but in a free government; and this opinion seems to be founded on a longer and larger experience than the foregoing, with regard to the arts and sciences.  If we trace commerce in its progress through TYRE, ATHENS, SYRACUSE, CARTHAGE, VENICE, FLORENCE, GENOA, ANTWERP, HOLLAND, ENGLAND, &c. we shall always find it to have fixed its seat in free governments.  The three greatest trading towns now in Europe, are LONDON, AMSTERDAM, and HAMBURGH; all free cities….

Durst I deliver my opinion in an affair of so much uncertainty, I would assert, that, notwithstanding the efforts of the FRENCH, there is something hurtful to commerce inherent in the very nature of absolute government, and inseparable from it: Though the reason I should assign for this opinion, is somewhat different from that which is commonly insisted on.  Private property seems to me almost as secure in a civilized EUROPEAN monarchy, as in a republic; nor is danger much apprehended in such a government, from the violence of the sovereign; more than we commonly dread harm from thunder, or earthquakes, or any accident the most unusual and extraordinary.  Avarice, the spur of industry, is so obstinate a passion, and works its way through so many real dangers and difficulties, that it is not likely to be scared by an imaginary danger, which is so small, that it scarcely admits of calculation.  Commerce, therefore, in my opinion, is apt to decay in absolute governments, not because it is there less secure, but because it is less honourable.  A subordination of ranks is absolutely necessary to the support of monarchy.  Birth, titles, and place, must be honoured above industry and riches.  And while these notions prevail, all the considerable traders will be tempted to throw up their commerce, in order to purchase some of those employments, to which privileges and honours are annexed.

DBx: Were Hume alive today he would surely recognize that the more power a government has, the more commerce “is apt to decay” regardless of the particular form of the government.  Wielding arbitrary power over others – or being lieutenants or even toadies of those who wield arbitrary power over others – is enormously attractive and intoxicating to large numbers of people.  And because the exercise of arbitrary government power is rendered not only unnecessary but counterproductive in open, commercial, and innovative societies, bourgeois traits and frames of mind – which are all peaceful – are held in contempt by those who find their self-importance in ordering other people about.

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