The Real David Hume: A Curmudgeonly Reaction

October 7, 2009

by Mario Rizzo  

I admit upfront that I did not find David Brooks’s New York Times column on Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume as updated characters at all amusing, funny or informative. I am sure I am in the minority. It is no comfort to me that Brooks seems to favor “Mr. Hume.” I leave it to Jeremy Bentham’s partisans to evaluate his portrayal.  

I think David Hume was one of the greatest political philosophers of all time.  

The first thing that annoys me is the “humorous” depiction of Hume as “at his desk with his head in his hands,”  “in the fetal position,” and “weeping.” All this because somebody asked him policy questions. I think it is more likely Hume would have patiently explained the errors involved in the proposed policies and then offered the individual a glass of wine.  

On Hume’s personality I turn to E.C. Mossner’s classic biography The Life of David Hume, 2nd edition (Oxford, 1980):  

“The French learned to call him le bon David, but the epithet cannot be readily translated into one English word. To call Hume good would be misleading, for he was certainly no saint. In many ways, however, he was good: he was humane, charitable, pacific, tolerant, and encouraging of others, morally sincere and intellectually honest. He was always a loyal friend. He was, however, somewhat inclined to be jealous – jealous of his own reputation, jealous of the integrity of friendship, jealous of the prestige of his native country. Intellectually a citizen of the world, he was emotionally a Scot of Scots. He was, moreover, a worldly man who thoroughly enjoyed the good things of life – food and drink, wit, conversation, rational discourse. (p.4)  

…If he was ultimately acclaimed in France as Britain’s leading man of letters, not even there was his philosophy completely understood. Society is wont to deal unkindly with those it does not fully comprehend. Hume’s life was a constant struggle against odds – against financial straitness, poor health, family ambitions; against the power of names, the inertia of ideas, the forces of superstition and intolerance.” (p.5)  

On the more important point of Hume’s political philosophy, it is updated and adapted to the current medical care debate by David Brooks in this way:  

“The people on Mr. Hume’s side believe that government should actively tilt the playing field to promote social goods and set off decentralized networks of reform, but they don’t think government knows enough to intimately organize dynamic innovation.” (Emphasis added)  

So the contemporary Mr. Hume is a neo-conservative or a compassionate conservative or some such welfare-state accommodationist. 

I think it more accurate to say that Hume would favor an undoing of all the interventions in the healthcare industry that have created most of the mess in which we live today. He never would have advocated the wage-price controls that during World War II “tilted the playing field” toward employer-provided non-portable health insurance. Hume was not afraid to discuss history.  

Yes, Hume had conservative instincts but the society that welfare statists have built would have put stress on that. Hume as classical liberal – the values he held dear – would have no doubt been activated.

Hume idea of “tilting the playing field” was quite simple. He advocated:  

“… the stability of possession,…its transference by consent, and…the performance of promises. ‘Tis on the strict observance of these three laws, that the peace and security of human society entirely depend; nor is there any possibility of establishing a good correspondence among men, where these are neglected. Society is absolutely necessary for the well-being of men; and these are as necessary to the support of society.”  (A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III).  

If this is the Humean “tilt” David Brooks means, I’ll accept it.

UPDATE: The usually good Greg Mankiw says this is “David Brooks at His Best.” I hope not.

FURTHER UPDATE: See Sheldon Richman’s excellent response to David Brooks.

LAST UPDATE: Greg Mankiw redeems his humor judgment (on another issue).

11 Responses to “The Real David Hume: A Curmudgeonly Reaction”

  1. liberty Says:

    On the tilting the playing field part, I cannot disagree. But, I wonder about the first point. I took it as metaphorical, about the impossibility of the task, the visible representation of the understanding that if government tries to do what requires omniscience and omnipotence, it can only come out bad. Like your quote says, he was in a constant struggle against “the inertia of ideas, the forces of superstition and intolerance.”

  2. Mario Rizzo Says:

    I guess Brooks’s idea is that if you were to ask Hume to do the impossible he would get upset. And yet the particular picture painted is really dumb — Hume weeping and all. Hume was a rational man who valued intelligent discourse. I don’t think he cried when faced with arguments. That’s all. But that is also enough.

  3. Josh Says:

    I wish Brooks would agonize over a column as much as his fictional Hume over health care reform.

  4. Roger Koppl Says:

    I’m with liberty on this one. I rather liked it. I don’t really see where Hume’s name has been abused. It’s anachronistic, I suppose, but his avatar lives now, not then. Even the Tilt-a-Whirl comment gets a pass from me. Brooks carefully says not Hume, but those “on his side” want to tilt things toward good outcomes. And, while we’re at it, what so wrong with tilting “the playing field to promote social goods”? After all, staying out of our business is one way the state might “promote social goods”!

  5. Tilt Says:

    [...] Mario Rizzo takes David Brooks to task for mischaracterizing David Hume. [...]

  6. johnleemk Says:

    As someone sympathetic to Bentham’s philosophy, I’m at quite a loss to figure out why on earth his name came into play here. Utilitarianism is such a broad school of thought that it could be used to defend “Hume’s” positions as much as “Bentham’s”.

  7. Mario Rizzo Says:

    In my law school course on classical liberalism I classify Hume as an “indirect utilitarian.”


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