I have just discovered the wonderful coincidence that May 7th is David Hume’s birthday and May 8th, as I have known, is Friedrich Hayek’s birthday. It is Hume’s 300th birthday – how amazing that he is still so relevant in a myriad of ways. It is Hayek’s 112th birthday.
As most of our readers will know, Hayek thought that David Hume’s political philosophy was one of the most important intellectual developments in the classical liberal heritage. David Hume was also a source of inspiration for the work of James Buchanan and his schools of public choice economics and constitutional political economy. More humbly (but not too humbly) David Hume was an inspiration for my work with Glen Whitman on slippery slopes.
The Hume-Hayek tradition in political philosophy stresses the importance of general and (relatively) inflexible rules, especially with respect to property and contract rights (“justice”).
Hume’s reasons for rules might be characterized today as “incentive” arguments. Property must be secure to encourage the production of wealth. But property is a “convention” (or an artificial virtue) in the sense that the individual respects the property of others because others respect his property. When that mutuality goes, the system goes. The continual making of exceptions weakens the general rule. It also opens the door to “avidity” and “partiality.” Special interest groups pursue their partial interests and neglect the good of each and all.
Hume’s “justice” is a public good – valuable to all, but subject to the free-riding of exception-making. Each exception in itself does little harm but may have large benefits to some special group. Step by step, a world of deteriorated general justice is created beyond anyone’s intention.
In an important sense then, Hume is a father of rule-consequentialism. The goodness or badness of an action is determined by the consequences of the rule that subsumes the action. Thus, the rule, not the action, is the focus of morality.
Hayek took Hume’s argument and went a step farther. He argued for rules for “epistemic” reasons. We follow rules because we do not know what is best to do in the individual case. Tracing individual consequences is actually more difficult than determining the general effects of general rules.
We do not know in an acceptably objective way what makes particular individuals happy; we do not know what tradeoffs should be made between benefits to certain individuals and those to other individuals. A particular act of justice may be, in fact, contrary to the public or private interest (people may suffer) but the rationale of that decision can only be understood at the level of rules. Furthermore, relatively simple and inflexible rules have an epistemic advantage as rules of the road for people operating in an open-ended and complex world.
The Hume-Hayek “research program” has been a productive one. It is fitting that first we celebrate David Hume’s birthday and then Friedrich Hayek’s.