David Hume and Friedrich Hayek: Classical Liberal Giants

by Mario Rizzo

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.

7 thoughts on “David Hume and Friedrich Hayek: Classical Liberal Giants

  1. It seems like much of the classical liberal tradition has abandoned the heritage of Hume in favor of Locke and broader deontological theories. Do you consider this a benefit to modern classical liberalism or a loss?

  2. If I may suggest, many of those members of the Scottish Enlightenment, of which David Hume was such an illustrious contributor, are as well worth reading today, as when they first penned their works.

    Next month, on June 20th, will be the birthday of Adam Ferguson. While Hayek reinforced Ferguson’s fame by frequently quoting from his “Essay on the History of Civil Society,” on the fact that ‘nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design,’ the entire section on the evolution of institutions and rules is profoundly valuable.

    Ferguson observed:

    ‘Mankind, in following the present sense of their minds, in striving to remove inconveniences, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages, arrive at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate . . . He who first said “I will appropriate this field; I will leave it to my heirs;” did not perceive, that he was laying the foundation of civil laws and political establishments . . .

    ‘The forms of society are derived from an obscure origin; they arise, long before the date of philosophy, from the instincts, not from the speculation of men. The crowd of mankind, are directed in their establishments and measures, by the circumstances in which are are placed; and seldom are turned from their way, to follow the plan of a single projector. . .

    ‘This is the simplest form under which we can consider the establishment of nations: and we ascribe to a previous design, what can be known only by experience, which no human wisdom can foresee, and what, without the concurring humor and disposition of his age, no authority could enable an individual to execute. . .

    ‘The establishments of men, are . . .directed by the variety of situations in which mankind are placed. Those establishments arose from successive improvements that were made, without any sense of their general effect; and they bring human affairs to a state of complication, which the greatest reach of capacity with which human nature was ever adorned, could not have projected; nor even when the whole is carried into execution, can it be comprehended in its full extent.’

    Their wisdom is why their birthdays should be remembered and celebrated.

    Richard Ebeling

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