Support for Decentralized and Limited Government from the 18th Century Scottish Enlightenment

In the wake of my second-highest viewed post of all time, which covered the topic of decentralization of government (please don’t ask for actual viewing values; allow a man writing an obscure blog his small relative victories), I was pleased to get philosophical support from one of the greatest writers on the topic of government and political science of all time – David Hume. Most people who have enjoyed, or endured, depending on one’s perspective, an Economics 101 course are well familiar with one lion of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith. Smith gave credence in his Wealth of Nations to a philosophy of full-throated support of the individual liberties of merchants practicing their crafts and generating profits unencumbered by the meddling state that was a novel philosophy and code of ethics for the times. Smith forcefully advocated that betterments in society occurred in imperceptible and novel ways through people seeking profits, guided by the “invisible hand” of the pricing mechanism, which effectively coordinated their ideas and actions in ways that no government planner could match. Never mind that both modern day proponents and detractors of Smith both seem to believe that Adam Smith was some form of Machiavellian profit maximizer and utilitarian, thereby completely missing his comprehensive views of bourgeois ethics that he espoused in his perhaps even more compelling and powerful book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which Smith speaks of the “impartial spectator” within us which guides and regulates our behavior such that it is socially acceptable and in most cases benevolent. The impartial spectator of Smith is driven by a mysterious combination of divine nature and the nurture that occurs as people (or the vast majority of people comprising society) interact with each other and seek approbation and praise of others. Scorn is something most of us do our best to avoid. In other words, while profit-seeking is a virtue of prudence, the vast majority of people operate in their daily lives with other self-regulating and self-controlling virtues that balance the prudence of profit-seeking. All of this social self-regulation is performed through emergent order without the need of heavy-handed law and government.

I digress, so back to the topic of David Hume. Hume was a Scottish Enlightenment contemporary and great friend of Adam Smith, and it is through his remarkable Selected Essays as compiled by Oxford World Classics that I find support for decentralized government under a different and additional rubric than I articulated in my original musings on the subject. Specifically, in his essay on Of The Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences, in which Hume generally makes the case that people living in free governments are much more likely to contribute to the progress of arts and sciences than those living in autocracy, Hume makes compelling arguments for divided and decentralized government. The first point Hume articulates is this:

A large government is accustomed by degrees to tyranny, because each act of violence is at first performed upon a part, which being distant from a majority, is not taken notice of, nor excites any violent ferment. Besides, a large government, though the whole be discontented, may, by a little art, be kept in obedience; while each part, ignorant of the resolutions of the rest, is afraid to begin any commotion or insurrection: not to mention that there is a superstitious reverence for princes, which mankind naturally contracts when they do not often see the sovereign, and when many of them become not acquainted with him so as to perceive his weaknesses. And as large states can afford a great expense in order to support the pomp of majesty, this is a kind of fascination on men, and naturally contributes to the enslaving of them.
In a small government any act of oppression is immediately known throughout the whole; the murmurs and discontents proceeding from it are easily communicated; and the indignation arises the higher, because the subjects are not to apprehend, in such states, that the distance is very wide between them on their sovereign. ‘No man,’ said the prince of Conde, ‘is a hero to his Valet de Chambre.
In other words, a large central government presiding over a wide swath of people and with large amounts of power can more readily get away with persecuting minorities, be they ethnic minorities or minorities in dissenting thoughts and views. Additionally, the further removed from proximity to a ruler or ruling elite, the more prone people are to superstitious reverence and obsequious behavior towards them. I loved the quote related to no man being a prince to his valet, since such close proximity as to that of a valet makes us all aware of any human’s noxious flaws and weaknesses. I would gently point out that Americans are no strangers to this superstitious reverence for powerful leaders – witness the rise of the bumptious Trump riding a wave of American voters seeking brash authority. Witness also the esteem, admiration, and honor we typically reserve for presidencies such as the two Roosevelts, who consistently abused executive power and authority. Contrast that to practitioners of great executive power restraint, such as Calvin Coolidge and William Howard Taft, who receive no such comparative historical encomiums.
Hume proceeds in the essay with the following observations:
But the divisions into small states are favorable to learning, by stopping the progress of authority as well as that of power…To balance a large state or society, whether monarchical or republican, on general laws, is a work of so great difficulty, that no human genius, however comprehensive, is able by the mere dint of reason and reflection, to effect it. The judgments of many must unite this work: experience must guide their labour: time must bring it to perfection: and the feeling of inconveniences must correct the mistakes, which they inevitably fall into, in their first trials and experiments. Hence appears the impossibility that the undertaking should be begun and carried on in an monarchy; since such a form of government, ere civilized, knows no other secret or policy, than that of entrusting unlimited powers to every governor or magistrate, and subdividing the people into so many classes and orders of slavery. From such a situation, no improvement can ever be expected in the sciences, in the liberal arts, in laws, and scarcely in the manual arts and manufactures. The same barbarism and ignorance, with which the government commences, is propagated to all posterity, and can never come to a period by the efforts or ingenuity of such unhappy slaves.

In other words, a centralized government taking on too much power is reduced to trying by sheer exertion of a “Tyranny of Experts” to borrow the William Easterly phrase, of trying to plan for and rule a great diversity of people. As Hume implies, it is an impossible task that starves us of all natural freedoms and the ingenuity that we would have exhibited without the heavy hand of a meddling government, and it makes us “unhappy slaves.” Or as Hume’s good friend Adam Smith might say, it also torches our invisible hand and extinguishes the impartial spectator within. Lest anyone think that I am speaking of some distant and ancient European monarchy, I am looking at you America and your Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, your Health and Human Services, your Obamacare, and your Dodd-Frank.

 

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