All Commentary
Friday, October 9, 2009

Liberty versus Social Engineering

So David Brooks, the New York Times‘ resident conservative intellectual, must think he’s a pretty clever fellow. In trying to characterize “the choices we face on issue after issue,” he presumes to enlist the aid of philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and David Hume (1711-1776). Considering that Bentham believed human beings could consciously design society and Hume did not, this might have been a worthwhile approach. Unfortunately, Brooks got Hume wrong — unforgivably so — and missed a chance to present a fresh alternative in the stale political debate.

In his op-ed column Monday, Brooks imagines how Bentham and Hume would each approach global warming and health care. Bentham, he says, would display a policy wonk’s command of the nuts and bolts and come up with detailed government programs for imposing solutions to the problems.

“Mr. Hume, I’m afraid, wouldn’t be so impressive,” Brooks writes. He imagines that Hume — whining, head in hands, or weeping while in the fetal position — would confess his ignorance about solving the problems and then would propose just enough government intervention, such as a carbon tax and health-insurance exchanges, to “set off a decentralized cascade of reform, instead of putting all the responsibility on us here.”

Brooks then gets to his point:

This country is about to have a big debate on the role of government. The polarizers on cable TV think it’s going to be a debate between socialism and free-market purism. But it’s really going to be a debate about how to promote innovation.

The people on Mr. Bentham’s side believe that government can get actively involved in organizing innovation….

The people on Mr. Hume’s side believe 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.

Brooks predicts that Bentham will win because he serves the lobbyists interests.

Leaving aside Brooks’s defamation of Hume as a pathetic, sniveling character — David Hume? — we can take issue with his picture of Hume on a couple of other counts. I am no Hume expert (and I disagree with him on many issues), but I know enough to point out some important things Brooks missed in his effort to be cute.

Note that Brooks presents the debate over the role of government in fairly narrow terms. It’s between a government that actively organizes innovation and a government that actively sets social goals then arranges the carrots and sticks in order to induce people to achieve those goals.

In either case, government is the active party. Hume would not be comfortable with either team.

Stability of Possession

For one thing, Hume thought that society depends on, more than anything else, secure property. But how secure can property be if politicians of limited knowledge and perspective (not the impliedly lofty government) have the power to set goals for the rest of us and to impose incentives and penalties in the service of those goals?

Let there be no mistake about where Hume stood on the matter of property. In A Treatise of Human Nature (Book III, 1740) he writes of “the three fundamental laws of nature, that of the stability of possession, of its transference by consent, and of the performance of promises” and adds:

’Tis on the strict observance of those 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.

“Stability of possession” is a favorite phase of Hume’s. Indeed, he emphasized that property should be respected even when in particular cases we do not like the outcome:

Property must be stable, and must be fix’d by general rules. Tho’ in one instance the public be a sufferer, this momentary ill is amply compensated by the steady prosecution of the rule, and by the peace and order, which it establishes in society. And even every individual person must find himself a gainer, on ballancing the account; since, without justice, society must immediately dissolve, and every one must fall into that savage and solitary condition, which is infinitely worse than the worse situation that can possibly be suppos’d in society.

These “three fundamental laws of nature” were not the conscious inventions of some Benthamite social engineer, but rather elements of an undesigned social order that produces benefits for the general population. Indeed, Hume along with Adam Smith, was a leading philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment.  Its defining characteristic was the historic liberal appreciation that society was not constructed consciously but rather emerged spontaneously from the peaceful pursuit of self-interest and the social cooperation it generates. “[T]he rule concerning the stability of possession,” he wrote, “… arises gradually, and acquires force by a slow progression, and by our repeated experience of the inconveniences of transgressing it.”

He goes on to draw a parallel that will be familiar to students of Menger, Mises, and Hayek: “In like manner are languages gradually established by human conventions without any promise. In like manner do gold and silver become the common measures of exchange….”

Thus law, language, and money are institutions that are, in the words of Hume’s friend Adam Ferguson, “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.

Public Good as Byproduct

Hume emphasized that, as spontaneously emergent institutions, the laws of justice and property were not intended to promote the good of the public, having grown out of “self-love,” but they nevertheless do so. This process is what Adam Smith would liken to an “invisible hand.” In fact, Hume wrote, the public good wouldn’t have been achieved had it been aimed at directly and consciously. He writes,

[I]f men had been endow’d with such a strong regard for public good, they wou’d never have restrain’d themselves by these rules; so that the laws of justice arise from natural principles in a manner still more oblique and artificial. ’Tis self-love which is their real origin; and as the self-love of one person is naturally contrary to that of another, these several interested passions are oblig’d to adjust themselves after such a manner as to concur in some system of conduct and behaviour. This system, therefore, comprehending the interest of each individual, is of course advantageous to the public; tho’ it be not intended for that purpose by the inventors.

Is belief in spontaneous social order and stable property consistent with the two forms of rationalistic discretionary government Brooks gives us? I think not.

One final word from Hume in light of today’s fiscal affairs: “The source of degeneracy, which may be remarked in free governments, consists in the practice of contracting debt, and mortgaging the public revenues, by which taxes may, in time, become altogether intolerable…” (Of Civil Liberty).

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.