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The Eminently Practical Mr. Hume or Still Relevant After AU These Years Nancy Davlantes The practice, therefore, of contracting debt will almost infallibly be abused, in every government. It would scarcely be more imprudent togive aprodigal son a credit in every banker's shop in London, than to impower a statesman to draw bills, in this manner, upon posterity. (David Hume, Political Discourses, 1752) If we do not act promptly, the imbalances in the economy are such that the effects ofthe deficit will be increasingly felt and with some immediacy. (Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, 1988) When David Hume penned his essays some 250 years ago, he was concerned that Britain's rising national debt — a debt fueled by war andpoor debt management that saw fit to mortgage thepublic revenues, and to trust that posterity will pay offthe incumbrances contracted by their ancestors — would eventually bankrupt the country. What the poor man might think ofa country facing a budget deficit of $155 billion, a trade deficit of some $130 billion, and a national debt — can you count the zeroes? — of a staggering $2.6 trillion, one can only imagine. Now imagination, as it happens, plays a central role in Hume's science ofman — it is the imagination, after all, that is free to separate, combine, and transpose its ideas — but asking it to conceive ofthe U.S. economy as it nears the end ofthe 20th century might indeed by asking too much. Was Hume particularly prescient? Probably not. What he was was a keen observer of the human experience who believed the principles of human nature formed the foundation of the four sciences of logic, morals, criticism, and politics. And in those four sciences, he wrote, is comprehended almost every thing, which it can any way import us to be acquainted with, or which can tend either to the improvement or ornament ofthe human mind. It is within the science of politics that considers men as united in society, and dependent on each other (T xv) that Hume wrote his nine Volume XVI Number 1 45 NANCY DAVLANTES economie essays, all but one ofwhich were published in 1752 under the title ?? Political Discourses. Before taking a look at the essays themselves, some consideration should be given to Hume's place in the history of economic thought, to his contributions to that "dismal science," and especially to some of the underlying principles in his science of Man. The World as Hume Knew It David Hume wrote in an England in which much of the groundwork had been laid for the Industrial Revolution that was officially to begin in the latter 18th century. It was a time oftransition, between the dying years of a guild system controlled by artisans and a rising merchant class that both owned the materials and marketed the finished goods, between a primarily agrarian society of landowners and tenants and one increasingly urban as the centers ofindustry andproduction moved into the cities. Hume, while it is unlikely that he foresaw the enormous social and economic upheavals that were to come with the mechanization of industry and the development of an extensive factory system, was certainly aware that an evolution was taking place in society, and one he was emphatic in his approval of. As he himself says in his essay, "On Interest," But when men's industry encreases, and their views enlarge, it is found, that the most remote parts ofthe state can assist each other as well as the more contiguous, and that this intercourse ofgood offices may be carried on to the greatest extent and intricacy. Hence the origin of merchants, one of the most useful races ofmen ... Merchants ... beget industry, by serving as canals to convey it through every corner ofthe state. In praise of the merchant class he differed from his close friend Adam Smith, for whom "merchants were more often anti-social monopolists than beneficent promoters of well-being." That is not to say that Hume thought all was rosy — indeed, as quoted above, he was alarmed at the Britain's mounting public debt, and no doubt realized that a growing landless class would bring with it a host of social issues and...


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