the imaginative conservative logo

David Hume

David Hume

Aristotle taught that “To the size of states there is a limit, as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements, for none of these things retain their natural power when they are too large or too small.”[1] In this paper I want to explore Hume’s views on the proper size and scale of political order. Size and scale are not the same. The scale of a thing is the size appropriate to its function. Scale for human things is the human body and its capacities. Classical architects have long explored the relation between the human frame, its sensory capacities, and the proper size of doors, windows, courtyards, gardens, the width of streets, plazas, and so forth. What is the proper size and scale of political order?

The answer depends on what we think the function of political order is. Plato and Aristotle thought the function of political association is to achieve human excellence. Since virtue is acquired through emulation of character, face to face knowledge is required of political participants, and this places a limit on the size of the polity. Aristotle said it should contain “the largest number which suffices for the conduct of life, and can be taken in at a single view.”[2] Another classical measure was that one should be able to walk across the polity in a single day. The ancient Greek republics were of this human size and scale.

Ancient Greek civilization was the work of some one thousand five hundred small, independent republics of which Athens, one of the largest, had a population of around one hundred sixty thousand. Notwithstanding their small size these Greek polities created a brilliant civilization from which we still draw inspiration. The republic of Rousseau’s Social Contract was modeled on Geneva, which contained around twenty-five thousand people. A wide range of scholars from different disciplines who have studied the matter have concluded that every need of high culture, along with a high standard of living, can be achieved in a modern city state of between fifty and two hundred thousand.[3] Throughout history republics have fallen within or even below this range. The Italian republics that created the Renaissance: Florence, Padua, Venice, Bologna, and others were in this range. Venice had a population of around one hundred ninety thousand. Florence and Bologna had around sixty thousand each. I turn now to a quite different notion of the function of political order, that put forth by Thomas Hobbes in his masterpiece Leviathan (1651), and one which, consequently, entails a quite different notion of size and scale. For Hobbes, the function of political order is to allow an aggregate of individuals to pursue their power and glory limited only by the constraints of civil association. Since, in Hobbes’ view, virtue vanishes as a condition of political association, the requirement of human scale also vanishes. All that is needed is a sovereign office capable of enforcing the rules of civil association. The limit of the state, in respect to territory and population, ends with the sovereign’s ability to enforce the rules. So there is no internal limit as to how large a Hobbesian state can be. Indeed its logic is to expand, if possible, to global scale, for the entire human race can be viewed as an aggregate of individuals in pursuit of their power and glory. Hobbes rightly named it Leviathan.

Hume inherited both the Aristotelean insistence on human scale, virtue, balance, and propriety in political things and an anti-Aristotelean Europe of Hobbesian individuals (and states), each disposed to pursue its power and glory with as few limits as possible. His political philosophy may be viewed as an effort to think through and make the best of this tension. Let us begin with the Aristotelean side of Hume’s thought. Throughout his career Hume gives primacy to the republican tradition. Civilization, he says, began in small barbarous republics which first cultivated the rule of law. This in turn created a measure of stability which encouraged curiosity and the development of the arts and sciences. Monarchies can also become civilized, but they owe their progress to what was first learned from human scale republics. So it becomes a contingent matter as to whether a particular republic or a monarchy is superior. Nevertheless, Hume remained committed to the republican form as, on balance, the most desirable for human beings.[4] What does Hume have to say about the relationship of size to political order?

There is, first of all, a deep presumption against large monarchies and large cities. “Enormous monarchies,” he says “are, probably, destructive to human nature; in their progress, in their continuance, and even in their downfall, which never can be very distant from their establishment” (E, 340-341). And “Enormous cities are … destructive to society, beget vice and disorder of all kinds, starve the remoter provinces, and even starve themselves, by the prices to which they raise all provisions” (E, 401). In the essay “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences,” he argues that size alone, independent of other factors, is a material condition for moral and political virtue. “Extended governments,” he says, “soon become absolute,” whereas “small ones change naturally into commonwealths” (E, 119). Ancient Greek civilization, which began as a “cluster of little principalities,” gradually and naturally evolved into an order of small republics. Government over a vast territory is able to maintain control, even if a majority are discontented, because each part, being ignorant of the resolutions of the other parts, is afraid to resist. Great distance also enables the regime to magnify the virtues of rulers, whatever the form of government might be; whereas, in a small government, familiarity with the rulers subverts myths of greatness. In a small government, an act of oppression is immediately known to the whole, and it arouses more intense indignation because of the familiarity of ruler and ruled which human scale makes possible (E, 119-120).

And size alone tends to foster a sense of equality: “All small states naturally produce equality of fortune, because they afford no opportunities of great encrease; but small commonwealths much more, by that division of power and authority which is essential to them” (E, 401). All things being equal, then, the ideal polity for Hume would be a polity of human scale: “Where each man had his little house and field to himself, and each county had its capital, free and independent; what a happy situation of mankind!” (ibid.). Human scale polities also provide the material conditions for moral virtue. “A man,” Hume says, “who loves only himself, without regard to friendship and desert, merits the severest blame; and a man, who is only susceptible of friendship, without public spirit, or a regard to the community, is deficient in the most material part of virtue” (E, 26-27). Virtue is known and practiced through emulation: “A noble emulation is the source of every excellence” (E, 135). And emulation requires a polity of human scale. Again Hume writes: “A small commonwealth is the happiest government in the world within itself, because every thing lies under the eye of the rulers,” and the actions of the rulers lie under the eye of the citizens (E, 525). Human scale polities are essential to Hume’s conception of the material conditions for the virtues of rational inquiry. The ideal condition for learning, he says, is “division into small states” connected by trade and common interests (E, 120). Competition sharpens the wits of men, while national loyalty and jealousy hinder the spread of popular error from one state to another.

Hume presents, as the best exemplification of this principle, the civilization of ancient Greece, which was composed of over a thousand human scale polities in competition with each other, while sharing a common language and broad cultural interests. Hume contrasts this civilization with medieval Europe where the Church, which he describes as “being really one large state within itself”, dominated learning and extinguished all competition (E, 121). By the eighteenth century, this vast centralized regime had been overthrown, and Europe, Hume says, “is at present a copy at large, of what GREECE was formerly a pattern in miniature” (ibid.). As an instance, Hume observes how French national enthusiasm for Cartesian philosophy hid its weaknesses, which were uncovered by jealous foreigners. Likewise, Newton’s philosophy was refined and made perfect by the necessity of responding to foreign critics. Hume’s view of eighteenth century European civilization, as the Greek model writ large, gives rise to two problems. First, the units of European civilization are monarchies, not republics, and, secondly, they are astronomically larger than the human scale republics of the Greeks. In a word, the political units of European civilization appear to be out of scale and of the wrong form. Now on first glance this might not seem a serious difference. For Hume taught that a civilized monarchy could be superior to a republic. He also held that the moderns have cultivated a deeper and more extensive sentiment of humanity and have a better understanding of the rule of law and liberty than did the ancient republics. Consequently, both modern monarchies and republics are generally superior to their ancient counterparts. So a civilization of modern monarchies might not be a bad thing (E, 94-95). Nevertheless, on balance Hume remains a republican, and much of his writing is an effort to theorize a place for the republican values of human scale in a Europe ruled by out of scale centralized monarchies.

The sort of monarchy that must be challenged is what was called “absolute monarchy.”  Hume judged in 1752 that this kind of monarchy was only three generations old. What distinguished “absolute” monarchy from mere monarchy was the extraordinary efficiency with which it could centralize power by hollowing out smaller political units. Prior to the advent of absolute monarchy in the seventeenth century, Europe was composed of thousands of independent and quasi-independent political societies. There were small kingdoms, principalities, dukedoms, lesser noble estates, bishoprics, free cities, and leagues of free cities. As late at the seventeenth century the region known as Germany was made up of some 230 states and some 50 free cities. But gradually, over a period of four centuries, hundreds of smaller political societies were crushed into larger and fewer monarchies. By the end of the middle ages, monarchs had defeated the Church, the independent towns, and many small principalities.

In Hume’s time monarchs were engaged in a contest to consolidate the nobility which gave rise in Britain to the Court and Country parties. Philosophical theories would be put forth to legitimate this new regime of centralization, notably by Jean Bodin in The Six Books of the Republic (1576) and by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651).The central idea in both Bodin and Hobbes is the concept of “sovereignty,” a notion taken from theological discourse and applied to the centralized states being built by monarchs. According to this theory there must be lodged somewhere an office having legally irresistible, infallible, and indivisible authority. This office, by whatever name it might be called, is what is meant by sovereign power. A polity of this kind is incompatible with the republican tradition, which demands divided and competing social authorities down to the human scale. Just as Plato removed poets from his republic, so Hobbes removed republican literature from the Leviathan.[5] Republicanism is inclined to the self government of human scale communities, and, in Hobbes’ view, encourages permanent resistance to sovereign authority and, hence, anarchy. Hobbes calls these surviving republican dispositions “Wormes” in the commonwealth that must be purged.[6]

In the essay “Of Some Remarkable Customs,” Hume went out of his way to refute this modern theory of sovereignty, according to which “imperium in imperio” is impossible. That is, there cannot be in the same political society two legislative bodies, both of which have full authority to make laws and neither of which is ranked above the other. Hume presents as a counter example the comita centuriata and the comita tributa in the Roman republic. Both had authority to make law and to nullify the laws of the other. Not only did this system of divided authority not lead to stalemate and the annihilation of government, it produced one of the most active, energetic, and illustrious republics in history (E, 370-73). Hume flatly rejected the modern theory of sovereignty. Not only can authority be divided, he defined what he called “free government” as one with divided authority: “All free governments must consist of two councils, a lesser and a greater…” (E, 522). And again: “The government, which, in common appellation, receives the appellation of free, is that which admits of a partition of power among several members, whose united authority is no less, or is commonly greater than that of any monarch; but who… must act by general and equal laws, that are previously known to all the members and to all their subjects” (E, 41).

In a monarchy that claims to be a “free government,” power will be divided among different social authorities and shared with the people. Each part of the constitution, Hume says, “must have a right of self-defence, and of maintaining its antient bounds against the encroachment of every other authority.” It follows that, in free governments, cases “wherein resistance is lawful, must occur much oftener, and greater indulgence be given to the subjects to defend themselves by force of arms, than in arbitrary governments.” So what Hobbes considered a disposition to anarchy, Hume considers lawful resistance.[7] Hume supported secession of the American colonies as early as 1768, before most Americans did. In October, 1775, he wrote: “I am an American in my Principles, and wish we would let them alone to govern or misgovern themselves as they think proper.”[8] “Friends of America” such as Edmund Burke and William Pitt sought reconciliation within the empire.

Hume appears to be the only major British thinker at the time to have supported outright secession of the colonies. Indeed, as we will see, Hume was opposed to the very idea of a British empire. I have explored Hume’s reasons for supporting American secession elsewhere.{footnote Donald W. Livingston, Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium, Hume’s Pathology of Philosophy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998). See especially chapters 9-12. The vast, centralized administration, first created by seventeenth century absolute monarchs to control and exploit the small polities coerced into them, gradually developed an esprit de corps of its own, at the expense of society and eventually of the king himself. One instrument of exploitation that especially worried Hume was the invention of public credit or the policy of mortgaging future revenues. This device had a number of pernicious effects. First, “national debts cause a mighty confluence of people and riches to the capital, by the great sums, levied in the provinces to pay the interest” and “by the advantages in trade … which they give the merchants in the capital above the rest of the kingdom” (E, 354).Second, a state with mortgaged revenues would have to create new ones; these would fall on consumption leading to “vexation and ruin of the poor” (E, 356). They would next fall on the proprietors of land, making life more difficult for their tenants. Third, with the collapse of the landed gentry and nobility, a traditional order rooted in land and place would collapse in favor of rule by a new rootless class of stockjobbers and paper money men.

“These men,” Hume writes, having “no connections with the state…can enjoy their revenue in any part of the globe in which they chuse to reside, who will naturally bury themselves in the capital or great cities, and who will sink into the lethargy of a stupid and pampered luxury, without spirit, ambition, or enjoyment. Adieu to all ideas of nobility, gentry, and family” (E, 353). Hume’s criticism of public credit mirrors exactly Jefferson’s criticism of the public debt system proposed by Alexander Hamilton.[9] Since the national stocks are constantly fluctuating and can be traded instantly, they can scarcely hold together “three generations from father to son,” and “even if they remain in one family, they convey no authority” (E, 358). What follows will be the destruction of those independent social authorities which had formed a protective buffer between the individual and centralized power. These constitute, Hume says, “a kind of independent magistracy in a state, instituted by the hand of nature” (E, 358). And elsewhere he describes them as a “middle power between King and people” (E, 358).With their elimination, a pure Hobbesian state would emerge with a centralized authority ruling directly over an aggregate of millions of individuals. In this condition, “every man in authority derives his influence from the commission alone of the sovereign.” And “the whole income of every individual in the state must lie entirely at the mercy of the sovereign” (E, 358-59). Hume thinks this form of despotism intimated in eighteenth century centralized states, if realized, would be “a degree of despotism, which no oriental monarchy has ever yet attained” (E, 359). What Hume considered despotism is viewed as normal today. A European monarch in Hume’s day could not order military conscription nor impose an income tax, which would have been viewed as a form of forced labor.

Hume’s vision of an order of human scale polities was at odds with the practice of political centralization begun by the great monarchs and imitated by smaller principalities. “Europe,” he said, “is shared out mostly into great monarchies,” and the smaller ones ruin their people by emulating the great with taxes, a superb court, and a standing army. He laments that “Swisserland alone and Holland resemble the ancient republics” (E, 403). It would be impossible to break the great monarchies of Europe into a large number of human scale republics in conformity to the model Hume took from the Greeks. But it might be possible gradually to transform a monarchy, especially a limited one, into a great republic which would be divided into human scale republics. And this is just the reform Hume proposes in the essay “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth” (1752). The proposal was a radical one, for the traditional wisdom, from the ancients down to Montesquieu and Rousseau, was that a republic had to be small. Hume agrees that it is “more difficult to form a republican government in an extensive country than in a city.” But once established, its extensive size and division into small republics would make it less likely to fall into faction and disorder which has been the weakness of small republics throughout history (E, 527). Sheer size alone would make it difficult for the parts to combine to form a special interest. I will not take space here to explore the essay in detail; rather, my remarks will be limited to the parts salient to Hume’s view on the size and scale of political order.

The extensive republic, which Hume says is the size of Britain or France, is divided into one hundred small republics; each of which is further divided into one hundred parishes. Those satisfying a property qualification for voting meet annually in the parish church and elect one representative to their small republican government. This body of one hundred representatives elect, among themselves, ten magistrates and one senator. The senators, to the number of one hundred, meet in the national capital and exercise the executive and supreme judicial powers of the commonwealth. However, the ten magistrates and one hundred representatives remain in the capitals of their respective republics. The magistrates exercise the executive and judicial powers of the provincial republic while the representatives exercise the legislative powers.

The provincial republics can pass laws within their territory, but these can be vetoed by the national senate or by another republic, in which case the matter must be decided by the legislative power of the whole commonwealth. The vote is by republics. Each republic has one vote, and a majority of republics decides the question. If there is a tie the senate casts the deciding vote. Laws are introduced and debated in the senate. If passed, they are sent to the small republics for ratification. If a vote fails in the senate, any ten of a hundred senators can require that the law be sent to the republics for ratification. Because it would be troublesome to assemble all ten thousand representatives for every trivial law, the senate has the choice of sending the law down to the ten magistrates of each republic. If sent to the magistrates, any five of the one hundred representatives can demand that the whole body of representatives be called for a vote on the proposed law.

Either the provincial magistrates or the representatives may give to their senator a copy of a law to be presented to the senate. Should the senate veto the proposed law, it, nevertheless, must be sent to the republics for a vote if only five of the republics concur. In addition to the checks just mentioned, there is the court of competitors designed to detect and prosecute fraud and corruption in the senate. Its members are constituted as follows. If a candidate for the senate loses an election but gains a third or more votes of the representatives, he automatically enters the court of competitors. This court has only the power of inspecting public accounts of the commonwealth and of bringing a vote of impeachment against members of the senate. If the senate acquits the person, the court of competitors can appeal to the people either in the form of the magistrates or the representatives for a new trial, under prescribed rules, which excludes members of the senate. Hume’s extensive republic is designed to check the centralization of power, which is the death of human scale political order in a large modern state, whether of monarchical or republican form. It would be more difficult in Hume’s republic to institute and abuse the policy of public credit. Everywhere there is a check on majority rule, and Hume’s polity is one in which the people enjoy considerable political participation. Only ten (out of one hundred senators) are needed to nullify the senate’s vote against a proposed law and send it to the people for ratification; only five (out of one hundred representatives) are needed to take a proposed law out of the hands of the magistrates and put it to a vote of the representatives. Only five republics (out of one hundred) are needed to override the senate’s veto of a law proposed by the representatives and to compel a vote by representatives of the whole commonwealth. Only twenty republics (out of one hundred) are needed to throw any official out of office for a year; only thirty, for three years. And there are a number of other minority checks to power which cannot be discussed here, including a militia army modeled on the Swiss militia, along with a law requiring that it be regularly exercised. Finally, to keep the republic from expanding beyond its proper size, there is a constitutional prohibition against conquests (E, 529).

Hume presents this extensive republic not as a philosopher’s utopia, but as an ideal identity already intimated in European political practice. Republican intimations are strong in limited monarchies, such as Britain, and are fully exemplified in the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Even the absolute monarchy of France contains republican intimations as, in Hume’s view, do all civilized monarchies. But Hume’s extensive republic is not the only form intimated in European political practice. More oppressive forms of absolute monarchy are intimated, as well as a uniquely modern form of tyranny that could be generated, for example, by the repeated abuse of public credit. Hume’s hope, however, was that Europe would evolve into an order of republics (both extensive and small) held together by trade and common cultural interests on the Greek model. And it might appear that vast regimes such as the European Union and the United States conform to Hume’s ideal of a vast territory divided into extensive republics. It is certainly true that the republican ideology is triumphant. Most regimes in the world today describe themselves as republics. There are democratic republics, democratic socialist republics, people’s republics, federative republics such as the United States and the former Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics, and so on. What this ubiquitous republican idiom ignores, and what is essential to republicanism, is the factor of human scale. Rousseau was one of the few westerners to be honored by the People’s Republic of China under Mao Tse Tung. And Rousseau has been invoked by the legacy of the French Revolution. Rousseau’s idea of “the general will” makes some sense in the human scale republic theorized in The Social Contract which he suggests at one point is a polity of around ten thousand people. But it makes no sense at all if mapped onto a country the size of France, not to mention China. So small is Rousseau’s republic that he does not even allow representatives, but requires direct political participation, something impossible if pitched to a scale of millions of political participants.

Even if we reject Rousseau’s demand for direct political participation as extravagant, entertaining a larger sphere for republican life, as Hume did, the ratio of population to representation should still be measured by the human scale if it is to be called republican. To appreciate this, let us compare Hume’s extensive republic with its modern equivalent, Great Britain, in respect to representation. Hume’s national legislature is divided into one hundred small republics, each with one hundred representatives. The total number of representatives in the nation is ten thousand. These sit and debate proposed legislation in their own provincial capitals. The legislators of modern Britain, however, meet and debate in London to the number of only 635 representatives. Britain in Hume’s day had around nine million inhabitants; today it has over sixty-five million. In Hume’s Britain there is one representative for every nine hundred persons; in Britain today there is one for every one hundred four thousand, not a human scale ratio of representation to population. Or consider the United States, which styles itself a republic. There are only 435 representatives in the House of Representatives, ruling over some 309 million people. This yields a ratio of around one representative for every seven hundred ten thousand people. A regime with this ratio cannot be considered a republic, not even a large Humean republic. What is true of the out-of-scale ratio of representatives to people in Britain and the United States is true of most large regimes in the world that style themselves republics. But if they are not in any meaningful sense republics, what are they? An answer was suggested by Tocqueville, who viewed the emerging European “republics” as in reality extensions of absolute monarchy.

The French Revolution produced the first modern large scale republic ruling in the name of the people and declaring itself, in Hobbesian fashion, to be “one and indivisible.” The Revolution pretended to effect a total change of French political society, and was thought by many to have done so. Tocqueville, however, argued that the Revolution had fundamentally changed nothing.[10] What he meant by this counter-intuitive claim was this. What was wrong with monarchy was not a hereditary executive, but the creation of a centralized bureaucratic administration with a would-be monopoly on coercion over individuals in a territory. The Revolution did not devolve power back to smaller, human scale units in France, but greatly expanded central power beyond anything eighteenth century monarchs could have imagined. No eighteenth century monarch could have ordered universal conscription, a barrier which limited the size of armies and the scale of war.

The French “republic” was the first to order universal conscription. The result opened the era of total war. Whereas Louis XVI could raise an army of little more than one hundred eighty thousand troops, the French Republic at the demise of Napoleon had run through some three million troops, the largest military force ever assembled in history. One way to understand Tocqueville’s point is through the doctrine of the two bodies of the king. The first body was the flesh and blood king; the second body was the artificial corporation, the crown, seeking a monopoly on coercion over individuals in a territory. In the expression given upon the death of a monarch, “The king is dead, long live the king,” it was the second body that was affirmed to be immortal. What happened in the French Revolution was that the flesh and blood king was thrown out as the chief executive officer of the corporation, but the second body of the king remained, namely, the centralized system of coercion. The Revolution merely replaced the person of the king with the fiction of the nation-person. The people of France were now said to be sovereign, and what had been the second body of the king was now said to be their representative.

But this was little more than a pious fiction, for the “sovereign people” had little participation in the exercise of sovereignty. The Queen of Great Britain is said to be sovereign; and the government, her majesty’s government. But the British sovereign participates in political conduct only in a ceremonial capacity. Likewise, in large modern republics, the people are said to be sovereign, but their participation too is largely ceremonial and consists typically of choosing periodically between two candidates selected by national political parties of vast scale over which there is little popular control. Hobbes was the first to clearly understand the character of a modern European state. He theorized it as an artificial corporation, what he called an “artificial man.” Government as a public corporation differs from a business corporation in that it possesses a monopoly on coercion in a territory. Its subjects are compelled to buy shares in the corporation through taxes, but cannot trade them, i.e., they cannot secede from the corporation. Hobbes saw clearly that the modern state is owned by no one, neither an individual (the king), nor a collective (the people); nor does it represent anyone in the republican sense. It consequently is neither a monarchy nor a republic, though it may be called either. In its pure form, it cannot tolerate those independent social authorities that Hume called “a kind of independent magistracy in a state, instituted by the hand of nature,” capable of resisting centralization—and which Hobbes called “Wormes” in the commonwealth (E, 358). The Hobbesian modern state is only an ideal identity, but modern states, whether called republics or monarchies, have sought approximation to it. In Hume’s time the closest approximation was absolute monarchy. In our time it is mass democracy.

With these reflections of Hobbes and Tocqueville in mind, we might say that a modern state of vast size, such as the United States or France, is an eighteenth century absolute monarchy without the monarch, but falsely calling itself a republic to gain the legitimacy afforded by the human scale connotations of the term. A modern state cannot bear to describe itself in the stark terms theorized by Hobbes, namely, as an artificial corporation with a monopoly on coercion over individuals in a territory. But Hume provides us with another way of thinking about the matter. He taught that modern absolute monarchies contain “a source of improvement” and republican governments “a source of degeneracy, which in time will bring these species of civil polity still nearer an equality” (E, 95). The source of degeneracy in republics is the inevitable tendency to abuse public credit. Monarchs also borrow, but, if need be, they can declare a bankruptcy without destroying the people. This is not likely in a republic where the creditors either are the chief office holders themselves or financially support the chief office holders. It is through degenerate republics, therefore, that the most despotic form of modern centralized government is likely to occur—one, Hume says, that would be worse than an Oriental despotism and, consequently, worse than an eighteenth century absolute monarchy.

A regime of this kind would be able to centralize power beyond anything previously known in history. Hans Herman Hoppe has explored the political economy of European monarchies where government was viewed as private property, in comparison with modern Hobbesian states styling themselves republics or democracies. He judges the monarchical age to run from the eleventh century to the mid-nineteenth century. During this period monarchs were never able to exploit more than five to eight percent of gross national product; whereas mass “republics” and “democracies” have been able to exploit some fifty percent.[11] This would be a level of centralization and control quite beyond anything in Hume’s experience. However, he saw it intimated in the state’s exploitation of public credit, hollowing out the economy of the provinces and, consequently, driving people as well as financial and political power to the center, where a few hundred people—through finance capitalism structured on public debt—would determine the economic prospects of millions.

Even worse, public credit enabled Britain to pursue needless wars of national glory and a policy of uniting trade with war, which necessarily issued in colonial empire and competition with other states for empire. We have seen that Hume supported secession of the American colonies, but this was merely part of his opposition to the emerging British empire itself, the symbol of which was “the great commoner” William Pitt. That “wicked madman Pitt,” as Hume called him, had come to power on a mercantilist platform of uniting commerce with war, funded by public credit, and legitimated by a republican ideology. Shortly after repeal of the Stamp Act, Hume wrote Gilbert Eliot 22 July, 1768 supporting American secession from the empire: “These are fine doings in America. O! How I long to see America and the East Indies revolted totally & finally, the Revenue reduc’d to half, public Credit fully discredited by Bankruptcy, [and] the third of London in Ruins….”[12]

A year later in a letter to William Strahan Hume indulged the same fantasy: “Notwithstanding my Age, I hope to see a public Bankruptcy, the total Revolt of America, the Expulsion of the English from the East Indies, the Diminution of London to less than a half, and the Restoration of the Government to the King, Nobility, and Gentry of this Realm.”[13] In both of these outbursts there is a rejection not only of empire, but of the bloated size of London. But this sort of republicanized Hobbesian regime that Hume feared Britain was becoming could not really show what it could do, in terms of destroying independent social authorities and concentrating great masses of people under state control, until the industrial revolution. Hume’s philosophy was framed prior to that revolution, and he simply could not anticipate the changes a modern Hobbesian state could bring about.

For example, Hume thought there was a natural limit to the growth of cities, and that no city could grow much beyond seven hundred thousand. That was about the size of London in Hume’s time when he judged that, in relation to the country, the “head is undoubtedly too large for the body” (E, 447-48, 354). He could not have imagined cities of over ten million, such as we have today. There are ten cities in the world today of nearly 20 million, and these are estimated by mid-century to expand to some 30 to 40 million, at which time a new crop of cities in the 20 million range is expected to emerge. Most of this growth is, and will continue to be, in the third world where functioning government services are scarce if existent at all. Such concentrations of rootless masses are not a city at all in the traditional sense, and new names had to be created. It is said to be a “conurbation,” a “megalopolis,” or an “agglomeration.” Monster “cities” of this kind are artifacts of the twentieth century. Mexico City, for instance, had around five hundred thousand in 1900. Today it has over twenty million.[14]

The industrial revolution certainly facilitated the emergence of such agglomerations, but they were not the “natural” result of it. Such concentrations of population could not have occurred without the global triumph of centralized Hobbesian states that hollow out independent social authorities within a territory, leaving a mass of deracinated individuals controlled by the center. Three contemporary cities of twenty million each would equal the entire population of the Roman empire at the height of its power. There are, of course, more people in the world today than in ancient times. But that is not why monster cities exist. Nor do such cities exist because “the jobs are there.” The jobs are there because, as Hume saw, the rules are rigged by a union of public credit, business and finance corporations, and the centralized state (“one and indivisible”) to concentrate them there. Consider Mexico, which has a population of around a hundred million, over twenty million of which live in Mexico City. Mexico has an abundance of arable land, is rich in oil, and opens out to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Its land mass and resources are enough to accommodate a number of countries the size of Switzerland. Though land locked, and in a mountainous region, Switzerland is frequently ranked among the top ten richest countries in the world in terms of per capita income. If the territory of Mexico were composed of, say, fourteen small Swiss sized states, each would have a population of around seven million. In that case there could be no monster city of twenty million people, and growing, in the territory known as Mexico. But this cannot happen today without secession. And as long as Mexico imagines itself to be a Hobbesian state “one and indivisible,” secession is ruled out a priori, as it is in every Hobbesian state.

The Hobbesian centralized state is not the natural or only form of political association, as many have come to think. It is an artifact little more than three centuries old. It was first constructed by European absolute monarchs, and perfected by mass democracies. After World War II, signs of its decline began to appear. Martin Van Creveld and others have argued that cultural and political elites are shifting their allegiances away from the post-French Revolutionary nation state to supra-national and to sub-national entities.[15] The Hobbesian state was said to be one and indivisible, so downsizing it through secession was, as noted above, ruled out a priori. But that is no longer believable, given the relatively peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union and other modern states thought to be “indivisible.” When the League of Nations was formed, it was limited to large states, but that is not the case with the United Nations.

The current disposition to devolve power to smaller political units has led to a dramatic increase in the number of small states. Today, over two thirds of the states in the world are ten million or less. Over half have populations of five million or less. And more than a third have populations of one million or less. Seventy states have populations of five hundred thousand or less. Fifty states are in the Aristotelean range of one hundred thousand or less. Thirty-five states occupy no more than twice the land area of Washington, D.C. And one state is smaller than the Washington Mall: the Vatican.[16] Theoretically and practically, there is no reason why more small states, even on the scale of the Aristotelean polis, cannot exist today. Indeed, technological innovations and global trade make small states more feasible than in the past. And even large states such as Britain, France, and the United States could be reformed, with an eye to a human scale ratio of representation to population, by reconstituting a “national” legislature into the joint voice of several regional or provincial legislatures in accord with Hume’s model of an extensive republic.

Modern political philosophy, from Hobbes to Habermas, has largely ignored the topic of size and human scale that was central to the republican tradition for some two thousand years. Hume, Montesquieu, and Rousseau are latter day exceptions, and have been largely ignored. But, as the Hobbesian state is in visible decline and is losing its moral authority, perhaps it is time to make the human scale of political order once again a central topic of political discourse—and especially of republican discourse.

Books by David Hume and others on this topic are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

This article is a further revised and amended version of Donald Livingston’s essay, ‘David Hume, Republicanism, and the Human Scale of Political Order,’ which was first published in Arator: A Journal of Southern History, Thought, and Culture, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2010). Published with permission. This essay was previously published by ANAMNESIS, A Journal for the Study of Tradition, Place, and ‘Things Divine.’

1. The Politics of Aristotle, trans. Benjamin Jowett with an Introduction by Max Lerner (New York: The Modern Library, Random House, 1943), 1326a, p. 287.

2. Ibid., 1326b, p. 288.

3. Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan), pp. 192-208.

4. David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985), 119-122. Henceforth all references to this work are abbreviated in the text as ‘E’.

5. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London: Penguin Classics, 1985) edited and with an introduction by C. B. Macpherson, Part II, Chapter 29, 368-370.

6. Ibid., 375

7. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge with text revised and variant readings by P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 564.

8. J.Y.T. Greig, ed. The Letters of David Hume, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 2:303.

9. See Thomas Di Lorenzo, Hamilton’s Curse (New York: Random House, 2008) for a Humean style perception of Hamilton’s project of centralizing power through public credit. For a favorable view of Hamilton’s “audacious” project see Forrest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982).

10. Alexis Tocqueville, The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, trans. Gerald Bevan with an Introduction by Hugh Brogan (London; New York: Penguin, 2008).

11. Hans Hermann Hoppe, Democracy the God that Failed: the Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy, and Natural Order (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2001), 26, 19. Intimated in Hume’s argument that large centralized “republics” would be unable to check abuse of public credit and that this would lead to a peculiarly modern form of tyranny worse than an oriental despotism are the lineaments of Hoppe’s insightful critique of modern mass “republics.”

12. The Letters of David Hume, ed. J. Y. T. Greig, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969) 2:184.

13. Ibid., 210.

14. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, 92-94. Also

15. Martin Van Creveld, Rise and Decline of the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

16. CIA World Fact Book.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
2 replies to this post
  1. Professor Livingston’s article concludes that “it is time to make the human scale of political order once again a central topic of political discourse—and especially of republican discourse.” The most practical way to accomplish this relative to the United States is to reduce the size of our congressional districts. As noted above, each Representative “represents” over 700,000 people (on average). As it turns out, this problem was anticipated by the Founders: The intended purpose of “Article the first” of the Bill of Rights was to ensure that the maximum size of the congressional districts never exceeded 50,000. However, “Article the first” (the would be first amendment) was never ratified due to an inexplicable defect in its wording. This is explained in section 3 of “Taking Back Our Republic”. This pamphlet also explains why representational enlargement (through smaller congressional districts) would return control of the federal House to the citizenry.*

    As stated in the professor’s article, “Great distance also enables the regime to magnify the virtues of rulers, whatever the form of government might be; whereas, in a small government, familiarity with the rulers subverts myths of greatness.” That is an excellent argument for bringing our Representatives home, to live among their constituents. If we had several thousand Representatives, only a small percentage of them would need to serve in DC on committees where the legislation is produced. The rest of them could live, work and vote in their home districts, where we could keep an eye on them, and not allow them to be burdened by “myths of greatness”.

    Of course, it would also help if the scope of federal responsibilities were greatly reduced by restoring sovereignty to the states. Congress is far too busy with matters that are well outside its intended area of authority. A more representative house is far more likely to put us back on that path.

    * Downloaded from

Leave a Reply