Commerceby David Hume
General vs Specific Principles
People may be divided into two:
- Shallow thinkers who fall short of the truth
- Abstruse thinkers, who go beyond it. This is the most rare and by far the most useful and valuable.
Abstruse thinkers suggest hints. Sometimes, they start difficulties if they lack the skill to pursue an idea. At worst, abstruse thinkers say uncommon things, which are hard to understand but at least are new. An author has less value if he tells us things that we can learn from coffee-house conversations.
Shallow thinkers tend to decry even those of solid understanding, abstruse thinkers, metaphysicians, and refiners. They call anything that is beyond their own weak conceptions as unjust.
In some cases, an extraordinary refinement leads to a strong presumption of falsehood. It makes people distrust it.
A man should never make his arguments too fine or connect too long a chain of consequences together if he:
- deliberates on his conduct in any particular affair, and
- forms schemes in politics, trade, economy, or any business in life
An unexpected event can disconcert his reasoning and produce a different effect from what he expected. But when we reason on general subjects:
- our speculations cannot be too fine unless they are just
- the difference between a common man and a genius is chiefly in the depth of their underlying principles
General reasonings seem intricate, merely because they are general. It is not easy for people:
- to agree in a common circumstance, or
- to extract a common circumstance, pure and unmixed, from the other superfluous circumstances.
Every judgment or conclusion of the people is particular. The people cannot enlarge their view to those universal propositions which have an infinite number of individuals to put a whole science in a single theorem. They get confounded.
But general principles, if just and sound, always prevails in the general course of things, though they may fail in particular cases. This is the chief business of:
- philosophers to regard the general course of things.
- politicians, especially in the domestic government of the state where the public good should be their object
This makes the difference between particular deliberations and general reasonings. It renders subtilty and refinement much more suitable to general reasonings than to particular deliberations.
Commerce unites the private and common interest
Commerce, money, interest, balance of trade, etc. have some common principles which may seem too refined and subtile for such shallow people.
Such common principles should be rejected if false. But they should not be rejected merely because they not of the mainstream belief.
The greatness of a state and the happiness of its subjects are independent in some respects. But these are commonly inseparable with regard to commerce.
Private men receive greater security from their possession of trade and riches which come from the power of the public. The public likewise becomes powerful in proportion to the opulence and extensive commerce of private men.
This maxim is true in general, though it might have exceptions. For example, the commerce and riches of individuals might thin its armies and reduce its authority among its neighbours instead of strengthening the public.
Man is a very variable being and susceptible of many different opinions, principles, and rules of conduct. What may be true, while he adheres to one way of thinking, will be found false, when he has embraced an opposite set of manners and opinions.
As soon as men quit their savage state of hunting and fishing, they fall into two classes:
- husbandmen: these are employed in agriculture
- manufacturers: work up the materials furnished by the former, into all the commodities used for human life
Time and experience improve these arts so that the land may easily maintain more men. These superfluous hands work on the finer arts to add to the happiness of the state.
Military Spending vs Civilian Spending
Can the sovereign use the superfluous labor in the nation’s fleets and armies, to encrease its dominions?
Lesser demand leads to lesser employment. This will allow excess labor to be used instead to support fleets and armies, instead of tradesmen and manufacturers for luxury items.
Here is an opposition between the greatness of the state and the happiness of the subject.
A state becomes great when all of its excess labor is fully employed. The ease and convenience of private persons require that these be employed in their service. The one can only satisfied at the expence of the other. The military ambition of the sovereign entrenches on the luxury of individuals, just as the luxury of individuals reduces the military force and checks the sovereign’s ambition.
The republic of Sparta was more powerful than any modern state of the same population size. This was owing entirely to the lack of commerce and luxury. The Helotes were labourers. The Spartans were soldiers or gentlemen. The labour of the Helotes could not have maintained the Spartans if the Spartans lived in ease and delicacy and worked in various trades and manufactures.
The same can be said of ancient Rome. The smallest republics maintained greater armies, than modern states of three times the population size.
- In all European nations, the proportion between soldiers and people does not exceed 1:100.
- But small Rome alone maintained, in early times, 10 legions against the Latins.
- The area of Athens was not larger than Yorkshire but it could send an expedition against Sicily with 40,000 men.
Dionysius the elder maintained an army of 100,000 foot and 10,000 horse, besides a large fleet of 400 sail. His territories were only as big as the city of Syracuse, about 1/3 of the island of Sicily, and some sea-port towns and garrisons on the coast of Italy and Illyricum.
The ancient armies in wartime subsisted much on plunder. But the enemy also plundered. Plunder was a more ruinous way of levying a tax, than any other method.
Only the lack of commerce and luxury of the ancients led to their great power over the modern. Few artizans were maintained by the ancient labour of the farmers. Therefore more soldiers might live upon it.
Livy says that in his time:
Soldiers fought for liberty and empire in Camillus’s time. But in Augustus’s days they became musicians, painters, cooks, players, and tailors. If the land was equally cultivated at both periods, it could certainly maintain equal an equal population size in the one profession as in the other.
It is almost impossible for sovereigns to return to the maxims of ancient policy because ancient policy was violent. It was contrary to the more natural and usual course of things.
Sparta had laws which were realistic then, but seem fictional nowadays.
The Roman and other ancient republics were supported by more natural principles. Yet extraordinary circumstances led them submit to such grievous burdens. They were small, free, martial states surrounded by enemies. Freedom naturally begets public spirit, especially in small states. This public spirit, this amor patriæ, encreases when the public is in continual alarm.
Continuous wars makes every citizen a soldier. He is chiefly maintained by himself. This service is equivalent to a heavy tax that is not so much felt by a people addicted to arms, who:
- fight for honour and revenge more than pay, and
- are unacquainted with gain and industry.
Every field of the ancient republics belonged to a different proprietor. It was able to maintain a family. It led to a large population size even without the trade and manufactures which usually weaken a free and martial people.
Sovereigns must take mankind as they find them, and not introduce any violent change in their principles and ways of thinking. A long time, with a variety of accidents and circumstances, are needed to produce great revolutions in human affairs.
The less natural any set of societal principles are the more difficult it is to cultivate them. The best policy to:
- comply with the common bent of mankind,
- give it all the improvements of which it is susceptible.
Industry, arts, and trade naturally encrease both the sovereign’s power and the happiness of the subjects. A policy is violent if it aggrandizes the public by the poverty of individuals. This is proven by the consequences of sloth and barbarity which lead to:
- the decline of manufactures and mechanical arts,
- the diverting of labor onto agriculture.
An increase of their skill and industry leads to an excess of labour. Therefore, they have no reason to encrease their skill and industry since they cannot exchange their excess for any commodities for pleasure or vanity. This leads to a habit of indolence and the land lies uncultivated.
If the public exigencies require many hands in the public service, the people’s labour cannot produce any excess to maintain society. The labourers cannot encrease their skill and industry suddenly. Lands uncultivated cannot be brought into tillage for some years. The armies, meanwhile, must either make sudden and violent conquests, or disband for lack of subsistence.
A regular attack or defence, therefore, cannot be expected from such a people. Their soldiers would be as ignorant and unskillful as their farmers and manufacturers.