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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XIV. Philosophers

§ 11. Political and Economical Essays

For this reason, his theory of knowledge has little effect upon his political and economical essays, although they are closely connected with his ethical and psychological views. The separate essays were published, in various volumes, between 1741 and 1777; and, in the interval, political philosophy was profoundly influenced by the works of Montesquieu and Rousseau. The essays do not make a system, and economics is in them not definitely distinguished from politics; but both system and the distinction are suggested in the remarks on the value of general principles and general reasonings which he prefixed to the essays on commerce, money and other economical subjects. “When we reason upon general subjects,” he says, “our speculations can scarcely ever be too fine, provided they be just.”

In both groups of essays, Hume was not merely a keen critic of prevailing theories and conceptions; his knowledge of human nature and of history guided his analysis of a situation. A growing clearness of doctrine, also, may be detected by comparing his earlier with his later utterances. In later editions, he modified his acceptance of the traditional doctrines of the natural equality of men, and of consent as the origin of society. The essay “Of the Origin of Government,” first published in 1777, makes no mention either of divine right or of original contract. Society is traced to its origin in the family; and political society is said to have been established “in order to administer justice”—though its actual beginnings are sought in the concert and order forced upon men by war. Again, whereas, in an earlier essay, he had said that “a constitution is only so far good as it provides a remedy against maladministration,” he came, later, to look upon its tendency to liberty as marking the perfection of civil society—although there must always be a struggle between liberty and the authority without which government could not be conducted. His political thinking, accordingly, tends to limit the range of legitimate governmental activity; similarly, in economics, he criticises the doctrine of the mercantilists, and on various points anticipates the views of the analytical economists of a later generation. Perhaps, however, nothing in these essays shows better his insight into the principles of economics than the letter which, shortly before his death, he wrote to Adam Smith upon receipt of a copy of The Wealth of Nations. In this letter, after a warm expression of praise for, and satisfaction with, his friend’s achievement, he makes a single criticism—“I cannot think that the rent of farms makes any part of the price of the produce, but that the price is determined altogether by the quantity and the demand”—which suggests that he himself had arrived at the theory of rent commonly associated with the name of Ricardo.