Saturday, May 7, 2016

David Hume and “The Wealth of Nations”

Most people today have never heard of the philosopher David Hume, a great figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. But many people today have heard of the man who was probably his best friend - a man who was greatly influenced by his philosophy (political, economic, and otherwise), and influenced him in his turn. That man was Adam Smith.

Statues of David Hume and Adam Smith

This is not to say that Mr. Hume's accomplishments were just in economics, or that Adam Smith was the only person that he influenced - he influenced many people, in the natural sciences and elsewhere. However, I shall focus this post on economics, and his influence on Adam Smith; and will leave the coverage of his empiricism - and his other contributions to the philosophy of science - to others.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith acknowledged his debt to David Hume in his most famous work, "The Wealth of Nations." In the section entitled "How the commerce of towns contributed to the improvement of the country," Smith lists three ways it did so, and references David Hume in the last of them.

Adam Smith

Here is the quote:

"Thirdly, and lastly, commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them the liberty and security of individuals, among the inhabitants of the country, who had before lived almost in a continual state of war with their neighbors, and of servile dependency upon their superiors. This, though it has been the least observed, is by far the most important of all their effects. Mr. Hume is the only writer who, so far as I know, has hitherto taken notice of it." (Source: "The Wealth of Nations," Book III, Chapter IV)

David Hume

The book that this quote first appeared in was published for the first time in 1776. Hume himself actually died in this year, but not before having the opportunity to read it. He wrote a letter to Adam Smith congratulating him on his master work, which said in part:

David Hume

"I am much pleased with your performance, and the perusal of it has taken me from a state of great anxiety. It was a work of so much expectation by yourself, by your friends, and by the public, that I trembled for its appearance; but am now much relieved. Not but that the reading of it requires so much attention, and the public is disposed to give so little, that I shall still doubt for some time of its being at first very popular. But it has depth, and solidity, and acuteness, and is so much illustrated by curious facts that it must at last take the public attention." (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, Entry on Adam Smith)

Tomb of David Hume - Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was actually named an heir in David Hume's will, and thus inherited some property from his close friend. But his inheritance was not just physical - he also inherited some great ideas as well.

The father of economics is undoubtedly Adam Smith, but the discipline owes much to David Hume as well, for his contributions to modern economic thought.

Why Adam Smith is still relevant today

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