Hume's Politics

Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the "History of England"

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Hume's Politics
    Book Description:

    Hume's Politicsprovides a comprehensive examination of David Hume's political theory, and is the first book to focus on Hume's monumentalHistory of Englandas the key to his distinctly political ideas. Andrew Sabl argues that conventions of authority are the main building blocks of Humean politics, and explores how theHistoryaddresses political change and disequilibrium through a dynamic treatment of coordination problems. Dynamic coordination, as employed in Hume's work, explains how conventions of political authority arise, change, adapt to new social and economic conditions, improve or decay, and die. Sabl shows how Humean constitutional conservatism need not hinder--and may in fact facilitate--change and improvement in economic, social, and cultural life. He also identifies how Humean liberalism can offer a systematic alternative to neo-Kantian approaches to politics and liberal theory.

    At once scholarly and accessibly written,Hume's Politicsbuilds bridges between political theory and political science. It treats issues of concern to both fields, including the prehistory of political coordination, the obstacles that must be overcome in order for citizens to see themselves as sharing common political interests, the close and counterintuitive relationship between governmental authority and civic allegiance, the strategic ethics of political crisis and constitutional change, and the ways in which the biases and injustices endemic to executive power can be corrected by legislative contestation and debate.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4552-1
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    Many find David Hume’s writings on politics agreeable. This book will argue that they are also astonishingly useful. Hume’s political ideas illuminate a host of questions in political theory, political science, and practical politics that would otherwise seem intractable, as well as calling into question some political assumptions that would otherwise seem easy. And if Hume’s ideas are crucial to students of politics, distinctly political forms of analysis are just as crucial to students of Hume. Aspects of Hume’s work that might seem either hard to understand or of questionable modern relevance when treated with the methods of philosophy or...

  5. Chapter 1 Coordination and Convention
    (pp. 21-42)

    Human beings have certain interests in common (we can for now ignore what they are). But since the social and political institutions that we have an interest in supporting are advantageous not individually but collectively, which institutions deserve our support depends on which institutions all other people believe, or can be brought to believe, deservetheirsupport. Many great problems of high politics can thus be seen as problems of coordination. When the status quo or “social norm” solution is doubtful or contested, they become problems of authority, since only authority can adjudicate the norm. When the convention of authority...

  6. Chapter 2 Coordinating Interests: The Liberalism of Enlargement
    (pp. 43-89)

    Before turning to Hume’s theory of how political coordination problems are solved—through conventions of authority—we must turn to his account of how these problems come to be politically relevant and practically soluble in the first place. My claim is that Hume’s history of conventions of authority also contains a prehistory. Before constitutions can get going, actors who at first recognize no common interests with their perceived inferiors, and no reason to abandon local fiefdoms that let them flaunt their power, must be brought to prefer the advantages of peace, prosperity, and an expanded scope for potential projects and...

  7. Chapter 3 Convention and Allegiance
    (pp. 90-120)

    I am reading Hume’sHistoryas a book about conventions of authority—and the artificial virtue, namely allegiance, that describes adherence to that convention. TheHistorytreats authority’s characteristics or qualities, its operation, its preconditions, its effects, and the circumstances responsible for crisis and change in authority and allegiance. There is no logical difference between describing theHistorythis way and describing it the more usual way, as a story of the development of the English constitution.¹ But there is a psychological difference: the language of authority and allegiance reminds us that constitutions and institutions are simply other ways of...

  8. Chapter 4 Crown and Charter: Fundamental Conventions as Principles of Authority
    (pp. 121-156)

    This chapter will discuss Hume’s theory of fundamental conventions, of how “examples and precedents” come to count as “uniform and ancient.” Few deny that Hume regards both private and public law as matters of convention; Hume repeatedly uses the word himself. But few have recognized that he regards certain conventions asfundamental: immune to alteration (except in the extremely long term, at least generations and more likely centuries) by the usual methods of political power and social change. The claim that Hume does believe in fundamental conventions, that he rests a distinctive form of constitutionalism on the foundations of custom...

  9. Chapter 5 Leadership and Constitutional Crises
    (pp. 157-187)

    The previous chapter discussed fundamental political conventions: those generations-long, identity-producing customs, likely to be few in any society, that define what political authority is, independent of who wields it, and how that authority is limited, independent of the magistrate’s personal ambitions or stated purposes. This chapter is about what leadership can do to repair breaches in those conventions or to maintain them in the face of new configurations of power. It will treat cases of partial order, involving crisis but not chaos. When there are no stable political conventions at all—or when conquest or radical revolutions have torn existing...

  10. Chapter 6 Vertical Inequality and the Extortion of Liberty
    (pp. 188-206)

    The work so far has explored how Hume’s theory of political convention and change fits together: how structures of effective (though limited) authority can arise in a world where cosmic or divine order can no longer be counted on. Hume’s theory is obviously attractive to those who live under conditions of brutal civil war or anarchy, or who fear such. Not yet explained is why it should appeal to everyone else. Contemporary citizens demand not just order but other things: at the least, liberty, equality, and democracy. With respect to the first two of these, at any rate,Hume agreed...

  11. Chapter 7 What Touches All: Equality, Parliamentarism, and Contested Authority
    (pp. 207-226)

    The last chapter suggested how the separation of monetary from executive power may maximize the compatibility of authority with liberty. Such separation helps correct for the vertical biases built into crude solutions to coordination games. The power that administers government has every reason to grab power (and rents); the power that funds it has every incentive to prevent it from doing so. This chapter addresses the horizontal biases of coordination: the ability of those holding government office to systematically favor some over others in the distribution of public goods or even of legal protection (though unlesssomeprotection is offered,...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 227-248)

    On the account given so far, Hume’s account of authority, and the politics of authority, is at root quite simple. Governmental authority is the product of conventions. It persists because of our universal interest in observing those conventions. It faces a crisis when governing conventions are not yet stable or when transitions between one convention and another are taking place (due to social, economic, or cultural changes that have unsettled the old ones or made new ones seem imaginable for the first time). Government is universally necessary in the first instance as the only actor that can settle disputes about...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 249-312)
  14. References
    (pp. 313-326)
  15. Index
    (pp. 327-338)