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11

Balanced Government



CHAPTER 11 | Document 3

David Hume, That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science

1742

It is a question with several whether there be any essential difference between one form of government and another, and whether every form may not become good or bad, according as it is well or ill administered? Were it once admitted that all governments are alike and that the only difference consists in the character and conduct of the governors, most political disputes would be at an end, and all zeal for one constitution above another must be esteemed mere bigotry and folly. But, though a friend to moderation, I cannot forbear condemning this sentiment and should be sorry to think that human affairs admit of no greater stability than what they receive from the casual humors and characters of particular men.

It is true, those who maintain that the goodness of all government consists in the goodness of the administration may cite many particular instances in history where the very same government, in different hands, has varied suddenly into the two opposite extremes of good and bad. Compare the French government under Henry III and under Henry IV. Oppression, levity, artifice on the part of the rulers, faction, sedition, treachery, rebellion, disloyalty on the part of the subjects--these compose the character of the former miserable era. But when the patriot and heroic prince who succeeded was once firmly seated on the throne, the government, the people, everything seemed to be totally changed; and all from the difference of the temper and conduct of these two sovereigns. Instances of this kind may be multiplied, almost without number, from ancient as well as modern history, foreign as well as domestic.

But here it may be proper to make a distinction. All absolute governments must very much depend on the administration, and this is one of the great inconveniences attending that form of government. But a republican and free government would be an obvious absurdity if the particular checks and controls provided by the constitution had really no influence and made it not the interest, even of bad men, to act for the public good. Such is the intention of these forms of government, and such is their real effect where they are wisely constituted; as, on the other hand, they are the source of all disorder and of the blackest crimes where either skill or honesty has been wanting in their original frame and institution.

So great is the force of laws and of particular forms of government, and so little dependence have they on the humors and tempers of men, that consequences almost as general and certain may sometimes be deduced from them as any which the mathematical sciences afford us.

The constitution of the Roman republic gave the whole legislative power to the people, without allowing a negative voice either to the nobility or consuls. This unbounded power they possessed in a collective, not in a representative body. The consequences were: when the people, by success and conquest, had become very numerous and had spread themselves to a great distance from the capital, the city tribes, though the most contemptible, carried almost every vote; they were, therefore, most cajoled by everyone that affected popularity; they were supported in idleness by the general distribution of corn and by particular bribes which they received from almost every candidate. By this means they became every day more licentious, and the Campus Martius was a perpetual scene of tumult and sedition; armed slaves were introduced among these rascally citizens, so that the whole government fell into anarchy, and the greatest happiness which the Romans could look for was the despotic power of the Caesars. Such are the effects of democracy without a representative.

A nobility may possess the whole or any part of the legislative power of a state in two different ways. Either every nobleman shares the power as a part of the whole body or the whole body enjoys the power as composed of parts which have each a distinct power and authority. The Venetian aristocracy is an instance of the first kind of government, the Polish of the second. In the Venetian government the whole body of nobility possesses the whole power, and no nobleman has any authority which he receives not from the whole. In the Polish government every nobleman, by means of his fiefs, has a distinct hereditary authority over his vassals, and the whole body has no authority but what it receives from the concurrence of its parts. The different operations and tendencies of these two species of government might be made apparent even a priori. A Venetian nobility is preferable to a Polish, let the humors and education of men be ever so much varied. A nobility who possess their power in common will preserve peace and order both among themselves and their subjects, and no member can have authority enough to control the laws for a moment. The nobles will preserve their authority over the people, but without any grievous tyranny or any breach of private property, because such a tyrannical government promotes not the interests of the whole body, however it may that of some individuals. There will be a distinction of rank between the nobility and people, but this will be the only distinction in the state. The whole nobility will form one body and the whole people another, without any of those private feuds and animosities which spread ruin and desolation everywhere. It is easy to see the disadvantages of a Polish nobility in every one of these particulars.

It is possible so to constitute a free government as that a single person, call him a doge, prince, or king, shall possess a large share of power and shall form a proper balance or counterpoise to the other parts of the legislature. This chief magistrate may be either elective or hereditary; and though the former institution may to a superficial view appear the most advantageous, yet a more accurate inspection will discover in it greater inconveniences than in the latter, and such as are founded on causes and principles eternal and immutable. The filling of the throne in such a government is a point of too great and too general interest not to divide the whole people into factions. Whence a civil war, the greatest of ills, may be apprehended almost with certainty upon every vacancy. The prince elected must be either a foreigner or a native. The former will be ignorant of the people whom he is to govern, suspicious of his new subjects and suspected by them, giving his confidence entirely to strangers who will have no other care but of enriching themselves in the quickest manner, while their master's favor and authority are able to support them. A native will carry into the throne all his private animosities and friendships and will never be viewed in his elevation without exciting the sentiment of envy in those who formerly considered him as their equal. Not to mention that a crown is too high a reward ever to be given to merit alone, and will always induce the candidates to employ force or money or intrigue to procure the votes of the electors, so that such an election will give no better chance for superior merit in the prince than if the state had trusted to birth alone for determining the sovereign.

It may, therefore, be pronounced as a universal axiom in politics that a hereditary prince, a nobility without vassals, and a people voting by their representatives form the best monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.


The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 11, Document 3
http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch11s3.html
The University of Chicago Press

Hume, David. Essays Moral, Political and Literary. 1742, 1752.

Easy to print version.


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