Balanced Government

CHAPTER 11 | Document 4

David Hume, Of the Independence of Parliament


Political writers have established it as a maxim that, in contriving any system of government and fixing the several checks and controls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest. By this interest we must govern him and, by means of it, make him, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition, cooperate to public good. Without this, say they, we shall in vain boast of the advantages of any constitution and shall find in the end that we have no security for our liberties or possessions except the good will of our rulers; that is, we shall have no security at all.

It is, therefore, a just political maxim that every man must be supposed a knave, though at the same time it appears somewhat strange that a maxim should be true in politics which is false in fact. But to satisfy us on this head we may consider that men are generally more honest in their private than in their public capacity, and will go greater lengths to serve a party than when their own private interest is alone concerned. Honor is a great check upon mankind; but where a considerable body of men act together, this check is in a great measure removed, since a man is sure to be approved of by his own party for what promotes the common interest, and he soon learns to despise the clamors of adversaries. To which we may add that every court or senate is determined by the greater number of voices, so that, if self-interest influences only the majority (as it will always do), the whole senate follows the allurements of this separate interest and acts as if it contained not one member who had any regard to public interest and liberty.

When there offers, therefore, to our censure and examination any plan of government, real or imaginary, where the power is distributed among several courts and several orders of men, we should always consider the separate interest of each court and each order; and if we find that, by the skillful division of power, this interest must necessarily in its operation concur with the public, we may pronounce that government to be wise and happy. If, on the contrary, separate interest be not checked and be not directed to the public, we ought to look for nothing but faction, disorder, and tyranny from such a government. In this opinion I am justified by experience, as well as by the authority of all philosophers and politicians, both ancient and modern.

How much, therefore, would it have surprised such a genius as Cicero or Tacitus to have been told that, in a future age, there should arise a very regular system of mixed government, where the authority was so distributed that one rank, whenever it pleased, might swallow up all the rest and engross the whole power of the constitution! Such a government, they would say, will not be a mixed government. For so great is the natural ambition of men that they are never satisfied with power; and if one order of men, by pursuing its own interest, can usurp upon every other order, it will certainly do so and render itself, as far as possible, absolute and uncontrollable.

But in this opinion experience shows they would have been mistaken. For this is actually the case with the British constitution. The share of power allotted by our constitution to the House of Commons is so great that it absolutely commands all the other parts of the government. The king's legislative power is plainly no proper check to it. For though the king has a negative in framing laws, yet this in fact is esteemed of so little moment that whatever is voted by the two houses is always sure to pass into a law, and the royal assent is little better than a form. The principal weight of the crown lies in the executive power. But besides that the executive power in every government is altogether subordinate to the legislative, besides this I say, the exercise of this power requires an immense expense, and the Commons have assumed to themselves the sole right of granting money. How easy, therefore, would it be for that house to wrest from the crown all these powers, one after another, by making every grant conditional and choosing their time so well that their refusal of supply should only distress the government, without giving foreign powers any advantage over us! Did the House of Commons depend in the same manner upon the king and had none of the members any property but from his gift, would not he command all their resolutions and be from that moment absolute? As to the House of Lords, they are a very powerful support to the crown so long as they are, in their turn, supported by it; but both experience and reason show that they have no force or authority sufficient to maintain themselves alone without such support.

How, therefore, shall we solve this paradox? And by what means is this member of our constitution confined within the proper limits, since, from our very constitution, it must necessarily have as much power as it demands and can only be confined by itself? How is this consistent with our experience of human nature? I answer that the interest of the body is here restrained by that of the individuals, and that the House of Commons stretches not its power, because such a usurpation would be contrary to the interest of the majority of its members. The crown has so many offices at its disposal that, when assisted by the honest and disinterested part of the House, it will always command the resolutions of the whole, so far, at least, as to preserve the ancient constitution from danger. We may therefore give to this influence what name we please; we may call it by the invidious appellations of corruption and dependence; but some degree and some kind of it are inseparable from the very nature of the constitution and necessary to the preservation of our mixed government.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 11, Document 4
The University of Chicago Press

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

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