Republican Government

[Volume 1, Page 101]

CHAPTER 4 | Document 3

David Hume, Of Commerce


The greatness of a state and the happiness of its subjects, how independent soever they may be supposed in some respects, are commonly allowed to be inseparable with regard to commerce; and as private men receive greater security in the possession of their trade and riches from the power of the public, so the public becomes powerful in proportion to the opulence and extensive commerce of private men. This maxim is true in general, though I cannot forbear thinking that it may possibly admit of exceptions, and that we often establish it with too little reserve and limitation. There may be some circumstances where the commerce and riches and luxury of individuals, instead of adding strength to the public, will serve only to thin its armies and diminish its authority among the neighboring nations. Man is a very variable being and susceptible of many different opinions, principles, and rules of conduct. What may be true while he adheres to one way of thinking will be found false when he has embraced an opposite set of manners and opinions.

The bulk of every state may be divided into husbandmen and manufacturers. The former are employed in the culture of the land; the latter works up the materials furnished by the former into all the commodities which are necessary or ornamental to human life. As soon as men quit their savage state, where they live chiefly by hunting and fishing, they must fall into these two classes, though the arts of agriculture employ, at first, the most numerous part of the society. Time and experience improve so much these arts that the land may easily maintain a much greater number of men than those who are immediately employed in its culture or who furnish the more necessary manufactures to such as are so employed.

If these superfluous hands apply themselves to the finer arts, which are commonly denominated the arts of luxury, they add to the happiness of the state, since they afford to many the opportunity of receiving enjoyments with which they would otherwise have been unacquainted. But may not another scheme be proposed for the employment of these superfluous hands? May not the sovereign lay claim to them and employ them in fleets and armies, to increase the dominions of the state abroad and spread its fame over distant nations? It is certain that the fewer desires and wants are found in the proprietors and laborers of land, the fewer hands do they employ; and consequently the superfluities [Volume 1, Page 102] of the land, instead of maintaining tradesmen and manufacturers, may support fleets and armies to a much greater extent than where a great many arts are required to minister to the luxury of particular persons. Here, therefore, seems to be a kind of opposition between the greatness of the state and the happiness of the subject. A state is never greater than when all its superfluous hands are employed in the service of the public. The ease and convenience of private persons require that these hands should be employed in their service. The one can never be satisfied but at the expense of the other. As the ambition of the sovereign must entrench on the luxury of individuals, so the luxury of individuals must diminish the force and check the ambition of the sovereign.

Nor is this reasoning merely chimerical, but is founded on history and experience. The republic of Sparta was certainly more powerful than any state now in the world consisting of an equal number of people, and this was owing entirely to the want of commerce and luxury. The Helotes were the laborers, the Spartans were the soldiers or gentlemen. It is evident that the labor of the Helotes could not have maintained so great a number of Spartans had these latter lived in ease and delicacy, and given employment to a great variety of trades and manufactures. The like policy may be remarked in Rome. And, indeed, throughout all ancient history it is observable that the smallest republics raised and maintained greater armies than states consisting of triple the number of inhabitants are able to support at present. It is computed that, in all European nations, the proportion between soldiers and people does not exceed one to a hundred. But we read that the city of Rome alone, with its small territory, raised and maintained in early times ten legions against the Latins. Athens, the whole of whose dominions was not larger than Yorkshire, sent to the expedition against Sicily near forty thousand men. Dionysius the elder, it is said, maintained a standing army of a hundred thousand foot and ten thousand horse, besides a large fleet of four hundred sail, though his territories extended no further than the city of Syracuse--about a third of the island of Sicily, and some seaport towns and garrisons on the coast of Italy and Illyricum. It is true the ancient armies, in time of war, subsisted much upon plunder; but did not the enemy plunder in their turn?--which was a more ruinous way of levying a tax than any other that could be devised. In short, no probable reason can be assigned for the great power of the more ancient states above the modern but their want of commerce and luxury. Few artisans were maintained by the labor of the farmers, and therefore more soldiers might live upon it. Livy says that Rome, in his time, would find it difficult to raise as large an army as that which, in her early days, she sent out against the Gauls and Latins. Instead of those soldiers who fought for liberty and empire in Camillus' time, there were in Augustus' days musicians, painters, cooks, players, and tailors; and if the land was equally cultivated at both periods, it could certainly maintain equal numbers in the one profession as in the other. They added nothing to the mere necessaries of life in the latter period more than in the former.

It is natural on this occasion to ask whether sovereigns may not return to the maxims of ancient policy and consult their own interest in this respect more than the happiness of their subjects? I answer that it appears to me almost impossible, and that because ancient policy was violent and contrary to the more natural and usual course of things. It is well known with what peculiar laws Sparta was governed and what a prodigy that republic is justly esteemed by everyone who has considered human nature as it has displayed itself in other nations and other ages. Were the testimony of history less positive and circumstantial, such a government would appear a mere philosophical whim or fiction and impossible ever to be reduced to practice. And though the Roman and other ancient republics were supported on principles somewhat more natural, yet was there an extraordinary concurrence of circumstances to make them submit to such grievous burdens. They were free states; they were small ones; and the age being martial, all their neighbors were continually in arms. Freedom naturally begets public spirit, especially in small states, and this public spirit, this amor patriae, must increase when the public is almost in continual alarm and men are obliged every moment to expose themselves to the greatest dangers for its defense. A continual succession of wars makes every citizen a soldier; he takes the field in his turn, and during his service he is chiefly maintained by himself. This service is indeed equivalent to a heavy tax, yet is it less felt by a people addicted to arms who fight for honor and revenge more than pay, and are unacquainted with gain and industry as well as pleasure. Not to mention the great equality of fortunes among the inhabitants of the ancient republics, where every field belonging to a different proprietor was able to maintain a family and rendered the numbers of citizens very considerable, even without trade and manufactures.

But though the want of trade and manufactures among a free and very martial people may sometimes have no other effect than to render the public more powerful, it is certain that in the common course of human affairs it will have a quite contrary tendency. Sovereigns must take mankind as they find them, and cannot pretend to introduce any violent change in their principles and ways of thinking. A long course of time with a variety of accidents and circumstances are requisite to produce those great revolutions which so much diversify the face of human affairs. And the less natural any set of principles are which support a particular society, the more difficulty will a legislator meet with in raising and cultivating them. It is his best policy to comply with the common bent of mankind and give it all the improvements of which it is susceptible. Now according to the most natural course of things, industry and arts and trade increase the power of the sovereign as well as the happiness of the subjects, and that policy is violent which aggrandizes the public by the poverty of individuals. This will easily appear from a few considerations which will present to us the consequences of sloth and barbarity.

Where manufactures and mechanic arts are not cultivated, the bulk of the people must apply themselves to agriculture; and if their skill and industry increase, there must arise a great superfluity from their labor beyond [Volume 1, Page 103] what suffices to maintain them. They have no temptation, therefore, to increase their skill and industry, since they cannot exchange that superfluity for any commodities which may serve either to their pleasure or vanity. A habit of indolence naturally prevails. The greater part of the land lies uncultivated. What is cultivated yields not its utmost, for want of skill and assiduity in the farmers. If at any time the public exigencies require that great numbers should be employed in the public service, the labor of the people furnishes now no superfluities by which these numbers can be maintained. The laborers cannot increase their skill and industry on a sudden. Lands uncultivated cannot be brought into tillage for some years. The armies, meanwhile, must either make sudden and violent conquests or disband for want of subsistence. A regular attack or defense, therefore, is not to be expected from such a people, and their soldiers must be as ignorant and unskillful as their farmers and manufacturers.

Everything in the world is purchased by labor, and our passions are the only causes of labor. When a nation abounds in manufactures and mechanic arts, the proprietors of land, as well as the farmers, study agriculture as a science and redouble their industry and attention. The superfluity which arises from their labor is not lost, but is exchanged with manufactures for those commodities which men's luxury now makes them covet. By this means, land furnishes a great deal more of the necessaries of life than what suffices for those who cultivate it. In times of peace and tranquillity, this superfluity goes to the maintenance of manufacturers and the improvers of liberal arts. But it is easy for the public to convert many of these manufacturers into soldiers and maintain them by that superfluity which arises from the labor of the farmers. Accordingly we find that this is the case in all civilized governments. When the sovereign raises an army, what is the consequence? He imposes a tax. This tax obliges all the people to retrench what is least necessary to their subsistence. Those who labor in such commodities must either enlist in the troops or turn themselves to agriculture, and thereby oblige some laborers to enlist for want of business. And to consider the matter abstractly, manufactures increase the power of the state only as they store up so much labor, and that of a kind to which the public may lay claim without depriving anyone of the necessaries of life. The more labor, therefore, that is employed beyond mere necessaries, the more powerful is any state; since the persons engaged in that labor may easily be converted to the public service. In a state without manufactures, there may be the same number of hands; but there is not the same quantity of labor nor of the same kind. All the labor is there bestowed upon necessaries, which can admit of little or no abatement.

Thus the greatness of the sovereign and the happiness of the state are in a great measure united with regard to trade and manufactures. It is a violent method, and in most cases impracticable, to oblige the laborer to toil in order to raise from the land more than what subsists himself and family. Furnish him with manufactures and commodities, and he will do it of himself; afterward you will find it easy to seize some part of his superfluous labor and employ it in the public service without giving him his wonted return. Being accustomed to industry, he will think this less grievous than if at once you obliged him to an augmentation of labor without any reward. The case is the same with regard to the other members of the state. The greater is the stock of labor of all kinds, the greater quantity may be taken from the heap without making any sensible alteration in it.

A public granary of corn, a storehouse of cloth, a magazine of arms--all these must be allowed real riches and strength in any state. Trade and industry are really nothing but a stock of labor which, in times of peace and tranquillity, is employed for the ease and satisfaction of individuals, but in the exigencies of state may in part be turned to public advantage. Could we convert a city into a kind of fortified camp and infuse into each breast so martial a genius and such a passion for public good as to make everyone willing to undergo the greatest hardships for the sake of the public, these affections might now, as in ancient times, prove alone a sufficient spur to industry and support the community. It would then be advantageous, as in camps, to banish all arts and luxury, and by restrictions on equipage and tables make the provisions and forage last longer than if the army were loaded with a number of superfluous retainers. But as these principles are too disinterested and too difficult to support, it is requisite to govern men by other passions and animate them with a spirit of avarice and industry, art and luxury. The camp is, in this case, loaded with a superfluous retinue, but the provisions flow in proportionately larger. The harmony of the whole is still supported, and the natural bent of the mind being more complied with, individuals as well as the public find their account in the observance of those maxims.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 4, Document 3
The University of Chicago Press

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