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David Hume's Warning on Forever Wars

Daniel Klein at Law & Liberty

Photo by Sarah Brown / Unsplash

Propaganda is checked by open challenge and spirited disputation. But it is hard to discuss one’s own government at war, because you might be treated as an apologist of the enemy, or even an outright enemy yourself. Propaganda is perhaps never worse than at times of war. That is when government is most likely to destroy precious domestic freedoms.

As for the US government nowadays and its conduct of military and foreign interventions, I daresay I rather doubt its wisdom and virtue. On the war in Ukraine and related issues, I find myself persuaded by such voices as John Mearsheimer, the gentlemen of The Duran, and the sages at Andrew Napolitano’s YouTube channel.

Philosophy and scholarship provide respite from the terrible. Boethius wrote—in prison, awaiting execution—of the consolation of philosophy. I find consolation in reading texts too old to know of today’s terrible goings-on. But sometimes connections are unavoidable.

I am involved in a regular reading group, and at this time our text is David Hume’s Essays, which contains “Of the Balance of Power.” It ends with several paragraphs on Great Britain’s “imprudent vehemence” in its many wars against absolutist France. Those paragraphs are remarkably relevant to things today, as I see them. In entering into those paragraphs, one learns about Hume’s thoughts and a way to see events today.

Hume presents France as a real threat to Britain. He speaks of it as “this ambitious power,” one that is “more formidable [than Charles V and the Habsburgs were] to the liberties of Europe.” He seemed to endorse Britain’s efforts to “guard us against universal monarchy, and preserve the world from so great an evil.”

It is possible that those declarations were sincere, and it is possible that they were sound. But Hume was a cagey writer, and certainly wrote to persuade the ruling class. What is so notable about “Of the Balance of Power,” however, is how it concludes. Hume says that Britain has prosecuted war to “excess,” calls for “moderation,” and gives his reasons. In applying those paragraphs to today, we might think of the United States in place of Britain, and Russia or China (or both) in place of France. Today’s Ukraine, Germany, and other NATO countries would be in the place of the allies of Hume’s Britain.

The essay, which first appeared in Hume’s 1752 Political Discourses, opens by noting that the phrase “the balance of power” is new and now heavily used—and today in 2023 we can confirm that (see here). Hume asks whether it is only the phrase that is new, or if the balance of power concept itself is new.

The answer is clear: “In all the politics of Greece, the anxiety, with regard to the balance of power, is apparent, and is expressly pointed out to us, even by the ancient historians.” People in ancient times were indeed concerned about rising rival powers, and they acted to preserve a balance of power. “Thucydides represents the league, which was formed against Athens, and which produced the Peloponnesian war, as entirely owing to this principle.” Athenians then were “the most bustling, intriguing, warlike people of Greece,” who found “their error in thrusting themselves into every quarrel.”

If that doesn’t make you think of the United States, perhaps Hume’s remarks about Rome will. The Roman Empire had become so dominant, like the erstwhile unipolarity of the United States, that the balance of power idea became somewhat inapt. Leaders outside of Rome perceived Rome’s rising hegemony, and they acquiesced to or actively backed Rome. Hume mentions Massinissa of Numidia, Attalus of Pergamon, and Prusias of Bithynia, men who, “in gratifying their private passions, were, all of them, the instruments of Roman greatness; and never seem to have suspected, that they were forging their own chains, while they advanced the conquests of their ally.” (I think of the current German Chancellor, Olaf “We will act together” Scholz.)

Hume highlights a man caught in the middle, on Sicily, between Rome and Carthage, Hiero of Syracuse, who acted to aid Carthage so as to preserve a balance between those two powers. Hume quotes the Greek historian, Polybius, saying that Hiero aided Carthage “lest by [Carthage’s] fall the remaining power [Rome] should be able, without contrast or opposition, to execute every purpose and undertaking. [F]orce [ought never] to be thrown into one hand, as to incapacitate the neighbouring states from defending their rights against it.” It is rare that a great power resembles a benevolent despot.

Hume sums up: “In short, the maxim of preserving the balance of power is founded so much on common sense and obvious reasoning, that it is impossible it could altogether have escaped antiquity, where we find, in other particulars, so many marks of deep penetration and discernment.”

Bringing the discussion back to his own time, Hume then turns to the chief concern of Britain, which is France. He compliments Britain for standing “foremost” against France in a series of wars, saying that Britons “are animated with such a national spirit, and are so fully sensible of the blessings of their government, that we may hope their vigour never will languish in so necessary and so just a cause.”

But the next sentence brings a turn: “On the contrary, if we may judge by the past, their [that is, Britons’] passionate ardour seems rather to require some moderation; and they have oftener erred from a laudable excess than from a blameable deficiency.”

May Britain’s vigor never languish—yet it requires moderation.

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