Monday Muse v.1 n.17
March 7, 2000

My Dearest Gentlefolk,

After a whirlwind Monday, I have found time once again to offer a Tuesday edition of our philosophical letter. This week, I offer a concise statement of government from our dear David Hume. Mr. Hume writes:

"Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. The soldan of EGYPT, or the emperor of ROME, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes, or praetorian bands, like men, by their opinion."

David Hume, Of the First Principles of Government in Essays: Moral, Political and Literary at 32-33 (1987).

Hume takes great pains in this very short essay to make further distinctions between the species of opinion (of interest and of right), and the subsidiary species of right (of power and of property). His view of opinion is indeed subtle and multifaceted, as any inspection of his various Enquiries will quickly reveal. But the point I center upon today is the almost trivial assertion that the many are only governed by the few by the former's willingness to suffer the government of the latter.

It is the nature of government to concentrate authority in the hands of a relative minority in the population, at least when this government administers the lives and property of more than a handful of families. (Try government by consensus among a population of more than two or three hundred for any length of time and you will soon discover the necessity of delegation, election or committee.) Such a concentration of authority is only possible if patterns of deference flow in a coherent (and uniform) direction: in favor of the offices of government. All of this is nearly axiomatic, even though the manner in which popular consent is constructed and maintained is as varied as anything in life.

It may seem odd to consider dictatorship and even tyranny, insofar as these essentially describe a particular government, to be the creature of popular approval. But it is also somewhat deceptive to proclaim governments everywhere to rely upon "nothing more" than the "opinion" of the masses. For it does not follow from this that it should be easier to rally a people against an oppressive government than against a libertarian one. Structures of deference, allegiance, political commitment, and so forth, are frequently integrated into the self-image of the better part of the populace, and bringing the majority to resent their government is as likely to succeed as bringing any one of its members to resent him or her self. Hume is most assuredly cognizant of this fact. It is, nevertheless, his pleasure to de-mystify the foundations of government, and in the act of doing so, expose the essential fragility of authority.

We are accustomed to view fame as a creature of the whim of the people. Government is no mere whim, but shares with fame an essential instability that the gloss of ages cannot entirely obscure. We are creatures of habit, avarice, fear, love and much, much more. And so is our government, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.

Commitment is a thing of mind; but it is a thing made real by its thinking. Opinion is so rarely mere opinion: but it is the very stuff of Government, good or bad, absolute or libertarian.

David Robert Foss

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Message Author Date
Muse v.1 n.17 David Robert Foss 03/07/2000
Response 1 Steve R. 03/07/2000
Response 2 David Robert Foss 03/07/2000
Response 3 Steve R. 03/07/2000
Response 4 David Robert Foss 03/07/2000
Response 5 Steve R. 03/07/2000

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