Dan Klein on Hume on War
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.
This is from Daniel Klein, “David Hume’s Warning on Our Future Wars,” Law and Liberty, May 3. Law and Liberty is our sister publication at Liberty Fund.
In his article, Dan lays out how judicious David Hume was in his thinking about war with France. Dan suggests that we be as judicious in thinking about war with Russia.
Today, what is the realistic aim in Ukraine? Why put off negotiations and resolution? Hume writes that it is “owing more to our own imprudent vehemence, than to the ambition of our neighbours” that we have sustained “half of our wars with France, and all our public debts.”
Second, Britain, being “so declared in our opposition to French power,” has displayed also that it is “so alert in defence of our allies.” How, then, do Britain’s allies respond? “[T]hey always reckon upon our force as upon their own; and expecting to carry on war at our expence, refuse all reasonable terms of accommodation.”
I particularly like the part about government debt, which I think doesn’t get talked about enough with regard to U.S. wars and proxy wars. While the Ukraine war has been relatively cheap for the United States so far, the war against Afghans and Iraqis has cost us cumulatively trillions of dollars.
Dan ends with the following:
The White House and Pentagon are close to the Washington Monument but now far from George Washington.
I recommend the whole thing.