This originally appeared on Law and Liberty.
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. Benjamin Abelow has written a concise book on Western provocation and “shoe on the other foot” reasoning, How the West Brought War to Ukraine.
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 neighboring 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 vigor 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 arbor 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.
Hume then enumerates three arguments in favor of moderating British bellicosity toward France. First, Britain has been too possessed of the “spirit of jealous emulation, [rather] than actuated by the prudent views of modern politics.” The unfortunate spirit of emulation occurs when “each state seems to have had more in view the honor of leading the rest, than any well-grounded hopes of authority and dominion.”
“Our wars with France,” Hume writes, “have been begun with justice, and even, perhaps, from necessity; but have always been too far pushed from obstinacy and passion.” Hume then lists three cases of hostilities unfruitfully protracted:
- “The same peace, which was afterwards made at Ryswick in 1697, was offered so early as ;”
- “that concluded at Utrecht in 1712 might have been finished on as good conditions at Gertruytenberg in ;”
- “and we might have given at Frankfort, in 1743, the same terms, which we were glad to accept of at Aix-la-Chapelle in .”
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 neighbors” 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 defense 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 expense, refuse all reasonable terms of accommodation.”
If that doesn’t bring Ukraine to mind, consider the following about allied Hungary, vis-à-vis Prussia: “All the world knows, that the factious vote of the House of Commons, in the beginning of the last parliament, with the professed humor of the nation, made the queen of Hungary inflexible in her terms, and prevented that agreement with Prussia, which would immediately have restored the general tranquillity of Europe.”
Third, “we are such true combatants, that, when once engaged, we lose all concern for ourselves and our posterity, and consider only how we may best annoy the enemy.” Nowadays the annoying of the enemy extends to the point of regime change.
One concern for posterity – then as now – is government debt: “To mortgage our revenues at so deep a rate, in wars, where we were only accessories, was surely the most fatal delusion, that a nation, which had any pretension to politics and prudence, has ever yet been guilty of. That remedy of funding [public debt], if it be a remedy, and not rather a poison, ought, in all reason, to be reserved to the last extremity; and no evil, but the greatest and most urgent, should ever induce us to embrace so dangerous an expedient.”
In Hume’s 1752 volume (as in the modern volume), the essay “Of the Balance of Power” was followed immediately by “Of Taxes” and “Of Public Credit.” In the latter, Hume denounces the irresponsible accumulation of public debt, writing: “When I see princes and states fighting and quarreling, amidst their debts, funds, and public mortgages, it always brings to my mind a match of cudgel-playing fought in a China shop.”
Public debt, Hume explains, has surged as a result of war. With a warning that prefigures those of Alexis de Tocqueville, he writes in “Of Public Credit”: “But our children, weary of the struggle, and fettered with encumbrances, may sit down secure, and see their neighbors oppressed and conquered; till, at last, they themselves and their creditors lie both at the mercy of the conqueror.” I think of Adam Smith’s remark in his Lectures on Jurisprudence: “A conquered country in a manner only changes masters.” In another essay, Hume says that “the people” in absolutist European states “chose to entrust their prince with mercenary armies, which he easily turned against themselves.”
To return to “Of the Balance of Power”: It is in the spirit of Tocquevillian foreboding that Hume concludes. Hume invited Britons to think of themselves as necessary opponents of imperial and despotic France, and yet as excessively so. In the last paragraph, he throws another curveball, suggesting that Britain itself is drifting into the hubris of Athens prior to the Peloponnesian War and of the Roman Empire. “[T]he wars are carried on at a great distance, and interest so small a part of the state.” Today, many Americans ask: Why is our government waging a proxy war on Russia?
Hume’s message in the last paragraph is summed up by its first and last sentences: “Enormous monarchies are, probably, destructive to human nature; in their progress, in their continuance, and even in their downfall, which never can be very distant from their establishment. … And the melancholy fate of the Roman emperors, from the same cause, is renewed over and over again, till the final dissolution of the monarchy.”
Hume, addressing the ruling class, prompts them to ask themselves whether they are becoming like hubristic Roman emperors. American rulers might ask themselves whether their bellicosity resembles that of Hume’s Britain, and hence the hubris of Rome.
The White House and Pentagon are close to the Washington Monument but now far from George Washington.
Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is also associate fellow at the Ratio Institute (Stockholm), research fellow at the Independent Institute, chief editor of Econ Journal Watch, and author of Smithian Morals.