Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

Hume on Economic Equality and Happiness

Schabas Margaret , University of British Columbia

In his essay ‘Of the Original Contract’, Hume endorsed the longstanding trope of ‘how nearly equal all men are in their bodily force, and even in their mental powers and faculties, till cultivated by education’ (E-467-8). Hume was not an egalitarian, but he leaned toward more representative government over time, and endorsed higher wages for skilled labourers, as well as state efforts to educate the lower orders and bolster technical knowledge. He strongly opposed the ‘utility of poverty’ doctrine, looking to Ireland, for example, as proof that relatively low wages did not foster economic growth. His fiscal policy was attentive to shifting the burden of taxes more to the landed class, and his account of representative government sought to increase the franchise. As will be argued here, Hume sought to reduce economic inequality, both between the middle and upper echelons, but also between the lower and the middle classes. The reasons were partly drawn from a sense of equity or fairness, an appeal to utilitarian ends, but above all, to the safeguarding of political stability. As Hume observed, ‘a too great disproportion among the citizens weakens any state’ (E-265). This talk will unpack further Hume’s understanding of economic equality as a source of prosperity and human flourishing.


Keywords: Hume, Equality, Working Class, Fiscal Policy, Global Trade, Utilitarianism

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