Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hume on The Calamity of Bad Government

Like his great predecessor Shakespeare, David Hume understood the calamity that is bad government.  Here he sums up the career of Henry III of England
The most obvious circumstance of Henry's character is his incapacity for government, which rendered him as much a prisoner in the hands of his own ministers and favorites, and as little at his own disposal, as when detained a captive in the hands of his enemies. From this source, rather than from insincerity or treachery, arose his negligence in observing his promises; and he was too easily induced, for the sake of present convenience, to sacrifice the lasting advantages arising from the trust and confidence of his people. Hence too were derived his profusion to favorites, his attachment to strangers, the variableness of his conduct, his hasty resentments, and his sudden forgiveness and return of affection.
Instead of reducing the dangerous power of his nobles, by obliging them to observe the laws towards their inferiors, and setting them the salutary example in his own government, he was seduced to imitate their conduct, and to make his arbitrary will, or rather that of his ministers, the rule of his actions. Instead of accommodating himself, by a strict frugality, to the embarrassed situation in which his revenue had been left by the military expeditions of his uncle, the dissipations of his father, and the usurpations of the barons, he was tempted to levy money by irregular exactions, which, without enriching himself, impoverished, at least disgusted, his people. Of all men, nature seemed least to have fitted him for being a tyrant, yet are there instances of oppression in his reign, which, though derived from the precedents left him by his predecessors, had been carefully guarded against by the Great Charter, and are inconsistent with all rules of good government. And on the whole, we may say, that greater abilities, with his good dispositions, would have prevented him from falling into his faults, or with worse dispositions, would have enabled him to maintain and defend them.

--David Hume, History of  England v. 2, 64-5 (Liberty ed. 1983).  In fairness to Henry, he arrayed himself against long odds.  He succeeded his father, King John, he of the Great Charter, Magna Carta--at the age of nine (he ruled, not always securely, from 1216 until his death in 1272).  Sources agree that he was, as Hume suggests, pious, hard-working and mostly well-intentioned.  Proving once again that good intentions are only part of the battle. And however ineffectual he may have proven at the task of governance, he left one of the legacies of any English monarch: it was he who (re)built Westminster Abbey, into much the presence that we see now.

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