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Allan, J --- "Essays, Moral, Political and Economic" [2004] OtaLawRw 11; (2004) 10 Otago Law Review 677

Book Review - Essays, Moral, Political and Economic

(By Samuel Brittan, Edinburgh University Press, 1998)

This short book of essays, put together by the David Hume Institute in Edinburgh, is an absolute delight. Although its focus is not on law, anyone with an interest in international trade law — and especially in GATT and the WTO — should consider these essays to be essential background reading. So, too, should anyone with an interest in the changing world economy (read “those for and against globalisation”) or in liberal individualism. As the editors of the Hume Papers on Public Policy (and Sir Samuel’s short book is volume 6 number 4 of that series) make clear in the foreword to this book,

“Sir Samuel frequently invokes the spirit and thought of David Hume”. I agree. And that is a serious compliment indeed. Like Hume, Sir Samuel ranges over a wide variety of topics in these essays. And though the general positions defended can be (somewhat distortingly) summarized as pro-free trade, capitalist, right-of-centre, liberal individualist, the roads taken in defending those positions are, to adopt a line from Robert Frost, very much “the one[s] less travelled by”. So Sir Samuel defends competitive capitalism, not as some unfailing panacea but rather as the least bad economic system available (with nothing better on the horizon either). Chapter six, “Globalisation: Myth and Reality”, is written in this spirit and is a tour de force. All those many anti-globalisation types, particularly those in the rich world, should be made to read this chapter and forced to offer us some alternative to globalisation. Sir Samuel is clear-eyed and notes the problems with globalisation. It is just that all of the anti-globalisation alternatives on offer — all of them — would make things even worse. Those who would be hit the hardest would be those living in the third world. (That makes many of those in the anti-globalisation camp hypocrites.) The least bad option going is globalisation, with plenty of room to debate the fine-tuning. Sir Samuel also frequently adopts a utilitarian perspective. Hence his equally excellent “In Defence of Individualism” (Chapter One) combines a forward- looking consequentialism with a determination to choose the least bad alternative on offer, which for him is liberal individualism. He dislikes communitarians and he says why. He dislikes (possibly even more) the Republican Religious Right, and says why. He thinks best consequences almost always flow from ensuring personal liberty and tolerance. (“Almost every increase in personal liberty and toleration, from the legalisation of homosexuality among consenting adults to the abolition of theatre censorship and more sensible divorce laws, has been brought about in the face of opposition from the majority of [British] Conservative MPs and activists.” — p. 4)

But Sir Samuel does not just cover economic globalisation and liberal individualism. His attack on the absurdities of deconstructionism and post- modernism (chapter ten, but especially the first two pages of that chapter) and his account of determinism (and why it is more believable than assertions of free

will, and nevertheless “a humane doctrine which substitutes understanding for judgement and limits punishment to where it is unavoidable as a deterrent” — p.

111, but see pp. 110-111 generally) are not to be missed.

As I said, the flavour of the great man David Hume himself permeates this book. Inevitably that makes Sir Samuel hard to peg in conventional left-right, liberal-conservative terms because the reasons he gives for the positions he adopts are not the usual ones. (Recall the quotation above about Conservative MPs and then consider this: “My own conviction is that people in the grip of greed often do much less harm than people in the grip of self-righteousness” — p. 14.). But they are generally convincing reasons.

Of course there are weaknesses and unconvincing bits, to be sure. Chapter four (“Some Contractarian Thoughts”) is the prime example of that. (Sir Samuel might have done better to recall the comment attributed to Hume that “social contract theories aren’t worth the paper they weren’t written on”.) And Sir Samuel is arguably too kind to Kuhn (see pp. 90-91) while too pessimistic about majoritarianism (see p. 16 ff.).

That said, this is a superb book. It’s only 113 pages long. Buy it and read it. More than once.

James Allan, Faculty of Law,

University of Otago

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