The Political Prophet Harvard Didn’t Want

In our age of global conflict, István Hont is finally having his moment

Danielle Charette and William Selinger

In 2001 a dispute over hiring in Harvard’s government department briefly became national news. The faculty had voted unanimously to offer a tenured position to the historian István Hont (1947-2013), a specialist in Enlightenment political thought at King’s College, Cambridge. But Hont was a notorious perfectionist with a modest publication record and no monograph. Harvard’s then president, Larry Summers, vetoed the department’s recommendation. The move from one Cambridge to the other would never happen.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Summers — who earned tenure in the department of economics at age 28 — was determined “to hire more wunderkinder.” The Harvard government professor Michael Sandel speculated that Summers’s bias toward younger candidates amounted to “a prejudice for mathematical and statistical approaches — such as those reflected by Mr. Summers’s own economics background — over historical or philosophical approaches, where people often do their best work in their 50s, 60s, or beyond.”

Summers’s veto spoke to the irony of Hont’s career. Three years after Harvard rejected him, Hont published his magnum opus, Jealousy of Trade (2005), a collection of essays on 18th-century thought that contended that “the globalization debate of the late 20th and early 21st centuries lacks conceptual novelty.” The whole thrust of Hont’s work was that the discipline Summers represented had made little progress when it came to the most fundamental dilemmas of a global economy.

Outside of a few scholarly circles, Hont is hardly a household name. But his revisionist readings of Enlightenment authors led him to make a number of prescient observations — observations that seem more relevant today than when Hont began publishing, in the 1980s. Hont held that the “triumph” of free trade over national protection was far from certain. The upheavals brought about by global commerce and economic inequality might lead to domestic unrest, even “Caesarism.” The current waves of authoritarianism and protectionism in Western politics, combined with new military and economic conflict with Russia and China, lend weight to his insight.

For Hont, the end of the Cold War solved little. The collapse of the Soviet Union may have proved that capitalism was more efficient than a planned economy. But it offered “no victory” for Western values. The events of 1989-91 broke no new “conceptual” ground. Hont predicted that sovereign states would remain the key players in world politics for the foreseeable future, and he saw little reason to assume that nationalist passions could be extinguished. The fall of the Berlin Wall did not change the fact that nation-states must still defend their borders and contend for status in the context of an ever-expanding global market.

Those were counterintuitive claims from a historian who had defected from Communist Hungary while on a research trip to consult the manuscripts of David Hume. But Hont did not look to Hume or Adam Smith as devotees of free trade. He read them as theorists of global conflict. Hume and Smith deserved study because they were political economists who understood that modern commercial society emerged within a world of fierce competition, defined by powerful warring states.

Hont liked to quote Hume’s observation that the 18th century was the age when trade became “an affair of state.” In other words, the competition between France, Holland, Spain, and Britain for political superiority went hand in hand with their quest for economic advantage. Yes, Hume attributed the rise of liberty in modern Europe to commercial growth. Yet Hume also argued that interstate rivalry could easily end in debt, bankruptcy, military conquest, and “a degree of despotism” never before seen on earth. Hont was preoccupied by this tension between commerce and war, between liberty and despotism. Eighteenth-century political economy captured both the promise and peril of a globalizing world.

Born in Communist Hungary in 1947, Hont was active in the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party and had been on track to become a high-level functionary in Budapest. His mother taught agricultural engineering, and his father served as a deputy at the ministry of agriculture. But Hont quit engineering school to pursue a Ph.D. in history and philosophy, and a stroke of good fortune allowed him to shift his studies to Britain. He happened to serve as the driver for Michael Postan — the Cambridge economic historian who was born in the Russian province of Bessarabia — when Postan was visiting Budapest, in the early 1970s. Postan hinted he could help Hont to leave Hungary — and he later secured Hont a place at Oxford when Hont and his wife overstayed their visas in 1975. Hont began a second history Ph.D. focused on Hume’s political economy. He would not return to Hungary until after 1989.

But the move to Britain did not turn Hont into a conventional Cold War liberal. He maintained that the economic neoliberalism ascendant at the end of the 20th century rested on no less misleading a philosophy of history than Marxism did. And though he published some of his best work during the New Labour period of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Hont insisted he was not promoting “a third way between Marxism and liberalism” either. Each of these different ideologies — Marxism, Blairism, Thatcherite neoliberalism — shared the mistaken conviction that the fundamental problems of modern politics were in the process of being solved. Hont looked to the 18th century for a more skeptical approach.

Hont’s first major publication, an essay in his coedited volume Wealth and Virtue, focused on what he titled the “rich country-poor country problem.” Was a poor country like Scotland destined to lag permanently behind its richer English neighbor? Or would lower wages bring the Scots competitive advantage? Hume and Smith had answered yes to both questions. Wealthier countries would continue to retain the upper hand, thanks to their manufacturing capacity and greater division of labor. Yet poorer countries could narrow the gap if they were willing to meet the unyielding demands of the international market. Hont stressed that there was no moral victory in this realization. The “rich country-poor country” debate revealed that globalization would transform, but not overcome, international rivalries.

The driving claim of Hont’s work is that “the economic determination of politics,” in either its Marxist or pro-market varieties, has never really come to pass. Just as often, he observed, it is politics that determines economic policy. States calculate their success in international trade in terms of their relative military and geopolitical standing, not necessarily as a measure of efficiency or overall prosperity. Vladimir Putin’s resolve to invade Ukraine despite wide-ranging financial sanctions would seem to confirm Hont’s point. The same goes for Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, and preparations for a new Cold War between the United States and China.

Hont borrowed the title of his book from Hume’s essay “Of the Jealousy of Trade” (1757). Hume concluded that piece — published in the midst of the Seven Years’ War — with a confession that he prayed for the prosperity of Britain’s main commercial competitors, including its military archrival, France. Yet Hume acknowledged that nothing was “more usual” than for commercial states to regard their neighbors’ progress with “a suspicious eye.” Jealousy was the default position. Hont thought he heard a hint of Hobbes in this remark. Hobbes compared state sovereigns to armed gladiators, standing “in continuall jealousies” against one another. The phrase “jealousy of trade” carried the politics of Leviathan into a world of global markets — a world in which “the economy had become political.”

Hont recognized that commerce had transformed the world. But he believed that the imperatives of politics were still more fundamental to the human condition. This followed from a fairly bleak psychology that Hont also traced back to Hobbes. Against the classical notion that man is by nature a social or political animal, Hobbes had asserted that the rules that hold society together are entirely artificial. By nature, our desire for pre-eminence over others and security for ourselves is the source of endless conflict — a war of all against all. Hence the need for an absolute state to guarantee order.

Hont argued that the Enlightenment authors who followed Hobbes did not so much deny his argument as supplement it. Accepting that natural benevolence and sympathy are not enough to hold together a large society of strangers over time, Smith and Hume emphasized that human beings would nevertheless cooperate for reasons of mutual advantage. As Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations, it is “not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Human beings could sustain some degree of cooperation, at least enough to stave off the alternatives of civil war or absolutism.

But the transactional utility that arises in market society could not eliminate or transform the forces of human nature that Hobbes diagnosed. Markets offer only another channel through which human passions can flow, another path to attaining recognition, profit, and stability. If this path is blocked — whether by war, commercial disruption, supply-chain shocks, or declining economic opportunity — the logic of Hobbes’s argument begins to reassert itself. Conflict over status and interest re-emerges in all its brutality. Hont believed that Immanuel Kant captured the Janus-faced character of human sociability in his phrase “unsocial sociability,” the ambivalent coexistence of the “propensity to enter into society” and the urge to oppose or destroy it.

Another reason politics ultimately trumped economics was historical: Commercial society emerged after the land and resources of the world had already been divided. Property was by then claimed not only by individuals and families but also by political communities. What natural-law theorists called “an original division” of resources was long past. This meant that recognizably political societies, which sought to secure and maintain control over their territory and to expand where possible, existed before capitalism. Far from undermining the already existing Hobbesian state, the take-off in trade that occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries further increased its powers and ambitions.

Hont thought that the central question facing the theorists of the Enlightenment was also our question. How do we navigate a world of commercial states? Enlightenment theorists were struck by the paradox that the most powerful political institutions ever invented — capable of borrowing fantastic sums of money and of engaging in war and conquest on a scale unmatched in human history — were inextricably embedded in societies that also enjoyed unprecedented degrees of freedom, cosmopolitanism, and prosperity. This left political reformers in a bind. Should they begin from the world as it was? Or did the Hobbesian-commercial state need to be uprooted entirely?

The clash between those approaches would become especially apparent in France, where the monarchy’s inability to pay its debts led first to political paralysis and then to revolution. One of Hont’s favorite subjects was the debate between Adam Smith and the physiocrat François Quesnay. In the decades before the French Revolution, the physiocrats aimed to reverse Louis XIV’s program for state-sponsored industry by imposing a “natural” system of free trade. Smith took a more cautious line. Although he believed in the benefits of trade, Smith feared that the physiocrats were too charmed by the theoretical consistency of their reforms. The real challenge for economists was to adapt reforms to Europe’s actual pattern of development, even if that development was, as Smith put it, “unnatural and retrograde.” The alternative, Smith feared, was a utopian endeavor to create a liberalized economy from scratch.

As the French Revolution unfolded, the Jacobins called for an even more radical solution than the physiocrats. They sought to overturn the system of Hobbesian-commercial states altogether. Recognizing that France’s present crisis had been “caused by the vicious dynamics of global rivalry between nations,” Hont wrote, “the Jacobins wanted to treat the roots of the problem.” They lamented the fact that mankind had “divided into separate nations, each pursuing its own interest,” and therefore committed themselves to “the destruction of the modern state system.” Rejecting Hobbes’s account of human nature, the Jacobins believed human wickedness stemmed from social and political inequality. Egalitarianism and the end of state sovereignty would restore a universal sociability to the human race.

Hont traced the ideologies of his own day back to this original revolt against the Hobbesian-commercial state. Marxism began where Jacobinism left off. It too was an attempt to undo the “original division” of the earth and to create an emancipated and unified humanity, “cleansed of the distorting effects of private property and its political guardian, the state.” Radical economic liberals were similarly utopian. They sought the benefits of commercial society, without conceding Hobbes’s understanding of human nature.

Though he avoided the term “neoliberal,” Hont was fond of anachronisms like “shock therapy” and “restructuring” when describing the physiocrats. He implied that plans for the top-down liberalization of France’s prerevolutionary economy were analogous to the International Monetary Fund’s “shock therapy” policies in the former Soviet Union — policies now blamed for enriching a generation of Russian oligarchs and for paving Putin’s path to power.

But Hont’s focus on the Enlightenment suggested there was another response to this economic-political tension. This was of the path of piecemeal reform. Many of the most famous Enlightenment thinkers — Smith, Hume, Montesquieu, Kant, Rousseau, Sieyès — were committed to improvement, rather than to starting from scratch. Hont compared the reform strategies of Smith and Rousseau in his 2009 Carlyle Lectures, posthumously published as Politics in Commercial Society (2015). Here Hont stressed that Smith and Rousseau had each made their peace with “unsocial sociability” and the rise of commercial society. Their task was to prevent the Hobbesian-commercial state system from destroying itself through war and debt.

Rousseau encouraged states to cut themselves off from trade while slowly rebalancing their internal economies. He warned that if states continued to take part in global commerce, the intersection of economic oligarchy, powerful armies, and growing national debt would lead to the rise of Caesarist dictators, who could find support among poorly paid soldiers and disgruntled masses. Smith, by contrast, believed that states should liberalize trade where possible; rising prosperity was the best insurance against the kind of social explosion Rousseau predicted. Smith favored limited monarchy and thought the traditional balance of power between European states was the most realistic path toward peace. Rousseau favored popular republics and thought peace was possible only through a European federation, though he was considerably more pessimistic than Smith and doubted whether peace or liberty was possible in 18th-century Europe.

It didn’t take long for Smith and Rousseau to be enlisted in the familiar ideologies of the 19th century, with Smith cast as a proto-liberal and Rousseau as the precursor to Jacobinism. Yet Hont believed their original projects yielded a more illuminating perspective. He spent his career recovering a set of intellectual and political priorities that preceded the French Revolution. First was to control and channel “jealousy of trade” before it leads to war and despotism. Second, politicians must redirect this jealousy while also somehow reconciling the opposing programs of Smith and Rousseau — for we now live in a world of commercial republics, a world in which it is not easy to sacrifice either equality or prosperity. Third, it was essential to come to grips with the lasting power of the Hobbesian-commercial state. There are plenty of reasons to resent the state’s exclusiveness, its history of injustice, and its tendency toward inequality and corruption. But Hont noted that there is also a persistent logic to state sovereignty — a logic we ignore at our peril.

Each of those priorities is in keeping with Hont’s confession that he studied his favorite Enlightenment theorists “with eyes firmly fixed on the challenges of today.” This was a somewhat heretical announcement for a Cambridge historian of ideas. The so-called Cambridge School of Hont’s day tended to eschew comparisons with contemporary politics, concerned that “presentism” distracts from the debates that mattered to historical actors themselves. Hont was as alert to contextual nuance as anyone, but he saw no reason to think that the debates that most interested him had ended in 1776 or 1789 or 1991. Enlightenment political economy deserves study, he said, because the “commercial future that many 18th-century observers imagined as plausible has become our historical present.” This was a bolder claim than simply suggesting that Smith and Rousseau “anticipate” the paradoxes of globalization or the crises of the European Union. Hont thought that the theories of Rousseau and Smith are applicable because we are still living in the world that 18th-century commerce created.

Hont was a scholar’s scholar, whose Cambridge colleagues remember him in terms they might otherwise reserve for Socrates. He was a brilliant lecturer whose main legacy rests on the questions he posed during weekly seminars, a teacher whose “argumentative rigor had to be experienced in the flesh.” No doubt Hont’s work is elliptical. But the answers he reached in his published work have relevance beyond the seminar room. Above all, Hont urged readers to see that the “economic determination of politics” was a pipe dream. Commerce may have reshaped politics, yet political actors will continue to repurpose commerce toward their own ends.

In a world of sovereign states, politics and economics are always intertwined but never congruent. And in an era when the study of the humanities must compete with more “practical” or “relevant” disciplines, Hont’s work suggests that the simplest and oldest justification is the most compelling: Historia magistra vitae est. History remains our best teacher. As long as jealousy of trade persists, Hume, Smith, and Rousseau might still count as our contemporaries.