Liberty Matters

Hume and Liberty, Simple and Complicated

Like fireworks on New Year's Eve, the essay by Nicholas Capaldi launches a splendorous cascade. The useful and agreeable essay runs along lines of Hume as pragmatist and non-foundationalist. I hope to remark on such in follow-up conversation. Here I hold forth on Hume on the theory and history of liberty, connecting to Nick at several points.
As Donald Livingston (1984) says, "philosophical insight is gained by working through the contrarieties of thought which structure a drama of inquiry" (36). To study David Hume and Adam Smith is to study the contrarieties that figure centrally in their thought. By contrariety, I don't mean a stark double-doctrine, as for example when a word exoterically means X and esoterically a quite contrary Y. The idea, rather, is that the two meanings, X and Y, do differ, and the key is to see when the author means X and when Y—and, sometimes, when Z, and beyond—and how the author accommodates both X and Y.
A contrariety that looms large in A Treatise of Human Nature (THN) resides in the word reason (Matson 2017a). Another great contrariety in THN and other works by both Hume and Smith resides in nature/natural. In their moral and political thought, the big contrarieties reside in justice, liberty, and freedom.[22]
Smith makes a pathway to clarity in our understanding of Hume. A remarkable contrariety in Smith resides in justice. He seems to tell us that justice talk ought to be confined to "mere justice," or commutative justice. But read closer. Actually, he affirms not one but three senses of justice. He does not confine his justice talk to commutative; he practices the other two as well, and copiously.
But commutative is clearly very special. One aspect of its specialness is that, by virtue of its precise and accurate—or grammar-like—rules, it has a flipside that, too, is grammar-like. The virtue of commutative justice, that is, not messing with other people's stuff, has a flipside in others not messing with one's stuff. In equal-equal jural relationships Smith often calls that "security," but in superior-inferior jural relationships, "liberty" or "natural liberty."
That commutative justice and liberty are flipsides is signaled by Smith, for example, when he says of two restrictions: "Both laws were evident violations of natural liberty, and therefore unjust" (WN, 530, italics added). Liberty is others not messing with one's stuff.[23]
But Smith's "system of natural liberty" clearly entails the government messing with one's stuff. So liberty must also have a meaning aside from others not messing with one's stuff.
Likewise for Hume. He does not articulate the simple meaning of liberty as explicitly, but he too upheld it as a meaning of liberty. Yes, that general formulation—others not messing with one's stuff—has inside of it the evolved historicity of the grammar-like content of what functions as "stuff," of what makes it "one's," and what counts as "messing with" it. The injunction against messing is a necessary convention among jural equals, however, so, amidst a diversity of historicity, there obtains a uniformity in the general formulation.
And we likewise have a uniformity in applying the following crucial principle: a type of action in a superior-inferior jural relationship is an initiation of coercion if (and only if) such action in equal-equal jural relationships is an initiation of coercion. If your neighbor "taxed" you (i.e., extorted wealth from you) or "regulated" your freedom of association (i.e., stalked and assaulted you in private life), we darned-well would regard that as an initiation of coercion, and so we do call it an initiation of coercion when done by government (though not "extortion" or "assault").
Historicity pins down "stuff," "one's," and "messing with," yielding operative concepts of both commutative justice and liberty. The Hume-Smith formulations maintain that taxation and government interventions are initiations of coercion, are violations of liberty; such semantics check their advocates by placing upon them a burden of proof.
The foregoing formulations presuppose jural dualism. But human experience has, arguably, found itself in conditions of jural monism, that is, only equal-equal, in the simple society of the ancestral band of the Paleolithic, giving us instincts to jural monism that die hard (Hayek's two-worlds hypothesis and atavism thesis about modern collectivist politics). In recent millennia, human experience has found itself in conditions of jural multiplicity beyond dualism: Families, clans, slave-masters, tribes, lords, ecclesiastical institutions, multiple governments, all grating against one another, a jural mishmash that defies the simple "jural superior" of the modern nation-state. Today, speaking of "the government" feels natural to us, because within the modern nation-state there is an integration of the, e.g., municipal, county, provincial, national authorities.  As Robert Bucholz (2003) puts it, Britain saw the formation of imperium. The formation of such jural imperium, which underlies jural dualism, which underlies the formulation of liberty given here, is a chief theme of Hume's History of England. Thus, Nick: "Liberty is a product of English history."
Britain was early to jural imperium (which does not preclude competing court systems). The accretion of jural integration occurred at the same time that the philosophy of governance shifted from social cohesion in the higher things to the emergent, post-Westphalia focus on the lower things that were worked out in natural jurisprudence, a refocusing that comported with growing toleration in high-things differences, with concomitant abstract ideas like earnings (honest income), increasingly sanctified in evolving Christianity and justified in the liberal theory of virtue (e.g., in Britain, Locke, Butler, Hutcheson, Hume, Smith), with concomitant results like innovation and what Nick calls the technological project, and with liberal economic theory and Smith's "liberal plan." What emerged was not just the nation-state, but inspiration and formulations for a liberal nation-state—a plan practical, virtuous, and lucrative to most, not least the Exchequer. Perhaps deliberately downplaying concomitants which tended toward social discohesion, Hume and Smith made such appeal to all honest gentlemen (Merrill 2015).
But the nation-state is the institutionalization of initiations of coercion. Imperium is the nation-state's supervening of all jural affairs. Resolution of the contrariety comes by way of judiciously incorporated distinctions, refinements, and qualifications—that is, by complications.
Liberty is used to formulate reforms and to compare them (including the no-reform option), thus keeping thought and discussion anchored in what we know and practice, the status quo. The liberty principle (if Reform 1 rates higher in liberty than Reform 2, then prefer it to Reform 2) is defeasible. Thus, as Nick points out, Hume is no "doctrinaire libertarian." But Hume and Smith propose to make a maxim of the liberty principle—Nick thus says that Hume maintains liberty as "the default position." Maintaining that presumption depends on properly theorizing the configuration of ownership (Klein 2011): Nick rightly emphasizes that for Hume political authority is based on acquiescence, not consent.
Hume and Smith considered the constitutive elements that conduce to relative liberty—rule of law, rules certainty and generality, representative government, divided powers, checks and balances, and so on. The word liberty is often used by Hume as descriptive of such political-science elements. But, as quotations in Nick's essay evince, both meanings of liberty are at work, that is, both a constitutional notion of an institutional system of liberty and the jurisprudential-flipside notion: others not messing with one's stuff.
Excellent scholarship on Hume's politics—e.g., by Duncan Forbes (1975), Hayek (1967, 116ff), Andrew Sabl (2012)—has often been shy on the libertarian idea of liberty at the heart of Hume's outlook (Matson 2017b), a shyness that Nick's essay helps to correct.
Bucholz, Robert. 2003. A History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts. Audio/video course. Chantilly, Virginia: The Teaching Company.
Capaldi, Nicholas. 2018. "Hume's Project." Liberty Matters. Liberty Fund.
Forbes, Duncan. 1975. Hume's Philosophical Politics. London: Cambridge University Press.
Hayek, Friedrich A. 1967. The Legal and Political Philosophy of David Hume. In Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. London: Routledge.
Klein, Daniel B. 2011. "Against Overlordship." The Independent Review 16 (2): 165-71. <>.
Klein, Daniel B. 2017. "Commutative, Distributive, and Estimative Justice in Adam Smith." Adam Smith Review, forthcoming. <>.
Livingston, Donald. 1984. Hume's Philosophy of Common Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Matson, Erik W. 2017a. "The Dual Account of Reason and the Spirit of Philosophy in Hume's Treatise." GMU Working Paper in Economics, No. 17-50. <>.
_________. 2017b. "Hume's Way of Reasonableness in Epistemology, in Politics, and in Political Economy." GMU Working Paper in Economics, No. 17-49. <>.
Merrill, Thomas W. 2015. Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sabl, Andrew. 2012. Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Smith, Adam. 1976. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Ed. R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner. Oxford: Oxford University Press. /titles/smith-an-inquiry-into-the-nature-and-causes-of-the-wealth-of-nations-cannan-ed-in-2-vols.
[22.] In Smith, another dramatic contrariety resides in impartial spectator.
[23.] In Klein 2017 I exposit Smith's affirmation of the three senses of justice and the flipside relationship between commutative justice and liberty.