Liberty Matters

Politics, Method, and Pluralism


In a Florentine age in which academics conceal ruthless factional competition under courtly politesse, a swashbuckling essay like Nicholas Capaldi's is rare and welcome. Many of his thrusts unquestionably hit home. He aptly names Hume's enemies (pretentious and bigoted clerics, vain partisans, enemies of commerce); rightly portrays Hume as teaching how norms and conventions rest neither on deductive foundations nor on origin stories; and brilliantly summarizes Hume's anti-superstitious, agent-centered philosophy thus: "the world does not understand itself."
My disagreements remain substantial. I take Capaldi's bold and admirably clear theses to slight Hume's insistence that a certain kind of politics, and in particular political authority, is an essential and independent precondition for human happiness. I am skeptical that methodological individualism and the rejection of a transcendent cosmic order need entail a liberal attitude towards society and politics. And I fear that Capaldi has avoided a problem that occupied Hume himself: the second-order pluralism arising from the likelihood that most people are not, and will not become, Humeans.
Rather than holding forth at length about Hume's politics,[24] I will only note a few ways in which Capaldi's rather Hayekian reading of Hume sells (in my view) Hume's political ideas a bit short. First, it slights the fact that substantial levels of commerce require stable and robust political authority. While Hume indeed thought that property and peaceful order could exist without government, he limited this possibility to a state of subsistence, as with the "[Native] American tribes" whom Hume regarded—quite wrongly but in accord with many in his time—as subsisting purely by hunting and gathering and relying only on political authority only episodically. "Throw any considerable goods among men, they instantly fall a quarrelling" (T thus Hume necessarily moves from his speculations regarding the origin of property to a story of how governments acquire authority and citizens come to feel a sense of allegiance to them. No authority, no "considerable" property—for although everyone can discover, through experience, the value of having a property convention, we cannot without government reliably settle disputes about property or ensure that the same conventions will operate on a large scale. Liberty in a prosperous society, then, cannot consist in an absence of authority; it must reflect a convention of authority that provides for its own limits.
Relatedly, it is quite misleading to portray Hume's History of England as an account of how "political-economic" institutions developed. Political order had primacy. Hume's story of historical development starts with Roman law on the one hand and the development of settled rules of monarchical and parliamentary authority on the other. Those who expect Hume to have written primarily social or economic history (either because they've read his Essays or because they think that's what all smart people write) are often surprised to find a book whose main topics are politics, constitutional law, and—in the absence of imperfection of these—civil and foreign war.[25] If this seems to make spontaneous order overly dependent on politics, there are compensations. While Capaldi rightly notes that a Humean can admit no metaphysical "guarantee against the redefinition or the collapse of the social whole," governmental authority, constitutionally limited, provides decent de facto prospects for avoiding such a collapse. Once again, liberty—"settled," reliably defined, and established liberty, to use Hume's favorite qualifier—is the gainer.
If politics is more crucial than Capaldi implies, political science is also more progressive, less frozen in the era of Hume's own insights. Hume portrayed his own political science as a young discipline given the paucity of political data: "the world is still too young to fix many general truths in politics…. We have not as yet had experience of three thousand years…."[26] Thus Capaldi's suggestion that contemporary "statism" is merely a new form of "monarchism" seems to strain an analogy: since Hume did not experience (say) communism, his maxims cannot teach us much about it.[27]
More specifically, Capaldi slights the extent to which contemporary experience has shown that "modernity" requires not merely "limited government" and the "rule of law" but representative democracy. That is, Hume's mitigated relativism regarding forms of government may have been reasonable in his time but no longer.[28] Experience has taught that only representative assemblies, on a democratic basis, can reliably channel and secure the process of continuous conciliation—"we negotiate and renegotiate"—on which Capaldi rightly takes diverse modern societies, lacking a common good, to rely.[29] Put differently: the most Humean attitude towards politics is not to fear or disparage the whole enterprise (as Hayek was generally tempted to do) but to realize that politics, like law and economics, is a realm with its own methods of negotiating human interests, of ensuring that each of us has some chance of achieving what he or she values in the absence of guarantees that our values will be common ones.
Leaving politics: Capaldi's linkage of epistemological modernism to political liberalism seems too quick. Any given approach to truth can coexist with a variety of social and political values. Newton dabbled in mysticism and alchemy; Hobbes adduced from a radically subjectivist and egotistical theory of value a political theory that demanded near-absolute state authority; an even more radical individualism led Sartre to embrace communism to stave off a sense of alienation and absurdity. The absence of a preexisting transcendent order may mean there is no preexisting reason why we may not lead our own life in our own way. But that ontological liberty includes the ability to wish the way were given to us: to lament a perceived excess of political and social liberty.  
I don't deny that empiricism and methodological individualism have—as often noted—an elective affinity with liberalism. But in urging more than such affinity, by taking as a matter of course that "the absence of a teleological totality" entails both "the absence of a collective social good" and "the importance of individual liberty," Capaldi seems to me to be lapsing into metaphysics. He denies, in the name of what he takes to be the best abstract logic, the possibility of intellectual combinations that in fact appear as a matter of history and experience.
In all this, we do well to apply Humean pluralism to itself. We need to consider not only that human purposes radically diverge, but that there is not, and will likely never be, a Humean (or Hayekian) consensus regarding what to do about this divergence. The market solution of letting each cultivate his or her own garden is not automatically more persuasive—in experience, as opposed to a certain logic—than the political solution of letting each try to persuade others of his or her own opinion. More generally: the least Humean thing in the world, the least consistent with Hume's own pluralism and relentless classification of observed causes and effects, is to hope that almost everyone will take Hume's own easygoing attitude towards pluralism and will adopt his inductive attitude towards causes and effects. Demonstrably, observably, Humeanism has always been, and continues to be, a minority taste. Most people want—though as Humeans know, they cannot have, can only imagine—a political sense of common purpose and a metaphysical assurance that the cosmos is not indifferent to their fate.[30] On the institutional level, we will only understand liberty's contemporary bases if we admit that modern institutions work in spite of the fact that many of their beneficiaries are, and will remain, alienated or resentful towards the benefits they bring.
[24.] As might be expected of someone who wrote a book called Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).
[25.] See the citations in ibid., 252n40—and as an example of irritation at Hume's "too narrowly political" history from a "social" historian, Duncan Forbes, Hume's Philosophical Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 121.
[26.] David Hume, "Of Civil Liberty": Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1987), 87.
[27.] While the Soviet Union practiced what Hume took to be a distinctly monarchical attitude towards "the polite arts" (Hume, "Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences," Essays, 126; compare Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017],  Mao's China did the opposite. The varieties of communism are not a topic on which Hume can provide much guidance—as is no shame to Hume, who knew that political maxims could rest only on experience.
[28.] In a 1764 letter to Catherine Macaulay, Hume called France's absolute monarchy and the direct democracy of some Swiss cantons "equally legal, if established by custom and authority" (New Letters of David Hume, ed. Raymond Kilbansky and Ernest C. Mossner [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954] 81).
[29.] On this see Jeremy Waldron, Law and Disagreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
[30.] Hume's Natural History of Religion can be seen as an ironic essay on these common human yearnings: our determination to give natural events a deeper meaning than they have leads us to animism, polytheism, or syncretism; our determination to posit an overall purpose to the cosmos leads us to deism or theism. That these two stances are, in Hume's view, both silly and contradictory does not mean that they will disappear, but merely that religious belief will predictably oscillate between them.