Liberty Matters

Hume Really Didn’t Say Everything He “Said”[34]

Nichols Capaldi's and Dan Klein's compliments of my work are much appreciated; the sentiment is assuredly mutual.
My first comment amounts to something like skeptical fact-checking. I contest the premise that Hume ever in fact defined liberty in the more-or-less Millian sense Capaldi attributes to him (to cite his comment above: "Those who would seek to limit liberty have the onus of showing that [a] a particular action is harmful and [b] curtailing that action will not have even more harmful consequences"; emphasis Capaldi's) and sought to vindicate a general presumption against limiting liberty in that sense.
Hume was quite a clear writer. If he had wanted to call unwarranted restrictions on trade, choice of occupation, and the like violations of "natural liberty," he could have done so (as his friend Adam Smith repeatedly did); or, if he preferred, he could have left out "natural" (as Smith, no Lockean, probably should have). But he didn't.
Capaldi had a strong interest in finding passages where Hume defined liberty as above and stated a presumption against infringing upon it. Yet Capaldi's initial contribution was able to adduce in support of the claim that "liberty is the default position" for Hume only one passage from the History of England. There Hume wrote, in the course of mocking some particularly foolish wage, price, and export regulations under Henry VII, "that these matters ought always to be left free, and be entrusted to the common course of business and commerce." This offhand line, absent from Hume's economic essays, which Hume revised and added to throughout his life and in which he could have developed this sentiment, seems inadequate to bear the weight Capaldi places on it—especially since, as Capaldi concedes, Hume elsewhere did not think trade restrictions "always" inadvisable but conceded their necessity in some circumstances.
There is, in fact, another passage from the History that seems even more Millian (at least in economic matters) but in other ways cuts decisively against Capaldi's portrayal of Humean liberty. Regarding a parliament under James I in 1624, Hume wrote:
Advantage was also taken of the present good agreement between the king and parliament, in order to pass the bill against monopolies, which had formerly been encouraged by the king, but which had failed by the rupture between him and the last house of commons. This bill was conceived in such terms as to render it merely declaratory; and all monopolies were condemned, as contrary to law and to the known liberties of the people. It was there supposed, that every subject of England had entire power to dispose of his own actions, provided he did no injury to any of his fellow-subjects; and that no prerogative of the king, no power of any magistrate, nothing but the authority alone of laws, could restrain that unlimited freedom. The full prosecution of this noble principle into all its natural consequences, has at last, through many contests, produced that singular and happy government, which we enjoy at present.[35]
This might seem promising, but in fact it undermines Capaldi's position rather than supporting it. First, the passage, and the event it described, concerned not how much liberty could be violated or on what grounds, but on whose authority: henceforth "the authority alone of laws," not royal prerogative, could lawfully do so. Second, it's worth noting that Hume—who again, revised his works obsessively and until his death in 1776—in that passage called Britain in his time "singular and happy" with respect to liberty as a result of the "full prosecution of this noble principle into all its natural consequences" (emphasis added). (Elsewhere Hume famously writes, in his own voice rather than as part of the narrative stream, that Britain in his time has, "if not the best system of government, at least the most entire system of liberty, that ever was known amongst mankind."[36]) But 1776 was the same year in which the first volume of Smith's Wealth of Nations portrayed England as fairly honeycombed not, to be sure, with royal-chartered Elizabethan monopolies on the production and sale of many goods but with mercantilism, export monopolies, occupational licensing, and other outrageous and unwarranted restraints on economic choice and therefore on natural liberty. Clearly, Hume did not—as Smith did—regard such regulations and interventions as fundamental threats to liberty. Finally, the above passage does not in fact contain the word "liberty" (nor, in fact, does the passage Capaldi cites).Hume speaks of monopolies as infringing not liberty but the English subject's "power to dispose of his own actions"; "law"; the "known liberties of the people"[37] This is the language of conventional civil liberties, not "liberty" as a free-standing criterion.
So the common tendency to assimilate Hume to Smith on these matters rests on low and eroding ground. Hume seems to have been both far less exercised by economic regulation than Smith was and demonstrably disinclined to call such regulation a limitation of liberty—even in the passages that seem most favorable to a Smithian reading.
Thus I must agree with Chandran (writing in the spirit of Capaldi's co-editor Donald Livingston[38])that "Liberty cannot be the default consideration when there is no default definition of liberty—or of curtailment, for that matter." I further believe that Capaldi's suggestions to the contrary result from a tendency to think about "liberty," "individualism," and other concepts in a decidedly non-nominalist fashion. But more on that later.
[34.] With apologies to Yogi Berra: see [Garson O'Toole,] "I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said," Web blogpost, Quote Investigator, 30 December 2012. <>.
[35.] Hume, The History of England (Liberty Fund edition): Volume 5, p. 114. That passage is followed by a long footnote (Note N)  in which Hume notes how much more favorable to liberty James I's reign was than Elizabeth I's had been—a constant theme in Hume, opposed to people who idealized "Good Queen Bess." The passage continues to define liberty in the commercial terms alluded to above, though free speech in the Commons is also mentioned:
How little this principle had prevailed, during any former period of the English government, particularly during the last reign, which was certainly not so perfect a model of liberty as most writers would represent it, will easily appear from many passages in the history of that reign. But the ideas of men were much changed, during about twenty years of a gentle and peaceful administration. The commons, though James, of himself, had recalled all patents of monopolies, were not contented without a law against them, and a declaratory law too; which was gaining a great point, and establishing principles very favourable to liberty: But they were extremely grateful, when Elizabeth, upon petition (after having once refused their requests) recalled a few of the most oppressive patents; and employed some soothing expressions towards them.The parliament had surely reason, when they confessed, in the seventh of James, that he allowed them more freedom of debate, than ever was indulged by any of his predecessors. His indulgence in this particular, joined to his easy temper, was probably one cause of the great power assumed by the commons. Monsieur de la Boderie, in his dispatches, vol. i. p. 449. mentions the liberty of speech in the house of commons as a new practice.
[36.] History of England 6.531.
[37.] This accords with Hume's constitutional argument, which I explicate further in Hume's Politics, that Tudor tyranny could temporarily place aside English subjects' fundamental liberties but could not permanently obliterate them.
[38.] "Hume's concept of liberty is not framed in a speculative theory of liberty. There is, for instance, nothing in Hume comparable to Mill's discussion in Of Liberty [sic] of a 'simple' theoretical principle which can distinguish the liberty of the individual from the liberty of the state. Liberty is mentioned often in Hume's philosophical and historical writings but the remarks are usually brief and in the context of discussing something else such as the nature of government or the process of civilization. When Hume does discuss liberty directly, it is not to define and fix its limits but to make historical, causal observations about the conditions that produce, sustain, and threaten the existence of liberty and the values it makes possible." Donald Livingston, "Hume's Historical Conception of Liberty," in Nicholas Capaldi and Donald Livingston, eds., Liberty in Hume's History of England (Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1990), p. 105.