Liberty Matters

Hume on Liberty


1. The order and coherence of Hume's Thought
The passion (the love of gain) is much better satisfy'd by its restraint, than by its liberty, and that in preserving society, we make much greater advances in the acquiring possessions, than in the solitary and forlorn condition. [THN 3.2.2]
  1. Treatise, Enquiries, Essays, History
  2. Science of man is the basis for all others (including social thought) – we explain the individual first and then the social world (T, Intro, 4). 
    1. Newtonian (second law -- everything interacts with everything else -- does not eliminate but presupposes the first law of motion – the motion of the individual entity).
    2. The liberty of the individual (Dan Klein's "mere" liberty) (like first law of motion) never disappears from the equation.
    3. Newtonian and  Baconian – inductive evidence; anti-hidden structure-abstractions.
  3. Treatise Part I explains the limits of discursive reason; Part II, passions, explain our action; Part III explains the social world as product of Parts I and II; "passion [for stable possession of property] is much better satisfied by its restraint than by its liberty" (T, 3-2-2); reason serves passion – it does not undermine it.
  4. Individual good:  "internal satisfaction of our mind, the external advantages of our body [anticipates Mill] and the enjoyment of such possessions as we have acquired by our industry [Locke] and good fortune"(T, 3-2-2); "in the original frame of our mind, our strongest attention is confined to ourselves" (T, 3,2,2).
  5. Enquiries: EPM contains the classic and most precise refutation of egalitarianism (§155 or p. 194 of Selby-Bigge edition); it is most especially destructive of commerce.
  6. Essays – explains liberty and liberties.
  7. History exemplifies historically how liberty evolved; it does not trump the other works but presupposes them.
2. Hume starts with the presupposition of the individual (nominalism) and individual liberty.
  1. He was not the first to formulate this idea – Ockham did (along with many other ideas Hume shared).  There is a huge scholarly literature on this.
  2. All of modern moral philosophy begins with the idea of the individual – Hobbes was the first to clearly enunciate it; British modern moral philosophy must account for the individual because the Aristotelian telos disappears from both physics and the social world.
  3. British Moral Philosophy is a response to the perceived limitations of the egoistic conception that Hobbes attributes to the individual. (There is a huge scholarly literature on this.)
  4. Hobbes, Locke, Mandeville, etc. have the right idea or same insight but explain it inadequately according to Hume – Hobbes's and Mandeville's views foster public and intellectual resistance to individual liberty; Locke overstates the case in a way that could destabilize the social fabric.
5. Moral philosophy in (Hobbes, Locke, etc.) Hume and Smith is an account of how individuals can acquire a social perspective (sympathy).  Hume develops his account in the Treatise. 4. The social perspective, even in Hume, does not hold a trump card over the individual (EHU, Capaldi).  Sympathy explains how one can take the social perspective; it does not compel one to take the perspective. 5. There are occasions when individuals can understandably revolt (even in Hume); support of American Revolution. 6. Hume's conception of liberty(ies) is derivative from his conception of the individual.  Hume develops this conception (alluded to by Mark Yellin) primarily in the Essays.   7. Individualism and liberty have a special place in English history.  There is a huge literature on this. 8. The jurisprudential element (as Dan stresses) is key: Hume's knowledge of law is already apparent in the Treatise discussion of Justice; the original purpose for the laws of justice was self-interest (T 3,2,6).
Those rules, by which properties, rights, and obligations are determin'd, have in them no marks of a natural origin, but many of artifice and contrivance. They are too numerous to have proceeded from nature: They are changeable by human laws: And have all of them a direct and evident tendency to public good, and the support of civil society. This last circumstance is remarkable upon two accounts. First, because, tho' the cause of the establishment of these laws had been a regard for the public good, as much as the public good is their natural tendency, they wou'd still have been artificial, as being purposely contriv'd and directed to a certain end. Secondly, because, if men had been endow'd with such a strong regard for public good, they wou'd never have restrain'd themselves by these rules; so that the laws of justice arise from natural principles in a manner still more oblique and artificial. 'Tis self-love which is their real origin; and as the self-love of one person is naturally contrary to that of another, these several interested passions are oblig'd to adjust themselves after such a manner as to concur in some system of conduct and behaviour. This system, therefore, comprehending the interest of each individual, is of course advantageous to the public; tho' it be not intended for that purpose by the inventors.
6. Liberty and Liberties in the Essays.
But where luxury nourishes commerce and industry, the peasants, by a proper cultivation of the land, become rich and independent; while the tradesmen and merchants acquire a share of the property, and draw authority and consideration to that middling rank of men, who are the best and firmest basis of public liberty. [Essays "Refinement in Arts]
The explanation for the destination of liberty (Mark's point) is the natural desire to engage in trade for maximizing individual well-being.
  1. Whigs and Tories still stuck in old dynastic and religious frameworks; the key to the development of liberty is commerce;
  2. Part II. Essay XII "Original Contract"(1748) rebutted;
  3. Part II. Essay XIII "Passive Obedience" rebutted;
  4. Part II. Essay I "Of Commerce" (1752) desire "of a more splendid way of life" (p. 264); the critics of luxury are contrary to the "natural bent of the mind" (p. 263);
  5. Part II. Essay II "Refinement in the Arts" (1752) -- Commerce is favorable to liberty and the establishment of the rule of law (277); business people are the "best and firmest basis of public libertycovet equal laws" precisely because they "" (pp. 277-78);
  6. Part I. Essay XII "Of Civil Liberty" (1741) identifies the rule of law as "a government of Laws, not of Men" (p. 94); rule of law equals "to act by general and equitable laws that are previously known to all the members and to all their subjects." Part I. Essay V "Of the Origin of Government" (1777) (E, pp.40-41) (repeated in Dicey, Fuller, Hayek, Oakeshott); the History repeats this and identifies in context the precise economic restrictions as violations of this principle.
The government, which, in common appellation, receives the appellation of free, is that which admits of a partition of power among several members, whose united authority is no less, or is commonly greater than that of any monarch; but who, in the usual course of administration, must act by general and equal laws, that are previously known to all the members and to all their subjects. In this sense, it must be owned, that liberty is the perfection of civil society ... [Essays "Refinement in Arts"]
7. Social perspective mediates between liberty and (liberties and authority). 11. Liberty in the British Constitution evolves into a legal concept: jury, habeas corpus, end of star chamber, independent judiciary.
3. Hume's Politics: Anti-democratic and Anti-egalitarian: Hume's History
  1. England as a social entity has an identity in the same way an individual has an identity – through historical memory and the interpretation of that memory; this underlies the importance of national histories; the social entity dissolves when individuals cannot agree on the memory and therefore on further action; the social entity is a creation of individuals.
  2. The utility calculation is made by individual agents; there is no overall social utility calculation as in Bentham (social utility is an abstraction that deifies democracy – something to which Hume would object).
  3. Hume writes in a manner that suggests what Dan Klein calls "mere" liberty:  "…before the end of [Queen] Elizabeth, the distinction of villain and freeman was totally … abolished…. Thus personal freedom became almost general in Europe; an advantage which paved the way for the increase of political or civil liberty" (H,II, LF edition, p. 525; italics in the original).
  4. Presupposes individual liberty.
  5. It gives an historical account of the institutional structure that developed over time to protect that liberty; this is what a spontaneous order (Saxons) inductivist account looks like as opposed to the conceptual fiction of the "Ancient" Constitution; the constitution is a product of specific individual events (cases).
  6. It is a critique of previous histories that distorted the role of the institutions.
  7. It is as much about law as it is about politics.
  8. The History cannot be understood independent of the Treatise, Enquiries, Essays, or read back into them.
  9. Not about Equality or Democracy; reading the History independent of the earlier works runs the risk of reintroducing collectivism (community) by the back door – there is a revisionist literature on Hume, similar to such a literature on Smith, that tries to paint them as patrons of equality rather than of liberty.
A commutation was therefore made of rents for services, and of money-rents for those in kind; and as men, in a subsequent age, discovered, that farms were better cultivated where the farmer enjoyed a security in his possession, the practice of granting leases to the peasant began to prevail, which entirely broke the bonds of servitude, already much relaxed from the former practices. After this manner, villenage went gradually into disuse throughout the more civilized parts of Europe: The interest of the master, as well as that of the slave, concurred in this alteration. The latest laws which we find in England for enforcing or regulating this species of servitude, were enacted in the reign of Henry VII. And though the ancient statutes on this subject remain still unrepealed by parliament, it appears, that, before the end of Elizabeth, the distinction of villain and freeman was totally, though insensibly abolished, and that no person remained in the state, to whom the former laws could be applied. Thus personal freedom became almost general in Europe; an advantage which paved the way for the encrease of political or civil liberty, and which, even where it was not attended with this salutary effect, served to give the members of the community some of the most considerable advantages of it.