Liberty Matters

On Hume on Liberty, and on Liberty

Dan Klein has come to the defense of Nicholas Capaldi's claim that liberty was central to Hume's thinking as a political philosopher. Though Capaldi has welcomed much of what Klein has said, I am not sure precisely how much. I think Klein is quite mistaken in his reading of Hume and is operating with an implausible understanding of liberty. The remarks that follow may not, however, apply to Capaldi.
Klein is mistaken in attributing to Hume a view about the centrality of "mere liberty," whatever that might mean (and I return to this below), first and most obviously because there is no evidence that Hume thought any such thing. Certainly, Klein has adduced no textual evidence in support of the claim that Hume does. Listing passages in which Hume counsels against government meddling in the affairs of merchants and professionals tells us he was in favor of liberty in many circumstances, but says nothing to suggest that liberty was central to his thinking. Hume's general concern for liberty is not at issue.
Here it will not do to appeal to the prevalence of esoteric writing before 1800. I do not doubt that esoteric writing was practiced. It is clear that Hume engaged in it when he wrote the posthumously published Dialogues concerning natural religion, since the surface text gives the victory to the proponent of the argument from design, while the critique in the Dialogue itself tears that argument to shreds. But there is no evidence of Hume writing esoterically about liberty—or at least none has been supplied in Klein's intervention—and it is hard to imagine what motive he might have had for doing so. Hume said enough about liberty throughout his Essays and in his History to suggest that it is unlikely that he was afraid of revealing his appreciation of freedom. It does not seem likely either that he was wary of provoking the politically powerful. After all, in his essay "Of the Original Contract," he was most explicit in advising his readers to be wary of both Whigs and Tories—the former for trying to found authority in consent and the latter for claiming to be able to trace it up the the Deity. I cannot see in Klein's analysis any evidence for the contention that Hume wrote esoterically about liberty, though it may be that I have to read more carefully between the lines.
My deeper concern, however, is with Klein's conception of liberty as "others not messing with one's stuff."  I see nothing in Hume that comes remotely close to conceiving of liberty in this way. This may be because I do not find this to be a readily intelligible account of the concept of liberty. If the contention here is that liberty means security of property, this seems, at best, quite incomplete. It would mean someone placed under house arrest with access to all his "stuff" suffers no loss of liberty. Or that someone denied a passport to travel abroad remains free. Or that a slave who has no property is not unfree. It would mean that laws forbidding miscegenation or intermarriage or worshipping the wrong god do not limit liberty. There is surely more to liberty than security of one's property. If, however, the contention is that every violation of liberty, including restrictions placed on one's person, necessarily involves "messing with one's stuff," it would be hard to see what work such an account is doing to clarify anything: the definition would become unhelpfully circular.
The definition of liberty on offer is clearly not a neutral but a "moralized" one—and therefore dependent on certain ethical commitments. Though the search for a nonmoralized account of liberty continues, it may be that such a thing is not there to be found. If so, we had better give up the search for a nonmoralized concept and get on with the business of arguing for the ethical convictions that underpin our particular views about freedom. That would, however, mean abandoning all talk of such things as "mere liberty," as though there were some baseline understanding on which all are agreed or could be brought to see. What Dan Klein offers as a definition of "mere liberty" is an understanding that, alas, would be viewed by every nonlibertarian as not only not an agreeable starting point but also one that is highly tendentious. Even among libertarians, I suspect that few, save perhaps some sympathetic to Murray Rothbard's notion of liberty, would find it agreeable either.
Does this mean that liberty is not something that should be viewed as of "central" importance, or that the search for a universal or baseline definition of liberty should be abandoned? In my reading of the history of political philosophy, liberty has rarely, and only relatively recently (perhaps the past 250 years), been held up by any thinker as the central or fundamental value. It is certainly not the core of political philosophy as such. Speaking for myself, as a Humean pluralist, I am unwilling to weigh any value so heavily that it trumps all others at all times—so there will be times when liberty must give way to the demands of justice, or safety, or simple humanity. I think that is not incompatible with prizing liberty very highly—and more highly than most others do. How I am to be understood here depends, of course, on what I mean by liberty. Though I don't hold out much hope of our finding a usable nonmoralized definition of liberty, I am reluctant to counsel giving up the search. But my guess is that any argument for liberty will, in the end, have to deploy a concept whose persuasiveness and utility rest less on its immediate intuitive (or philosophical) appeal than on the deeper understanding of history and social theory in which it is embedded and upon which it relies.