Liberty Matters

Some Bearings in the Hume Literature

This post marks some bearings of the liberty issue in literature on Hume.
Some scholars say that for Hume liberty meant established, certain, predictable governmental rules, rule of law, clear general rules, etc.:
| What is highlighted as central in Hume's meaning of liberty
| Friedrich Hayek (1967) | "general and inflexible laws" (117f)
| Duncan Forbes (1975) | "the security of the individual under the rule of law" (87, also 88, 153); "general and equal laws" (154f)
| Donald Livingston (1998) | "uncoerced by the arbitrary will of another," "a government of Laws, not of Men," "Law must be known, regular, and predictable", "the rule of law" (182f) | Andrew Sabl (2012) | "general and inflexible laws" (206)
But they also go shy on the mere-liberty idea. My aim is to break down such shyness.
As I said in my response essay, "Hume and Liberty, Simple and Complicated," Hume does often mean certainty, predictability, etc., as well as poli-sci things for stable and liberal government. But he also often means mere-liberty. The meanings interrelate conceptually and correlate empirically—no wonder they get jumbled together.
Aren't tax laws, minimum-wage laws, etc. amenable to being known, regular, predictable, non-arbitrary, equally and impartially applied, and so on? But don't they initiate coercion? Suppose an employer pays someone $5 an hour (below the minimum wage): whose stuff has he messed with? No one's. Yet the government threatens such employer, at nudging gunpoint. The minimum-wage law, however generally and predictably written and enforced, messes with people's stuff.
Mere-liberty is a concept in the natural jurisprudence tradition of Grotius, Pufendorf, Barbeyrac, etc., who formulated the components of "one's own" – suum – and rubrics of messing with it. Hume brilliantly advances that tradition, particularly in Book III of the Treatise. In the discussion of justice (Part II), he uses abstain and its cognates nine times,[51] as in: "Wherein consists this honesty and justice, which you find in restoring a loan, and abstaining from the property of others?" (480; boldface added). This idea of abstaining from others' property and promises due them ("stuff" in my formulation) gets expressed by Adam Smith—following a long tradition—as definition of commutative justice: "abstaining from what is another's" (TMS, 269). That formulation fits exactly my formulation:
| abstaining from  | =  | not messing with
| what  | =  | stuff
| another's  | =  | other people's
The inverting of "not messing with other people's stuff" to get "others not messing with one's stuff" is natural and obvious: the flipside of commutative justice is liberty (when we are treating governor-governed relationships).
Thomas Merrill (2015) quotes the Treatise: "the principal object of government is to constrain men to observe the laws of nature" (T 543), and Merrill says, "[Hume's] political teaching is an early articulation of what we have come to call commercial republicanism or classical liberalism" (118), and "The object or purpose of political institutions, Hume suggests, is individual liberty" (137). In Smith, the flipside relationship between commutative justice and liberty becomes clearer and more explicit, but it is also in Hume.
A number of scholars have seen Hume in the natural jurisprudence tradition. Consider the following from Knud Haakonssen:
In order to keep people equal in their possessions, these 'virtues' would have to be controlled. To do so, would require a 'most rigorous inquisition', would impoverish society, and would break down social subordination and order (second Enquiry III.2:194). These remarks make it clear that Hume's notion of justice is not purely formal and procedural. The rule that everyone should have the same quantity of external possessions is as universal in form as Hume's rules concerning the allocation of property. But he rejects such a rule, because it would require tyrannical interference with individuals' natural qualities—with their virtues and with their personal freedom. The object of just laws is thus individual liberty, and, since the most obvious and most endangered expression of such liberty is the acquisition and use of property, justice is centrally concerned with property and, it follows, with contracts. [Haakonssen 1996, 117; boldface added.]
Haakonssen adds: "Hume was in agreement with the popular natural law systems of morals, but … Hume could not use the concept of rights because both of the rights traditions were unpalatable to him" (118).
Stephen Buckle writes in his book Natural Law and the Theory of Property: Grotius to Hume:
[M]oral sense theory is taken up … in order to resolve some problems in natural law theory, and, no less importantly, to flesh out its account of human nature.… Hume can be recognized to be an important contributor to the natural law tradition. [Buckle 1991, vii, ix]Hume observes that his theory of property is much the same as Grotius's.... [T]here is no bar, and substantial support, for accepting his claim, and therefore for recognizing his theory as a contribution to the modern theory of natural law. [295]
Hume, with his uncanny insight into mutual coordination and convention, prefiguring Thomas C. Schelling (1960) and David K. Lewis (1969), is a very crucial part of the arc from natural jurisprudence to classical liberalism—Smith expresses it as "the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" (WN 664).
J.G.A. Pocock (1983) acknowledges that arc when he writes: "The child of jurisprudence is liberalism" (249). Likewise, Dugald Stewart (1854) wrote of "the systems of natural jurisprudence compiled by Grotius and his successors" as "the first rudiments of pure ethics and of liberal politics taught in modern times" (26).
Natural jurisprudence formulated the components and operating system of the lower things, and that kind of social grammar was then transferred to thinking about superior-inferior jural relationships—that is, to political philosophy.
Hume highlights jurisprudence in the emergence of the "most accurate system of liberty that was ever found compatible with government" (H 2: 525):
But perhaps there was no event, which tended farther to the improvement of the age, than … the accidental finding of a copy of Justinian's Pandects, about the year 1130…. The ecclesiastics … immediately adopted with zeal this excellent system of jurisprudence, and spread the knowledge of it throughout every part of Europe. [H 2: 520]
[51.] Hume uses the word "abstain" 6 times in THN:
1. Wherein consists this honesty and justice, which you find in restoring a loan, and abstaining from the property of others? </titles/342#Hume_0213_1027>2. Thirdly, experience sufficiently proves, that men, in the ordinary conduct of life, look not so far as the public interest, when they pay their creditors, perform their promises, and abstain from theft, and robbery, and injustice of every kind. </titles/342#Hume_0213_1029>3. Instead of departing from our own interest, or from that of our nearest friends, by abstaining from the possessions of others, we cannot better consult both these interests, than by such a convention; because it is by that means we maintain society, which is so necessary to their well-being and subsistence, as well as to our own. </titles/342#Hume_0213_1046>4. 'Tis certain, that no affection of the human mind has both a sufficient force, and a proper direction to counter-balance the love of gain, and render men fit members of society, by making them abstain from the possessions of others. </titles/342#Hume_0213_1050>5. Thus the external relation, which we call occupation or first possession, is not of itself imagin'd to be the property of the object, but only to cause its property. Now 'tis evident, this external relation causes nothing in external objects, and has only an influence on the mind, by giving us a sense of duty in abstaining from that object, and in restoring it to the first possessor. These actions are properly what we call justice; and consequently 'tis on that virtue that the nature of property depends, and not the virtue on the property. </titles/342#Hume_0213_1096>6. We might as well resolve the obligation to abstain from the possessions of others, into the obligation of a promise, as that of allegiance. </titles/342#Hume_0213_1118>.
He uses the word "abstinence" 3 times:
1. Nor is the rule concerning the stability of possession the less deriv'd from human conventions, that it arises gradually, and acquires force by a slow progression, and by our repeated experience of the inconveniences of transgressing it. On the contrary, this experience assures us still more, that the sense of interest has become common to all our fellows, and gives us a confidence of the future regularity of their conduct: And 'tis only on the expectation of this, that our moderation and abstinence are founded. </titles/342#Hume_0213_1047>2. After this convention, concerning abstinence from the possessions of others, is enter'd into, and every one has acquir'd a stability in his possessions, there immediately arise the ideas of justice and injustice; as also those of property, right, and obligation. </titles/342#Hume_0213_1048>3. Afterwards a sentiment of morals concurs with interest, and becomes a new obligation upon mankind. This sentiment of morality, in the performance of promises, arises from the same principles as that in the abstinence from the property of others. </titles/342#Hume_0213_1090>.
Buckle, Stephen. 1991. Natural Law and the Theory of Property. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Haakonssen, Knud. 1996. Natural Law and Moral Philosophy: From Grotius to the Scottish Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lewis, David K. 1969. Convention: A Philosophical Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pocock, J.G.A. 1983. "Cambridge Paradigms and Scotch Philosophers: A Study of the Relations between the Civic Humanist and the Civil Jurisprudential Interpretation of Eighteenth-century Social Thought." In Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment, I. Hont and M. Ignatieff (eds.), 235-52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schelling, Thomas C. 1960. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Stewart, Dugald. 1854. Dissertation: Exhibiting the Progress of Metaphysical, Ethical, and Political Philosophy, Since the Revival of Letters in Europe. In The Collected Works of Dugald Stewart, vol. 1, William Hamilton (ed.). Edinburgh: Thomas Constable and Co.