Liberty Matters

Liberty Is an Achievement, Not a Thought

Both an imposed word count and the likely state of readers' patience require brevity. I'll make one point by way of rebuttal and then two larger points—drawing on Mark's undeservedly neglected contributions—that will probably constitute my conclusion.
(1) Liberty and commerce in the History. Dan rightly protests that Hume's remark on free commerce in the History is not "offhand" in a literal sense. It is, as he notes, preceded by extended mockery of early Tudor economic policy and is consistent with Hume's favorable attitude, throughout his work, towards commerce and trade.
But we are not supposed to be arguing about whether Hume generally favored markets and commerce in preference to command and control (he did) or whether the property convention was central to his account of society and politics (it was). The thesis before us is that liberty in a sense of pervasive aversion towards any interference with personal choices—Chandran rightly argues that Dan's "mere liberty" must mean something like this, and Dan in his attacks on policies that "initiate coercion" confirms it—is something that Hume consistently advocated and that this advocacy is central to his work.
In the context of that thesis, Hume's apparently anti-interventionist maxim in the History is indeed offhand, qua: (a) unsystematic: Hume's systematic works contain no global, sweeping principle opposing interference in commerce (if they had, Hume might have taken the occasion to qualify it); (b) trivial with respect to Hume's History as a whole: Hume's mockery of Tudor foolishness covers only a few pages of the History and matters of commerce generally no more than a hundred or two pages out of three thousand. Liberty in the sense at hand is simply, palpably, far less central to Hume's narrative of English constitutional development than is the political/legal sense of liberty to which Mark draws our attention.
Finally—I apologize for repeating the point—Hume nowhere describes these foolish commercial regulations as threats to liberty. This omission remains noteworthy. And I endorse Chandran's rebuttal of the claim, resting on no apparent evidence, that it reflects esoteric caution.
(2) The priority of constitutional liberty. In describing Humean liberty as a combination of a government operating through general, impartial rules and (roughly what we now call) checks and balances, Mark in effect portrays Hume as having adopted a concept of liberty similar to Montesquieu's.[52] Now, if anything deserves to be called "mere liberty"—though I dislike the phrase—Montesquieu's liberty has at least as good a claim as Klein's. The opposite of Klein-liberty is the coercive regulation that prohibits me from scrubbing the street for 10 cents an hour. The opposite of Montesquieu-liberty is the secret police force that seizes victims at night without charge and without recourse. Some in this forum seem to regard it as slanderous to portray Hume as caring much more about the latter kind of liberty than the former. I dissent.
(3) Experiments in liberty. Mark is right to portray accident—unintended consequences—as a fundamental theme of Hume's work.[53] As Fred Whelan has shown, accident in Hume goes both ways. Apparently wise or well-meaning actions can redound badly; apparently blameworthy acts or motives can turn out for the best (as when the Puritans, opposing Charles I because their religious fanaticism gave them courage and a sense of mission, accidentally furthered constitutional liberty).[54]
My own work has stressed some further instances directly relevant to liberty. Much of liberty's progress, on Hume's portrayal, resulted from policies that were, ex ante, stupid. Religious freedom seemed at the time an obvious threat to social order; allowing sedition seemed obviously fatal to political authority. It is only after these policies were tried for the wrong reasons by people with non-admirable agendas (one government that innovated in religious liberty was Cromwell's) that they could be judged, through experience, to be viable.[55]
The question before us, then, is not whether liberty is presumptively good but how much liberty is compatible with government and whether and how particular kinds of liberty may be secured. Precisely because (Capaldi is right) the cosmos lacks purpose and direction, while our political and social experience remains limited and our knowledge of human nature remains imperfect, we cannot know a priori which limitations on liberty are necessary—perhaps "obviously" necessary—and which not.  Particular proposals to increase liberty may in retrospect seem unwise: Shulamith Firestone's conviction that children would be happier rearing themselves, in the streets, did not seem radical at a time when all previous assumptions regarding gender and family roles suddenly seemed unfounded and unjust, but does now.[56] Or, conversely, as with freedom of speech and religion, some limitations may seem fanatical and dangerous at one time and no more than common sense once their worth has been demonstrated. Finally, innovations, whether technological (media) or political (ethnically charged populism) may make an existing pro-liberty policy seem double-edged later—as Hume concluded regarding the free press after the "Wilkes and Liberty" movement took aim at Scots. [57]
As Mark wisely glosses Hume's view, none of these matters is "necessary" or "inevitable." We have erred in the past. We shall err in the future. And we should mistrust conceptual or historical schemas that seduce us into imagining we can judge easily in the present.
[52.] Notably, though space limitations prevent me from documenting the point, Hume tended to fault Montesquieu more for his casual attitude towards causal inference than for his normative positions.
[53.] The valediction of the History of England—at the end of Book II, which Hume wrote last—speaks famously of the "great mixture of accident, which commonly concurs with a small ingredient of wisdom and foresight, in erecting the complicated fabric of the most perfect government."
In each of these successive alterations, the only rule of government, which is intelligible or carries any authority with it, is the established practice of the age, and the maxims of administration, which are at that time prevalent, and universally assented to. Those who, from a pretended respect to antiquity, appeal at every turn to an original plan of the constitution, only cover their turbulent spirit and their private ambition under the appearance of venerable forms; and whatever period they pitch on for their model, they may still be carried back to a more ancient period, where they will find the measures of power entirely different, and where every circumstance, by reason of the greater barbarity of the times, will appear still less worthy of imitation. Above all, a civilized nation, like the English, who have happily established the most perfect and most accurate system of liberty that was ever found compatible with government, ought to be cautious in appealing to the practice of their ancestors, or regarding the maxims of uncultivated ages as certain rules for their present conduct. An acquaintance with the ancient periods of their government is chiefly useful by instructing them to cherish their present constitution, from a comparison or contrast with the condition of those distant times. And it is also curious, by shewing them the remote, and commonly faint and disfigured originals of the most finished and most noble institutions, and by instructing them in the great mixture of accident, which commonly concurs with a small ingredient of wisdom and foresight, in erecting the complicated fabric of the most perfect government.
[54.] Frederick G. Whelan, "'Contrary Effects' and the Reverse Invisible Hand in Hume and Smith," in idem, The Political Thought of Hume and His Contemporaries, vol. 2 (New York: Routledge, 2015), 84-147. Or sometimes the effects are merely ironic. Cromwell's Protectorate defended the realm and pursued his policies because the navy had been rebuilt with—ship money.
[55.] Andrew Sabl, "When Bad Things Happen From Good People: Hume's Political Ethics of Revolution," Polity 35, No. 1 (2002): 73-92.
[56.] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970).
[57.] J.G.A. Pocock, "Hume and the American Revolution: The Dying Thoughts of a North Briton," in idem, Virtue, Commerce and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 137-41. Hume revised his essay "Of the Liberty of the Press" in a conservative direction as a result of his Wilkes-inspired second thoughts.