Liberty Matters

Dangers of Mere-Liberty


Chandran sees "nothing in Hume that comes remotely close to conceiving of liberty" in the way of mere-liberty. Yet Chandran assures us that "Hume's general concern for liberty is not at issue," presupposing not only that he (Chandran) is able to signify something by the word liberty, but that we could be presumed to know what that something is. If the signification has no resemblance to others not messing with one's stuff, well, what is it?
Further, if Hume exhibited a general concern for liberty—and Andrew recognizes "Hume's apparently anti-interventionist maxim"—did Hume not, then, also communicate that concern to his sympathetic reader? Did he not then recommend some favor for liberty, maybe even some presumption of liberty?
Maybe—presupposing political stability like England had achieved by Hume's maturity ("adamantine," says Plumb)[58] —we are just disagreeing about how strong a presumption Hume gave to the liberty principle and how it relates with other central elements of Hume's outlook, such as a presumption of the status quo. In reckoning such matters, many scholars have been shy on recognizing mere-liberty as a key ingredient in the brew, an ingredient that accounts for much of the flavor.
The flavor is an acquired taste, and the brew is a heady one, associated with frightening gateways. In many ways the flavor goes against our basic nature and instincts, something that I think Hume, Rousseau, and Smith recognized. Chandran's challenge on esotericism, endorsed by Andrew, is well taken:
[T]here is no evidence of Hume writing esoterically about liberty … 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.
Nick and Gordon Lloyd (2016) explicate a dynamic cycle at the heart of what they call the liberty narrative:
 | TP stands for the technological project. ME stands for the market economy. LG stands for limited government (restraining government on behalf of individual liberty). RL stands for rule of law. CPA stands for the culture of personal autonomy. (Capaldi and Lloyd 2016, 2)
They are basically right, and the package does indeed represent transformative developments, not just the great enrichment (McCloskey 2016), but really new and frightening human conditions. By reason of some of the latter, "the Liberal Creed" was famously condemned by Karl Polanyi (1944), but as Nick and Gordon Lloyd teach us (2016; 2011), the profound criticisms and doubts go back a long way.
The claim to be able to live without others messing with one's stuff is so strong in equal-equal jural relationships (you and your neighbor) that to even suggest a parallel in superior-inferior jural relationships, and to denominate that parallel in some fashion, such as liberty, is bound to suggest claims of parallel strength. Even when one takes pains to say otherwise, one is apt to be misunderstood and misrepresented. After all, although the commutative-justice delineations of "stuff," "one's," and "messing with" evolve toward precision and accuracy, as Hume taught us (and proving that they are "artificial"),[59] the limitations, the hedges, the judicious stays and cautions, remain but loose, vague, and indeterminate, and are often given less than justice. To use Andrew's allusion to "Wilkes and Liberty," and his final words, a simple principle might "seduce us into imagining we can judge easily in the present." Simple principles may give rise to men of system and men of faction. "[A] man has but a bad grace, who delivers a theory, however true, which he must confess leads to a practice dangerous and pernicious" (Hume EPM, 279).[60]
The liberty principle makes for an intoxicating brew. But it is more than that: it is an engine of policy formulation and criticism. And, finally, the liberty principle is a an axe that can be swung at any established general rules contravening the principle. Bentham (1787) swung that axe on usury laws—quite gloriously, but with a rationalistic eschewal of writing between the lines. Hume and Smith had looked to others to unfold, in due course, liberal discourse and liberal reform.
One need not think about radical assault, like that of the Lockean-anarchist author feigned by Burke in A Vindication of Natural Society (1756). The idea of just some serial abolitions would astonish 1750 readers: abolition of slavery and slave-trade, equal liberty for women, the end of vocational corporations/guilds. Had not greater freedom in religion produced a most alarming pandemic of Gangræna (Edwards 1646)?[61]
Today we find alarm over the notion of liberalizing gay marriage, prostitution, drugs, guns, human organs, 10-cent wage rates, and so on. Espousers of liberty open themselves to charges of defending the undefendable: merciless usurers, perverts, greedy merchants and capitalists, abettors of abortion and suicide. One is tarred with forsaking virtue for acquisitiveness, high things for low things. Hume in fact pulled his essay on suicide (in which he uses "native liberty" and "our natural liberty," 580, 588 n6), "faced with the prospect of ecclesiastical condemnation and perhaps even official prosecution."[62]
If a circa-1740 author wished to advance the centrality of mere-liberty, and wanted to make his voice appealing to a wide and future readership, and wanted to gain an appointment at Edinburgh or Glasgow, he might well have wished to obscure mere-liberty to some extent and to understate his support for it. He may also have wished to downplay consequences that tend to flow from liberalization, such as innovation, mobility, dynamism, and other moral and cultural consequences like those decried by Polanyi. Just how much independence of judgment, how much autonomy, do individuals really want to be responsible for? It is no wonder that great taboos surround mere-liberty.
The Hume literature features many works (Winters 1979, Livingston 1984, 1998, Baier 1991, Merrill 2015, Matson 2017a) that see Hume's discourse, from the very start, as deeply Socratic, designed not merely to elucidate principles, but to draw the sympathetic reader into a drama of inquiry—which Melzer (2014) associates with pedagogical esotericism. Indeed, Livingston (1998, 17) argues that the "The Dialectic of True and False Philosophy" is an ever-present dynamic in Hume's thought, from the Treatise to the Dialogues. The contention that Hume practiced esotericism, in all four forms explicated by Melzer, in his discourse about politics and liberty deserves candid consideration.
Baier, Annette C. 1991. A Progress of Sentiments: Reflections on Hume's Treatise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bentham, Jeremy. 1787. Defence of Usury. London: Paine and Foss. Online: Jeremy Bentham, Defence of Usury; shewing the Impolicy of the Present Legal Restraints on the Terms of Pecuniary Bargains; in Letters to a Friend. To which is added A Letter to Adam Smith, Esq. LL.D. on the Discouragements opposed by the above Restraints to the Progress of Inventive Industry; and to which is also added, A Protest against Law-Taxes (London: Payne and Foss, 1818). </titles/277>.
Burke, Edmund. 1756. A Vindication of Natural Society. Online: Edmund Burke, A Vindication of Natural Society: or, a View of the Miseries and Evils arising to Mankind from every Species of Artificial Society. In a Letter to Lord ** by a Late Noble Writer, ed. Frank N. Pagano (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1982).  </titles/850>.
Capaldi, Nicholas and Gordon Lloyd (eds.). 2011. The Two Narratives of Political Economy. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
Edwards, Thomas. 1646. Gangræna: Or a Catalogue and Discovery of Many of the Errors, Heresies, Blasphemies and Pernicious Practices of the Sectaries of This Time. London: Ralph Smith.
McCloskey, Deirdre N. 2016. Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Plumb, J.H. 1967. The Growth of Political Stability in England, 1675-1725. London: Macmillan.
Polanyi, Karl. 1944. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. New York: Rinehart.
Winters, Barbara. 1979. Hume on Reason. Hume Studies 5(1): 20-35.
[58.] J.H. Plumb, The Growth of Political Stability in England, 1675-1725 (London: Macmillan. 1967), pp. xvii-xviii.
[59.] See the Treatise, 529-33, including the following passage highlighting the specialness of commutative justice's precise and accurate rules: "'Twas, therefore, with a view to this inconvenience, that men have establish'd those principles, and have agreed to restrain themselves by general rules, which are unchangeable by spite and favour, and by particular views of private or public interest. These rules, then, are artificially invented for a certain purpose, and are contrary to the common principles of human nature, which accommodate themselves to circumstances, and have no stated invariable method of operation."
[60.] An example in the History of Hume speaking to esotericism can be found in V: 544. This is an example of "protective" esotericism "to conceal truth from the populace."
If ever, on any occasion, it were laudable to conceal truth from the populace; it must be confessed, that the doctrine of resistance affords such an example; and that all speculative reasoners ought to observe, with regard to this principle, the same cautious silence, which the laws, in every species of government, have ever prescribed to themselves. Government is instituted, in order to restrain the fury and injustice of the people; and being always founded on opinion, not on force, it is dangerous to weaken, by these speculations, the reverence, which the multitude owe to authority, and to instruct them beforehand, that the case can ever happen, when they may be freed from their duty of allegiance.
See also the Hume passages in Melzer's online appendix <>.
[61.] In History III: 232 Hume channels the "favourers of the ancient religion" who explain the dangers that arise from freedom in interpreting scripture.
[62.] E.F. Miller's editorial note on p. 577 of the Essays.