David Hume on property as a convention which gradually emerges from society (1739)

David Hume

The Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776) argued that the idea of property and the need to defend it emerged gradually out of social practices. Once it had evolved into a widely accepted convention did it become a “right” which needed to be respected:

For when men, from their early education in society, have become sensible of the infinite advantages that result from it (property), and have besides acquir’d a new affection to company and conversation; and when they have observ’d, that the principal disturbance in society arises from those goods, which we call external, and from their looseness and easy transition from one person to another; they must seek for a remedy, by putting these goods, as far as possible, on the same footing with the fix’d and constant advantages of the mind and body. This can be done after no other manner, than by a convention enter’d into by all the members of the society to bestow stability on the possession of those external goods, and leave every one in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry.

Hume devotes a chapter to the origin of justice and property in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739). Here he provides and alternative justification for property to the natural law approach taken by many others during the Enlightenment. Hume believes there are three different types of property, “the internal satisfaction of our minds, the external advantages of our body, and the enjoyment of such possessions as we have acquir’d by our industry and good fortune”. Only the first two in his opinion are “natural” rights, while the third type of property is “conventional”, in the sense that only after historical practices have become widely recognised by others does one acquire a “right” to own this kind of property. He states quite categorically that “This can be done after no other manner, than by a convention enter’d into by all the members of the society to bestow stability on the possession of those external goods, and leave every one in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry.” Hume’s theory is interesting because it also has an aspect which is similar to Herbert Spencer’s “law of equal liberty” - Hume argues that “it will be for my interest to leave another in the possession of his goods, provided he will act in the same manner with regard to me” - and he also regards the emergence of property rights as just another kind of spontaneous order, like the emergence of language or the use of gold as money, which so interested the Scottish enlightened thinkers like Ferguson and Smith.